Former Barcelona star should form a resolute partnership with Tim Ream and help the Red Bulls acquire and retain possession at the back.
It turns out he didn't have to look very far to find the most suitable answer.
After watching Rafael Marquez pair with Ream in an exhibition match against Atlante on Wednesday night, Backe decided the former Barcelona star would operate primarily as a central defender in 2011.
“I said to Erik [Soler, Red Bulls general manager and sporting director, after the match], 'This is his position, there is no doubt,'” Backe said during a conference call with reporters on Friday afternoon. “It seemed also he did a lot of work during our vacation because he's very fit. He looks [like he is] absolutely [sic] a leader in the back four, talking with the guys about the defending shape. He definitely is another player compared to last year.”
Both Marquez and the Red Bulls will hope the latter statement rings true after his somewhat disappointing bow last season. The quasi-fit Mexican international flitted in and out of matches and struggled to stay on the field. Backe's possession-inspired decision to play Marquez as the deepest of deep-lying midfielders – the former Champions League winner frequently dipped into the back line between Ream and the harshly deposed Carlos Mendes to obtain the ball toward the tail end of last season – didn't quite come off as his lack of fitness and mobility trumped his considerable passing range and his keen positional sense.
Marquez's lack of pace probably won't hinder him quite as much with this rather incremental and certainly welcomed shift to the back line. No MLS player boasts a similar pedigree as a center back and Marquez should excel in his natural role. His vast experience allows him to make up for a missing step or two by assuming the appropriate position and stepping in to address the problem proactively. He should also benefit from having the competent Ream – one of the league's most promising defenders – beside him to form the league's most cerebral and technical central defensive pairing.
Ream's occasional missteps in the tackle will likely place much of the onus on Marquez to orient himself correctly and sweep away any pressing concerns. The second-year defender's extra step may help to avert similar concerns if Marquez happens to get sucked into an incorrect spot, though it must be noted that neither player possesses more than average speed. Fortunately for New York, both players rarely need to recover because they assume intelligent positions from the start and eliminate most problems before they develop into perilous situations.
Defending, however, may constitute the less important task for Marquez and Ream within this particular tactical theory. By dropping Marquez into a central defensive role, Backe has asked his side to acquire and consolidate possession at the back and use either of the center backs to play the first pass to start the buildup. With Roy Miller and prospective right back signing Teemu Tainio on either side to offer immediate outlets on the flanks and two central midfielders willing to adjust their positions to provide other options, it appears most of the vital work to start the build up will take place within the back four.
The primary complication with this approach arises when New York moves further forward into the attacking third and squanders possession. Backe will expect fullbacks Miller and Tainio to support the play into the attacking half, while one would expect Marquez to serve as an outlet to facilitate proceedings. If the Red Bulls concede possession with players committed up the field, the opposition will enjoy plenty of room to counter into the exposed space. Although Backe has assembled a back four with plenty of technical skill, it is not a group particularly blessed with the pace required to close down counterattacks. Few MLS teams can conjure up a coherent and incisive counter over 70-80 yards with any degree of regularity, but this weakness creates a point worth noting against capable sides.
The lack of pace at the back will also mandate caution and tidiness in the middle third. New York will likely want to dictate the terms of the match – the Red Bulls should aspire to match FC Dallas and Real Salt Lake in terms of controlling proceedings this year after Backe's more cautious brief last season – given the emphasis on employing Marquez and Ream in possession. The key for the Red Bulls here is to avoid a wasteful pass in the center of the park or any sequence involving a relatively high defensive line. Even with Marquez's exemplary positional sense to help combat the problem, the Red Bulls' center backs will struggle to cope with quick, diagonal runs into the space created once the line pushes out of the defensive third.
Despite the concerns about quick counters and slicing diagonal runs, the Red Bulls' new-look central defensive pairing should avoid and sidestep problems more often than not in those areas and shore up any lingering concerns in the defensive third. Marquez and Ream will likely combine to form one of the top two or three center back pairings in the league – Real Salt Lake's combo of Nat Borchers and Jamison Olave starts as the incumbent duo after last year's stellar showing – and provide a fertile and solid foundation for the Red Bulls' work in possession.
Whether the foundation will crack along the way for some reason remains uncertain, but it appears this simple solution represents the best current option for the Red Bulls as they attempt to consolidate their present standing as the top side in the Eastern Conference.
Kyle McCarthy writes the Monday MLS Breakdown and frequently writes opinion pieces during the week for Goal.com. He also covers the New England Revolution for the Boston Herald and MLSsoccer.com. Contact him with your questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter by clicking here.
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