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The Struber Variation: formation and transfers

In the first of our five-part preview of new Red Bulls head coach Gerhard Struber’s managerial approach, we look at the types of players the Austrian likes to use and how he uses them

Brentford v Barnsley - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

The hiring of Gerhard Struber by New York Red Bulls was followed by the somewhat deflating news that the 43-year-old Austrian would not be joining the club for several weeks. Any hopes for an immediate takeover were dashed by the realities of immigration law and covid-19 quarantine, with six-to-eight weeks being the general party line on his arrival. While Bradley Carnell has been a capable interim in both improving performances and guiding new personnel into the side, the news that the future boss will possibly be providing lineup and tactical input before relocating to America has not assuaged concerns over this period of limbo for the club.

But it allows ample time to get an idea of who Gerhard Struber, a relatively young manager with less than two years of senior professional coaching under his belt, actually is before empirical results in New York begin to pile up. In this five-part series, we will use his short-but-eventful coaching career so far to preview the former software and insurance salesman’s approach to a job increasingly becoming a technocratic science rather than a mystical art.

Struber will of course find a welcoming home to his vision in a Red Bull organization that not only has helped lead this global shift in coaching philosophy over the last decade, but was the place where he first entered the profession. However while while much of the press around Struber’s hire has understandably focused on his adherence to Red Bull principles, a closer look reveals his own personal touches to the often-doctrinaire system. Even longtime Red Bull soccer guru Ralf Rangnick himself stated that variation is needed to ensure the success and freshness of even the most rigidly-replicated system. As the Red Bull ethos continues its viral influence even in places as rooted in old-fashioned football as Barnsley, a new strain will be coming to New York in the Struber variation.

Barnsley v Nottingham Forest - Sky Bet Championship - Oakwell
Gerhard Struber celebrates with his Barnsley team after a goal against Nottingham Forest
Photo by Martin Rickett/PA Images via Getty Images

By now, even casual viewers of the Red Bulls have a passing familiarity with the club’s tactics and the players most suited for their implementation. Immediately after losing the ball in the opponent’s half, young and physically fit players close down space and swarm passing lanes in an attempt to force turnovers or low percentage clearances. When the opposition plays out of the back, the ball is directed to the crowded center or the wing. On the attack, the pressing team plays vertically, charging at defenses in defiance of possession percentage and the conventional wisdom of not wasting opportunities. The high press has proven successful over the timeline of a season provided a resolute manager can drill his squad and the back line adequately extinguishes the fires of regular counter-attacks.

But while New York fans have become accustomed to seeing the energy drink soccer system most commonly deployed in a 4-2-3-1, a shift in formation may be the earliest place where observers begin to see the Struber variation take shape.

The formation

The discussion of a manager’s proclivities usually begins with an acknowledgment of the preferred formation. In this case, the answer isn’t simple. Despite Struber’s non-Red Bull managing career only having truly begun in the summer of 2019, he’s already been forced to make a seismic tactical shift.

At Wolfsberger AC in the Austrian Bundesliga, he outperformed expectations utilizing a narrow 4-4-2 diamond featuring four center midfielders intent on clogging the middle of the field. As with any high press, interceptions and not directly shutting down opposing players, are a priority. The two strikers are incredibly active, focused on pressing the back line and checking back deep into their own half to contribute to the attacking build-up while supporting the midfielders and fullbacks.

The narrow diamond features a defensive midfielder that drops to collect the ball from defenders, two box-to-box shuttling midfielders, and an attacking midfielder lined up closest to the strikers. The goal is to overload and overrun the opponent’s central midfielders with greater numbers. Struber’s formation yielded successful results, notably against AS Roma and a thoroughly overwhelmed Borussia Mönchengladbach in the Europa League.

