The New York Red Bulls have seen better days. The proximity of the “better” days to the current season’s early disappointments is surely to blame for the anxiety NY fans are feeling in the early days of the 2016 season. Just a few months ago, many pundits had picked New York to win their first MLS Cup in the first season of the new infamous 300-page plan of Sporting Director Ali Curtis. Jesse Marsch had worked miracles with just a few tweaks to the roster in 2015. The energetic Bulls played with a fire and intensity rarely seen for the long-suffering fans of the team they still occasionally call Metro. So what happened? Where are the 2016 Red Bulls falling short? What should they be doing to get back on track? As I am want to do, I dug through some statistics to get an idea.
New York Red Bulls And The Numbers
Questions? I suppose we all should have a few, right? For one, how can the team that scored the most goals in MLS a year ago find the back of the net in just one of their first four games in 2016? Watching the team play, it may not be entirely obvious. A lot of the chatter online has focused on the front line. It is the natural place to start. A common refrain has been, they are not creating enough opportunities. The start of the attack, and the problem as I see it, starts much further back. With Matt Miazga and Damien Perrinelle, the Red Bulls had two of the leagues top defenders who were both surprisingly tidy on the ball. The Red Bulls high press is a high risk style. Players are likely to get pulled out of position further up the field, leaving a lot of space, especially at the back. It is one of the reasons the Red Bulls were so susceptible to bunker and counter teams over the past year or so. Damien Perrinelle’s positioning and Matt Miazga’s physical/smart defending helped smooth the edges of what could have been a rough defensive plan in 2015.
Before I got into specific stats, the first thing I wanted to do is a simple diff compare between the first four games of 2015 and 2016. As the Red Bulls were undefeated in that span, many viewed the opening of the 2015 season favorably, especially within the context of what was happening off the field. So I took a look at the following stats: passing, shots, tackles, clearances, and fouls committed. Passing was broken down into passing overall, passing in the attacking half, passing in the final third, and crosses. Shots were broken down into total shots, shots on goal, shots inside the box and shots outside the box. Here is the raw data I gathered.
What do you notice? For one, there is not much of a variance to the majority of the stat categories at large. When I used adjusted number by removing the outliers on each side, there was even less of a change for the majority of the stats collected. The two that stuck out the most were duels won and clearances. Duels won is down 17.16% from 2015, and Clearances are down 46.83%. Those are some alarming numbers. When you are looking at the defensive stats, it is appropriate to accuse the backline if there is a large swing. Losing one of the best tandems in MLS is an obvious answer to the shortcoming. The Red Bulls back line this year has been a revolving door thanks to injuries and suspensions, so this is in many ways an expected result. Though the decrease is expected, the actuals are probably lower than anyone anticipated.
Okay, now I needed to do some digging. Clearances were Matt Miazga’s thing. He was second in the league in the stat per game last year. While he is thought of as a big body that controls balls in the air, his ground game is extremely strong. His calm demeanor meant that he could also play the ball out of the back effectively. This was a quality not just limited to Miazga. His partner Damien Perrinelle was also fond of playing the ball on the ground to start the attack.
Miazga and Perrinelle averaged fewer accurate long balls per game than Gideon Baah or Ronald Zubar, but they attempted fewer as well. The center back pairing from 2015 only chose about 16% of their passes per game for long balls. Zubar, Baah and Ouimette average about 21%. It seems like a small deviation, but take into account what happens in a game from a failed long ball. Quite often, the other team takes over possession and the team that coneeded is set up as a whole much deeper on the field. This is counter to Marsch’s preferred playing style, which sees his team press much higher up the field.
So knowing that Miazga and Perrinelle were playing the short passes out of the back, it is significant to note that their failure rate was exceedingly low, 15%, compared to 2016 which is about 21% again. Full disclosure, Karl Ouimette makes that number higher than it would likely be if Zubar and Baah continued to play by extrapolation of data, but that is only theoretical because the stats themselves do not take into account opponent difficulty.
Slightly further up the field, the midfield trio has seen their percentage of failed short passes rise as well. Felipe is the worst offender because his failed short pass percentage (21%) is not only up, but he is attempting fewer passes per game. Felipe’s year over year is up 41% in failed short passes. For Dax McCarty it is 21% and for Sacha Kljestan just 13%. More worrying for Kljestan though is that his influence over the game has diminished as he is now attempting about ten fewer passes per game. That said, he is still New York’s lead chance creator, generating about three per game over last year’s 2.6. Viewing these numbers across the team, they are mostly down.
The last thing I noticed is that shots taken from outside of the box are down so far this year. In the first two games this year, the Red Bulls took only two shots from outside of the 18. While these chances are low percentage chances, it forces the issue in two ways. First, it gets the ball bouncing around in the box. Whether the shot is blocked or parried by the keeper, it has the ability to create follow up attempts. These are generally very high percentage chances that are within or just outside of the six yard box. While the shot came from inside the box, Felipe’s saved shot and Mike Grella’s follow up goal are a good example of the benefits of taking chances.
The second thing that it can do is draw defenders out of the 18 to pressure the shooter. This will create space in the final third for the forwards to operate. This relies on having a threat from deep though, and Sacha/Felipe fit the bill. Felipe’s number of shots from outside of the box are about the same as they were last year (1.3 per game). Kljestan’s is down half a shot and his overall shots are also down almost a full shot per game. While Dax is much less of a threat from outside of the box, he has yet to take a single shot outside of the 18 this year.
So with SKC coming in on Saturday, the Red Bulls have a couple of clear things they need to work on. While they have played more direct attacking soccer, it might be wise to move the ball through their most valued asset, the midfield, more. As far as the back line is concerned, patience is the only way to go right now. Between injuries and the need for partnerships to form, there is no simple solution. Lastly, take some more shots from outside of the box, which is currently down 35% form last year. A lot of the mistakes and miscues will work themselves out if they get those three things right.