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Why Bradley Carnell should stick around with the Red Bulls

While one shouldn’t read too much into the South African’s results as interim manager, his background and handling of the the last two months shows his potential value to Gerhard Struber

SOCCER: OCT 10 MLS - New York Red Bulls at Atlanta United FC Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In the film adaptation of The Two Towers, Faramir, son of the steward Denethor II, makes the ultimate sacrifice allowing Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee to leave his presence and continue their journey. By not bringing them and the One Ring back to his father in Minas Tirith, he acknowledges that he could be killed for this act of treason. In the extended edition, Samwise thanks the man of Gondor, proclaiming he has “shown his quality – the very highest.” Following the events of the story, Faramir was not named king. That title went to a heralded man of royal lineage who had spent time in the wilderness. However, he was rewarded for his loyalty, appointed to the role of steward.

The New York Red Bulls entered an awkward hinterland after firing Chris Armas, forced into utilizing an interim manager to guide the ship until the hiring and eventual arrival of Gerhard Struber from Barnsley. The club named Bradley Carnell to the caretaker role, a curious appointment for the seldom heard from assistant who joined during Jesse Marsch’s tenure on a referral from Ralf Rangnick. The 43-year-old South African international’s only previous experience in the top role was a brief but successful tenure at the University of Johannesburg.

It was an opportunity Carnell did not believe he was going to receive. In a recent interview, he revealed his belief he was to be let go with Armas and assistant CJ Brown. “I went into the office thinking my number was up, to be honest, but instead they asked me to be the interim head coach,” he told Daily Maverick. “It was a bit of a shock but this is what I had been working towards for the last few years and now it was here. The fact that it was [an] interim coach [position] did not bother me, whether you are there for six weeks, six months, or six years, you treat the job the same way.”

Since taking over, the Red Bulls have shown a marked improvement over the previous one-and-a-half seasons, transforming from a slumping and directionless team to a punchy playoff-bound squad. While far from perfect, there’s been a notable uptick in attacking play, cohesion, and general willingness to fight. While the Red Bulls have benefitted from increased training time following the covid-19 layoff, it has largely been the same group of players competing on the field. Something has definitely changed, and it happened after the interim manager grasped his temporary reins. As is customary for all leaders present during successful days, Carnell should receive credit for this recent run of form, even if the hardened cynic would attribute his influence on the improvement to mere propinquity.

The notable shift in play includes an increased resolve, possibly due to the team rallying around each other in uncertain times. The attack has been more potent, with verticality and a willingness to take risks, and the defense more stout, as prodigal center back Tim Parker has returned to the best of his abilities. The improvement on attack is a curious one, as Carnell revealed in an interview with Left Back Football that his role in 2020 was “specifically dealing with the attacking unit… coming up with little concepts and designs of play for [the Red Bulls] to get better in the attacking third and even from the build-up phase.” If the coach who was already in charge of the anemic attack was given more power and responsibility, then what miracle elixir was ingested that had not previously been prescribed?

To do so in just a temporary head role was a complicated maneuver that required professionalism and confidence in the team’s tactical system. Upon taking over, Carnell’s bold strategy was for the best players to be on the field in positions where they are most likely to succeed. In his press conference on October 10th, he noted that his players appeared more excited to make their runs because “they believed the ball would be coming,” a marked improvement over more stagnant recent setups.

In an interview with Paraguay’s Radio La Unión, Alejandro Kaku Gamarra, a somewhat marginalized figure under Armas, said the temporary manager moved him back to the middle of the field and changed the formation to make the players more comfortable. Cristian Cásseres echoed the assessment, describing Carnell as a leader who “likes to give the players confidence” and “do what they know.” The Venezuelan midfielder, another heralded talent who had regressed under the previous regime, felt empowered with “more freedom when [the team] has the ball.”

SOCCER: OCT 10 MLS - New York Red Bulls at Atlanta United FC Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

As is customary for an interim manager, particularly in light of producing results, Carnell was given the opportunity to interview for the open job. According to sporting director Kevin Thelwell, the caretaker had “a shot” and was considered “a candidate for the role.” He made his presentation but the team decided to go in a different direction by hiring Struber.

It’s completely fair that the interim manager wasn’t elevated to a permanent role. History is littered with caretakers that performed above expectations and were handed the job by hapless and unimaginative sporting directors in a showing of both gratitude for solid results and unstated, resigned frustration with the inability to attract more qualified candidates.

The oft-cited Kuper and Szymanski bestseller Soccernomics is not a bible but does make a cogent case that when things do improve under an interim manager, it’s not wholly due to the caretaker’s managerial skill, but often that “he’s just the beneficiary of the swing” back from a team that has usually hit its bottom under the sacked coach. While Carnell is likely responsible for some of the club’s success, the team would eventually regress, as he is likely outperforming what is expected of a first-time manager. The club has returned to its mean, but eventually the interim manager will too, leading to a slightly below desired performance.

Despite getting a taste of running a team, Carnell is comfortable returning back to the assistant position, describing himself as “a team player” in possession of “a lot of admiration for the club and the people working here.” Employment with Red Bull has allowed for the continued pursuit of coaching badges, but the current level in Carnell’s possession is unknown. This brief time in charge has validated the caretaker selection and shown he’s cut out for this field, which will lead to continued interest from other clubs.

Over the summer, Carnell discussed opportunities in Europe with “a couple of teams” that “didn’t transpire.” He remains open to a new role, including kicking the tires on a recent offer in Malaysia. However, it might not be the right time for a big move, as he appears comfortable learning and growing as an assistant and “focusing on the team [he is] at.”

While Carnell may be enjoying his time at the club and in MLS, both he and the Red Bulls are coming to a fork in the road. His contract is up in December and new manager Gerhard Struber will likely desire his own assistants to fill out the staff, having already brought in Austrian compatriot Bernd Eibler. Turnover is expected, as any new boss has his own ideas and trusted advisors. While Thelwell indicated Struber might pass along tactics and input on the team’s strategy, Carnell recently said there wasn’t yet much of a working relationship.

Regardless of future staffing, there is a utility in keeping the South African at the club. In a short time, the interim manager has demonstrated keen coaching ability in both man management and his commitment to the club’s tactical identity. There’s also the unspoken safeguard of keeping around an eminently capable coach-in-waiting when the recently hired manager is on his third position in less than a year.

Red Bull is an organization that prioritizes natural talent and work ethic. In a brief run of matches, Carnell has demonstrated why he was earmarked as a potential future coaching talent. The market determines one’s value, and interest from a variety of parties across the globe indicates its presence in the Red Bull Arena technical area. Thelwell would do well to keep this coach in house and continue supporting his professional development. Perhaps he’ll be ready for the permanent manager position when Struber eventually moves to his next position.

Playing fearless, proactive attacking football has provided the club with a sense of hope and direction in the face of an uncertain future, which is as much as can be expected from a caretaker. By every metric, but perhaps of most importance the eye test and general uplift in tenor of fan base and media, Carnell fulfilled the promise that initially drove Ralf Rangnick to add his former Stuttgart defender to Jesse Marsch’s New York staff. Like Faramir, he has proven his quality and should continue to hold a leadership role within the organization. Persevering under difficult and unexpected circumstances and lifting the club in a way that will be remembered with gratitude. Red Bull should recognize and reward its faithful servant in a fitting fashion.