By Paul Gardner
Last year ought to have been the Red Bulls breakout season. A glittering new stadium, a couple of world-class signings in Thierry Henry and Rafa Marquez, a new coach in Hans Backe and, well what more do you want? In fact, given the MLS salary cap regulations, what more can you expect?
Not a lot. That ought to have done the trick, but it didn’t. To see the Bulls go out tamely in the playoffs to the San Jose Earthquakes did not really register as a shock, because the Red Bulls had never, at any time during the regular season, played with the consistency and the style and the swagger that marks a championship team.
Far from it. This was a team that had problems doing the very thing that any championship team -- especially one calling itself a New York team -- must do: score goals. Of the eight teams that qualified for last year’s playoffs, only one had scored fewer goals than the Bulls. San Jose, wouldn’t you know.
This, mind you, despite the presence of two highly paid goalscoring DPs, Juan Pablo Angel and Thierry Henry. A potential partnership that never happened. Something went badly wrong there, with Angel making no secret of wanting to get away.
He has departed, and now we are hearing from Thierry Henry about the what he wants to do for the Bulls, and how they should be playing.
Of course, there’s an immediate difficulty because Henry’s statements have a familiar ring to them. They sound exactly like David Beckham regaling us with tales of his commitment to the MLS and the Galaxy -- and we all know how that turned out. It didn’t help, either, that Henry’s statements came from England, where he had been aping Beckham and training with an English club -- Arsenal. Nor did it exactly cement Henry’s sincerity when he gushingly announced that what he wanted above all else was to return to Arsenal, presumably as a coach, but even as the water boy.
For the moment, Henry will have to make do with the Red Bulls. His main suggestion for the Bulls (and I’d have to assume that it is something more than a suggestion) is that they play an on-the-ground, short-passing game. Which is just fine with me, I’d love to see the Bulls playing like Arsenal.
Then again, to our regret, we’ve heard that before, when Gary Smith was appointed coach at Colorado in 2008 that was his stated aim. The outcome was the primitive Rapids team that now reigns as MLS champion.
But as an aim ... playing like Arsenal is pretty good. One guy who could have helped there was Angel. Hans Backe has replaced him with Luke Rodgers, an English journeyman with absolutely no experience of top division soccer.
If an Arsenal style is going to work, it will need at least one, preferably more, ball-playing, inventive midfielders. The Swedish Backe -- who has a Norwegian assistant coach and a Norwegian Sporting Director -- has brought in a virtually unknown Norwegian midfielder, Jan Gunnar Solli. Of last year’s holdovers, Mehdi Ballouchy has promise, but as he showed last season, very little consistency. Joel Lindpere has consistency, but not much by way of flair.
The team that we’ve seen taking shape in the preseason may or may not be able to play Arsenal-style on-the-ground soccer. Defender Tim Ream seems to have taken the idea to heart, and is now obsessed with “possession”; he talks of “keeping possession for the full 90 minutes, not just 70 minutes.” An interesting concept, that, game-long possession of the ball.
Even if the Bulls do manage some way-out possession stat, with the personnel lining up in preseason games I doubt it will look particularly exciting. But we await the arrival of a DP to replace Angel. Marquez, it seems, has already been moved out of midfield, back to defense to make way for someone.
The rumors tell us we have a choice -- between two French buddies of Henry’s. If it’s Patrick Vieira, then we get a highly technical 34-year-old midfielder, which is good, who is also a highly physical one, which is not so good. Anyone watching Vieira’s recent performances for Manchester City can see how this always-red-card-prone player is now tending to be more physical than technical. If we get Nicolas Anelka we get a 31-year-old stormy petrel who’s a lot less stormy than he used to be, a forward really, but who now plays in some ill-defined forward/midfield role for Chelsea.
Another possibility is that Backe will forego a DP, and pluck another obscure name from the English third division. Just what attraction the lower reaches of English soccer hold for Backe is a mystery.
A few years back, Brazil had the potential to field a wonderful attacking trio of Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Romario. Ro-Ro-Ro they called them. Backe has now produced a sick parody of them, with Carl Robinson, Luke Rodgers and John Rooney ... the all-Brit Ro-Ro-Ro formation.
There’s more to come from England. We have the announcement that the Red Bulls have added “David Lee as performance analyst.” Lee, like Rodgers, comes with nothing but English lower league experience, and not much of that -- one year with 3rd division Exeter City.
The idea of English “performance analysis” being of any use to anything other than an English team is hard to swallow. At least, that’s how I see it. But then I’m not sure what a performance analyst does. I have spoken to several such people, and all have denied that they actually do any analysis -- they just create incredibly detailed computer profiles of everything that the team, and all the individual players, and all the opponents do. So, lots of computer images and plenty of printouts. Whether it ever adds up to anything, who knows. I note that Lee’s year at Exeter ended with the team down the bottom of the standings, escaping relegation by one point.
One wonders where this curious signing originated. Not, I feel sure from Coach Backe, who must regard it, as any head coach would, as an intrusion into his territory. He’ll have to get used to that, because alongside Lee and his evaluations, there will also be Henry insisting that the Bulls keep the ball on the ground and play like Arsenal.