Sacha Kljestan was obtained in the offseason by the New York Red Bulls amidst a large injection of promotional fan fare by the front office. It was a bold move by new Sporting Director, Ali Curtis, to make a trade with the Montreal Impact to obtain both Felipe Martins and the top spot in the allocation order which the club subsequently used to obtain Kljestan from Anderlecht in Belgium.
I was on the conference call that the Red Bulls held between Ali Curtis and the press this winter when the acquisition of Kljestan was announced. It was a complex transaction, but one the club felt was delivering a midfield player who could contribute offensively. I recall the beat reporters asking about his role on the team; Mr. Curtis was very non-committal, essentially deferring to Jesse Marsch for a future decision on how the player would be used. In addition, I remember at the time thinking that Kljestan was used in a more defensive, or holding midfield, role in Belgium - rather than being an offensive playmaker.
It has become clear in recent weeks that the club and Head Coach Marsch view Sacha as an offensive catalyst: he has typically played just underneath striker Bradley Wright-Phillips in the team's preferred formation.
Now that the club is 10 matches into its 2015 season, I think we are at the point where some evaluation of the roster can be done: there is an adequate sample size to draw some conclusions. And I'll start with my conclusion: I believe that the Red Bulls should consider changing Sacha Kljestan's role. In my view, he is not the attacking midfielder that the club needs in that slot in the formation at this point.
As it happens, it is the player that came with him to the Red Bulls in that same trade with Montreal, Felipe (who was the topic of my last article for this site) that has been the more effective offensive catalyst for this club. My suggestion would be to swap Felipe and Sacha within the current formation. This change would allow Felipe to continue to play forward on the attack as he has done at points throughout the first ten matches. It would return Sacha to a holding midfield position next to Dax McCarty, where I think he might be more comfortable.
Sacha showed his ability as a true two-way midfielder in several matches this season, including the most recent match in Dallas, where he dropped back defensively and made several plays which changed the trajectory of the match. He would still have the ability from a deeper-lying position in the formation to pass and transition the ball forward, but I do not think he is the attacking facilitator that the Red Bulls envisioned him being.
Conversely, we know that Felipe possesses both the passing and the shooting capability to be an effective attacking midfielder. He can create offense with his dribbling skills in space and will draw defenders in order to create space for Wright-Phillips and Lloyd Sam to operate within the attacking third. I do not think that opposing defenses approach Sacha in that same way, with no disrespect to him, he just has a different style of play.
Sacha is essentially being miscast in the Red Bulls formation as an offensive weapon, and maybe that was the case when he played with Jesse Marsch back in the Chivas USA days in his first MLS stint. However, I think that changed during his tenure in Europe, and there is nothing wrong with that, the holding midfield role is very important within this formation to serve as a barrier for the rebuilt back line (though the defense looked pretty solid in the Dallas match).
Furthermore, the holding midfield role has been of importance to the Red Bulls in the recent past (see Eric Alexander) and will continue to allow Kljestan with opportunities throughout the course of the match to advance with the ball offensively. In my view, it will allow him to do so without the pressure of being one of the top two or three offensive catalysts on the team.
We, as Red Bulls fans, all wondered aloud who would replace Thierry Henry in that role of offensive playmaker to feed the ball to Wright-Phillips. The club never actually officially endorsed anyone for that role, wisely so, but I think they thought they found part of that answer this winter when they obtained Kljestan.
However, the reality is that he is not the answer to that question. The club has taken a by-committee approach to creating offense, and I maintain that is still the correct course of action. But in the short term, they might benefit from a small formation change to see if they can maximize the individual skill sets of their best eleven players.
What do you think? Should the Red Bulls make a formation change? Is Sacha better used in a holding role? Would Felipe be better utilized playing right underneath the striker? Let us know in the comments.