Postseason Preview: RBNY / by Cheuk Hei Ho

The New York Red Bulls have enjoyed an excellent season. They are second in the league and have grabbed the highest number of points in club history. They surely have an eye on the biggest prize that has eluded them for so long.

The Red Bulls are famous for their high pressing approach and frenetic pace. Their chaotic gameplay masks their articulated execution in the offensive phase. The Red Bulls suffer when they don't press, but we don't know what aspect of the game their pressing effects. With the playoffs' seeding almost decided, we can now get a glimpse of how the Red Bulls should approach their potential opponent.

The Red Bulls' articulated positional movement in the offensive phase

New York controls only 49.4% possession, 11th highest in the league, similar to FC Dallas and L.A. Galaxy. Unlike them, it dominates its activities in the opponent's half:

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The zonal touch map summarizes the average number of touches (passes, dribbles, and shots) compared to the league average when a team attacks. The Red Bulls' high-pressing approach spares them from relying on build-up. They can regain the possession in the opponent's half, (hence the focused activity past the half-line) and they seem to prefer to attack the right side with Michael Amir Murillo. But more activities don't necessarily mean better chances:

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This is a zonal Expected Goal Chain (xGC) Map in which the xGC value of each zone is summated and normalized to the league average to determine how a team turns the possession into shots. It summarizes how every team accesses the zones to create chances. For the Red Bulls, the low numbers of zonal xGC in their half is consistent with their few touches there, meaning that they either progress the ball to the opponent's half through pressing, a long ball, or a carry. Once past the half-line, the zonal xGC map is more balanced than the touch map. Therefore, New York is more efficient in creating chances on the left even though they have more touches on the right.

The zonal xGC map also reflects New York's offense structure. In possession, New York often tries to overload the center:

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New York sets up a 3-4-3 when it attacks. The two sided forwards position themselves in the half-space or center to occupy the defenders, supported by Tyler Adams and Kaku. The fullbacks, Murillo and Kemar Lawrence, push deep into the opponent's territory to provide the width. Sean Davis sits in front of the center backs to offer protection and a pivot for ball's circulation.

Even intense pressing makes their gameplay frenetic and chaotic; the Red Bulls not only have an organized structure but also a stereotypic set of positional movements to generate space when they attack:

Bradley Wright-Phillips and especially Daniel Royer often initiate these positional exchanges. If the defenders don't follow them, they can receive the ball outside of the box and shoot.

Sometimes when BWP drops from the forward line to receive the ball, Royer and the right wing will make an opposite run into the pocket created by him. Royer continually moves out of his position to generate space for his teammates to attack. When he is in the left half-space, he can move toward the sideline to allow Kaku/BWP to move in the middle. When he is on the flank, he will move inside to drag a defender with him so that Lawrence can attack the flank. The combination of players can be different, but the mechanism is always the same. When initiated on one side, sometimes the movements can trigger a series of downstream positional exchanges extending to the opposite side that collapse the defense.

The Red Bulls' offense isn't random but highly organized with precise timing of the movements.

Counter-pressing Improves New York's Defense, Not Its Offense

Another aspect the Red Bulls' signature style is intense counter-pressing. To look at how the counter-pressing improves their game, I first define a counter-pressing event as a defensive action in the final third that occurs within seven seconds after losing the possession. By this definition, the Red Bulls counter-press 14.4% of the time, 65% more than league average (8.74%). However, its impact on the offense isn't clear:

Above, I measure the impact of the counter-pressing on xG creation. Every game is first divided into 5-minute intervals. I then separate these intervals into groups that contain either no counter-pressing or at least one such event. The ratio of the mean xGs created in counter-pressing and non-counter-pressing groups is plotted on the y-axis.

Surprisingly, although counter-pressing with a league-best effort, the Red Bulls do not create more xG when they attack the lost possession immediately (1.03 xG per 90 minutes when counter-pressing vs. 1.11 xG per 90 minutes when not counter-pressing). However, they do manage to create three more shots per 90 minutes when they counter-press. Therefore, the intense ball-attacking pressure helps them to create more low-quality shots compared to when they stay put.

Why do they even counter-press if it doesn't help the offense? Because the counter-pressing significantly improves New York's defense.

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Again I use the 5-minute interval method to group the possessions and measure how counter-pressing affects the xG a team concedes. When they counter-press, the Red Bulls concede 0.36 fewer xG per 90 minutes than when they don't, the third best defensive improvement in the league by such tactic.

The counter-pressing doesn't directly affect the chances they generate, but keeping up the intense pressure throughout the match may help them to drain out the opponent and possibly contribute to the late-game advantage they have shown this season . Defensively, with Murillo and Lawrence pushing so deep to provide the width in the offensive phase, the Red Bulls need to attack the lost ball immediately to prevent being counter-attacked. Most importantly, the counter-pressing masks one New York's major weakness, which is sitting back to defend in a zone.

