By cracking in a swerving volley off the far post to spark a 2-0 victory over Nashville on Friday night, Fábio Gomes Netto was able to get the monkey off the back of not only himself but his team’s entire approach to attacking so far in 2021.
After a stuttered start to the era where the New York Red Bulls have committed more than they ever have to footballing philosophies set out by their corporate umbrella, results are starting to show under former Salzburg academy maven Gerhard Struber. The clean sheet win over previously-undefeated Nashville was perhaps the most emphatic moment yet of the Austrian’s tenure, with Fábio’s opener a precise example of his utilitarian use of strikers that has emerged as one of the more famous - or infamous - aspects of Struber’s young tenure.
Before discussing the use of strikers under Struber, it is worth recalling the recent history of the New York Red Bulls since the era of adherence to the broader energy drink soccer philosophy began under Jesse Marsch in 2015. For years under Marsch the team’s intense pressing system would power through the regular season only to find itself stuck and desperate for a “plan B” when opponents would sit deep and not risk challenging the press in high-stakes playoff games. While this was attributed (most notably and unsuccessfully by former Red Bulls manager Chris Armas) as requiring more deliberate possession play, this attempted adjustment only resulted in a muddled approach that hampered the team’s instincts on the field and ability to recruit new talent coherently.
A better diagnosis of the problem against bunkering playoff teams - a diagnosis that could be cured through a doubling-down on the Red Bull tactical identity instead of muddling it - was not being able to find a way to force the ball into the final third. As much as Bradley Wright-Phillips thrived on expertly positioning himself for the point-blank chances created by quick turnovers in games broken open by the press, he was not the type of striker who could make the ball stick deep in the opponent’s half, particularly by himself in the 4-2-3-1 formation typically used by the team in the Marsch and Armas eras.
In contrast, the current team structure being built by Gerhard Struber puts a pair of forwards at the top of his 4-4-2 diamond formation in a position to dominate the game and set its tone. While a simmering discourse has been developing in some Red Bulls-observing circles about the lack of goals from the forwards, the holistic role they play has been apparent even since the opening night loss to Kansas City where Caden Clark’s goal was created off the robust physicality of Fábio.
The 6’4” Brazilian’s ability to take down repeated long balls as well as carry the ball on the ground from deep caught attention almost immediately from a Red Bulls fanbase that had grown accustomed to even more static forwards since the departure of Wright-Phillips in 2019. After being staked out by Struber prior to the season as a player with the ability to link with others and create space for teammates, Fábio has done exactly that with four assists even before his first goal, at one point leading the entire league. Even before Friday’s eye-catching goal, it was considered a no-brainer to see his loan from Oeste FC renewed as he appears set for a fruitful tenure in New York.
The ability of the team’s forwards to set up chances as well as set the tone for the whole formation has only heightened with the promising appearances made so far by Patryk Klimala. The Polish youth international brought in after a doomed stint at Scottish giants Celtic has been noted by Struber for his ability to time his movement and create danger off the ball, and his driving running has begun to exhaust opposing backlines already. While still without a goal of his own in four appearances, it was Klimala’s tenacious gather and flick off a Sean Nealis long ball that set up Fabio’s cathartic goal on Friday night.
Even Tom Barlow’s survival through the growing cull of the squad in Harrison (2019’s starting striker Brian White was traded to Vancouver last week) is partially a result of the new focus on physical, multi-functional strikers who are able to affect games without finesse. Meanwhile, though he saw a string of starts last month before the international break, the more ball-hungry and technical Daniel Royer’s game could be made increasingly endangered by the team’s new approach up top.
For the cuddly and lovable section of the New York fanbase that follows the happenings of the other Red Bull teams in Europe, this approach raises the specter of RB Leipzig striker Yussuf Poulsen. The 6’4” target man without notable ball skills or scoring touch began as the Danish Tom Barlow, signed from obscurity in the Danish second division to become a key figure in the Leipzig attack through almost every step as the club rose from the lower leagues to the Champions League. His rangy running and tough aerial play is effective in different ways at all levels, even if it doesn’t always result in goals for the man himself.
It’s these sorts of flourishes that should be seen as the most trustworthy aspects of the Red Bull footballing identity. Gerhard Struber has brought his meticulous inside-out approach to the forward positions to New York, and it’s an approach that is helping the rest of the formation improve and giving the team multiple dimensions in the final third. The plan B to get goals in difficult situations is finally here, and it doesn’t even require any diluting of plan A.
Just think of how it will look when they start scoring as much as they’re helping the midfielders to.