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Maybe (for now) John Tolkin should stay in midfield

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Academy product has broken into first team at left back but makeshift performance on Sunday could and should lead to other opportunities

SOCCER: JUL 03 MLS - New York Red Bulls at Orlando City SC
The 19-year-old Tolkin has been one of the team’s few standouts in recent weeks.
Photo by Andrew Bershaw/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

During the New York Red Bulls’ recent 2-1 loss to Chicago Fire, Gerhard Struber made the curious decision in the 19th minute to pull Cristian Cásseres, insert Andrew Gutman, and push John Tolkin to the midfield. The latter shift should not come as a surprise, although there were quite a few online posts labeling this move as yet another player being deployed out of position. For a brief period in his young career, the prevailing notion was that the now-19-year-old projected more central-lying than on the back line.

Against Chicago, Tolkin was quite good in the midfield, perhaps the Red Bulls’ best or at least most active player. Continuing his strong season, he moved the ball forward, cycled possession, contributed defensively, and did not have a single turnover. In a season marked by confusion over the central quartet, the Next Great Homegrown Hope provided a sense of stability on the left side of the diamond. The opponents, dominant for the first stage of proceedings, were rendered less effective after the substitution. While Struber’s team was unable to generate much in the way of the attack, a match headed on the road to an embarrassing scoreline finished at a more reasonable 2-1 margin.

Tolkin, of course, has a history of playing in the midfield. His time in the academy ended with 15 goals in 79 appearances, with youth soccer at times being much more of a comprehensive team attacking effort. At the reserves, he demonstrated a similar prowess with the ball, dipping back to start attack, uncorking the occasional jailbreak pass, or dishing out delightful assists, three qualities that appear to be missing from a sorely disconnected first team.

Tolkin’s initial explosion into the greater Red Bulls’ consciousness came in a July 2019 victory over Bethlehem Steel. He intercepted the ball, played a couple of quick one-twos, made a brief run, and then hit a perfect long pass to Tom Barlow for the tying goal. In ten seconds, the platonic ideal of Ralf Rangnick’s glorious football dream was on full display. As the USL season progressed, his minutes mostly came at the left back position, but the potential for lining up centrally remained an option, particularly in a game that is rapidly becoming less focused on static positioning.

Video via USL Championship YouTube page.

This year could be considered the most crucial of his career. At 18, the window for receiving first-team minutes and in turn developing tactically was slowly closing, the denial of which would severely limit his ultimate ceiling as a player. With a new manager in town, Tolkin had to force his way into the lineup, lest be faced with the unpalatable options of potentially waiting years for the next hire or suffering the indignity of a bittersweet but necessary unwanted move away from his boyhood club. Any career concerns have been neutralized, with the Chatham Borough native becoming one of the league’s best young talents and growing in stature with each successive fixture.

While experiencing a breakthrough this season, his strongest phase of the game is in possession, playing the correct passes and providing an outlet to his teammates. The glaring weaknesses are one-on-one defending and making the correct decisions around the box, understandable issues for a teenager that will disappear with experience. Those challenges would not be as present for a midfielder, with the demands focusing more on swarming passing lanes, vertical build-up, and hitting those accurate, lofted, one-degree-above-speculative through balls to on-rushing strikers. As a left-footed player, he would also add some needed width to a formation that at times suffers from an abundance of right-dominant midfielders and mortal fullbacks.

Heat map via WhoScored.com.

Ibid.

The current Red Bulls are in the midst of a line-up crunch, as some players are medically unfit and others have been deemed unsuitable for the manager’s needs. Despite the relative turmoil, left back is stable with the return of Andrew Gutman. Both he and Tolkin form what could be the league’s best duo at the position, although the former appeared to be drawing the ire of Struber during the recent Chicago loss, according to quick editing of the MSG broadcast.

With both players at least serviceable enough to feature – no longer a given these days – and a midfield that appears out of sorts, perhaps the duo should remain as they were. This would likely not be in service of the club’s long-term plans for Tolkin as he projects as a left back for his eventual flashy transfer to Europe. However, for the immediate future, the Red Bulls might be best served by utilizing him in a more advanced position. There’s also the benefit of increased versatility, a specific and generalized enhancement of skill that pays obvious dividends.

Against Chicago, Tolkin led the team by completing 94.3% of his passes, including three in the opponent’s box. He is likely not going to be a tackling, pressing marvel like Caden Clark or distribute at a rate of Sean Davis, although his ball recovery and possession numbers are fairly close. What does matter is his impact upon the match at least appears greater than the alternatives.

Dru Yearwood has yet to adjust to his new league, first-month Most Valuable Player Frankie Amaya has receded to the outskirts of the squad, and the aforementioned Cásseres is contributing little outside of the occasional goal, a decline from his pre-Copa América form. The group has experienced varying levels of feast and famine this season, with all three currently at a low. The substitution and subsequent position switch against Chicago may have been “risk avoidance,” but the move could also be replicated in the coming weeks, especially with the general attacking cohesiveness continuing to dip to subterranean levels. The most in-form players should be on the field, and the best starting lineup at this point includes the Red Bulls two primary left backs.