By Coleman Larned (@thesoccerswell)
After starting the 2016 MLS season 1-0-6, New York Red Bulls earned a deserved victory at home against Orlando City SC. Although the 3-2 scoreline doesn't suggest domination, RBNY controlled the tempo for the majority of the game, after having to shake off and compensate for an early 3' Cyle Larin goal. The victory was confirmation of something our expected goals numbers have been saying all season – NYRB have gotten very unlucky with their finishing, having converted almost 13 fewer goals than they should have expected.
After some experimentation as a product of frustration and injury, Jesse Marsch reverted to a familiar lineup with a lower, defensive block, initially. The defensive line of confrontation for RBNY started ten yards from the tip of the center circle in Orlando's defensive half, but was quickly advanced in reaction to a conceded goal.
Adrian Heath had to adjust his personnel as Kaka and Antonio Nocerino were unavailable for selection. The shape was adjusted to a 4-4-2 to originally introduce Julio Baptista alongside Larin for his first start for Orlando. Throughout the match, Baptista was consistently sagging into the midfield to help with defensive shape and to pick up the ball offensively in a #10 pocket, thus Orlando truly looked like a 4-4-1-1.
Early ORL goal & RBNY defensive block adjustment
Orlando scored early, and it made Marsch question his intended line of confrontation and his medium block defense, although the shape and intent weren't the variables that caused the goal. Both Kemar Lawrence and Karl Ouimette committed horrendous defensive errors in the build up that led to scoring chance and in the final moments of the opportunity, respectively.
Lawrence committed himself to pressuring the ball centrally, while RBNY already had two midfielders marking the same space. The unnecessary movement allowed an overlapping Orlando defender to receive the ball in the open-field on the right flank. The overlapping defender, Rafael Ramos, was allowed to pick out Larin, who Ouimette had originally met with physical confrontation, but then forgot to continue to his mark, allowing for a clean strike in the box.
Around the 12' mark Marsch abandoned the medium block and RBNY started to press Orlando's possession deep into their own half. Although the change in defensive line was a reaction to the goal, it was early in the match and effective. The home side continued to generate possession and started to create turnovers in Orlando's half as intended.
McCarty wayward possession, Kljestan & Felipe bear burden
Around the 20' mark, Dax McCarty showed signs of frustration in the midfield. He is used to controlling the tempo of games through his frequency of touches in high traffic areas and his dynamic passing ability, but it never settled for him. After a sequence of four wayward, forced passes by McCarty, the responsibility of possession shifted to Felipe and Sascha Kljestan to get on the ball higher up the field to relieve McCarty on what was clearly an off night. Within the 20-minute span, Felipe accumulated 29 touches in possession, Kljestan 18 and McCarty took the offensive back-seat on the ball, with 10 accumulated touches in 20 minutes.
This was the offensive turning point. Not only did McCarty take a time-out, but the possession occurred higher up the pitch through Kljestan and Felipe. Kljestan's consistent, lateral movement provided options in possession for his teammates in the middle and final thirds of the pitch. The more he received the ball in these areas, the more dangerous RBNY looked as a unit.
Quality will prevail, keep attacking
It's difficult to rely on inevitability when your team has recorded only one win in seven games, but Marsch held firm and was later rewarded for his stubbornness. Although all of RBNY's goals were in the second half, the offensive statistics in the first half were more lopsided in their favor than in the second. With 15 shots and 20 crosses to Orlando's five and nine, it was a matter of being persistent and suffocating.
The difference between the scoring chances created concerned the quality of the process. RBNY committed to the flanks and whipping the ball into the box early in the match, but the run preparation and timing of the balls were poor. Oftentimes the runs of Bradley Wright-Phillips and trailing midfielders were not developed enough, and lacked the depth in the box to provide feasible options. As the match progressed, the crosses originated from more dangerous, deeper positions in Orlando's defensive third, often from spells of possession or quick turnovers close to Orlando's goals. These are the two hopeful products of RBNY's entire system: kill teams with possession and better tacticians in the build up play, and press high to gain possession through deep turnovers. Either way, the offense has a great chance to be in advantageous positions offensively because of the preparation the possession allows, or the positional advantage the deep turnover affords.
Kyle Larin is dangerous
As the match progressed into the second half and through the final whistle, RBNY dominated in most statistical categories. They maintained offensive pressure and the tension that was being released after a horrendous start to the season turned positive. But, one thing remained: Larin looked dangerous and capable of scoring at any point, all match.
Whenever he was given the chance, Larin made the RBNY defense look slow and stiff. He was left alone up top for long stretches, as Baptista would consistently drop into the midfield, but he made the most of it with his unyielding energy and willingness to cover ground with direct runs.
Orlando looked most dangerous when the team wasn't involved in their offensive third, and left Larin on his own often 1v2 against the RBNY central defenders. He exploited exactly what RBNY is missing at the back: central defenders who can defend isolated in space.
RBNY reverted to their chosen identity early in the match, and it was successful. Do they remain stubborn, or do they need a more dynamic mixture now that teams have figured them out?