NEW YORK — When Hans Backe arrived in New Jersey this past winter, the first decision he made was a simple one: His Red Bulls wouldn’t be fancy.
Backe smartly chose to buck the trend of previous New York managers, who seemed to switch tactics, formations, and personnel as often as they switched the lights on and off at Giants Stadium. He picked a formation—a 4-4-2 with a flat-4 midfield—and tactics and personnel, and roughly stuck with it every week.
The idea: simplify and prosper.
But now that Mexican captain Rafael Márquez is coming to town, things are going to change.
Backe has already said the Red Bulls, with Rafa pulling the strings, are switching to a diamond-4 midfield. Marquez will be at the base of the diamond in much the same position he plays for El Tri: a de facto sweeper who not only acts as the main shield of the central defense, but also controls the geometry and pace of the game.
It should work. It has for Mexico, Monaco and Barcelona already.
And as we saw last weekend in Houston, center backs Carlos Mendes and Tim Ream are crying out for a bit of cover in front of them. The gap between the Red Bulls’ central midfielders and the central defense has been there all year and opponents happily took advantage again and again, save for a brief run when Seth Stammler was used as a pure d-mid.
Márquez's arrival and the change of formation means Mendes and Ream will get the protection they need on a permanent basis.
But this isn't just a defensive move. Márquez also brings an assurance with the ball and a knack for starting the offense from a deep-lying position that the team hasn’t had since Mark Lisi was healthy a half decade ago.
That’s the other main benefit of the tactical switch. Márquez’s ability to strike a long-ball will spread the field and speed the transition from defense to attack. And with the forward combination of Juan Pablo Ángel and Thierry Henry—not the speedster he once was, but still plenty fast enough—capable of finding gaps to exploit that will put the fear of God into just about any MLS defense.
Adding Marquez, however, is just the beginning of the equation. The difficult part is going to be finding someone to play at the point of the diamond, a “true #10” or “CAM” as it’s known in video game parlance. It’s not an easy job, which is why the spot is more popular on XBox Live than it is in reality. Chelsea found that out early last year when they tried Frank Lampard in the role, and he came up short. MLS teams have had similar bad luck with the formation, with one exception: MLS Cup champions Real Salt Lake.
Unfortunately for Backe, the Red Bulls don’t have the likes of Javier Morales on the roster. Joel Lindpere is solid and workmanlike, but isn’t great in traffic and really only creates when he’s drifted to the left wing. Mac Kandji has the technical skills (and the jersey number) to be a #10, but he too often fails to produce in crunch time. Sinisa Ubiparipovic has the footwork and passing eye to play the spot, but Backe prefers to put him on the flanks.
That leaves rookie Tony Tchani, who’s looked good in spurts, or perhaps yet another foreign signing. The team recently had 20-year-old Brazilian Marcos Paullo in for a trial—he actually got a few minutes in the Barclays New York Challenge as well—and they’re rumored to be in talks with Geovanni, late of Hull City and, like Márquez and Henry, a onetime Barcelona player.
Whether the Red Bulls end up with one of those guys or go in a different direction remains to be seen, but it’s clear that with the signing of Márquez, Backe has decided it’s time to install a little “fancy” back into the side.