No Samba for Juninho in New York

By | July 5, 2013

This article first appeared in

It was never going to be a holy matrimony; thus, news that Juninho Pernambucano and the New York Red Bulls agreed to part ways shouldn’t leave anyone in a stupor.

Of course, Juninho will take much of the flack. Even in his late thirties, a player of his pedigree was expected to fare much better than he did during his short spell in New York.

However, the reality is that there’s plenty of blame to go around, but most of it should land squarely on the Red Bulls.

Let’s start with the obvious: the Red Bulls were taking a risk by signing a player who was deep into the twilight of his career, regardless of the fact that the financial investment was relatively benign. That risk would have been discussed, and it would be safe to assume that David Beckham’s success in Los Angeles (despite his age) might have played a part in the final decision.

Still, Gerard Houllier should have known better. The Head of Global Soccer for Red Bull knows Juninho better than almost anyone, having coached him to two successive French league titles with Lyon, where the Brazilian came to prominence, and where the Frenchman named him captain.

Juninho’s success in New York depended on one of two factors: either he had to impose himself physically, or he would have to play in a system that relieved him of his defensive duties. Neither was accomplished.

Even in his prime, Juninho was never a physical stalwart, let alone during his stint with the Red Bulls, in a league where athleticism easily trumps skill. The MLS game seemed to bypass the Brazilian, and the Red Bulls clearly lacked dynamism when he started, especially when faced with prototypical box-to-box opponents; but that wasn´t necessarily his fault, even if he may have believed that the MLS was going to be the proverbial walk in the park.

Juninho blossomed at Lyon because much of the unheralded grunt work in the midfield was done by players like Jeremy Toulalan and Kim Kallstrom. As deep lying midfielders in a 4-2-3-1, Toulalan and Kallstrom allowed Juninho the freedom to roam in the midfield in more of a playmaking role, which suited his passing abilities. That was not the case with the Red Bulls, and it could explain why Juninho wrote on his Facebook page that his relationship with Mike Petke had soured, and had as a consequence hindered his game even more.

Petke’s reliance on a traditional 4-4-2 did not serve Juninho well, and it became progressively more apparent that as the Brazilian faltered (he racked up more yellow cards than assists, and managed to earn a red card while not scoring any goals), his playing time declined accordingly. Additionally, it became clear that Petke wasn’t willing to deviate from his game plan in an attempt to accommodate the playmaker.

That philosophical stance would be defensible were the Red Bulls playing better, but as I’ve previously written, New York’s position in the standings doesn’t actually reflect the team’s performances – something Thierry Henry alluded to after the home defeat to the Whitecaps, when he suggested that the Red Bulls had been lucky so far this season. Henry’s overall point was that there was a clear lack of possession, an area Juninho was brought in to improve.

The argument has been made that Petke simply doesn’t have the kind of roster that will allow him to scrap the 4-4-2 (which may actually be the case now that Juninho has left), but then again he has been employing Eric Alexander, a central midfielder, on the right wing, and without much success. Furthermore, Fabian Espindola already has the tendency to hug the sideline when he’s playing alongside Henry as a striker, so why not just start him there.

Given his age and deteriorating athleticism, signing Juninho obviously was not the best front office decision. Though, having taken the risk of signing him, the club could have done more to get some production out of the midfielder. It is unlikely that there will be any lasting fallout from this whole affair, but it does underscore the fact that the club is still not over the hiccups that have derailed previous seasons. And perhaps more importantly, that for all the Red Bull blood coursing through his veins, Petke may not be seasoned enough to lead the team to success.