UPPER MONTCLAIR, N.J. – If possession is nine-tenths of the law, then for the Red Bulls and head coach Hans Backe, the relevant legalese is Murphy’s Law.
A lot of possession for New York over the last two games, enough goal scoring chances to win their last two matches, and just one point from those results. The Red Bulls are holding the ball, but things aren’t going right for a team that seems static and uninspiring offensively.
Last Saturday night at PPL Park against I-95 rivals Philadelphia, New York had nearly 65 percent of possession. The Red Bulls would frequently put together double-digit passing strings, switching the field constantly and making Philadelphia chase down the ball.
[inline_node:332419]It was cat-and-mouse stuff, but the RBNY had only two clear-cut scoring chances – both times Juan Agudelo hit the woodwork – and New York’s decided edge in time on the ball produced naught but a 1-0 loss.
Two Saturdays ago, according to internal stats, the Red Bulls had a staggering 73 percent possession in the second half against Houston. However, they producted but just one goal. When asked by MLSsoccer.com if all the possession was counterproductive, Backe said he doesn’t think it’s affecting the team’s ability to score.
“They way we’re playing out of the back four into the midfield is really rather good, fluid,” Backe said. “We’re forcing them to sit back. I don’t think most teams want to sit back that way, but we’re forcing other teams to really play defense as we dictate the play.”
New York are dictating play, yes, but with two goals to show for it, some fans are grumbling that the style is to blame for the poor output.
In what seems to have become somewhat of an obsession for the club, Saturday nights have turned into a giant game of “keep-away” for New York. The Red Bulls knock the ball around but, like in a training session drill of one-touch, no goals are scored.
The irony of all this pleasing style of play is that New York’s two best chances of the Philadelphia match came off the counterattack, when direct play produced goal-scoring opportunities.
In fact, New York’s only two goals of the season came about not by sustained possession but through quick counterattacks. Agudelo’s winner against Seattle in the season-opener came via a long ball from Teemu Tainio, and then New York’s lone goal against Houston came off a midfield feed from Dwayne De Rosario to Dane Richards. Both plays turned from deep in the midfield to the other team’s box in mere seconds.
“I think we weren’t urgent enough on Saturday,” Agudelo said. “When we slowed things down, they were able to get their guys back and on top of the 18. When that happens, we’re not able to use Dane Richards’ speed, my speed at all. We need to play with more urgency.”
The Red Bulls have lacked the final decisive pass in the attacking third and their forwards, in particular Thierry Henry, seem to be struggling to find space or read when a ball will be threaded to them. The shouts of “Olé” don’t register on the scoreboard.
“It doesn’t matter how much you dominate or have the ball if you’re not turning it into goal,” said Tainio, who played with the Dutch giants before joining New York. “Ajax’s style was similar, we really liked to keep the ball. Maybe we need to be a little more direct. Barcelona plays a style when they hold onto the ball, but they play some straight, direct balls as well and it’s quite effective.”
While the season is young, it is fast approaching critical mass for the Red Bulls. Having won just once in four games, New York need to show some signs of life. Style points won’t get this team to lift the Supporters' Shield, and Backe seems to understand that a bit more daring and a little less “keep-away” might get the job done.
“Sometimes, we can try to be more direct, hurt their back four more,” Backe said. “We’re playing the way we want to, the chances will come.”
Kristian R. Dyer can be followed at twitter.com/KristianRDyer