One of the things I love about soccer is that the game persistently defies statistical analysis. Some smart people have tried very hard for a long time, and the results are mostly just a handful of individual puzzle pieces. They're all of some use, but even the best attempt to put it all together as a coherent formula to explain soccer will end with people wondering "Yeah, but how did (insert team) end up winning that one time?" I've used a quote from my 1996 JV soccer coach - a man with no grounding in the sport whatsoever - many times to sum this part of the game up: "Soccer is a crazy game."
The numbers from D.C. United's last meeting with the New York Red Bulls point to a game that the Metros edged, but hardly dominated. A 52-48 split of possession in favor of the home side, if anything, indicates a slightly closer affair than a hypothetical "average MLS game." The Red Bulls out-shot United, but 16-12 in total attempts and 7-5 for shots on goal are not abnormal margins. United actually won more duels according to Opta, and forced NYRB into more clearances. The pass completion percentages give an ever-so-slight hint at what actually transpired - 77% to 72% for Jesse Marsch's side - but it's not a major tell.
We all know that none of this paints an accurate portrayal of the match in question. The Red Bulls steamrolled United from the opening kickoff, and largely got the game they wanted even as United actually had more of the ball throughout the second half. This was because the Red Bulls dictated the pace of the game - hyperactive, just the way Marsch wants them to play - and they dictated where both teams were going to get the ball. Take a look at these completed pass diagrams:
This image shows us where the Red Bulls were completing their passes. The good news for United is that 25 yards from goal remained a no-go zone for the most part. The bad news, of course, is the forest of green squares just beyond that area. The Red Bulls were knocking on the door all game long. Meanwhile, compare that with the same diagram for United:
As you can probably tell, United's passes were mostly in their own half. They were funneled into the middle and restricted to completing non-threatening passes. United's thickest area of coverage here is a rough V running from the right-center region of central midfield, to the center backs, to out along the left touchline (but still not very high up the field). The NYRB pressure put United on their heels both in terms of territory and in terms of decision-making. There are a lot of "safe" passes in this diagram, and teams that are playing that way against their will are teams that will probably lose.
This doesn't just tie into success against high pressure. After all, most of these players were around for United's greatest tactical triumph of 2014 (the 3-0 win at Sporting KC that involved playing past the first layer of pressure before racing through the remaining, thin layers of defense). United is capable of doing this, and doing it well; against NYRB, they simply weren't good enough nor courageous enough with the ball to succeed at it.
What United should be a bit concerned with is a regression towards a pattern that last year's squad made real strides on: Being outplayed by teams playing with three central midfields. In particular, teams in a 4231 had a long-standing tendency to cause United endless problems up until the latter 60% or so of 2014.
In 2015, that issue has returned when teams combine an aggressive mindset with their midfield numbers. Montreal played a 4231 but were entirely focused on sitting deep and trying to counter. United didn't excel that day, but the 1-0 scoreline was a fair one; the Impact could only create danger by playing hopeful balls in behind, all of which were dealt with either by retreating defenders or by Bill Hamid, whose speed off his line makes playing like this a very low-percentage strategy.
The Red Bulls and Orlando don't play the same way, but both teams are broadly positive, attacking teams that want to press up the field, and both of those sides indisputably outplayed the Black-and-Red. That brings us to a question (well, actually two questions, but the answer to the first one covers both) I got in yesterday's Opposition 11 post. Commenter DC_Untied asked the following:
I guess I am asking what they are giving up by playing the three middies the way they do. One obvious answer is the second forward, which is part of the reason the BWP goal in the first game seemed so egregious – there is only one guy running around up there, we shouldn’t be beat with long balls right up the center of the field.
Is there more to it than simply taking away the direct attack (something we failed to do last time) and trying to disrupt the possession they need to operate effectively? Are there gaps that we can exploit on the counter?
The first paragraph notes that United's defending on the first goal was shambolic. This isn't really a formation problem; that sort of defending would give up a goal to any team who has a forward. There are issues here that have to do with marking a lone striker, as they tend to line up between the center backs (at least in a back four) and force those two to sort out who marks him in a given situation. In this instance, Bobby Boswell and Steve Birnbaum were too far apart after United coughed up possession, and compounded that problem by not seeing the issue as quickly as Dax McCarty did.
Bradley Wright-Phillips is a smart player, but even MLS's dumber forwards would have made good use of the colossal gap and the indecision involved. Tonight, Boswell and Kofi Opare are going to have to strike a better balance at all times rather than getting lulled into expecting only short passes out of the Red Bulls. This involves a lot of communication as to when marking BWP is to be switched from one player to another.
