HARRISON, N.J. — The New York Red Bulls are enjoying another good season. The club currently sits in second place in the Eastern Conference, is in serious contention to win the Supporters’ Shield for the third time in six years, and looks as capable as ever of winning that all-too-elusive first MLS Cup.
Yet as impressive as the Red Bulls have been in 2018, an interesting trend has developed in recent months regarding Alejandro ‘Kaku’ Romero Gamarra — a trend that raises questions as to whether the star playmaker is being used most effectively.
Since Chris Armas took over as head coach of the Red Bulls in early July, Kaku has been given more freedom to play like a traditional No. 10 but that license to roam may actually be hurting the club. The 23-year-old attacker’s bread and butter since his earliest days as a pro has been setting up teammates for goal-scoring chances, but he has gone two months without delivering an assist and, not coincidentally, has been less effective and influential.
“I think Chris — unlike Jesse who always tried to play me in the middle — is looking to find me in different spots, on the outside or another area where I can get freed up,” Kaku told SBI.
“He asks me that when the ball is out wide to try and get close because if I’m in the middle I’m too far,” Kaku later added. “He wants me to not always stay in the middle because if the whole team is pressing or playing with the ball in those areas and I’m (in the center), then it doesn’t help us much.”
Once the league leader in assists this season, Kaku has not set up a goal for the Red Bulls since July 28. While he has scored twice in that span, Kaku has not created any goals, be it from the run of play or off set pieces or even a lucky bounce. His last helper came on July 28 in a 3-2 road loss against the Columbus Crew, and he heads into this Sunday’s marquee showdown with Atlanta United having failed to record an assist in eight straight appearances.
While the Red Bulls have still churned out wins over the past two months by going 5-3-1, their performances in those matches, as well as Kaku’s, have not always been as impressive or commanding as they were during the first half of the year. A part of the reason for that may be because Armas is looking for his playmaker to do some different things tactically.
It seems the manager’s overall aim is to have less positional rigidness for Kaku when the club is in and out of possession. That strategy would make sense, too, as No. 10s are traditionally given more freedom to roam than their teammates so as to find the ball more and have a bigger influence on games.
The overall structured nature of the Red Bulls’ system, however, requires the players to be fixed to their positions. Interchanging of spots practically never happens, so having Kaku float around the field with none of his teammates doing the same might be limiting his passing options. Not to mention that he finds it tougher to play out wide.
“Yeah (I feel more comfortable in the middle),” said Kaku, who has 14 assists this year. “I feel comfortable in the middle because I have more space, because I have more vision to see the forwards and try to assist them.”
Another ripple that could be coming from Armas’ decision to have Kaku drift out of position is the team losing its tight defensive shape. The Red Bulls have been amongst the strongest defensive teams this year, but recently gave up a combined six goals in two games, a development that raised plenty of eyebrows.
If Kaku is pulling away from the middle, that leaves more space for the two central midfielders behind him to fill and other teams to play through. What has made the Red Bulls so successful defensively this year apart from their individual talent is that players are usually not sucked out of position in order to put out fires. With Kaku moving to the flanks, though, players have to move to cover the spaces he used to occupy and that could be having a domino affect.
“It depends on the game. Against D.C. United, I played on the outside,” said Kaku of his positional deployment. “Depending on the game, (Armas) moves me around to find the best position for me. We know I like to play in the middle and he knows it too, but it just depends on the game and whether it’s more important to stay in the middle to help press in that spot so that we can press high and win balls and go directly towards goal.”
Armas’s reasoning for the tactical change may just be that he is looking to take the Red Bulls’ game to another level ahead of what the club is hoping is a deep postseason run. After all, the Paraguayan international is silky smooth on the ball and possesses the type of panoramic view of the field that makes it easy to pick out the killer final pass. Having someone of that caliber on the ball more in theory should only help the Red Bulls in their quest to win that elusive first MLS Cup.
That said, it seems that right now the strategic move is having an adverse effect on both Kaku and the Red Bulls. Yes, the club is still winning games but it is doing so without Kaku setting up his teammates and is thus doing so without him playing to his strengths.