Talking Tactics: Ballouchy has Backe tinkering

RBNY signing raised eyebrows, especially when Ángel sat on bench

Conspiracy theorists, just keep moving along. Nothing to see here, folks.

There’s been no falling out between Red Bulls striker Juan Pablo Angel and his manager, Hans Backe. Not according to the coach, anyway, who happily offered up plain-language assessments of his surprising decision to start newly arrived Mehdi Ballouchy over the veteran mainstay and team captain in last Thursday’s 2-2 draw in Dallas.

Simply put, the manager said wanted to see what the Red Bulls might look like in a slightly varied set-up.

Since the Red Bulls’ high-profile, midseason arrivals have fortified their lineup, Ángel has lined up as the target striker. Thierry Henry has deployed into the hole behind him, working the central spaces between defenders and midfielders. It worked to perfection last week as the Red Bulls chewed up and spit out Colorado in a 3-1 win that could easily have finished in a wider margin.

Backe wanted to see something a little different, though. He wanted see what the team might look like with Henry as the target and Ballouchy stationed in the hole. So Ángel, the team’s leading scorer and clearly still among the league’s top strikers, started on the bench.

“I still think team that playing a 4-4-2 can be a little bit static if they don’t have the link from midfield up to one or two strikers, and Ballouchy is that kind of player,” Backe said after Thursday's contest.

Was Backe overthinking things? Perhaps. But I wonder if perhaps a couple of other things weren’t at work here.

First, the Red Bulls are well-positioned to make the playoffs. Does anybody seriously believe Toronto, Chicago or Kansas City have the horses to make up the 13- to 15-point gap on the Red Bulls? Yeah, me neither.

That means Backe has some latitude to experiment, with very little jeopardy in doing so. He told us, after all, that his team still isn’t good enough win a championship. Not yet.

So what’s the harm in doing a little tactical toggling, a little look-see?

“I wanted to see Ballouchy as a second striker, a link from midfield up to Henry, and I was very happy with his performance,” Backe said. “He is definitely a player who will lift our game.”

Backe also wants to assess things with Ballouchy playing beneath a pair of strikers (Ángel and Henry, of course). So the guess is that we’ll see that arrangement in a match just down the road.

As Dane Richards is likely to continue working the wide channels, it would require Joel Lindpere to squeeze inside more from the left to provide more defensive cover for Rafa Márquez. (Or for Tony Tchani if Márquez were to line up elsewhere.)

As for Thursday’s set-up, Backe liked what he saw – even if he didn’t get to see it for very long.

“We started very well in the first 15 or 20 minutes and dictated the game,” he said.

WATCH HIGHLIGHTS: Red Bulls, Dallas battle to 2-2 tie

But Brek Shea’s red card forced Dallas to change shape and approach, dramatically altering the look of the match. From there Backe said he was neither happy nor terribly unhappy with his attack.

What else might have been going on? FC Dallas players wondered if perhaps Backe’s surprising tactical tweak was a sign of respect. After all, FCD are sunning themselves on a 15-game unbeaten streak, which is approaching a league record.

Dallas midfielder Dax McCarty noted that the last time these teams met, FCD nearly ran Backe’s bunch out of their own building. The Red Bulls got two late goals and claimed an oddball result, leaving Backe to muse that he had no idea how his team had just won. It wouldn’t come as a shocker if that influenced Backe’s tactics, adding an extra midfielder to match Dallas’ five-man outfit.

READ: Will Ballouchy keep Ángel on the bench?

Ballouchy did occupy higher spots on New York attacks as more of a withdrawn forward than midfielder. But he did indeed retreat quickly into wiser defensive positions alongside Márquez or Tchani once Dallas acquired possession.

He was basically mirroring Dallas’ 4-1-4-1 shape. So getting Ballouchy tucked back into the midfield served to match FCD’s numbers and to get another Red Bull around the home team’s playmaker, David Ferreira.

Backe may not have wanted to say so publicly, but he probably wasn’t going to ask Henry to go chasing Ferreira around the park.