Analyzing Red Bulls' decision to hold off on the press against Atlanta in Leg 1 of the Conference Championship

I just spent 30 minutes in a group chat with Matt Doyle, Ben Baer, Andrew Wiebe, and David Gass this morning fighting over the Red Bulls’ tactical approach on Sunday. It was a fun conversation, so I want to expand on my thoughts in a column.

The exchange went a lot like this…


Me: Logic!

Let’s look at how a manager would have played the game out in his head beforehand.

Envision Atlanta center back Michael Parkhurst with the ball at his feet 25 yards from his own goal.

Move 1: Red Bulls step to pressure the ball. Bradley Wright-Phillips splits the center backs, Kaku steps to the ball, Daniel Royer/Alex Muyl/Tyler Adams step forward to the closest opponent. Aaron Long and Tim Parker remain at midfield 1v1 with the opposing strikers.  It’s the trademark defensive action in MLS.

Move 2: In response, Michael Parkhurst kicks the ball 70 yards in behind Red Bulls center back Aaron Long.

Atlanta was never going to try to build from the back on Sunday. Between the beating they took doing so on September 30th at Red Bull Arena (2-0 Red Bulls) and the get-this-out-of-our-half approach they used against NYCFC in the Conference Semis, it was clear that Atlanta wasn’t going to pass their way forward.

The odds of Red Bulls using the press to force turnovers in the final third were near zero entering the game.

But don’t other teams try to bypass Red Bulls’ press as well? Yes, but Sunday’s game created particular problems.

First, Atlanta didn’t just want to bypass the initial wave of the press, they wanted to bypass Red Bulls altogether. Most teams try to play a controlled long ball into a forward or into a forward’s path, with the ball landing somewhere in the middle third. Atlanta wanted to launch the ball deep into Red Bulls half. This would have made the game a contest of individual duels, 1st and 2nd balls, 30 yards from Red Bulls goal. More so, it would have made it a contest of individual duels against Miguel Almiron, Josef Martinez, Julian Gressel, Eric Remedi, and Darlington Nagbe.

I suspect Red Bulls would take those duels in midfield, as they usually get, but aren’t as easy to stomach in your defensive third.

Instead of pressing, extending themselves, and making the game about those types of interactions, Red Bulls decided to drop off. They drew their line of confrontation near midfield and waited for Atlanta to come to them.

In doing so, Red Bulls accomplished two goals.

One, they avoided the previously mentioned 50/50 balls near their own goal. Instead of individual duels in open field, the area would now be more crowded, giving less advantage to Atlanta’s star attackers.

Two, they coaxed Atlanta out of their own end.

Let’s finish playing out the “pressing” game scenario. Red Bulls press, Atlanta plays long, but what happens even if Red Bulls win the 2nd ball. How do they score? They would have to travel 70 yards and break down 10 Atlanta players. Can Red Bulls do that? NYCFC certainly couldn’t. Entering the game, the big question for Red Bulls was whether they could improve what they failed to do against Chivas, Montreal, and Columbus (in two of the three matchups this year…) break down a deep defense.

In sitting and waiting for Atlanta, they were inviting Atlanta to spread themselves out, so that when Red Bulls won the ball, they wouldn’t have to break down a set defense. Boom, second problem solved. The idea of sitting rather than pressing conceptually solved both the defensive and attacking worries for Red Bulls. (Some have suggested that Red Bulls manager Chris Armas played more conservatively due to the absence of star outside back Kemar Lawrence, but I would guess that Red Bulls were going to defend deeper regardless. Missing Lawrence made the decision easier, but it was still the logical choice with Lawrence in the lineup.)

When you break down the logic, Armas’ decision not to press made sense.

But it didn’t work out, so what went wrong?

  1. To sit deep and counter takes certain skills from players. The most basic would be pace, but also just a general feel for counter attacking. Red Bulls had neither speed in attack nor counter-attacking specialists. So when they won the ball, and they did win the ball in decent spots for counters a few times, they failed to capitalized. They either didn’t attack the open channels or didn’t have numbers in the box.

  2. They didn’t get set pieces in the attacking end. Red Bulls goals usually come from one of three avenues: high pressing, quick transitions, or set pieces. ATL certainly weren’t going to give them chances to win the ball high enough to create easy chances; ATL weren’t going to give them opportunities to win loose balls near midfield to trigger quick transitions; so it pretty much came down to set pieces. And this might have been the biggest miscue of Armas’s calculation. If everything else failed, at least the ball would have pinged around Atlanta’s half more. With the ball bouncing around, there would have been opportunities for fouls and set pieces. Red Bulls, as we saw on the disallowed goal, have the advantage on their attacking set pieces.

  3. The players didn’t play with the same intensity out of the middle and deep blocks as they do while pressing. This is one of the things I think coaches remember the least from their playing days: It’s boring and energy sapping to stand and wait. In a middle block with the line of confrontation near midfield, you’re supposed to chill until the opposition crosses your designated invisible line, and then you lay the wrath of 1,000 men on them. But it’s tough to go from “wait” to “kill” in a matter of seconds. Two of Atlanta’s three goals came from beating Red Bulls on loose balls. The whole point of what Red Bulls do is that they win those loose balls. But Red Bulls got bullied by Atlanta all over the field on Sunday and it’s related to the choice to sit in a middle block.

  4. It’s difficult to change muscle memory, even if the change is logical. This is the biggest point about going away from your identity for a big game. It’s tough to learn something new in a short amount of time. The Red Bulls didn’t look as decisive in their play. The Red Bulls have been working on this setup since Armas took over, so it’s not as if the manager tossed it on them at the last second -- this isn’t a Jurgen Klinsmann vs. Mexico scenario. But it’s still not something they’ve perfected, and it’s always a risk to use something you haven’t clearly tested in big moments. I broke down in the postgame show at the 24:00 mark why that mattered in Atlanta’s first goal:

Remember, Armas was playing a phenomenal team on the road. There wasn’t a perfect answer. What puts his players in the better position? The system that doesn’t suit them as well, or the system that’s clearly at a disadvantage given the likely flow of the game?

I’m 90% sure if he had lost this series using the high press, everyone would have called him naive (you’ve already lost in the playoffs four times using that, how could you not have learned!).

This wasn’t about going against their identity or playing defensive. Armas set his team up the way the situation dictated. It didn’t work out for Red Bulls, but Armas’ didn’t make a bad decision. He used sound logic. The two aren’t mutually exclusive. That’s the misery - and the beauty - of this game.