As for the weak points in the 4231, it's hard to say that they all look the same, which means the weak points don't always pop up in the same areas. For this particular 4231, the defensive weak spots are available on the flanks, but only if United cycles the ball out there quickly. Last time out, the pressure from the Red Bulls flustered United into just going long rather than playing intentionally diagonal balls to Nick DeLeon and Chris Rolfe.
It takes two to tango, though, and on a rewatch I came away thinking that both wide midfielders - as well as the forward duo of Chris Pontius and Jairo Arrieta - were also responsible for this issue. The runs often simply weren't there once NYRB got United into a pattern of going long. DeLeon and Rolfe stopped expecting the ball, and both strikers stayed in central areas anticipating an aerial battle with center back.
At RFK tonight, that can't happen. I don't think this was a problem due to lack of effort; rather, it was simply players switching off mentally and failing to push against the rhythm of a game that wasn't going United's way. The work rate was there, but the smarts weren't.
United's attacking quartet needs to find the pockets between NYRB's wingers and fullbacks, and there's a pattern we should look for early on. United first needs to establish a threat to get in behind the fullbacks along the touchlines, be it from a midfielder or a forward. Once New York's fullbacks start staying home to prevent that threat, United will have bigger pockets for midfield possession on either side of the NYRB central triangle.
Establishing the possibility of exposing NYRB's inexperienced fullbacks needs to happen swiftly, and even after United starts getting those pockets of space in the middle third there should be frequent attempts to attack those fullbacks on the dribble. Kemar Lawrence played well in his debut, but I sense that a big part of that was NYRB's territorial dominance letting him attack more than he defended. I think he's going to leave pockets between him and Damien Perrinelle, and the French center back isn't athletic enough to paper over those cracks.
On the other side, I think Rolfe should have plenty of success going at Chris Duvall and Matt Miazga. They're raw, young players; Rolfe has a massive advantage in soccer IQ, and it's no accident that United's three best scoring chances at RBA all fell to Rolfe. It's also no accident that the passing diagram above shows that United had more success finding open space on the Red Bull right.
To get more general, United needs to play faster. That means a lot of little things, but it mostly means clean touches - sloppy touches are like pumping the brake while driving - and smart movement. In the last meeting, NYRB's movement without the ball was the thing they did better than United by the largest margin. The Red Bulls were always thinking about where the next open seam was going to be, and they were getting there first. United needs to be mentally faster so they can pass the ball at a quicker tempo. Otherwise, the five-man midfield will form a consistent wall for United's attacks to run up against.
This will have the added benefit of breaking the pressure the Red Bulls are making into their signature. Pressure is most effective when things get predictable and the defensive team can shut off all passing options for whoever has possession. At that point, the best case scenario that isn't "wonderful piece of skill to escape a crowd" is usually a backpass to the goalkeeper or a long ball. We don't want any more long balls.
However, predictability requires things to slow down. If United's back eight can keep the ball cycling quickly, and the front six can stay mobile and have the bravery to play two-touch in the smaller spaces NYRB gives up, the pressure will fail. That's the risk of high pressure: If your opponent can avoid the wave of defensive players, they'll all the sudden find your defense lacking in numbers. That's how the Red Bulls will get found out, because the back four they'll have on the field is not strong by MLS standards.
Back to the defensive side of the ball, United is going to have to cope with Lloyd Sam. This has been a problem ever since the English winger forced his way into the team under Mike Petke, but the nature of that issue has changed. Last year, he was a chalk-on-his-boots sort of winger whose job was primarily to create width so Thierry Henry would have more room elsewhere. Now, Sam is the danger man instead of the complimentary part, and he's taken to the role well.
United is going to need to dull Sam's influence. A big part of that is what we've already discussed: If United keeps the ball, Sam won't be able to do as much going forward. The other issue here is that United should be willing to tilt a little to the left for defensive reasons. If a Red Bulls winger is going to cause United a threat, it's far more preferable that it be Zizzo, who isn't on his natural wing.
On set pieces, I think United has a distinct advantage, but only if the service is good. NYRB is at a disadvantage when it comes to size and strength, which means that inside the boxes United should look to win their battles regularly. Luis Robles has trouble in traffic as well, which is a weakness United took advantage of - though not on a set piece - against Brian Rowe of the Galaxy.
Overall, though, the main focus for United needs to be neutralizing the midfield man advantage and dictating where the game is played. The Red Bulls are firmly a team that wants to be the better team in those categories, and a big part of that is that they're not really constructed to play another way. If the Black-and-Red can make them play a game they're not comfortable with, I think we'll see that flimsy back four exposed and we'll see a return to the results against the 4231 that we saw in 2014. If not, then United is going to need to do some wonderful defending to salvage this one.