In their 1-0 win over the Montreal Impact, the New York Red Bulls had to deal with a full bunker for the first time in over a month. The Impact stuck as many as 11 players behind the ball and relied on long balls and counter attacks in an attempt to neutralize the high press.
However, the Red Bulls were prepared to face a tight defense, as they have many times this season.
"We thought they were going to make a strong emphasis on being very compact and sitting deep and going on the counter," Jesse Marsch said in his post-match press conference. "We didn't manage certain moments in the first half, but I thought the second half was pretty much totally under control."
It was a typical bunker-and-counter match. The Red Bulls held a 61 percent to 39 percent edge in possession, but struggled to break into the final third, eventually relying on crosses. Sacha Kljestan, one of the MLS' better attacking midfielders, couldn't find space in between the midfield and back line. Unable to link up with Bradley Wright-Phillips, he pushed out to the right wing and combined with Daniel Royer and Chris Duvall.
"I think it was a difficult first half because they tried to close down every space as well as they could," Royer said after the match. "We knew the key was patience, but we still put on our pressure and that was important."
Royer scored the match's lone goal in the 60th minute, redirecting a cross from Duvall. After his finish, Montreal abandoned its strategy and the match opened up.
While the Red Bulls were able to secure a victory, it's hard to deny the bunker was effective. Despite it being a successful strategy, opposing teams have generally moved away from compressed defenses. Montreal created several opportunities with long balls, but was undone by poor finishing (particularly from the normally clinical Ignacio Piatti). On a better day, the Impact would have left Red Bull Arena with three points.
It won't be a surprise if opposing teams return to bunkering against the Red Bulls for the rest of the season. While some managers might not want to deviate from their normal strategies, it's the only one that's been proven to slow down (although not entirely stop) a high-pressing squad.