BY ERIC GIACOMETTI
When it comes to this season, common sense no longer dictates what happens on the pitch; a greater being is at work here.
Amongst the ever-present hot-button topics of team depth, a struggling defense, coaching concerns, and a captain-less squad, New York continues to grind out result after result. The only question that remains now is, “When will this crazy ride come to an end?”
When you have the payroll and superstar names that New York boasts, the expectations are always sky-high. How ironic it is that without it’s biggest names, the Red Bulls are thriving now more than ever before. With Thierry Henry, Rafa Marquez, and Wilman Conde all expected back into the starting lineup on Wednesday, Hans Backe will have to make some decisions. It’s a problem that he readily welcomes, even though some fans seem to be apprehensive of disrupting New York’s current form.
I’m a guy who always tries to keep an even keel … not to high when we’re winning, not too low when we’re losing. And while it’s easy to get swept up in the euphoria that has befallen this beleaguered fan base, perhaps a dose of reality is needed. If the Red Bulls are to keep their spot atop the Eastern Conference, they’ll still need quite a few more things to go their way … and in order to find out just how far this team can go, some pressing questions still need answering.
When healthy, he’s shown himself to be an invaluable cog in the heart of the midfield. Problem is, the guy can’t stay on the pitch. Now, it seems that his road to recovery has hit a snag, setting his estimated return to the squad back even further. Rumor has it his injuries may even force the former Finland international to retire, and what a shame that would be. New York is a different team with Tainio on the pitch (see NY-LA 2nd leg), and while the team has gotten by quite well without him, how much longer can they continue to do so?
Dax and Rafa …
The two other central midfield options. Dax McCarty has been one of, if not the most important pieces to New York’s run of success. His switch to a holding midfield position has done wonders for the leaky Red Bulls’ defense, providing a security blanked for the young and inexperienced back four. His role as a hybrid destroyer-distributor has unquestionably played a huge hand over New York’s last five wins, and he’s remained one of the few constants in the Starting XI.
As for Rafa, well what can I say? The always enigmatic DP continues to befuddle me. It was quite obvious the different styles that he and Dax played at the DM role. He simply cannot match the work rate and pace that Dax has, and it showed against the Union. But once Dax moved back into the holding midfield role, and Rafa was slotted into central defense, the Red Bulls looked a completely different team. He even teased us with a bit of his brilliance, lofting a perfectly weighted through ball into the path of Kenny Cooper to snatch the winner. What exactly will be his role in this team? It’s quite obvious that the bench will not be an option (despite many cries from the Red Bull faithful), meaning that some tinkering will have to be made. How can Backe get the most out of these two key players?
Lineups and Formations
With the addition of Heath Pearce, a versatile and highly skilled defender, Backe now has a seemingly infinite amount of options at his disposal. In the interim during Henry’s absence, the Red Bulls deployed a 4-1-4-1 formation, with Dax sitting in front of the defense, and Cooper alone up top … and we all know the results. With Henry set to come back, Backe will surely switch back to a two forward formation, but how will he deploy the rest of his squad.
Just for fun, take a look at all the possible positions and combinations Backe has to work with:
Joel Lindpere: LM, CM
Dax McCarty: CM, CDM
Rafa Marquez: CDM, CB
Heath Pearce: RB, CB, LB
Connor Lade: LB, LM
Jan Gunnar Solli: RB, LM, RM
That doesn’t even include other players like Mehdi Ballouchy and Dane Richards, who can also play secondary positions in a pinch. All this depth and variability can be a great asset for this team, if used properly. But it’s not always an exact science. While all those players have the ability to play various positions, it may not work without the right combination of players in the right spots on the pitch.
There’s not a solitary right or wrong way to go about it; it takes tinkering. For example, putting Dax and Rafa on the field on the same time doesn’t automatically yield a good result. And much like an intricate system of cranks and gears, moving one piece directly (or indirectly) effects another piece of the puzzle (i.e. moving Rafa to CB or Solli to the midfield forces someone to the bench, etc.) This leaves a lot of responsibility on the shoulders of Clever Hans.
Can he make it work with all these moving pieces?