The Case For The 2016 New York Red Bulls To Play A 4-2-2-2, & Why Gonzalo Veron (and Anatole Abang) Might Be The Key

Ralf Rangnick

That’s a name that should be familiar by now to most fans of the New York Red Bulls. Rangnick is the sporting director for RB Lepzig and Red Bull Salzburg as of 2012. In 2015 he was also named the head coach of Lepzig. But Rangnick has a history in German football going back to when he took over the Ulm 1846 youth side in the early 1980s. Rangnick is largely responsible for the early development of the high tiempo high press in the Bundesliga, inspired by teams from outside Germany, that Jurgen Klopp’s smile and press conferences would later make fashionable on a wider scale with his pressing system at Dortmund. (highly recommend you read Das Reboot by Raphael Honigstein for more on this)

There are many aspects of Rangnick’s successful high tempo strategies that Red Bull New York are only just beginning to incorporate. One of the aspects that has not translated yet to this side of the Atlantic is the 4-2-2-2 formation that Red Bull Lepzig and Roger Schmidt’s Red Bull Salzburg utilize, under Ralf’s direction as sporting director.

Jessie Marsch and New York are pretty firmly dedicated to the 4-2-3-1 that they’ve used almost exclusively since the middle of the 2014 season when then coach Mike Petke paired Eric Alexander with Dax McCarty in the center of midfield to stop the team bleeding goals and dropping points. That stability pushed them on to the Eastern Conference finals verses New England. When Marsch took over for the 2015 season he maintained that formation despite the departure of Alexander, bringing in Felipe and Sacha Kljestan to build one of the best central midfields in all of MLS.

If this midfield trio was so successful why blow it up? There’s a few reasons I think the 4-2-3-1 may not be the most effective formation for the Red Bulls in the coming year, but more so it’s about the fact that I like the 4-2-2-2 more for the personnel and tactics that the squad has at the moment.

(Tactical set up of a possible 4-2-2-2 & the game flow of the same)

First, and probably least influential, there really isn’t anyone else in MLS using the 4-2-2-2. At the beginning of 2015 the Red Bulls managed to surprise a lot of teams with their new style because there weren’t a lot of other teams in the league pulling the high press off the way they were. It meant that teams had to prepare specifically for that whenever they were to face New York. Those extra preparations stretch a team and make them try to learn to do things that maybe they aren’t able to get fully comfortable with in a week’s time. But now teams have seen the press for a season. Marsch and the Red Bulls will have to continue to evolve if they want to continue to succeed at the same level. The 4-2-3-1, even though Coach Marsch and his staff have created a nuanced and adapted version, is in vogue across the world’s leagues. Teams just see it more often.

The 4-2-3-1 relies on a congested midfield to win the ball back in central areas high up the field, or drive play wide, where wingers can cover their fullbacks to achieve the same aim. The 4-2-2-2 allows the team to continue the same style, thus keeping the same basic tactical idea as the 2015 team, but instead leans the whole formation to press the ball. The 4-2-2-2 is ideal for not only the high press, but the counter press (winning the ball back immediately after losing it) by keeping the formation tight around the play area.   The team has license to spread when necessary, essentially morphing into a variation of the 4-2-3-1 with one of the strikers dropping off the highest line, but the basic idea is numbers together to play with the ball, and numbers together to kill space and lanes when the team is without the ball.   The 4-2-3-1 with its dedicated wingers is by definition a more spread formation.

In reality, there are only three true wing players on the Red Bull roster: Lloyd Sam, Shawn Wright-Phillips and Gonzalo Veron. SWP is not a 90 minute starter any more, at least not in MLS, and is more effective as an impact sub anyway. He is on the wrong side of 30 and not someone you want to be building a high tempo squad full of young players on. Lloyd Sam is a player that I am a huge fan of, and can be one of the truly dangerous players on the Red Bull roster. But he is also on the wrong side of 30, and spent much of the 2015 season cutting inside to effect the game centrally. And he had diminishing returns as the season wore on. The injury in the Open Cup derailed his season, and if he stays through the offseason he may find himself in a position where he’s no longer getting 30+ games as a starter. That leaves Veron, who I’m convinced we haven’t seen the best of.

