Even many of those who consider themselves avid observers of Major League Soccer would probably be surprised to hear that Gerhard Struber more than likely remains the manager in the league with the highest stock overseas.
The New York Red Bulls team he took over at the end of last year are currently 6-4-10 and sitting well outside the Eastern Conference playoff slots with two months to go in the schedule. The rebuilt squad that had picked up a decent amount of momentum under Struber in the season’s early months has sputtered, particularly on the attacking side of the ball, in recent weeks.
But a since-dialed back report from Jordan Davies of The Sun on Monday indicated that Struber’s name had surfaced in connection to the Crystal Palace job currently held by Patrick Vieira - and it’s not even the Austrian’s only Premier League rumor of the week. As noted in yesterday’s OaM Expert Guide, Struber’s name is hovering around the head coach role at Watford FC for the second time in as many years. As of early Monday he led listed betting odds to take over the suburban London club ahead of A-list names such as Frank Lampard and Eddie Howe, as the notoriously ruthless Watford board considers discarding Xisco.
In all likelihood, the same factors that likely turned Struber away from Watford a year ago will keep his eyes from wandering astray this time. Like his previous team Barnsley FC, it is a somewhat low-ceiling club known for frantic managerial turnover and yo yo-ing between divisions. But roles with even more upside have continued to come Struber’s way even as he continues to put down roots in New York.
In late May it was recently-relegated German power Werder Bremen who reportedly had Struber at or near the top of their managerial wishlist. While Bremen’s second division status this season certainly takes some of the prestige off of the opportunity, the chance to rebuild a club with a proud history and sound structure in place is enticing for any manager, particularly one as young and ambitious as Struber.
The problem for Bremen and similar clubs is - Struber is already in such a situation. The 44-year-old came to New York to pursue his first foundational project in what has been thus far a flighty career. After bemoaning lack of ambition in previous quick-but-successful stops at Wolfsberger and Barnsley, Struber moved across an ocean to join the top-to-bottom revamp of the Red Bulls being undertaken by former Wolverhampton Wanderers technical chief Kevin Thelwell since last year. After quickly proving himself as a professional-level manager and being handed his first opportunity to build a structure of his own, Struber emphasizes patience and steps in a process with his young team in New York and is increasingly focused on the 2022 season in word and deed. Struber is becoming more settled in New York, and with the team’s form sputtering in recent weeks and questioning of his talents on the rise, he now has a professional point to prove in MLS before his next career move.
But then, as he has in previous roles, Struber could just wash his hands of the whole situation and take another gig being offered. As mentioned by Ross Haley in OaM yesterday, this is part of the trade-off when clubs at MLS level step outside of convention and hire ambitious and in-demand managers. Indeed the Red Bulls under a figure like Thelwell are an organization where the head coach role is designed to more interchangeable than at most clubs, and New York will likely be better prepared to handle an abrupt managerial exit than they were in the wake of Jesse Marsch’s promotion to Europe.
Struber’s continued commodity status is also an important reminder that short-term dips in results don’t mean a once-winning manager has lost his skills, and competent clubs know this. Claudio Ranieri had left the Greece national team job in disgrace in the immediate lead-up to his miracle success at Leicester City, while Arsene Wenger was working in Japan when given the opportunity to revolutionize the Premier League with Arsenal. The Red Bulls haven’t hit a skid in form over the summer because Struber and his staff have stopped trying or lost imaginary Football Manager attribute points. Coaching is about tactics and systems and licenses but it’s also about an equation of intangible communicative and social qualities that fit certain places and contexts and are largely unaffected by win and loss records - and worst of all, largely undetectable by fans and bloggers.
The Red Bulls are playing an infinite game with a manager they know well and have placed a great deal of faith in, and remain unlikely to be wavered by short-term challenges. But they will also be expecting Gerhard Struber to reciprocate such faith.