In a 4-0 victory, the German club was humiliated by the Austrian underdogs, with the former Liefering manager thoroughly defeating former Salzburg manager Marco Rose at his own highly-evolved pressing game. As noted by Total Football Analysis, Wolfsberger defended in an almost impossibly narrow 4-3-3 formation, leaving no space between the lines and “remaining stubborn in front of the box.” That fluidity would continue after the move to England.

A few months later after a reported €1 million transfer fee, Struber was in South Yorkshire attempting to implement his 4-4-2/4-3-1-2 with Barnsley. The results were decent for a side deep in a relegation battle, but after one win in seven matches, the three-man back line was successfully deployed against Middlesbrough. Following the COVID break, he primarily utilized the less conservative 3-5-2/3-4-1-2 in 14 out of 16 matches until his recent departure, although there is “a lot of flexibility” allowing for more of a hybrid between his two formations. While it’s unlikely the shift is solely responsible for Barnsley avoiding relegation, the swashbuckling formation paired well with his high intensity pressing system and squeezed a few more points out of Championship opponents.

The 3-5-2 features three center backs, two wing backs, two holding midfielders, one attacking midfielder, and two strikers. As previously noted by New York Red Bulls head of sport Kevin Thelwell in his book on the formation, it provides “a springboard for compactness that allows for aggressive team movement on both sides of the ball.” It’s an ideal set-up for a team attempting to clog the middle and quickly transition into the attack while also maintaining the safety of an extra deep-lying player to defend against counter-attacking opposition. Tactics blog All Stats Aren’t We notes that the defense in this formation can be fluid and “quite proactive,” with the fullbacks combining with the midfielders in the build-up and dropping into the back line as the entire formation gravitates to the ball.

That’s not to say the formation is set in stone. The inability to fit a square peg into a round hole can necessitate change. Struber has already demonstrated the ability to switch tactics when the situation called for it, both in the long-term and an in-game basis such as his halftime formation shift against Coventry. If the Red Bulls are struggling to adapt or simply can’t acquire the necessary players, he should have no qualms with changing course and mixing existing personnel and his tactics into a more workable formation. His switch saved Barnsley, so it would hardly deflate the ego to make the same decision a second time.

The personnel

But of course it would be ideal if Kevin Thelwell can get Struber can get the players he needs. Despite some straying from Red Bull doctrine in recent years, the current New York squad already possesses many players suited to Struber’s preferred style. His Barnsley team relied heavily on attack-minded fullbacks to carry the passing load and be involved in the build-up. Right back Kilian Ludewig was routinely one of the team’s most prolific passers. Over the past few years, the Red Bulls have emerged as equal parts factory and finishing school for fullbacks, with the newest platoon of Jason Pendant, Kyle Duncan, and Mandela Egbo forcing a shift in the narrative from questionable replacements to one of the roster’s strengths. The humble wide defender will continue to be workhorse in this system, performing a thankless job that is arguably the most essential to making the press work.

That said, heavy personnel changes will likely be required. If there’s a particular area in the existing Red Bulls squad that Struber would most trim, it would most likely be the team’s stable of hybrid winger-attacking midfielders. Struber’s 3-5-2 and 4-4-2 narrow diamond don’t require an abundance of wide players and only deploy a single attacking midfielder. With Alex Muyl transferred out over the summer and Florian Valot being increasingly deployed in a central role, it appears the days of the 10-and-a-half role are coming to a close in New York for now. If there is movement in the center of the pitch, it will be for more dynamic central midfielders in the mold of Dru Yearwood, capable of dispensing a hard tackle and pinging essential link-up play.

Middlesbrough v Barnsley - Carabao Cup
Fullback Killian Ludewig was one of the most prolific passers for Barnsley under Gerhard Struber’s tactics, which require daring distribution from defenders
Photo by Mark Fletcher/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The current attacker core must be assessed, not only for the deficient goal output but also the ability to contribute in the build-up and high press. Struber doesn’t require his front line to shoulder the scoring burden, as Barnsley’s Cauley Woodrow claimed most of his goals after dropping to the attacking midfielder position. Although the ideal striker for this system is a target man capable of both pressing and converting, this was a signing that remained unaccomplished during his time in England. It’s possible there will be an influx of attackers to fill out the depth chart of a formation requiring two on the field. Based on the club’s rumored transfer activity, the hunt is well under way.

