Three Things I Noticed: RBNY v. San Jose

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By the end of the night, a feeling of elation must have washed over the home supporters. The season, which had doom and gloom hovering over its head like a dark cloud, has continued to surprise and delight fans of the New York Red Bulls. The same fan base that was foaming at the mouth only a few short months ago is now basking in the terrific early season form of a team that many had written off.

Three Things I Noticed: RBNY v. San Jose

Without Thierry Henry, the Red Bulls are playing arguably their best and most attractive soccer since the cathedral that is Red Bull Arena opened. Way back in 2010, the San Jose Earthquakes closed the inaugural season in a come from behind victory against Red Bulls in the MLS Cup Playoffs. Over the last five years, some significant and strange games have been played against the Earthquakes. In some sense, they have served as a way for players to find their scoring touch. Henry himself, as well as Luke Rodgers, and now Sacha Kljestan, found their first MLS goals for the Red Bulls at home against SJ. They have also been the source of great frustration such as the aforementioned playoff loss in 2010, as well as “Miller Time” in 2013. This time around, San Jose was a milestone. The best performance thus far under Jesse Marsch ended 2-0, but it was not indicative of the quality New York showed on the night. Here’s what I noticed.

1. Felipe > Alexander

It should come as no surprise to anyone that Felipe Martins has been a vital part of the Red Bull’s attack. But it is his defensive work that has really shown thus far. When the Red Bull’s began to play the 4-3-3 formation last season, the defensive stability of the team was owed in large part to Eric Alexander. Alexander was tidy in possession and provided a nice strong bite in the middle of the field that forced teams to attack down the flanks. What Alexander lacked, however, was the killer instinct to find that final pass. Alexander worked best when he was aiding in possession, not driving the offense. When Alexander/Oyongo pair was jettisoned to Montreal in the offseason, I knew that quality would be missed from the Red Bull’s lineup. Enter Felipe.

Felipe Martins had a terrific debut season in MLS, but had faltered over the last two years. His acquisition was thought to be a move to obtain a young attacking midfielder. He fit the bill, but I think most did not see him as the defensive beast that he has been. Take a look at these stats and attached heat maps from Friday’s game. One is Dax McCarty, and one is Felipe. Try to guess who is who:

Pass Attempts – 78

Completion % – 79.49

Interceptions – 5

Recoveries – 8

Pass Attempts – 70

Completion % – 84.78

Interceptions – 6

Recoveries – 10

It isn’t easy to tell, although a couple of clues will give it away. The point is, if Felipe’s possession, distribution, and defensive stats are similar to Dax, and that is a major victory for the Red Bulls. Felipe and Dax’s hard work this season has translated to opponents struggling to maintain possession against the Red Bulls and an average pass completion percentage of 67.8% to the Red Bulls 74.8%. What makes him even more dangerous however, is how well he transitions into attack. We have already seen this against DC United at RBA, but he was on another level against San Jose. Felipe had 10 key passes in the game. Read that again. Why is that significant? The rest of the Red Bulls contributed 11 key passes over the last two games. That is staggering. Hopefully what we are seeing is the blossoming of a deep young play maker. If Felipe is still getting used to his teammates, there is no reason to think he has reached his ceiling just yet.

2. Miazga Jekyll and Hyde

Last week I mentioned why the Red Bulls had so much trouble in possession. A large part of that was the play of Matt Miazga. Miazga was the best passer on the back line in his combined starts, but when he has trouble moving the ball out of the back, the entire back line suffers. This week, Miazga stood on his head defensively as has been pointed out in numerous articles, but his key contribution was to the possession game. Miazga completed 82.86% of his passes this week, a season high, and the Red Bulls matched their season high possession advantage (56.7% matching the opener on the road to Sporting Kansas City.). The Red Bulls also set season high in number of passes played with 500. The back line contributed the highest number of pass attempts this season as well. It is no coincidence that is in direct conflict with last week’s draw at DC where the team saw season lows in all of those catagories.

Miazga plays the role in possession the same as Dax McCarty in the midfield. While Damien Perinelle is much more probing like Felipe or Kljestan. Both are important to the team, but if one of them is failing, it likely will affect both. Miazga’s stock has mostly been rising thanks to his performances of late, but the young player is still prone to some mistakes, which for now have gone mostly unpunished. While having two good games, followed by a stinker and a great game is not enough to extrapolate data beyond a wild guess, it is comforting to see. Young players can be prone to bouts of confidence after a down swing. Miazga showed that he can shake it off, for now.

3. FINISH HIM (THEM)!

The last thing I want to touch on is maybe the most troubling, but it is not something to hit the panic button just yet. With the exception of last week’s game in DC, the Red Bulls have seen the majority of chances for the opposition come in the second half. While that shouldn’t be surprising given the nature of the team’s high tempo strategy, it is something that can come back to bite them. They have been able to maintain control of games so far this season, but they have not shown the killer instinct to really kill the game off. In spite of how good they looked against San Jose, the Red Bulls still put themselves in position to have a nervy final 20 minutes of the game until the Earthquakes ran out of steam. The Red Bulls are creating plenty of chances, but they need to put the ball away more. Teams that thrive on counter attack such as DC and New England can really take the Bulls to task for squandered chances. You only have to look at the Conference Final last year to see those results. While the team is playing much better this year than they have in the last several years, they must be careful not be complacent. The best teams will pile it on and beat teams into submission. The Red Bulls aren’t quite there yet.

So enjoy it while you can folks. Surely there will be some rough waters ahead as we move into the summer months, but remain patient. The early returns have been fantastic. A stout test against the Galaxy awaits at the weekend and should serve as another benchmark for the progress made so far. Will the Red Bulls be able to overwhelm the Galaxy midfield, or will LA find a way to maintain possession and exhaust NY? Only time will tell.

***DID YOU KNOW***

    • The Red Bull’s substitutes Dane Richards and Sean Davis completed a beautiful symmetry. Davis had 6 pass attempts all complete, Richards had 5 all miss.
    • In spite of the stellar play by the Red Bulls backline, the players with the most Recoveries on the night all play in the central midfield (Kljestan, McCarty, and Felipe)
    • Damien Perrinelle led all starters with 84.78% pass completion.
    • Prior to Felipe’s 10 key passes, the next best mark this season belongs to Bradley Wright-Phillips with 3 (Against DC and Columbus).
    • Mike Grella may have had a rough night moving the ball around, but he was as active as Sam during his shift. They each accounted for 1 key pass and 1 successful cross. In Sam’s case, that was the same pass that led to Grella’s goal.
    • Chris Duvall and Kemar Lawrence set season highs for pass attempts and completion for the Red Bull’s fullbacks. 115 attempts and 77.93%.
    • Sacha Kljestan scored his first MLS goal 5 years (Almost to the day) since his last (04/24/2010). Both were against San Jose. You can’t make this stuff up!
    • Felipe had the pass of the night on a play that was broken up. He received the ball deep in the Red Bulls half and fired the ball with pace 40 yards directly into BWP while splitting two defenders. It was gorgeous

Main Photo courtesy of Bill Twomey Photography