For some fans, the appointment of Gerhard Struber as the new New York Red Bulls head coach on October 6 came out of left field.
Prior to his appointment as Barnsley F.C. manager last November, Struber had made a name for himself in his native Austria but had only made a few dips into the larger European spectrum during that span. However, his recent work helping to stave off relegation in the EFL Championship put him on the map somewhat.
Former RBNY coach and current FC Red Bull Salzberg manager Jesse Marsch, who crossed paths with the Austrian native during both of their European tenures, told media that Struber is “the perfect man for the job in New York.”
To examine why a quick examination of Struber’s past managing roles could help paint a better picture.
From a leading a Red Bull reserve team to Europa League upsets, and even the English Football League – all the pieces to the Struber resume might show what both fans and the Red Bulls have in store for the foreseeable future.
FC Liefering (2017-19)
2017-18 Record: 14-13-9 (55 pts), 5th out of 10 in the Austrian Football First League (2nd Division, now called Second League or 2. Liga)
Following years of working within Red Bull Salzberg’s youth system, including two stints leading the Under-19 side and a UEFA Youth League Championship, Struber was made a head coach of FC Liefering alongside former Poland National team player Janusz Góra. Since Liefering serves as RB Salzberg’s feeder/reserve team in the Austrian Football First League (2nd Div.), the job seemed like the natural progression for someone who had already been training the organization’s youth players since 2009. Struber had also finished his decade-plus professional playing career with RB Salzberg in 2008, so it was a way to keep a familiar and veteran face within the Red Bull system – not unlike the current New York Red Bulls II head coach John Wolyniec.
Under his command, the team that finished the previous season 2nd in the league (un-promoted as a reserve side) began the year with a record of 4-1-1 (6 pts). The good start was, naturally, fueled by an abundance of youth players such as Enock Mwepu and Dominik Szoboszlai, who both currently play for the first team and their respective national teams. While the defense continued to look shaky at times with unnecessary goals allowed, a carryover from the previous season, Struber was pushing younger talent against some of the best competition Austria had to offer.
A poor stretch between mid-August and the end of September, including a run of 2-1-4 where Liefering went scoreless in 3 straight and eventually lost 6-1 to SV Ried on Sept. 29, brought things back down to earth. Sitting in 5th place in that situation, however, isn’t that much of a mark on his record. The constant shifting of players between the first and reserve side, exacerbated by international call ups a year prior to the 2018 World Cup, would put any coach under strains.
The best side effect of this, however, was Liefering’s ability to shift the scoring around to multiple players. Struber’s high power offensive style helped the team score 58 goals during the season, the fourth-most in the league. In total, 17 different players scored goals during the season with only three getting more than five (including Szoboszlai who led the team with 10).
In the end, Struber’s squad was able to carve out a deserved middle-table spot in the league table for itself, finishing in 5th. The team’s record put it two games behind 4th place SV Ried but four games ahead of the lower end of the table.
Despite taking over full control the next season, Struber left the team in January 2019 to focus on earning his UEFA Pro License. When he left, Liefering once again sat in the middle of the table with a record of 6-1-8 (19 pts) after a poor end to the first half of the season.
Wolfsberger AC (2019)
Record: 8-3-3 (27 pts), 3rd out of 12 in the Austrian Football Bundesliga (1st Div.); Europa League record: 1-1-2 (4 pts), 4th out of 4 in Group J
Just before the start of the 2019-20 Austrian Bundesliga season, Struber was announced as the new manager for Wolfsberger AC in the top division of Austrian Football. The previous year, WAC finished fourth in the regular season and eventually settled into 3rd place in the “Championship Round,” which determines European competition qualification spots for the top six teams, meaning Stuber would be at the helm for the squad’s first trip to the Europa League group stage.
For the first time, Struber had control of a stand-alone professional outfit. Unlike Liefering, Wolfsberger was not affected by a first-team that could (and would) call-up players nor was it reliant on a majority of youth talent.
Through the 14 league games he saw out as a manager, Wolfsberger continued its established success from last season and sat in 3rd place, three games behind LASK but not far ahead of the teams in fourth and fifth place. The team’s started the Europa campaign by beating German Bundesliga side Borussia Mönchengladbach, 4-0, on the road before drawing legendary Italian side AC Roma, 1-1, at home. The team did follow this up by dropping the next two games to Turkish side Istanbul Basaksehir FK without scoring a single goal.
These sorts of results illustrate how and when Struber’s tactics work. Against Borussia, his team never let up and did not allow the home side to ever truly get going offensively, while the next game became a choppy affair as Roma got chances but not a lot of clean looks. When it didn’t work against Istanbul, Wolfsberger got hit on the counter.
Another thing that was different for Struber was that his new unit had the main goal scorer. Shon Weissman, who had just signed with the team in June 2019, led the team in goals with 19 across all competitions and would go on to score 18 more in the league. Working with him at the center, the high press offense became more focused on Weissman. Midfielders like Michael Liendl, Romano Schmid, and Miloš Jojić became assist machines.