The squad has Mike Grella who played left wing all year, but he’s a converted forward. He struggled to adequately cover his fullback throughout the season. He’s a hard working player, but there might be smarter ways to use him. There’s also Sal Zizzo, but his lack of pace, or even a change of pace after his injury, saw him struggle until he switched to right back later in the year. Even Bradley Wright-Phillips played on the wing for the team this past season. Clearly the wings, especially on the left side, are not an area that have depth and strength in the current Red Bull squad composition.

Now we come to the issue of Sacha Kljestan, and here in I think lays the key reason why Gonzalo Veron might be the man to make this formation possible for the Red Bulls. Kljestan’s role as an unconventional playmaker in the #10 spot was great, but he has one major drawback: a real lack of pace. We saw Kljestan get the ball in dangerous space with a chance to counter numerous times this season. But if he didn’t have a player with speed reading the play with him he was often forced to hold up or risk being caught from behind because he simply didn’t have the speed to run the break himself. Veron, who has a high technical ability and passing ability and therefore is capable of being a part of the attacking midfield area, would be able to link with Kljestan in that area of the field and supply speed on the break. Kljestan and Veron together would make a formidable attacking midfield pair. Veron was bought with the future in mind. Although he was played in 2015 in some big moments he never got the game time to fully integrate into the squad before he was asked to step up in pressure playoff situations. With a preseason under his belt and the chance to be part of the group from the start of a season I think he’s going to be a big factor in whether or not Red Bull continue to rise through 2016.

In the forward areas you have the options of BWP, Grella, and Anatole Abang. Abang is just 19, but I think he makes a better foil to Bradley Wright-Phillips than Mike Grella, especially since he has qualities that make the 4-2-2-2 an attractive option for the tactical tendencies the Red Bulls have.

BWP spent a lot of 2015 adding more facets to his game. As a result we saw him drop into the playmaking hole a lot especially early in the season (which often caused Kljestan to peel out to the left where he was rather successful at times). He managed to pick up seven assists, the most of his time in MLS. With BWP capable of dropping more that allows for the two attacking midfielders to cover both the middle and the wide areas, and to not have to give up the high middle of the field in doing so. This past season Bradley dropping off meant that the forward space was left for Kljestan or a winger to run into. The better option might be to have Abang be the one responsible for hold up, knock down and link play, something he showed he was capable of on several occasions considering he created the go ahead goal verses NYCFC at Yankee Stadium that way and that he changed the home playoff game against Columbus in just a few minutes with his physicality. Those are just a couple of examples, and they don’t include his general play. At 19 he has a way to go and a lot to learn, but we stuck with Miazga at 19 and look how that turned out for us. By adding another forward, especially one with Abang’s hold up play, you can maximize BWP’s playmaking ability AND his ability to be in front of goal in key moments to provide a crucial finish, which is his true strength.

Also, more than once the Red Bulls reverted to crossing the ball into the box when they were seeking a crunch goal. They were pretty much handed those chances against Columbus due to the numbers being kept inside the 18. But Bradley as the lone forward isn’t the strongest in the air. He has been known to score with his head, but it’s from his movement not from general ability to get on the end of a cross. In fact, by my count, of the 62 goals from the regular season, only eight of them were headers. BWP had two, one of which was a wide open flick from a Connor Lade cross against Columbus. Damian Perrinelle had the same number of headed goals as Bradley, and even used his head to create a knockdown for Bradley to finish verses Philly later in the season. If you count the playoff series verses DC, Dax McCarty also had the same number of headed goals as BWP, and I’m not sure I believe the Red Bulls’ website that lists McCarty as an inch taller than Wright-Phillips. Abang, being the taller and more physical of the forward options, might provide a better target for those moments and allow the team to use the cross as a more effective part of their attack rather than a last resort to a lone forward who is not playing to his strengths in those moments.

Will the Red Bulls move to a 4-2-2-2 in 2016 as part of the move to come more in line with the European contingent of Red Bulls teams? No, I don’t think they will. Marsch had various aspects of Rangnick and Schmidt’s favored formation working within the 4-2-3-1 already. Kljestan’s role, Sam’s instruction to cut in, Bradley’s dropping off the line, the high tempo/high press system…all of these things are tactics that the team used in the formation they held over and adapted from the previous season. If I had to guess I would say that they will continue to grow in the way they approach the 4-2-3-1 and diversify the number of in-game adaptations they have at their disposal from that same basic set up. But I thought I’d have my two-cents, for what it’s worth.

Probably less than two cents.

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