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New York Red Bulls: A tactical preview

Some thoughts on what to expect against NYRB, from Pablo Mastroeni and RapidsRabbi

MLS: New York Red Bulls at Atlanta United FC Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Finishing atop the Eastern Conference table in 2016 with a record of 16-9-9 and 57 points, the New York Red Bulls are a formidable opponent to have to face in the early goings of a season. Just ask Atlanta United, who confounded NYRB for 70 minutes before falling apart late on opening weekend and losing 2-1 to the visitors.

New York will get their first home match at Red Bull Arena this Saturday night at 2 pm MST against Colorado. Last year’s one matchup with RBNY ended 2-1 to Colorado. If you can remember, it was pretty epic:

Here are a couple of tactical things to look for in this match.

1. The High Press

NYRB plays an aggressive high press; they also like to counter-press, meaning when an opposing team wins the ball in their final third, New York likes to swarm in twos and threes to win the ball back high. The clip below isn’t a perfect example of their press because it isn’t all that high, but the basic idea of swarming the ball instead of conceding the wings or defending deep and planning to counter-attack is still on display.

Burgundy Wave spoke with Pablo Mastroeni after practice on Tuesday, and he was more than aware, and has been preparing his guys well.

Mastroeni told us:

“One of the things we see is that they like to play forward and press, and (they are) really making that a big part of the game. They actually don’t want the ball; they want you to get it so they can press, win it, and go to dangerous spots and go to goal quickly, so those are some of the things that we’ve looked at. So now it’s about trying to exploit some of their weaknesses.”

The Rapids aren’t a ‘high press’ team per se, but they do have specific situations when they will press. Generally, they look to press with Doyle and Gashi, force a long ball to the other side, and then have Hairston rush on to take it away. Look for it Saturday.

2. The 4-2-2-2

NYRB is also playing a formation you won’t often see in MLS, and it descends as something of a corporate tactical identity: RB Leipzig and RB Salzburg are also running the 4-2-2-2. The formation can kind of morph into what the USMNT used do - an empty bucket 4-4-2, especially when the team is ahead. But in essence, it means the Red Bulls want to crowd and dominate the center of the pitch.

That didn’t work in the first half against Atlanta. When he came off the pitch at the half, Fox asked NY coach Jesse Marsch what needs doing. “We were too narrow,” he said. “We need to play with more width in the second half.” They did, they got two goals, and they won.

For the Rapids, the backline will likely be occupied with forwards Bradley Wright-Phillips and either Sacha Kljestan or Mike Grella, while Sam Cronin and Micheal Azira will be locking down Daniel Royer, Felipe, and Alex Muyl and also passing them off to the fullbacks or wings at times. It will be an interesting tactical experiment to see how a defense that wants to deny the middle deals with an offense that wants to overwhelm the middle.

3. Fitness and the late goings of the match

Did you think the last 20 minutes against New England looked a little low energy for the Rapids? So did their manager. Pablo told us:

“A lot of it had to do with coming to altitude at the most difficult time to actually play a game, which [I think] is six to seven days in altitude is the toughest. Having spoken to the guys, they were just trying to make sure that they were going to last 90 minutes in the way that we wanted to do it. There were a lot of physical components that affected the tactics.

The Rapids game plan last week was to defend a little deeper and run and stretch the field a little less, because a week of training in Arizona is different than a week of training in Commerce City. They’ve been at altitude for a while now, though, and those red-blood cells are primed to fight. So watch for the Rapids to absorb and conserve for 70 minutes, then look for the late, endurance-athlete based smash-and-grab towards the end of the match.

4. Mid-game Tactical Adjustments

Jesse Marsch is a bright tactical mind, and as you can see from their comeback win over Atlanta last Sunday, he knows how to adjust. All of that explains why he’s been in the conversation for head coach of the USMNT someday. Meanwhile, it isn’t that Pablo Mastroeni doesn’t adjust; it’s that he likes the team to be consistent. That means we can expect the same Rapids game plan for 90 minutes, almost assuredly. But if the Rapids fall behind 2-0? Or what if they go up 2-0, and we know that Jesse Marsch will adjust the plan mid game; will they be ready? That’s a good question.

5. Will Gashi or Howard play? Neither? Both?

Abbie Mood covered this the other day, but both Shkelzen Gashi (out with Achilles inflammation) and Tim Howard (recovering with an adductor injury) might be available to start. Tim’s quick restart ability means the team might play out of the back more if he plays. Gashi on the left brings shooting danger from range, as opposed to his usual replacement, Dom Badji, who prefers to use his speed to pass defenders, or use his size to post up inside the box. It’ll change the nature of the game, depending on who starts. If NYRB’s defenders are smart, they’ll play a little closer on Gashi, and set back a bit more on Badji.

Keep your eyes on Burgundy Wave for our pre-match preview from the legendary Richard Terry.