The New York Red Bulls did not bring in Sacha Kljestan to replace Thierry Henry.
However, in head coach Jesse Marsch's 4-2-3-1 formation, the American international has been given the opportunity to have as much influence on the field as the French legend did during his time at Red Bull Arena.
Having made his name as a more defensive midfielder, many Red Bulls fans and media scratched their heads when Kljestan was slated to replace Peguy Luyindula in central midfield behind striker Bradley Wright-Phillips.
In his new role, Kljestan has been tasked with setting up the 2014 Golden Boot winner and finding the slashing runs of winger Lloyd Sam.
With one assist, to go along with two goals, in 14 matches, Kljestan has mostly failed at the assignment Marsch has handed him. As a result, the RBNY offense has sputtered throughout the season.
Inability to be a playmaker
Given the reigns to the RBNY offense by Marsch, Kljestan has been unable to deliver the incisive pass in the final third, leaving the midfielder's influence on matches and the Red Bulls’ offense wanting.
Before his appearance against the Vancouver Whitecaps was cut short due to receiving a red card, Kljestan last went the full 90 against Houston Dynamo on June 5th. In that match, Sacha's inability to make successful passes into the penalty area was all-too evident.
On four occasions, Kljestan failed on attempted passes or crosses into the penalty area. Even once failing to connect on a lay-off while positioned inside the 18-yard box.
The people over at WhoScored.com do an amazing job of cultivating over 200 raw statistics to calculate a player’s and team’s rating, which are weighted according to their influence within a game. They take every event of importance into account, with a positive or negative effect on ratings weighted in relation to its area on the field and its outcome.
And according to their team ratings, the Red Bulls are currently second in MLS. But set WhoScored's ranking alongside the current MLS points-per-game standings and we see RBNY's struggle to convert statistical success into league success.
The numbers suggest that New York has excelled in every aspect of their matches expect for the one that counts most toward winning games and points: scoring goals.
RBNY is first in MLS in possession, first in shots on target per game, first in aerials won per game, second in shots per game and in the top-10 in pass completion percentage. However, the Red Bulls are 15th in shooting percentage, converting only 24.68% of their 77 shots of goal (third most in MLS) for 19 goals (12th).
We know that Marsch and RBNY sporting director Ali Curtis use a variety of soccer analytics as tools in their decision-making. If they are looking at these particular numbers then we may start to comprehend Marsch’s continued confidence in his team's ability to turn the results around.
It seems that Curtis and Marsch believe that there will be an eventual market correction and that everything the Red Bulls are doing correctly will lead to goals and thus wins. However, it remains to be seen if Kljestan’s play will improve to the point that pushes New York’s offense to the level it’s decision-makers believe it can reach.
The question will be how long do Marsch and Curtis allow themselves to believe that Sacha Kljestan is the guy they hoped he’d be?
Finishers & distributors: Offensive success in MLS
Offensive success in MLS is dictated by having either a creative mid that pulls the strings of the offense or a plethora of finishers. The leading teams in the Eastern and Western Conferences match these criteria well.
Seattle Sounders (when they have Clint Dempsey & Obafemi Martins) and D.C. United (Chris Rolfe & Jairo Arrieta), along with LA Galaxy (Robbie Keane & Gyasi Zardes), are led by the finishing prowess of their forwards. Orlando City (Kaka) and the Vancouver Whitecaps (Pedro Morales) have prototypical No. 10’s guiding their attack.
The New England Revolution is an exception, possessing both a creative attacking midfielder in Lee Nguyen and finishers in Juan Agudelo and Charlie Davies. This triumvirate has covered up the fact that New England concedes possession to its opponents while also being in the bottom third in passing success rate and aerials won. The Revs' ability to quickly turn their limited opportunities into goals has made them an outlier in the league, though one win in the last 10 games suggests the team may need a rethink soon.
RBNY struggles to create and convert quality shooting chances.
In part because Kljestan hasn’t been the playmaker they’d hoped he’d be, the Red Bulls are middle of the pack in percentage of shots taken inside the six-yard box. Teams like New England, Seattle and DC United rank among the best in MLS in this statistic. With so few consistent finishers on the roster, New York needs to get as many shots inside the six-yard box as they can. With this roster deficiency, an attacking mid that can unlock the defense and spring Red Bulls attackers on goal is vital.
This is where Kljestan’s inability to be that playmaker has severely limited the potency of the RBNY attack.
Why was Kljestan put in an attacking midfield role in the first place?
Despite having spent most of his career playing as a relatively defensive midfielder, Marsch elected to play his newly-acquired star further up the field while pushing Felipe Martins into a deep-lying midfield role.
Back in April, I explored this very question and it brought me back to the Red Bulls' engine of the last few years: Thierry Henry.
Once Henry and former coach Mike Petke made the decision in mid-2014 to drop him into a midfield role, Henry’s superior ability was better able to be exploited as the Frenchman had more time on the ball facing both his teammates and the goal. That positional shift made the legendary striker a more dangerous MLS playmaker.
And that brings us back to Kljestan.
Despite Marsch having played Felipe as an attacking mid in their Montreal days, I wonder if Marsch is using the Henry corollary with Kljestan and is focusing on getting his most talented player in the most advantageous offensive positions.
Playing in attack may be more natural to Felipe, but Kljestan is undoubtedly the more talented player. Marsch is betting on talent winning out at that position.
The problem with that line of thinking is that Kljestan’s talent thus far hasn’t won out. If Sacha continues to struggle and the Red Bulls do not upgrade that position, New York will find it increasingly difficult to put the ball in the net.
Frustrations boil over vs. Vancouver
Last Saturday night at Red Bull Arena, we saw a player who is clearly frustrated with the ways things have gone for him during his return to MLS. Unable to influence games as he's desired, the rough and tumble nature of the league finally pushed him over the edge in the 10th minute of that June 20th match against the Vancouver Whitecaps. Trying, and failing, to elbow and then kick Whitecaps defender Kendall Waston in an effort to break free during a corner kick, Kljestan was shown a red card.
Despite stating numerous times to gathered media post-game that he had taken responsibility for his actions and putting his teammates in the unenviable position of playing 80 minutes down a man (even addressing the them directly at halftime), Kljestan couldn't hide his frustrations with the way referees in MLS call games during his time back.
"My biggest criticism of the MLS is that the amount of grabbing and hugging and holding and fouling that goes on in the box and the referees do not protect the attacking players," said Kljestran. "It annoys me so much and in this moment I got so annoyed and I threw my elbow up to get free of Waston bear-hugging me and it was a stupid play."
"I appreciate that we got a penalty for a change in the box where we can't make a play because we're being held. It happens on every corner kick, in every game. I've never seen it happen so much and have it not be called. I've played in Europe for a long time and the shit just doesn't happen. And here people can get away with murder and nothing happens."
It seems as though the combination of his futility combined with the rugged nature of MLS had finally gotten to him.
Where do the Red Bulls go from here?
It’s the head coach’s job to get the best out of his players. The question remains whether Marsch is putting Kljestan in a position to do just that. Is he capable of doing the job Marsch has given him? Perhaps the time has come to move Sacha into the spot he has excelled at for the majority of his career. And if Felipe, or someone else on the roster, cannot handle the playmaking responsibilities, it's on Curtis to find someone who can.