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Are the Red Bulls the next chapter in Kevin Thelwell’s guide to the 3-5-2 formation?

How a formation shift and a set of fifteen-year-old coaching manuals could provide ample hints into what sort of team Kevin Thelwell wants to build in New York

Football - Football League One - Wolverhampton Wanderers head coach Kenny Jackett Photo by AMA/Corbis via Getty Images

After rolling out the team’s somewhat standard 4-2-3-1 formation in a loss to Philadelphia two days after the firing of Chris Armas, New York Red Bulls interim manager Bradley Carnell has deployed a 3-5-2 formation in two consecutive matches and it seems likely he will again tonight against Miami.

The use of the unorthodox formation (very much a 3-5-2 rather than a more defensive 5-3-2 given the advanced positioning of fullbacks Kyle Duncan and Jason Pendant) first ensured a convincing 2-0 result over D.C. United, while this past Saturday’s 1-0 loss to Cincinnati saw it sputter. Indeed, Red Bulls fans of recent years would not be unfamiliar with the 3-or-5-man backline, which has been deployed at passing moments in the tenures of Armas and Jesse Marsch in mixed contexts with mixed results.

But the sudden shift to this formation in the immediate wake of a power play by recently-installed British sporting chief Kevin Thelwell speaks to a deeper thread that oddly leads all the way back to American Midwest in the late 1990s. It was then that Mike Saif, an Englishman running youth clubs in the Kansas City area, found a distinct lack of textual references for coaches in the pre-internet days of American youth soccer.

“I saw the need for soccer coaching material in America,” Saif said. “At the time I was coaching (over here) and this was before the internet so I would often call home and ask my dad and brother to send me their coaching notes.”

Saif began a newsletter that eventually became a media publishing company called World Class Coaching (WCC), which early in their still-active existence printed several coaching manuals distributed throughout North America in early 00s written largely by a young coach based in rural Wales named Kevin Thelwell. Thelwell was one of the most decorated students of the Welsh FA coaching program under Osian Roberts, a titan of European coaching circles who had cut his teeth in the American youth scene. On top of Roberts’ connections, he eventually found his way to Saif and WCC through then-Manchester United academy coaches Richard Donnelly and David Williams, who in addition to producing videos for WCC had become acquainted with Thelwell through his work in the Wales national team program.

The manuals written by Thelwell for World Class Coaching include guides to proper and safe coaching for both 5 to 8-year-olds and 9 to 12-year-olds that indicate Thelwell’s formal expertise in even the most minute aspects of youth development. But most intriguing for the eventual path of his career and the future of the Red Bulls is a 2005 manual entitled Coaching The European 3-5-2.

Unlike the aforementioned youth coaching manuals which focus more on the mechanical aspects of running practices for novice coaches, the 3-5-2 manual is a sophisticated guide to the use of a pro-style formation with a full side. In what had to have been music to Red Bull’s ears, the young Thelwell describes the formation as a “springboard for compactness” that allows for aggressive team movement on both sides of the ball. He pinpoints the way the entire midfield - playmaker, shuttlers, and wingbacks - are in transition moments at all times and provide numerical advantages in almost all sections of the field. Perhaps most engaging is an entire chapter is dedicated to “defending from the front” and instructing attacking players how to cut off opposition passing, a chapter one could imagine might have been paperclipped with his cover letter to Ralf Rangnick last year.

Soccer - FA Youth Cup - Third Round - Liverpool v Wolverhampton Wanderers - Anfield
Red Bulls head of sport Kevin Thelwell coaching the Wolverhampton Wanderers reserve team in a 2010 FA Youth Cup match
Photo by Mike Egerton - PA Images via Getty Images

It was soon after the publishing of these manuals that Thelwell advanced rapidly up the ladders of the English club game with stints as an academy director at Preston and Derby eventually leading to a long-term role as a sporting executive with Wolverhampton Wanderers. But the principles expounded by Thelwell in his manuals have continued to manifest. His managerial hires included Dean Saunders, the former Wales international striker who wrote the foreword to Coaching The European 3-5-2, as well as Paul Lambert, a frequent user of the 3-5-2 with Norwich as well as Aston Villa. Prior to Thelwell’s move to New York earlier this year, Wolves had developed a robust 3-5-2/5-3-2 system in the Premier League under the management of Nuno Espírito Santo.

In the jungle of Major League Soccer roster regulations there are potential squad-building benefits to the 3-5-2 that would be enticing to any general manager in the league, but especially one continuing to adhere to the Red Bull identity as Thelwell claims to be. Not unlike the 3-4 defense in the NFL which allows general managers to sign cheap nose tackles rather than rare game-changing defensive ends, the 3-5-2 system avails soccer managers of the need to acquire expensive flair wingers and pedigreed “number 6” anchor midfielders. The dual striker line allows both for the utilization of one-dimensional (i.e. cheaper and/or younger) weapon forwards as well as rotation space for more multidimensional midfielders in a second striker/false 9 roles.

It is perhaps difficult to assume too much given the the modern use of the 3-5-2 as more of a pragmatic field-clogging defensive formation as opposed the fluid possession system laid out in Thelwell’s fifteen-year-old manual. But perhaps the latter is more doable at the less sophisticated level of MLS, a potentially exciting scenario to look forward to for RBNY fans looking for a new interpretation on the “energy drink” ethos of Red Bull soccer. He already has a dynamic central playmaker in Kaku, who has appeared livelier on the pitch and more involved off of it in the weeks since the coaching change, and new signings Dru Yearwood (shuttling central midfielder) and Samuel Tetteh (dribbling striker) are precise fits for 3-5-2 roles.

Key points of improvement would include finding more athletic and technical center backs if it is decided that bubble players such as Amro Tarek and Sean Nealis are not adequate or high-wage stars Aaron Long and Tim Parker are expendable. While the addition of Tetteh is encouraging, the New York attack still likely requires more depth at the striker position in a system that deploys two of them. Surely the club’s ongoing search for a new manager would be heavily influenced by a strong preference for the formation, should Thelwell have it.

Maybe Kevin Thelwell huffily quit his writing career by swearing off the 3-5-2 forever and now hopes to limit risk in his American adventure by using an intuitive four-man backline once his new head coach is installed. But after two years of often static and unimaginative play, Red Bulls fans should be excited to know an executive with any ethos fleshed-out enough to put on paper is in charge of the club. Signs both old and new are pointing to a clear tactical system in New York that the club hopes will outline some more engaging upcoming chapters of its history.