Red Bulls - Analysis, Rumors and the Ro-Ro-Ro farce

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.

12 comments about "Red Bulls - Analysis, Rumors and the Ro-Ro-Ro farce".
  1. Colin Blom, March 7, 2011 at 9:06 a.m.

    anyone else tired of hearing pessimistic, cynical, analysis of our game in America? just enjoy it for what it is and stop being so negative.

  2. Guenther Rieder, March 7, 2011 at 9:36 a.m.

    JPA did not want to leave. He was forced out by Backe. Backe did not want a pure striker. JPA, in order to accomodate Backe, changed his style coming further into midfield thus becoming more of a playmaker than scorer. It's pretty clear Henry came here to party so we'll see how that works out.

  3. Walt Pericciuoli, March 7, 2011 at 9:39 a.m.

    The more things change in NY/NJ, the more they stay the same.

  4. Kent James, March 7, 2011 at 9:40 a.m.

    Boy Paul, the tone of that article is cynical even for you. Of course you make some good points, but isn't the fact that they're at least paying lip-service to playing like Arsenal a step in the right direction? Maybe you should give them a chance...

  5. Bob Escobar, March 7, 2011 at 10:09 a.m.

    I can't wait until the Cosmos start playing, at least we'll see some kind of futbol the world of futbol plays. As for the Red Bulls...RIP in a year from now or a NEW coach will be coming in with a different philosophy (style) and we start all over again...and you know where that will take the Red Bulls....hahahahahaha.
    Of all this, Juan Pablo Angel is the only one that comes out ahead...playing for Bruce Arena is 100% an improvement!

  6. Bob Escobar, March 7, 2011 at 10:17 a.m.

    I know all the Englishmen/Europeans wannabes (as there are many very knowledgeable Europeans not included in this comment) don't like Paul Gardner comments, but he is sincere in his futbol analysis...the world of futbol knows there are only 4-5 English teams in the EPL that can play a good style of futbol and all of them have 80-90% foreigners in their starting lineup. Paul, you do a great job telling-it the like it is, let the wannabes suffer and go one more year (if they make it) of apathy.

  7. beautiful game, March 7, 2011 at 10:20 a.m.

    J.P. looked like he lost the pitch passion last year. As for a third DP, it matters not so much, what matters is how the players gel and if they can put out an effort that is expected of them.

  8. Ted Westervelt, March 7, 2011 at 12:14 p.m.

    I think everyone who is scared of criticism or disgusted by real debate should just stop posting about US club soccer. Perhaps US supporters are deeper than cheerleaders, or our passion is broader than PR firms give us credit for.

  9. Matt Wilson, March 7, 2011 at 12:45 p.m.

    Oh boy where to start... Angel did not want to leave the club, Backe did not want him back for reasons that were obvious to anyone who watched the Red Bulls last year - the guy's legs are getting too old to take on defenders or create chances for himself. And yes Henry struggled to contribute much scoring last year, but you completely overlook his injury struggles and lack of a preseason. As for next season, you undermine players and coaches that you have admittedly never even heard of before, make asinine comparisons to Brazilian players, and scoff at the mere mention of anything involving English players or styles. Have you actually watched the preseason games? Lindpere, Tchani, and Solli have linked up well amongst themselves, the strikers, and defenders, yet all you do is cry for a 3rd DP to make our possession game work. This was a frustrating article to read, such intense skepticism based on seemingly nothing but hunches and biases.

  10. Robert Kiernan, March 8, 2011 at 3:40 a.m.

    Well first, while I'm far from thrilled to see Juan Pablo leave, it is now a fact and the Red Bulls will just have to learn to deal with it... but this isn't the COSMOS, and there is a salary cap that keeps MLS teams from really being able to keep all their best players... I have yet to see these new no name players, and no I don't really expect all that much from any of them... but signing Lindpare last year was a case of an unknown coming here and surpassing expectations and the trade that brought Ballouchy to the Red Bulls was a very good move... face it, it's exactly those lower priced players brought here from Morocco or Estonia rather than the over the hill big names that will make any of these teams actually play and win much of anything and so long as few of the better young players, citizens or not, will be paid enough to stay long term in this league, there is very little that any of these teams can do to build on what success they encounter each year.

    And while I will always be a die hard COSMOS fan until the day I die... just adding a team with that name and the uniform won't change the fact that they won't be able to assemble the type of "Galacticos" that the original team became famous for fielding thirty years ago. That cap is the reason that we will continue to be hemorrhaging our journeymen players to Scandinavian and Mexican teams... it is something MLS doesn't ever like to talk about much, but it's that and the lack of a meaningful reserve developmental league or at least some sort of deal with what is left of the second division of professional soccer... hey come late may early June, besides watching just which players are selected to play in the GOLD CUP... there will also be the yearly culling of players to be replaced by European free transfer players... and that is a major reason why this league is so much less than it should be... hey besides Donovan, even the top Americans fail to be paid anything near what they are worth... so lets see now, just when will DC United lose Dax McCarty to some second or third level European team... my guess is early August!

  11. Joe Shoulders, March 15, 2011 at 11:27 p.m.

    yea I agree again with PG here .... such a great stadium and NJ is such a great soccer-mad state. Hans Backe's idea of soccer player is consistent with most koaches. I'd just as soon have Henry become a player/coach ... but I'm afraid once he becomes a koach and takes a koaching kourse, he too will most likely be the same as the rest. very few coaches out there care about producing watchable soccer. Maybe the Cosmos will get it right.

  12. Joe Shoulders, March 15, 2011 at 11:33 p.m.

    oh yea and to respond to reader comment #1 (Mr Colin Blom) - I look forward to every PG column .. I do not find it at all "...pessimistic, cynical, analysis of our game in America" as you say. In fact, it's refreshing to have someone watching out for our sport. Soccer is too great a game to accept this weak product that Hans Backe calls soccer.

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