Red Bulls Chalk: Kaku and Tactical Eloquence

Photo by Bill Twomey

(Commentary) – The New York Red Bulls have had a busy start to 2018. With a ton of new faces, there has been a visible rise in tactical eloquence in the game plans the Red Bulls technical staff has employed. Not only that, New York has begun to reap the bounty that comes from Kaku’s exceptional vision of the field.

Here’s a look at the story so far.

The Observable Kaku

On Saturday night, to rotate his roster in preparation for the return leg of their Champions League Quarterfinal matchup vs. Club Tijuana, New York Red Bulls tapped Alejandro Romero “Kaku” Gammara to start on the left side of a front four that featured no regulars. The result was a stellar performance as Kaku, and the Red Bulls dominated the Portland Timbers in New York’s home opener.

Signed in the offseason, Kaku arrived in New York with tons of expectation. New York reportedly paid Club Huracan $6-$7 million for the young, dynamic Argentine. His arrival was rumored for months while the clubs worked out the details. Arguably, Gammara is the most anticipated signing the Red Bulls have had since Jesse Marsch took over the reins in 2015. His Major League Soccer debut did not disappoint.

When defender Fidel Escobar made his forward pass to Derrick Etienne Jr., Kaku went off to the races along the left side. His instinct was to move forward into space as if he saw the eventual result of the play before his teammates did. After Carlos Rivas and Etienne Jr. exchanged their naughty little give-and-go Etienne Jr. dished the ball to Kaku, who had nothing but beautiful green pitch in front of him. Kaku switched the field, putting the ball directly into the stride of 17-year-old Ben Mines. Mines made good on his part of that bargain and earned his first ever MLS goal.

There might not be another goal scored over Marsch’s tenure that embodies the philosophy of this club more. And while the goal was the result of a team effort, it was Kaku’s vision and anticipation of the play unfolding in front of him that made the goal happen. While there’s still room for his game to improve, the foundation is there. Additionally, the potential is sky high. Coach Marsch recognizes that. “We’re only three weeks into our time with him, and we know that it’s only going to get bigger and bigger and better and better. So the excitement of his ease of slowing plays down, of seeing final plays, of setting the next attacker up, is very, very good, and we feel like that will fit really well with what we do,” said Marsch “The whole play on the first goal was fantastic, but his pass was spot on.”

Because of plays like this, Kaku has the potential to become a player with a gravitational pull. New York has not had a player with that kind of vision and gravity since Thierry Henry left the club at the end of the 2014 season. Kaku’s soccer IQ is demonstrably high, and his play will only get better as he acclimates to the way New York plays. The more comfortable he becomes with the players around him, the more chances he will create. The players to benefit most are likely to be Daniel Royer and Bradley Wright-Phillips. Both attackers ten to draw a crowd, and with Kaku ramping up, Royer and BWP will find space and time with which they can give opposition fits.

Tactical Eloquence and Flexibility

Across the first four matches of New York’s young 2018 season, the Red Bulls have employed at least three different tactical methods.

In the first leg of their CONCACAF Champions League Matchup vs. Club Tijuana, Marsch prepared his troops for a couple of different options. What resulted was controlled chaos. New York disrupted Xolos at every turn. The outcome was an unlikely 2-0 road win in Mexico – a feat that only two other MLS clubs have achieved.

New York, who usually plays out of the back, utilizing short to medium passes in the defensive half of the field, relied heavily on long balls over the top. Marsch trusted that his front four would find their chances, as any capable attacker will. While striker Bradley Wright-Phillips netted a brace, Aaron Long, Tim Parker, Kemar Lawrence, and Michael Murillo cleaned up every errant ball they could. Luis Robles took care of the rest. This kind of play was in stark contrast to the tactics deployed in the home leg vs. CD Olimpia. That match, another 2-0 victory, featured a gameplan that New York typically uses.

On Saturday, the Red Bulls deployed more of a hybrid gameplan. Marsch sensed weakness on the left side of the field. Defenders Connor Lade and Fidel Escobar looked to regularly exploit that with extended distance forward passes while taking a different approach on the right side. Defender Kyle Duncan’s debut cannot be understated here. When Aurelien Collin was caught upfield on some occasions, Duncan was there to prevent disaster. Saturday’s match also featured another tactical wrinkle. With midfielder Sean Davis suspended in Champions League for yellow card accumulation, Marsch tapped Davis to start on Saturday. While the Red Bulls kept a typical high line, Davis played the role of a deep-lying midfielder. With the wing-backs forward, Davis tracked back almost as a third centerback, settling between Escobar and Collin regularly in the first half.

Looking at these nuances, it’s plain to see that each player on the roster is familiar with their roles in several different looks. The system we know as the high press has now become something less rigid. Many clubs in MLS don’t have that kind of eloquence, the ones that do tend to be very successful. Its obvious Marsch has the buy-in of his troops. The question now becomes can they reap the benefits of this kind of flexibility.