Friday, July 27, 2012

On Tim Cahill and the new-look Red Bulls

Hans Backe has some tactical decisions to make with Cahill in the mixer.
The Red Bulls are stockpiling attacking footballers like a hoarder stashing old peanut butter jars in his bedroom closet. Only these peanut butter jars are pricey foreign DPs with the ability to win games. Except Rafa. Blegch.

In any case, that sound you hear is, once again, the Red Bulls' purse strings being snipped. This time it's Tim Cahill, Everton's attacking forward who was still one of the aerial threats of record in the world's best league by the time he left. We've heard over and over how Cahill wants to "run through brick walls" for the Red Bulls (sounds like a concussion waiting to happen), but it seems as though his role in the midfield will be of the attacking variety. This is how it always was at Everton, and to assume he won't fill that role here is folly. The first order of business with Cahill when any coach is concerned is to drive him into the box as often as possible for poaching opportunities. Few in the world are better at judging the trajectory of inbound crosses.

How does he fit with New York? Where does he fit? And is Seba knashing his teeth and bearing his breast to the heavens in a fit of exasperation as the possibility of playing time inexorably shrinks? What does it all mean, man? Let's let a look at the tape to surmise exactly where the Red Bulls need to employ Cahill with this glut of attacking options suddenly at Hans Backe's disposal.

In order to glean a few truths about how Backe was using his most recent lineup, let's take a glance at New York's 2-0 win over Philly last weekend. The Red Bulls lined up with a diamond midfield with Lade at LM, Lindpere at the point, McCarty sitting deep and, interestingly, Le Toux wide right. Already we've found our hinge point. Le Toux is out of position. With Kenny Cooper (HODOR!) ripping nets like he hates them and Henry being, well, Henry, there is no space for Le Toux up top. Anywhere. Say what you will about Henry's penchant for dropping deep, but starting him in place of a midfielder is a wonton waste. Henry is a forward. Le Toux is a forward playing in the midfield. This is not ideal.

Le Toux's lightly freckled heat map from last weekend is relatively well confined to the right line, but judging by his performance it is obvious this is not because he is a winger but rather because he knows what wingers are supposed to do. Of his 18 possessions, 11 ended with a pass more than 45 degrees inward. When he picked up his eyes, it was obvious he was looking in, as goal-scorers do, and not down the flank, as wingers do. And of his 23 successful passes, 15 were made in what can be considered the middle third of the park if you divide it vertically instead of horizontally. Further, he was tackled and lost possession 17 times, the most of any player on either team. Few players were even in double digits. Le Toux was not engineered to be caught out in possession for long periods of time, which is practically in a winger's job description. And let's not even allow for the possibility of Le Toux swapping places with Cooper should he get the itch to drift inside. Le Toux essentially collapsed the right side of New York's offense.

As the game progressed, the field generally tilted toward Connor Lade, who is developing into a prototypical winger with a tireless work rate and coveted afterburners. This often forced Le Toux to come to the ball for service, which he did often. In this instance, we see Le Toux drifted all the way to the left side for some interplay with Lade. Instead of being confined to the right channel, this is the area from where the lion's share of Le Toux's chances originate: genuine off-ball movement in dangerous places. The screen grab here is instructive: Le Toux is splitting two Philly defenders with green space ahead being served by somebody else. It's not that he's incapable of providing service — far from it, in fact — but this is clearly his best use, and it's not close. It's not a coincidence that his position in this screenie is about where he'd be to begin with if he lined up in Henry's place.

Which brings us to Cahill. Before we get into his place with New York, so we know what we're working with, here's a flattering write-up of the player from the match report after Everton's shocking upset of Man City.

Everton were a team transformed from the moment Cahill replaced Jack Rodwell. Up until that moment Everton had been tentative, safe, respectful – and utterly outplayed by a David Silva-inspired City. Cahill’s introduction changed all that within seconds. He wrestled with Patrick Vieira and won a free-kick in a dangerous position. He messed City around before Arteta’s delivery, shoving and pushing, making sure all City eyes were on their jinx. And that allowed Sylvain Distin the time and space to ghost in and plant a header past the scrambling Joe Hart when the free-kick arrived. But more than that he gave Everton a spikiness, an edge that had been missing. Rather than admire City’s silky approach play they tried to disrupt it. Rather than try to play City at their own game they opted for a more direct approach. And rather than settle for a meritorious point they pushed for a winner. And Leon Osman’s glorious, soaring header gave them it. It was a remarkable transformation and one that had looked unlikely prior to Cahill’s arrival. Everton are at their best when they get about their opponents. Osman and Neville can always be relied upon to get in a visitor’s face, but the introduction of the abrasive Australian proved infectious and everybody embraced the idea.

A pugnacious midfielder with a mean streak and a penchant for timely goals... he's already been made in MLS' image. His introduction as a must-use player in the middle (and Cahill must spend most of his time in the middle) will stretch Backe's man management abilities, because Lindpere, Le Toux and Cahill are all essentially comfortable in the same space, funneling play through the middle. And Le Toux isn't all that comfortable funneling play at all. Considering a 4-1-3-2 is one of the few viable formations for this group — and viable is a relative term in this situation — some tough decisions must be made. In essence, New York will be forced to play somebody out of position. Or, Backe could roll the dice with the enticing option of rolling Le Toux off the bench as a super-sub late in games and as a No. 1 alternate for the oft-injured Henry and Cooper, whose scalding water supply is bound to cool some point soon. Even with Dax hammering his mast into the ground as a deep-lying midfielder, this would appear to be a team ripe for successful counters. A team like Chicago becomes a nightmare match-up.

Popular sentiment on how easy Backe's job just got is notably divided. It's as easy to look at what he has and forget that he has an obligation to make some incongruous pieces fit... and the pressure just got worse. It's okay to be pumped if you're a NYRB fan, and in fact I'd encourage the sentiment. But I'll be mighty interested to see how Backe positions his midfield against Spurs on Tuesday when Cahill becomes available for the first time. It could be a stepping stone to a brand new MLS Cup frontrunner or the beginning of the end for Backe's embattled career in New York. With how volatile this club has been in recent years, would either avenue surprise you?

- Will Parchman


UnitedDemon said...

Hodor, indeed.

Hans Backe is a curious figure. Nobody questioned his coaching when he first arrived and turned New York around, and especially because of Lindpere's leadership. But he seems to be going after the same player over and over again- De Ro included- of slower footed but technically gifted leaders/egos. His squads are therefore just a fast team and a temper tantrum away from unraveling.

Bernardinho said...

Great stuff, Will.