Chicago Fire: Tactical preview to the 2019 season

HARRISON, NEW JERSEY- APRIL 21: Veljko Paunovic, head coach of Chicago Fire, on the sideline during the New York Red Bulls Vs Chicago Fire MLS regular season game at Red Bull Arena on April 21, 2018 in Harrison, New Jersey. (Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images)
HARRISON, NEW JERSEY- APRIL 21: Veljko Paunovic, head coach of Chicago Fire, on the sideline during the New York Red Bulls Vs Chicago Fire MLS regular season game at Red Bull Arena on April 21, 2018 in Harrison, New Jersey. (Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images) /

With Opening Day fast approaching, now is the perfect time to step back and look at some possible tactical set-ups for the Chicago Fire in 2019.

With the Major League Soccer season fast approaching, Chicago Fire fans are in a real weird place between quiet resignation and blind optimism. Every season brings something new and exciting to the table and every single time, that new thing has done nothing to help (except in 2017, but whatever).

This year, the Fire saw massive upheaval in terms of personnel. They lost pretty much all of their depth players and have made a few moves in the starting XI as well. Certainly not the ‘core group’ that was proclaimed those years ago. But still, it’s new personnel and coach Veljko Paunovic will need to find a way to manage it. One of the major criticisms of Paunovic has been his inability to establish a specific style for the team to follow.

So, here are a few suggestions for the 2019 campaign.

The Pentagon

This formation comes as a suggestion from a few fans on Twitter. After the signing of CJ Sapong, there were questions about how he would fit into the Chicago offense. While there is always the possibility of using him as a super-sub, since I don’t think anyone trusts Elliot Collier to be good striker depth, it seems a bit weird to have a player of his caliber sitting on the bench. So, the people came up with the idea of a 3-5-2. Well, this is that monstrosity.

The Pentagon - Football tactics and formations
The Pentagon - Football tactics and formations /

There are two different ways to pull off a 3-5-2. You will have two wing players, that’s inevitable, but it’s about where you place them. In this version, I chose to make them wing-backs because the Fire need that extra defensive support. So that leaves three central-ish midfield positions. Bastian Schweinsteiger would have to be one of the three central defenders due to the fact that the Fire have pretty much no one else to play the position, so that leaves a choice between Dax McCarty, Djordje Mihailovic, Aleksander Katai, Przemysław Frankowski, Brandt Bronico, and Mo Adams. I chose the first three.

But with this central three, it just doesn’t sit right with me. There’s a number 10 central-minded player, a number eight/six central-minded player, and a winger who can play centrally when needed. The logic that ensued with this is that McCarty would have to take some sort of absolute center, box-to box role. So he stays right in the middle, and the furthest back of the two. Since both Katai and Mihailovic can play the number 10, why not make them dual number 10s? This especially helps as Mihailovic excelled for the USMNT in the dual-10 system. The problem here is that if you have finishers of the ball like Nikolic and Sapong, you need players out wide. Sure, the wing-backs can help, but they can only do so much. Katai can play out wide, but Mihailovic can’t. It’s just a very inefficient system and I don’t like it. On the other hand, it’s completely plausible that the Fire would use it.

Winning Ugly

The Chicago Style of winning has never really been pretty. Back during the Chicago White Sox’s good years with Ozzie Guillen, Ozzie said, ‘A win is a win. You can call it ‘winning ugly’ or whatever, but when you get ‘Ws’, it doesn’t matter.’ I think the Fire need to stop acting so pretty and start winning ugly. This is how to do it.

Chicago Style - Football tactics and formations
Chicago Style - Football tactics and formations /

First, I want to quickly mention that once again, I’m not sure Frankowski has earned a starting spot after his performance in the preseason. If anything, waiver pick-up Christian Martinez has shown the desire and drive to start over him.

Anyway, the first thing I want to talk about here is the defense. On the wings, I don’t think Diego Campos is a right-back. I think he is a forward and a great foul sponge. However, he’s shown promise at the position and I trust him there more than I trust Nico Hasler. Edwards has experience in the left wing-back position from back when he was with Toronto FC, so I don’t have too many worries about him.

