Red Bulls dominate midfield battle in Hudson River Derby demolition

Kaku Florian Valot MLS 05052018Brad Penner

HARRISON, N.J. — Of all the juicy matchups on display heading into New York City FC's visit to the New York Red Bulls on Saturday, none was going to be more important than the clash in central midfield. NYCFC's combination of skill and grit had been key to compiling the league's best record, but Patrick Vieira's engine room had yet to face a midfield as irrepressible as the Red Bulls.

The Red Bulls quartet of Kaku, Tyler Adams, Sean Davis and Florian Valot didn't just win the battle, they squeezed the life out of NYCFC's midfield, carrying out their trademark high press to perfection, eliminating Maxi Moralez, and by extension David Villa, as threats, and setting the tone for an eventual 4-0 beatdown at Red Bull Arena.

The tone was set from the start, and it was Kaku who put NYCFC on its heals after just four minutes. His lung-busting run to race onto a saved Bradley Wright-Phillips shot opened the scoring just 65 seconds into the match. Just three minutes later Kaku won an aerial duel before collecting a pass from Wright-Phillips and delivering a perfect pass to spring Valot on what became the Red Bulls' second goal.

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"The work that Kaku put in and the chances he created in that first 20 minutes was incredible," Adams told Goal. "I don't even think he's at his max fitness yet so I think that he''ll just get better and better."

Kaku's attacking qualities came as no surprise, but his effort and commitment to pressuring NYCFC all over the field made his man of the match performance a truly complete one.

"We knew the first minutes were very important and that's why we started by pressing right away," Kaku told Goal. "That was the key to winning the game. By the 25th minute, we felt it after pressuring so much so we had to drop our line a bit to manage the ball better. We were all pressuring and all running and that's what made the difference.

"It just makes things easier when you see everyone doing the work to run and press," said Kaku, who delivered a perfect cross to Wright-Phillips in the 35th minute to help make the score 3-0. "If I see them running for me, to help me, I'm going to do the same for them."

The Red Bulls could have sat back and been satisfied with that two-goal cushion, but the early goals only served to energize them and boost their commitment to pressing NYCFC and keeping their attack from having any room to operate. It required an extreme physical workload, but the Red Bulls committed to it and didn't let up until around the 25th minute mark, when a Kemar Lawrence injury led to a stoppage in play that provided a much-needed break.

"If you looked at me at that point I was hands on my knees too," Adams said. "The effort we put in for that first 25 minutes it felt like it should have been halftime already."

If Adams felt that way, surely NYCFC must have felt the same after failing to find much room to operate. The Red Bulls successfully neutralized Moralez, the focal point of NYCFC's attack, and a back-up plan failed to materialize for Patrick Vieira's squad.

"We designed a specific tactical pressuring scheme to try to limit [Villa and Moralez]," Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch said. "That being said, you know, with Moralez, he's very nifty and he's very clever at finding little pockets.

"So it was sometimes going to be Tyler around him, but it was also going to require whoever was in the vicinity to be aware of where he was and to close down his space," Marsch continued. "And then I think you saw a tough day for David Villa based on the performances of Tim Parker and Aaron Long. If we can continue to get really good defensive performances and continue to tactically be on top of games, then the potential for this team is good."

Adams was particularly impressive with his ability to cover ground and pressure NYCFC all over the field, but the U.S. national team midfielder was far from alone, with Kaku and Davis also pressuring well and Valot sliding into central midfield in the second half to keep the team's intensity up as Adams shifted to the right wing to limit NYCFC's options after a halftime tactical adjustment.

Tyler Adams Jesse Marsch GFX

"I think we won the battle of the midfield," Marsch said. "I think we picked up more second balls. I think we pressed them better. We picked them off in possession more, and Tyler covered a ton of ground and he made a bunch of plays to break them up to make it hard on Moralez.

"Even when he didn't take the ball from Moralez, he made him alter everything he did and often play backwards," Marsch said. "The more that you can now put him in situations where he's got to find ways to wiggle out of and not be in open space, then it's obviously much more difficult for him."

The work of the Red Bulls midfield didn't go unnoticed by NYCFC coach Patrick Vieira, who acknowledged that his team was outplayed in the middle of the park on the day.

"When you look at their midfield three, and you look at our midfield three, I think we are as good as they are," Vieira said. "If you ask me if I would swap one of their players for one of our players, the answer is no, but today we didn't turn up and for me that is the frustration."

While you could understand why Vieira wouldn't trade his central midfield trio of Moralez, Ring and Yangel Herrera, it's a safe bet Marsch wouldn't trade any of his central midfielders either, especially not after the way they completely dominated the Hudson River Derby.

"Tyler, I thought, a really good day. Sean Davis, really good day. Kaku, obviously, very good day, and [Valot], very good day, too," Marsch said. "We like our midfield. We like our ability to run. We like our ability to think,  to understand the tactics. So yeah, it's a good group."