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Red Bulls bet season on wingback play with Duncan, Pasher signings

Team’s emphasis on width was at its most stark in DC bounce-back game, with reinforcements on the way

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SOCCER: JUN 27 MLS - New York Red Bulls at Atlanta United FC
Few would have predicted Kyle Duncan to be the Red Bulls’ savior in 2022.
Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

There was a play that happened at the 60 minute mark of the 0-0 draw between DC United and the New York Red Bulls over the weekend that helps decode a lot about the latter team’s attacking approach this season.

Ball-spraying midfielder Dru Yearwood, sitting deep as one of the spare Red Bulls back to defend on an attacking set piece, collected a ball cleared from the initial play with plenty of time to pick out a pass upfield as both teams regrouped. Recently-introduced substitute striker Patryk Klimala, debuting a new bleached-blonde haircut to perhaps make his forward runs more visible to teammates, made a clever diagonal cut between the shifting muck of DC players scrambling their lines back together that left him free on the near side of the penalty area. But instead of using his cultured right foot to find Klimala in such lip-licking space near the goal, Yearwood instead slightly over-hit a long switch ball to wide man Lewis Morgan, who had been trailing on the opposite left side of play.

The sequence of events can be seen below, with the newly-blonde Klimala seen pumping the brakes on his unmet run on the right edge of the final frame.

In a less clear situation one might blame Yearwood for his choice of pass. But context clues point to Yearwood simply following orders and playing a very deliberate type of ball his manager has instructed him to. This anecdote isn’t meant to judge Yearwood’s decision-making but rather the logic of such a rigid attacking approach that — while somewhat in line with recent tactical trends throughout the sport — has struggled to create consistent danger in Gerhard Struber’s second season at the helm in New York.

After the match in DC, captain Aaron Long stated that the Red Bulls made a conscious effort to arrange their shape and timing around “releasing” their wingbacks for sprints forward as Long put it. Struber himself repeated his continued emphasis from throughout the season on the creation of overloads (where a wide player can combine with an attacking midfielder or striker to create a numerical mismatch) as the key to the team’s attacking play. This approach can be seen starkly in the stretched diagonal and horizontal nature of the team’s individual passing charts — Yearwood’s aforementioned switch to Morgan can be seen as a large white streak.

Charts by McLachBot

Now and in the past, Gerhard Struber’s systems — whether the 4-4-2 diamond or the more recent 5-4-1 setup — have seen possessions frequently funnel to wingbacks, who are relied on to either penetrate up the field, combine with a 10 in the half space to create an overload, or hit a long ball into the corner to drag both teams into the opponents’ half. Such actions are the base of the team’s build-up this summer, with Struber even including an extra wingback against DC in the shape of Dylan Nealis. Rather than use the increasingly-fit Andres Reyes as a more conventional center back, Struber deployed Sean’s younger brother in the central defensive trio in a gambit that yours truly speculated was meant to find the closest possible replica of the long ball service provided by the seemingly-departing Tom Edwards.

But as commented on by this website over the summer, these scenarios have proved difficult to convert into scoring opportunities, and have resulted in anemic stretches from the run of play. The team’s current set of fullbacks have struggled to cross with any threat and rarely have the energy to get to the end line in the first place from their deep starting point. The team’s best offensive performance in recent weeks came in the first half of the 4-3 win over Austin, when a rotated squad with more instinctual foot-on-the-ball players like Caden Clark and Patryk Klimala were able to combine through the middle. Klimala in particular has become something of a fanbase lightning rod for his thin goalscoring record this year, but it continues to be a harsh appraisal when the team’s base tactics are so clearly designed around feeding him and other forwards in wide areas rather than near the goal.

But as recent discourse and analysis around the sport worldwide has shown, Struber is far from alone in his choice of how to attack. As the 2000s/early 2010s 4-2-3-1 craze saw teams across the globe setting up to feed often-inverted mobile wingers, a reaction towards more spread out five-man backlines has seen both a nullification of more advanced wing play and the conversion of many players who would have been conventional wingers ten years ago into wingbacks today — Lewis Morgan and Cameron Harper being prime examples in the current Red Bulls side.

In addition, it’s proving more difficult to attack through the middle in the current tactical age. A fantastic piece this week by Liam Tharme in The Athletic described the dying art of the through ball and the forces bringing such a decline about. Defenses and goalkeepers are more athletic, the spread of pressing tactics has constricted vertical space between lines, and VAR has increased the precision required to properly time such plays. Vertical wide play could very well just be the pragmatic route in both the micro sense of a New York team seeking defensive stabilization and the macro sense of a global football scene where play through the middle is a challenge.

The question raised for the purposes of this site’s purview is just how committed the often-maximalist Gerhard Struber is to this new wave of attacking thought — and it seems a definitive answer came at last week’s summer transfer deadline.

Just seven months into his overseas journey, Kyle Duncan is back in New York. The Brooklyn native who left as a free agent in the offseason to test his luck in Europe with Belgian side KV Oostende will be rejoining the Red Bulls on a brief loan for the season’s final months. Duncan was a reasonably successful enigma throughout his first tenure in New York, one that straddled multiple eras and coaching staffs and was frequently stalled by injury. Even by the time of his renaissance last season under Struber, Duncan could still be suspect on defensive assignments — but he provided much of the team’s attacking danger in 2021, particularly near the end of the season in the more muted offensive approach that Struber appears set to double down on yet again in the home stretch this year.

Duncan provides a fluid dribbling style that opens up more routes towards goal than the north-south jinking style used by incumbents Dylan Nealis, Cameron Harper, and occasionally Lewis Morgan. The path ahead lit by Duncan’s signing was illuminated even further by the waiver acquisition of Tyler Pasher, a wide attacker released by Houston Dynamo last week that the team has hinted will serve as left wingback depth or as an inverted player on the right. Even New York’s lone attacking signing of the window, Elias Manoel, is known to be more comfortable in wide spaces.

But if Duncan and Pasher can’t provide a lift to the existing wingback-focused system, it will prove to be a moment where rigid adherence to a tactical model has taken precedence over putting given players in positions to succeed on their own terms — and make their own choice of entry pass. Despite the emergence of heavily-credential technocratic coaches like Struber who seek to engineer every moment of their team’s play, the sport of soccer is still one where moments of inspired improvisation — sometimes as simple as just feeding your striker when you see him making an unorthodox run — are often the difference.

The Red Bulls were screaming out for structure and purpose after the rudderless Chris Armas era saw tactical identity blurred. But the emerging theme of the current New York project is the growing concern that Struber — the Salzburg native and most evangelical proponent of Red Bull footballing principles (and soda) ever installed in New York — is an exhibit of the plan going too far.