The Red Bulls' weakness in the defensive phase

Although conceding the league’s lowest 33 goals, Red Bulls' opponents create about 1.25 xG per game, only the fifth lowest in the league. Luis Robles' goal-keeping contributes greatly to their league's second-best 0.78 goals/xG conceded per game.

Since the Red Bulls' defensive scheme develops around their relentless high-pressing, they use several different pressing triggers, depending on how much pressure they want to apply and how high of a confrontational line they want to maintain.

New York mainly uses two types of presses when the opponent builds up from the back. Against teams like Atlanta with excellent ball playing skill, the Red Bulls deploy their most intense pressing scheme, pressuring every player besides the keeper. The aim is to block every immediate ball receiver and force the opponent to either go wide/back to the keeper - which allows them to create even more pressure - or hoof a long ball forward. The Red Bulls are dominant in the air, winning more than 20% of the aerial duels, 42 % higher than the league’s median. They get a great chance to win back the ball if the opponent goes long.

When the Red Bulls want to take a less risky route, they will allow the opponent's center back to control the ball, especially the one with less ability on the ball. They only start pressuring the ball handler when the ball reaches the fullback on the flank, where the presser has less space to cover or the opponent's central midfielder. They aim to stop the midfielder from turning and linking up with his teammates and force him to play the ball backward.

Pressing means jamming multiple players in to one small area. When the opponent makes a long ball or a switch pass, he can defuse the pressure and open up space for his teammates to attack the Red Bulls:

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These plots analyze the relationship between a team's defensive pressure and its susceptibility to a switch of play (defined here as any pass that spans at least 40% of the width). It shows that the more defensive pressure one team applies, the more susceptible one team is to a switch of play. Because the Red Bulls play the league's most intense pressing, they also suffer the most from this type of play. They concede three times more xG or 65% more shots from it than when they defend the possession that doesn't switch.

Spatially, the Red Bulls are most vulnerable in the areas outside of the box. The opponent's zonal xGC map shows that these vulnerable zones are like isolated islands not connected from preceding zones. We can deduce the underlying reason for such pattern with the opponent's zonal touch map:

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New York's high pressing pressure forces the opponent to control the ball only in its own half. Therefore, for the opponent to be able to access the zones outside of the Red Bulls' penalty box, it must use a lot of long balls or counter-attacks to bypass the Red Bulls' high confrontation line. The Red Bulls look equally susceptible to the opponents on both flanks. However, the zonal shot map shows a different picture.

The opponent creates a lot more shots from New York's left side. From the opponent's zonal touch map we know that the opponent doesn't have a lot more access to New York's left side than the right. The defensive pressure map also shows that the Red Bulls maintain similar pressure on both flanks:

Therefore, the increased opponent's shots' production on the left flank must come from a specific weakness in the Red Bull's defense.

The Red Bulls aren't good at defending in a zone. Their pressing masks this problem. When that pressure cedes or fails, the opponent's defender can find his attacking teammate between the lines. The ball receiver can then turn and directly attack the Red Bulls' midfield or defense.  New York's players are eager to approach the ball handler. That eagerness muddles the marking duty exchange, and when paired with their strong man-orientated marking, gaps open up in the defense. When the opponent attacks the flank, New York's extreme man-marking means that one of the center backs often moves out of the box to chases the opponent's attacker.

Doing so leaves another center back against the opponent's striker without a cover in the penalty box, making those scenarios particularly dangerous when the opponent's midfielders overlap into the box. The defense on the left flank worsens because Lawrence is sometimes caught napping.

Pressing is not only the Red Bulls' weapon but also their lifeline. If they don't press, their weakness is often exposed.

What pace should the Red Bulls play?

Here I look at how New York's defense and offense fare against their playoffs' potential opponents in the eastern conference when the game develops in different paces. I separate the possessions into different pace groups based on the number of touches per possession (more touches mean slower pace and vice versa) and measure xG created and conceded per group for every playoff opponent in the eastern conference:

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This plot shows the normalized xG the Red Bulls concede per possession (blue dotted line) against the normalized xG the other playoffs teams create (solid line). Defensively, the Red Bulls pair up quite well against most teams except for Columbus because these teams have the best offensive performance in the pace that the Red Bull's defense is the strongest; for example, while Atlanta creates the most xG when they play extremely fast and slow, New York also defends resolutely at these tempos. Moreover, when New York is the most vulnerable at a pace of a little fewer than ten touches, most other team's offensive output suffers except for Columbus.

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Offensively, New York attacks the best when it plays at a medium pace with about ten touches per possession in which most of its opponents are the most vulnerable except for Columbus.

The Red Bulls need to play at two speeds in different phases. They need to force the opponent to play extremely fast when they defend while they must attack at a medium pace without being slowed down too much. Columbus is the team they want to avoid.

The MLS Cup playoffs start in one week. What you see now is what you have to work with in the postseason. There isn't any time to make dramatic changes. For the Red Bulls, they will rely upon their signature pressing to take them to the biggest prize.