The New York Red Bulls are only two games into the season and they already find themselves in a familiar place: not where they expected to be.
Having gone through a preseason uninterrupted by off field issues, and benefiting from a squad that saw very few changes, Mike Petke and his Red Bulls were expected to hit the ground running. Instead, Petke already finds himself playing catch-up.
The season’s early hiccups shouldn’t set off any alarms, since the Red Bulls found themselves in a similar position last season, and still ended up lifting the Supporters Shield. Nevertheless, there should be some concern over the fact that the team has to correct some of the same problems it faced last year, and has to do so in what is arguably a stronger eastern conference.
The most glaring issue facing Petke is how to fix a defense that has conceded five goals in the first two games. In the season opener, Vancouver capitalized on defensive mistakes that stemmed from a back-line that had trouble deciding when to push-up and play an offside trap, and when to sit back. The matter was further complicated by a lack of leadership, as Ibrahim Sekagya and Armando never appeared to be on the same page. This was particularly evident when Kenny Miller scored Vancouver’s third goal. Armando had pushed up the field while Sekagya hung back a little. That allowed Miller to find the pocket of space that kept him onside when Pedro Morales found him with a seemingly innocuous long-ball.
The defensive miscommunication also created problems in the midfield. When the back four failed to press up the field, an enormous hole opened up between New York’s defense and its midfield. During a game, that problem is usually addressed by assigning a central midfielder a more defensive role. However, Petke’s reliance on a 442 formation that creates much of its offense through wing-play prevents that from being a possibility. Pulling a midfielder back would mean tucking in the wingers into a diamond formation, narrowing the field. Vancouver took advantage of the tactical lapse by soaking up pressure and then effectively using Miller and Darren Mattocks as outlets in between the lines.
Jamison Olave’s return to the lineup in the home opener against Colorado improved the defensive cohesion. The Colombian offers a more physical presence at the back, but more importantly, he bosses the line. Not surprisingly, Armando’s performance proved far more steady and controlled than in the first game, with the big man by his side.
However, Olave’s return did little to address the spaces between the defense and the midfield, even though Colorado failed to exploit the space. Which brings up what is probably the Red Bulls’ biggest obstacle: Petke’s insistence on adapting his players to his preferred formation, rather than finding the best formation for his players.
Peguy Luyindula is perhaps the formation’s biggest victim. The Congolese is much criticized for his inconsistency and wastefulness, but his creativity is badly needed. The problem is that Luyindula is neither a forward, nor a pure central midfielder. His discomfort in the box is clearly visible when he lines up as a forward, as is his defensive ineptitude when he plays in the middle of the field. The issue could easily be addressed by playing Luyindula as an attacking midfielder, anchored by two more defensively minded midfielders. Dax McCary, Tim Cahill, and Eric Alexander could all very easily fulfill those roles, although Cahill’s aerial presence would be missed in attack.
The move would also ensure that the Red Bulls could continue to create offense from the wings, as it would allow the wing midfielders more liberty to push up and wide, as well as enable the wing-backs more opportunities to make overlapping runs – something New York is in dire need of.
Of course, the biggest question with such a formation would be where to start Thierry Henry. The Frenchman would likely be more effective as the lone striker, but he could just as easily slot in on the left, which is where he tends to drift during the game, anyway.
Unfortunately, Petke’s tenure so far suggests that a switch in tactics is unlikely. Against Colorado, when the Red Bulls were pushing for the win, Petke’s substitutions underscored the fact that he will stick to his philosophy in order to overcome the early season stuttering.
That could prove costly in Chicago, where the Red Bulls haven’t won since 2005.