If they hope to snap their three-game losing streak, and a season that has been stuck in a malaise, they need to push their star midfielder further up the field.
Right now, Kljestan is stuck in the proverbial no man’s land of midfielders. Supposedly, Kljestan is to play a No. 10 role tucked right behind forward Bradley Wright-Phillips in a 4-2-3-1, or holding down one of two central roles in a 4-2-2-2 scheme behind two forwards. It is the role where he saw so much success last year and got himself back into the picture with the United States national team.
Instead, what is happening is that Kljestan is dropping back too deep to retrieve the ball and is further from goal in years past. This cuts down on his ability to be a playmaker, to act like a true No. 10, thereby cutting down on the number of scoring opportunities he can create.
So even though Kljestan is seeing plenty of the ball, he’s not in a position where he can be as dangerous. That hurts the Red Bulls as a team and their ability to create chances and score goals.
In their three-game losing streak, the Red Bulls have scored one goal.
“The best part about playing in the No. 10 spot is trying to find balls close enough to Brad to make a difference. Statistics have shown that I have not gotten the ball enough higher up the field, and we haven’t sustained enough possession to find me in good spots, that I have naturally drifted back to be on the ball more. Yeah, it’s going to take away chances to link up with Brad, so we have to be better in possession,” Kljestan said Wednesday.
“I’ve said it the past couple of games, we have guys that are not playing confidently on the ball right now. It may mean that I have to drop deeper to try and get the ball, try and get the game going for us.”
Head coach Jesse Marsch wasn’t opposed to Kljestan dropping back deeper, when necessary. Earlier this year, he encouraged his star midfielder to increase his defensive output. But on Wednesday, he saw the inherent risk in having his creative playmaker lying too deep to be effective.
“Obviously, the negative is that it takes him away from goal where he’s really good at making plays. Trying to get that balance right is important,” Marsch said. “I do think getting Sacha on the ball more for our team is always a good thing. Whether it’s from a deeper position or attacking spots, it helps us develop a rhythm. It helps him develop a rhythm.”
Earlier this year, the 4-2-2-2 was tried and rendered Kljestan inefficient, forcing him out onto the wings to find space and away from the center of midfield. Now, the current 4-2-3-1 doesn’t seem to have the personnel that would allow him to float into pockets and be effective in the final third.
Whether the Red Bulls switch to a midfield diamond or go to a 3-6-1, the answer is perhaps less about the formation and maybe more about the pieces around Kljestan.
The entirety of the attack has been in a bit of a funk this year, an issue that is compounded with Kljestan needing to track back so deep as to cut into his offensive efficiency. An MVP finalist last year, it isn’t that Kljestan is playing worse, but simply that the cogs around him aren’t putting him in as good positions to create and be as dangerous as he was in 2016.
He can’t answer the reason for their lack of success, just that there seems to be an issue that extends beyond the midfield.
“I don’t know,” Kljestan said.
“It’s not just the midfield, we ask our defenders to pass out of the back as well. There are some guys — I don’t know what it is. If I could put my finger on it, I’d cure them right away. I’d cure myself, I’d cure the team. We’ve just got to better. I don’t know a way to find confidence for these guys, but just be daring to play, especially when we play at home. We should play with nothing to lose.”