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The big thing of contention about this defensive set-up is Schweinsteiger appearing to be a center-back. This is a technicality. In the early days of the Chicago Fire, the team had a guy named Luboš Kubík. He played a position known as a ‘libero’. This meant that he worked as almost a windshield wiper for the defense. Not quite a center-back, not quite a holding midfielder; a libero is pretty much everywhere up and down the spine. Schweinsteiger is the perfect guy to play this position, since it allows him to step back and play at center-back at times and at other times he can push forward and help the attack. Having two other center-backs back there helps to continue to cover for the Fire who have had a very weak defense recently.

Here comes the ugly part of “winning ugly”. I love five-man backlines in MLS. It’s almost a cheat code the way that it performs so well. It has been utilized by teams like the New York Red Bulls, Sporting KC, and Atlanta United. The difference between their five-man back lines and this backline is that they control the game through playing out from the back, by pushing and pulling apart the opposing defense to find tears in their structures. The Chicago Fire defense cannot handle that kind of pressure, they need to keep the ball in the opponent’s end. But that gets to another problem with the team in that even when a man up, there seems to be an inability to actually push through and finish. So I propose a solution: Stab.

That’s right, my motto for this season of Chicago Fire is: Don’t pull, stab. What this means is that the Fire need to move the ball quickly and with purpose into the opposing end. Not too many fancy touches, no one should be on the ball for very long. The point of the attack is to create openings in the opponent’s defense by pushing forward as quickly as possible. This can be done by bombarding the box with crosses to Nikolic or cutting runs by Katai. So long as the ball is moving towards the goal and the defense is confused, this tactic may work. The team doesn’t quite have the quality of passers, but they have a lot of players who can create quickly and score directly.

Bench Mob

Before I get to the last point of this article, I want to give a quick shout-out to the potential bench mob the Chicago Fire have on their hands.

Bench Mob - Football tactics and formations
Bench Mob - Football tactics and formations /

During the preseason, some of the best moments this club saw came from the second-string players. A lot of chances were created. Unfortunately, though, there were only a couple of finishes. But still, many of them made cases for the starting spot. Guys like Martinez, who I mentioned earlier, may have won that winger spot, Mo Adams, who’s an absolute tank in the holding midfield position, and Brandt Bronico who has shown creative flashes on the ball when needed.

By putting this line-up together, one thing is shown bare and that is the complete and utter lack of depth at center-back. There have been murmurings about another center-back signing before the season starts, but that has yet to be seen as of writing this article and, right now, the only real option is Grant Lillard, who has apparently been unimpressive in training and seen very little playing time. Hopefully, this deal can be completed before the season gets going, but it seems unlikely.

The Mind of Paunovic

While all of this ideal tactic talk is great, there’s still one big thing missing: Everyone plays with a 4-2-3-1. There’s no escaping it. I expect that on opening day against the LA Galaxy, the Chicago Fire will line up like this.

Pauno's Picks - Football tactics and formations
Pauno's Picks - Football tactics and formations /

This is not ideal. This is not going to play to the strengths of the team. This is not going to protect their weaknesses. This is just a straight up expectation that I have for Paunovic to play with a 4-2-3-1 and try to hold possession. You can see there is improvement in this line-up from any 4-2-3-1 line-up from last year, but there are also losses. A healthy Mihailovic at number 10, but no Matt Polster at right-back. A true starting goalkeeper in David Ousted, but no defensive depth after the trade of Jonathan Campbell.

There’s a lot to be said about how this offseason found the Fire a surprising amount of talented players, but every step forward concealed a step backwards. There was a stated plan from General Manager Nelson Rodriguez that the Fire would build with a core of five or six players over the course of three or four years. But there aren’t any players who’ve been at the club anywhere close to that long. This affects the tactics used by Paunovic in the run-up to matches because everyone has to learn a new system and it’s hard to find a system that works when the team seems to have been built out of patches. It’s like a tire made of tire patches.

Next. Chicago Fire: 3 remaining positions of need. dark

With that being said, there’s still optimism with the moves that have been made and, even if the team is not tactically perfect, there’s still a way for the Fire to win through sheer determination.