As Leeds United were marching towards their historic Championship title last season, en route to finally returning to the Premier League led by noted Pep Guardiola muse Marcelo Bielsa, they picked up what looked to be a routine victory in July.
Leeds hosted struggling Barnsley, a club mired in a relegation battle that would go down to the final day. Barnsley had emerged as one of the teams in form after play restarted, signaling hope for fans that watched the club be stuck in the relegation zone for essentially the whole season. Leeds saw past Barnsley 1-0, but the visitors left an impression on the champions.
"They came here and really stuck it to us," Leeds forward Patrick Bamford said after the match. "We struggled, that's probably the worst game in terms of trying to imprint our style on the opposition since I've been here. I think that's because of them."
The Barnsley manager that day was Gerhard Struber, a cult-like figure around the club after helping save the struggling side from relegation. But after about 11 months in charge, he has a new job and he's coming to MLS. On Tuesday, Struber was appointed manager of the New York Red Bulls.
To find out more about why the Red Bulls targeted and hired Struber, and even paid an undisclosed transfer fee for his services, MLSsoccer.com spoke with a few experts from Struber's past. BBC Yorkshire's Rob Staton, who covered Struber closely at Barnsley, and Austrian football expert Lee Wingate of The Other Bundesliga podcast, where he covered Struber during his time at Wolfsberger AC in Austria, were kind enough to lend their time and expertise.
Style of play
Struber is just what you'd expect from a Red Bull manager: His teams press maniacally, play vertically and thrive in transition. He started his coaching career in the youth program for RB Salzburg where he managed the U-15, U-16 and U-19 sides. He stuck with those ethos in Austria when he managed Wolfsberger.
He has used a few formations around those tenants. With Wolfsberger it was largely a 4-4-2 narrow diamond, similar to the Philadelphia Union, and in Barnsley he used that and some variation of a three center back system a number of times as well.
“It's lots of pressing," Staton said succinctly. "The players in New York better be ready, it’s quite an intense style of play. But as you saw in the Championship, it really works."
"He’s been molded in the Red Bull style, he likes to transition very fast," Wingate added. "We saw that with Wolfsberger, a lot of vertical passes. A direct style. He used to play a 4-4-2 narrow diamond. His tactical idea was to attack very fast, crowd out the center of the pitch. It was like watching Salzburg-lite while he was here.”
The graphic below, per Statsbomb, helps illustrate their aggressive pressing.
The pitch is broken into six zones. The more red the zone, the more defensive actions the team accumulated than average in that part of the field. As you see, Barnsley made more defensive actions than the average Championship side in every part of the field. Barnsley trailed only Leeds in the ferocity of their pressing.
Barnsley ultimately finished 21st in the league, just one point clear of relegation. For fans underwhelmed by that standing, Staton aims to provide context to Barnsley's season. Struber left Wolfsberger to take the job on November 20, Barnsley were last in the league with just one win in 16 matches. Things were bleak.
Under Struber, they had 11 wins, seven draws and 12 losses. Not setting the league on fire, but a significant increase from what he took over. Furthermore, after the league was suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic and Struber had an opportunity at something like a mini-preseason, Barnsley had four wins, three draws and two losses.
“When he took over, Barnsley were doomed," Staton said. "They looked like they were going to finish bottom of the Championship with an incredibly low tally of points. There was no hope, essentially. ... If anybody’s thinking ‘he finished 21st, how good is this guy?’ I can tell you he did a fantastic job last season.”
Before leaving for Barnsley, Struber guided the heavy underdog Wolfsberger to a commanding 4-0 win over Borussia Monchengladbach and a 1-1 draw with Roma in the Europa League group stage.
After Wolfsberger's 1-1 draw against Italian giants Roma, Wingate and media were in the press area. After a while, in walked Struber, who went and grabbed a pint of beer then began chatting with the media who were still around.
“It was like the most natural thing in the world," Wingate said. "He has a calmness and composure about him. He doesn’t seem to be rattled very easily, he seems to get on very well with his players.”
“He’s a really engaging character," Staton said. "His language is entertaining, he has a way with words and speaks with passion. He was a bit of a cult hero around here when Barnsley stayed up last season.”
Both Stanton and Wingate noted his ability to get his message across to the squad and receive full buy-in from the players. One cause for concern, though, is how quickly he's changed jobs in his nascent managerial career.
Struber managed just 21 games with Wolfsberger and 39 with Barnsley. His short tenures at both clubs — and seizing opportunities to leave — could give Red Bulls fans some pause. But Staton noted that perhaps Struber felt he took Barnsley as far as he could with the resources at his service. He even was critical of the club's ownership after what would be his final game in charge (above).
“I think one of the main reasons he’s leaving, and I spoke to him a couple of times about this, his ambition was to push on and try and be a team at the top of the table," Staton said. "He was speaking at the weekend, he said the club’s owners didn’t have that same ambition. I think he was frustrated by that.”