In his young career Struber has already shown a willingness to throw his weight around publicly in the pursuit of the roster he feels he needs. Early on at Barnsley, he touted the American-owned club’s financial model, claiming other clubs would adopt the strategy of internally developing young prospects instead of pursuing “players from the outside.” A few months later, the inability to successfully spend money was cited as an issue during his time at Oakwell, with Struber stressing that the club needed to sign “players for now… who are ready in the first game.”

Like every manager, he desires and pursues players who are tactically intelligent, fleet of foot, technically sound, and physically strong. Crafting a squad of idealized players is largely impossible outside of a few clubs, so the priority will be on understanding his system and the ability to quickly attack in transition. If transfers are incoming, expect at least a couple of figures from Struber’s past teams in some measure of adherence with RalfBall guidelines. The goal is seeking out players younger than 25 and never endeavoring to give a veteran his final contract, selling at or before the decline of physical abilities.

Despite the complexity of its playing style, Barnsley featured the youngest roster in the Championship. The opportunity presents itself for players from the Red Bulls Academy and the USL squad, raised on pressing and vertical movement, to supplement the roster and contribute. Struber puts a priority on young signings but also has a tendency to rely on players from his past. The first three acquisitions he made in Barnsley were two purchases of Wolfsberger players and a loan from Red Bull Salzburg. Of the eleven non-academy, non-goalkeeper signings made during his tenures in England and Austria since July of 2019, seven were aged 24-and-under and six had a connection to a previous club.

Struber has also taken advantage of his Red Bull ties. In the past, he’s signed several Liefering and Salzburg players on loan, providing a high pressing environment to further their development. New York has its own interesting history with players from Red Bull, some successful and others not. Roster space permitting, some of the better prospects may finally find their way to Major League Soccer to work under a vetted manager, in sharp contrast to the past oft-injured gambles, banished failures, and 30-somethings in the twilight of their careers.

That’s not to say Struber doesn’t value veterans. He claimed over the summer that experienced players are important to pair with younger talents, as they have a firmer grasp of tactics and can perform immediately. According to The Other Bundesliga, his largely inherited Wolfsberger side was one of the oldest in the Austrian Bundesliga. Then 29-year-old defender Michael Sollbauer played every available minute last season in Championship after joining the club in January, with Struber going out of his way to secure the transfer even though it antagonized a former boss. Those who are expecting New York to show starters of a certain age the door may be slightly disappointed.

MLS’ sometimes byzantine transfer market and roster rules sometimes create roadblocks for managers attempting to rebuild a squad, particularly those with desired requirements. There are only so many open spots available, and even fewer for international players. In the past year, the Red Bulls have done well to identify and sign players who seamlessly integrated into the first team. This should continue in the future as Struber combines with the front office to determine the best fit for the club, based on his hyper-specific technical and physical needs.

In an interview with The Molineux View podcast, head of sport Kevin Thelwell described his method at Wolverhampton Wanderers as identifying a few players that fit the clearly established philosophy and presenting them to the manager who decides whether any or all should be pursued. Much like the play on the field, the front office works in tandem with the manager to put together the best roster it can, which benefits from a defined style of play and roles for every position. Struber’s playing style and positional needs are established, and there is time to plan for his arrival. While the full renovation may take several transfer windows, the key pieces should be in place by the first match of next season.

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OaM editor emeritus Austin Fido contributed research and guidance for this piece.

Join us tomorrow as we discuss Gerhard Struber’s approach to pressing and defending.


Struberfest

Part I: formations and personnel

Part II: pressing and defending

Part III: attacking and possession

Part IV: set pieces

Part V: personality and man management