Red Bulls Need to Cure Anemic Attack

IMAGE, MATT KREMKAU FOR EMPIRE OF SOCCER

by RUSS McKENZIE

OP-ED: After the Red Bulls defeated NYCFC 7-0 over a month ago, they have had a downturn in their attacking play. Scoring early in almost every single one of their stretch of road games, they have since been unable to come away with a victory. They simply can not hold on to a lead.

Sure, one would normally turn to the defense for answers. However, after a 2-0 win at home that saw the Red Bulls score 13 times in the previous seven matches, New York has only managed three goals in five games for a record of 0-3-2. During the club’s 1-6 start, New York went through 337 minutes straight where they were completely impotent in front of goal.

While the defense has undergone some serious changes following the departure of Matt Miazga, and a streak of injuries that won’t seem to quit, the attack has remained largely untouched. Bradley Wright-Phillips, Mike Grella, Sacha Kljestan, and Lloyd Sam all returned to the club, and it seemed that Gonzalo Veron had finally found his place in the Red Bulls lineup. Since then, Sam has been traded for allocation cash. Veron has been in and out of the lineup, partly to do with injuries, and party from his own brain cramps. 

One would think that with Kljestan leading the league in assists (10) the Red Bulls would be scoring more often. However, while Kljestan has had a great season pulling the strings, it has been a fairly anemic season from an offensive perspective. Part of this is tactical. While coach Jesse Marsch has his club playing the familiar high press, many teams simply sit back and wait – absorbing pressure until an opportunity presents itself to hit New York on the counter. While the league is still young, coaches in MLS are not dumb. In 2015, New York made a living by ripping up their opposition with the high press. A handful of teams figured out that if they just sat back and absorbed pressure, the Red Bulls simply do not have the ideas and creativity to breakdown a team that parks the bus.

This season, and especially in the most recent stretch of games, this has become painfully obvious. While Marsch has been tactically more flexible this season, employing two strikers in certain situations, and five defenders in others, the second part of the equation is a lot less clear.

Two seasons removed from a historic Golden Boot, Bradley Wright-Phillips has been especially streaky in front of goal. After a breakout performance in the month of May, BWP did not have a particularly good June. Now, in July, the Red Bulls find themselves back in a position where the striker they have built their attacking house upon has become nearly invisible. Sunday’s match against Portland accurately sums up his lack of impact – two duels won, 13 duels lost, and disposed five times.

While the blame does not fall squarely on the Englishman’s shoulders, Kljestan does not have a target that can get creative in the box against a parked defense, making it unclear how the Red Bulls will overcome the current lack of offensive production. Wright-Phillips has historically been able to take advantage of teams keying on his teammates. In 2014, BWP found himself free as Thierry Henry drew players towards him. In 2015, he benefited from being the main target, but other aspects of his game improved. BWP’s hold up play, along with his work rate, improved significantly. He again benefited from his peers drawing people away from him – specifically the midfield engine of Kljestan, Dax McCarty, and Felipe Martins.

Now, the opposition is letting the Red Bulls win the midfield numbers game while focusing on stopping New York in the box. The Red Bulls are having trouble finding answers there.

The answers likely do not lie within. While Veron is going to get his chance, his greatest strength is being close to goal and catching defenders 1:1 in tight spaces. As a winger in Lloyd Sam’s former spot on the field, he may not get the best opportunity to show off that skill set. With that said, it may fall on Ali Curtis to work a miracle move. He’s done it before – finding Kemar Lawrence last season, and Mike Grella during pre-season. You could even add Gideon Baah and Aurelien Collin to that resume. 

But, it’s clear – the Red Bulls’ fortunes may rest in finding someone new to spark New York’s inconsistent attack.