On the defensive end, when WAC wasn’t playing Struber’s former bosses and eventual league champions RB Salzburg it was one of the best in the league at stopping opposing offenses. In 12 league games, the team only allowed eight goals through 12 games (including seven clean sheets). Even when including the two blowout losses to RB the team still only allowed an average of just under 1 goal per game with a goal differential of +21.
If Struber had remained with the club, it would have been interesting to see if this system developed further. If after the midpoint of the season, Weissman’s ability to get behind back lines might have been used to press more rather than score immediately. If the defense might have improved and gotten a win against Salzburg (it latter drew twice in the second half of the season). However, in November he left the club when England came knocking. Wolfsberger continued to play well and finished the regular season once again in fourth place and eventually finished third in the Championship Round, meaning a return trip to the Europa League group stage.
Barnsley F.C. (2019-20)
2019-20 Record: 11-7-12 (49 pts), 21st of 24 in EFL Championship (2nd Div.)
The most recent and high profile tenure of Struber’s career, last season’s run with Barnsley F.C. threw him into the fire immediately. When he joined the team in November of 2019, the club had only one win through 16 games and sat last in the EFL Championship (2nd Division). To add insult to injury, the team had been knocked out of the EFL Cup (Carabao Cup), a single-elimination tournament for professional English clubs, by fourth division side Carlisle United (who finished its season in the lower half of its own league table).
Over the next 28 league games, despite improving results the team remained in the relegation zone. A 9-7-12 record over that span, including a five-game winless streak in early 2020, would have normally meant almost certain relegation to EFL League One (3rd Div.). However, in early July, Wigan Athletic F.C. were set to be deducted 12 points at the end of the season due to entering administration. With two games left Barnsley upset Nottingham Forest and Brentford, the latter of which was a win away from automatic promotion to the Premier League. The six points it earned put the team’s final points total at 49, which when combined with other results turned out to be one point above the final relegation spot on the final matchday.
Looking at his work over this time, Struber deserves to be commended for the great escape he managed with Barnsley. When he inherited a team that had gone winless through 15 games, the tall task of turning that ship around would seem impossible to some. It could be the type of situation where some managers steady the ship as best they can and ride it out, hoping to begin the next season with a fresh slate in League One. In better words, stop the bleeding rather than heal the wounds.
The high pressing, attack style Struber brought to the team was nothing close to “riding it out.” His team finished the season as a menace to opposing offenses, leading in statistical categories such as interceptions, tackles, and defensive duals. If his team didn’t have the ball, every member of the playing XI was trained to pressure and force other teams to make mistakes. This did not always amount to wins and at times opposition were able to capitalize on counter-attacks, but the moments when it worked showed Barnsley had a blueprint.
In an interview with Sky Sports News back in April, when the prospect of finishing the season was in doubt, he said in an interview that he wanted to finish the season. That he believed the team could continue to fight and avoid relegation instead of staying up via a non-finished season due to COVID.
“We believe we can stay in the league,” Struber said. “We have a very difficult situation behind us. I took a team in November with no faith, no hope – but I think my ideas have given the players good confidence. The performances and the victories give the players a good feeling and belief they can stay in the league.”
It’s not hard to see why Struber was motivated – the players were responding and just as eager to fight. Despite being in the relegation zone until the 91st minute on the last day, when Clarke Oduor scored his first professional goal and took the lead over Brentford, there was an uptick. Forward Conor Chaplin had his best season in four years, scoring eleven times and playing a key role as a setup man on multiple goals. 22-year-old Jacob Brown, who up until this point had been a B+ player on the team, notched nine assists during the season and scored three times – which almost certainly helped him earn a contract with Stoke City in September.
Four games into the 2020-21 season prior to his departure, struggles returned to haunt Barnsley as they sit winless at 0-1-3. However, like last year, a points deduction has kept them out of the relegation zone for now as Sheffield Wednesday currently sits at -7 points due to a financial penalty. To its credit though, the team did reach the Third Round of the EFL Cup with two clean-sheet victories.
So, what does this say about Gerhard Struber as a manager?
To start, he likes to implement offenses that press high and essentially act as an aggressive defense. That can sometimes lead to open spaces in the back, but he hopes that it’s compensated by the results upfront. He also historically works well with younger players and is able to slot them into rosters in ways that bring out their talents.
With RBNY currently using a lot of youth from both the second team and academy, Struber may be able to fill in gaps left by departures in more ways than former manager Chris Armas did the past few seasons. I still believe the team needs to bring in outside, experienced talent but having someone who can work with one of the better academy systems MLS has is always a plus.
The New York Red Bulls are not a severely struggling team like Barnsley were. New York’s problem is simply being mediocre and misusing talent.
If anything, a new set of experienced eyes to mess with roster placement should get fans excited for the remainder of 2020 and beyond.
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