Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but the New York Red Bulls are struggling to score against teams defending deep. After opening the season with cathartic away wins in San Jose and Toronto in which the team appeared to emphatically shed the goalscoring troubles that came on late last season, the Red Bulls have now scored just twice in its first four home matches of 2022.
This past Saturday’s scoreless draw against FC Dallas saw perhaps the most stark exhibition of the purgatory Gerhard Struber’s team finds themselves in, putting together a dominant performance against a quality team but not being rewarded with success. The Red Bulls outshot Dallas 20 to 5 and, whether or not you subscribe to the Expected Goals revolution that has swept soccer analysis in recent years, the 1.81 to 0.33 margin registered by New York in the game is well beyond any margin of error or disbelief. How can history be repeating itself so starkly in Harrison, and how does Struber find his way out of the trap?
In a manifestation of the same tactical paradox that saw Jesse Marsch’s high-flying regular season teams struggle to break open cagey playoff fixtures, Struber has now created his own version of the energy drink soccer tactical style — with all the inherent good and bad. Struber’s team seeks to smother opposing attacks before they start with intense team pressing high up the field and have largely been successful in doing so, with opposing teams being held to just ten shots on target in four games at Red Bull Arena this year and the team’s stingy defensive record from 2021 being maintained. But this same ferocity in shutting down opponents also forces most of them to resort to conservative tactics that both minimize their own risk and deprive the Red Bulls of the mistakes and transition moments their attack thrives on.
The hiring of the Salzburg native Struber in late 2020 saw Red Bull doubling down on its footballing philosophy to a further degree than ever before in New York, and the catch-22 of the team’s tactical identity appears more pronounced than it ever has been with the current home scoring drought. But Struber’s approach both in his career thus far in New York and in past coaching stops shows a conscious attempt to engineer a way out of the attacking frustrations that the high-press style brings — a frequently prophesied “Plan B” that has already started to bear fruit despite the continued lack of goals.
Past Red Bulls teams were often more than happy to concede possession in games both good and bad, encouraging opponents to overstretch themselves. But Struber’s 2022 team is showing signs of progression towards the rapid ball movement and compact passing build-up that marked the attacking approach taken by his teams in Europe. The Red Bulls held 56% of the ball against Dallas, coming on the heels of the previous week’s match where they split possession 50-50 with fluid ball-playing side Montreal. Struber remarked after the Dallas match on his team’s growing ability to move the ball and control games from a possession standpoint, furthering his conviction in the team’s ability to turn their scoring woes around.
But another comment made by Struber on Saturday night both illustrates the possession-friendly nature of his approach to the Red Bull style and serves as a diagnosis of the player-centric criticisms lodged by many fans, most frequently against central striker Patryk Klimala. Struber admitted after the Dallas game that even the best version of his aforementioned tactical approach does not always result in clear chances for center forwards. Indeed, the most-incubated versions of Struber’s teams at Wolfsberger and Barnsley saw the attack manifest in short passing that dragged opposing backlines out of shape, with attacking midfielders crashing into the resulting space to score.
A more successful version of this dynamic under Struber could even be seen in New York in the early stretches of 2021. In those spring months in which the Red Bulls gathered a decent amount of momentum before an injury crisis derailed the season, the team’s attack saw a strike duo of Klimala and the now-departed Fabio Gomes make diagonal runs wide that often left the ball in space for midfielders — most frequently Cristian Cásseres and Caden Clark but occasionally wingbacks like Andrew Gutman and Kyle Duncan — to sweep into the net. Even outside of Struber’s particular approach, the Red Bull style as seen in New York – most notably in the goalscoring of Bradley Wright-Phillips – is one that relies on inside-out attacking play in which wide breakouts are cut back in front of the goalmouth.
But in recent months under Struber, such plays are not coming to fruition. Even going back to 2021 Struber has defended his strikers against critics by pointing out that his tactics require players at all positions to contribute goals. He has elaborated on his diagnosis in recent weeks by arguing that his team is not showing enough intensity in getting numbers into the box. The team’s late goal on the road against New England earlier this month was a perfect example of the havoc that can be created by Struber’s inside-out attacking approach when Cristian Casseres’s energetic run forced Revolution defenders to turn Ashley Fletcher’s cross into their own net. But on Saturday night, several plays in which Fletcher and Klimala peeled out wide with the ball were met with a lack of eligible receivers in the space left behind. The 20 shots registered by the Red Bulls were rarely clear chances with a forward played into open space, but more forced attempts — medium-range John Tolkin blasts, Omir Fernandez touch-and-turns that aren’t quite quick enough, awkward flash rebounds that Klimala can’t get his head on top of in time.
If there’s one area where Struber can be criticized for a material contribution to his team’s inability to score, it’s been his frequent chopping and changing of the lineup in recent weeks. The fluidity of the team’s positional structure has been most visible in the frequent yo-yoing of Lewis Morgan between wingback and attacking midfield roles, but practically every player in the front half of the team has switched roles week-to-week and within games and even halves. Struber appears focused on adjusting his personnel and formation to each opponent week-by-week, and a lack of chemistry and clarity in on-field roles is beginning to linger beyond the period that can be attributed to early season rust. Though the aforementioned improvement in possession play is allowing the Red Bulls to control games and mitigate danger better than in the past, a lack of chemistry kills the speed and momentum of ball circulation and leaves many spells of possession concluded with an aimless cross into traffic.
Struber nevertheless has an excuse for such charges in that his team is still in assembly mode, particularly in attack. Brazilian designated player Luquinhas finally went a full 90 minutes for the first time in MLS against Dallas on Saturday in a game where Ashley Fletcher made his first start in New York. Caden Clark, so frequently the dagger that pierced teams under siege from Struber’s press in 2021, has been struggling for fitness after a late preseason loan acquisition and injury at youth national team camp. Not even mentioned in this season’s story thus far is the injury recovery of Wikelman Carmona, the Venezuelan teenager who showed promising flashes through the difficult stretches of last year. The team’s perfect road form and continued sturdy defensive structure has given Struber wriggle room to take his time and top off the construction of his team with the right attacking equation.
But judging from the smattering of boos that rang out in Harrison after the Montreal and Dallas results, such room will shrink as the season goes on.