The Red Bulls have spent at least part of the past two seasons playing a 4-2-2-2, a formation not often seen worldwide and one that is most notably practiced by their sister club, RB Leipzig of the German Bundesliga. It's brought them more than the expected amount of success.
It's brought the New York version of Red Bull nothing but pain, and each time he's tried it, head coach Jesse Marsch has eventually had to flip out of it into another formation – either a 4-2-3-1 or last year's ingenious 3-3-3-1. Regardless, the end result was always the same: RBNY pressed high, they pressed hard, and they pressed often. That means they got a ton of the ball in the final third, and by virtue of that...
...they played the shortest passes in the league.
The idea behind this isn't that they necessarily value short passes more than long balls. It's not about the length of the pass, as this team has shown a propensity for playing long out of the back on the regular.
Rather, it's about where on the field you win the ball. Changes in possession are the most dangerous moments in this sport of ours, and the implicit understanding for high pressing teams is that "the closer to goal you win the ball, the better chance you have of creating a chance."
In other words, the press is the best playmaker. And according to a lot of fans, the playmaker was the problem with the 4-2-2-2 for RBNY.
Sacha Kljestan had a remarkable three years in Harrison, but the theory – one I don't think I buy – is that he could only be effective when the formation highlighted his strengths (passing vision and touch) while hiding his weaknesses (field coverage and ball security). Everybody in the 4-2-2-2 has to cover a huge amount of ground, while in the 4-2-3-1 or 3-3-3-1 the central playmaker is pretty well protected defensively.
As I said, I'm not sure I buy it, and I'm definitely not sure I'd have traded Kljestan had I been in Marsch's shoes. He led the league in chances created and assists each of the last two years, and the team completely cratered, attack-wise, when he wasn't on the field. If the argument is "they had to build a formation to hide his weakness," the other side of that is "the only way they were competitive was when they played a formation that emphasized his strengths." There was simply no replacing him, or replicating what he brought to the table no matter what formation New York played.
Now, though, they have to replace him, and if nothing else I appreciate the front office's chutzpah for putting themselves in this situation. Kaku (if he ever arrives) should be a good chance creator, but "should be" is damn far from "will be." And the overall point isn't that it's Kaku for Kljestan. The better way to think about it is "Kaku + the 4-2-2-2 for Kljestan."
They've cut the cord and have to stick the landing.