The New York Red Bulls faithful have been downcast lately, and understandably so. The club that won the Supporters’ Shield in 2018 slipped 11 places down the overall MLS standings last season and have been drifting along in mid-table mediocrity this year, which led to Chris Armas’ dismissal a month ago.
Well, chin up, RBNYers! Tuesday is your day.
The Red Bulls completed a fairly audacious swoop for Gerhard Struber on Tuesday morning, naming the Austrian their new head coach in a fashion that tells us several important things. Here are the facts as we generally perceive them at this moment:
- Taurine courses through Struber’s veins, so to speak. He began his managerial career at the Red Bull global soccer empire’s first outpost, Salzburg, where he spent his final days as a player before coaching in their academy, first as a side gig and later full-time. He then took over FC Liefering, a Salzburg feeder club, for his first senior-level posting, before venturing out of the RB GmbH umbrella to climb the professional ladder.
- Struber led Barnsley FC on an odds-defying escape from relegation earlier this year, capped by a delirious last-day win over third-place Brentford to keep their place in the English Championship (helped, it must be said, by a massive points penalty imposed on Wigan) despite spending nearly the entire season in the drop zone.
- Struber was forcefully extracted from Barnsley, who did not want him to go, at significant effort and expense. Media reports suggest that RBNY shelled out €2 million (about US $2.4 million) to release him from his current contract, signed less than a year ago.
- There’s a “prodigal son” element here, in that Red Bull leadership appear eager to bring Struber back to their system. It was reported that even Red Bull founder Dietrich Mateschitz himself – the very top of the organizational pyramid – got directly involved in the negotiations between the Red Bulls and Barnsley.
- As would be expected, Struber is a devoted disciple of the high press. He installed an aggressive pressing scheme at Barnsley that typically operated in a 3-5-2 or 4-4-2 diamond and would be quite recognizable to most RBNY observers.
All of the above tells me that the Red Bulls consider this strange 2020 campaign anything but a lost cause.
Despite their middling performances and results, the congested standings, compacted schedule and generous playoff format mean that RBNY could quickly resurrect their MLS Cups with even a modest uptick in form – and Struber’s tubthumping effect on Barnsley last season hints at inspirational qualities ready to be put to use. It's also noteworthy that he has found the Red Bulls to be a more alluring project than the opportunity to knock at the door to the world's richest soccer competition, the Premier League.
"Gerhard’s playing style and experience in youth development align with our philosophy and above all, as a person he fits into our culture. We look forward to him getting here and working together to achieve the goals we have set as a club."— Red Bull New York (@NewYorkRedBulls) October 6, 2020
-Head of Sport Kevin Thelwell
It also tells me a little bit about the data points the club’s leaders gleaned from Armas’ time in charge. The former boss was a local guy and well-liked member of the family whose ideas about diversifying RBNY’s tactical offerings made sense at the time of his promotion – any championship contender can use a Plan B, which seemed to be what he was after as he nudged New York to add a possession element to their famous “energy drink soccer” style.
Struber may well have a few alternate tools in his kit, but he is a pressing disciple first and foremost. For those seeking further reading on this, I highly recommend this detailed breakdown on Spielverlagerung, the site that’s a veritable online bible for tactics anoraks, which says of Struber’s Barnsley, “describing their pressing as heavy metal is actually very accurate” and hails “their courage and somewhat arrogance in almost challenging teams to play out against them.”
Since my knowledge of the heavy metal genre is scant, I’ll use a slightly different musical metaphor here: Like Bob Dylan going to Woodstock to record his fifth studio album, RBNY are “Bringing It All Back Home,” nodding to the past even as they make a fresh start. And if Struber can knit it all together quickly and soundly enough, they might just storm right back up the charts again.