Chicago Fire: Taking Inventory Of 2010′s Formations

Posted In Features - By Richard Farley On Thursday, March 3rd, 2011 With 2 Comments

In 2010, the Chicago Fire were one of the teams in Major League Soccer the wasn’t married to the 4-4-2, though there was a heavy courtship period. According to the inventory at Football Lineups (one which has a convincing amount of detail), Carlos de los Cobos started a 4-4-2 variant in 16 matches.

After a slow start to the season (getting only one point in three matches), Carlos de los Cobos switched to a five man midfield, staying with that basic set-up until late August, around the time the team acquired Freddie Ljundberg from the Seattle Sounders. From the August 28 match in Seattle through the end of the season, Chicago was a two forward team, often using Ljundberg in a withdrawn role.

We’ll get into the data in a moment, but here are some abstract-esque conclusions:

  1. Chicago was much better with five midfielders, and more specifically,
  2. The Fire were very good when starting in a 4-2-3-1.
  3. The team was most successful when in that formation, with Marco Pappa playing centrally.
  4. Two deep midfielders helped avoid Logan Pause alone in a holding role, something that was never successful for the Fire.

Here’s the breakdown. The first is general. The second distinguishes the 4-4-2 and 4-5-1 variants, attaching Chicago’s record in matches where that formation was used. For reference, Chicago managed 1.20 points per game in the 2010 season.

Note: After the original posting, we went back and added a sixth column to each table. The “difference” column tries to give you an idea of how much the team benefited from the strategy. The number is a percentage improvement in points per game that strategy held over the team’s full season performance.

Formation Times Started Ratio Record (W-L-D) Points Per Game Difference
4-4-2 16 53.3% 3-8-5 0.88 -27%
4-5-1 14 46.7% 6-4-4 1.57 +31%
Table 1 - Chicago Fire formation frequency, results

Here’s that second view, breaking down the two base formations into their variants, but one caveat. Football Lineups is one of the most useful sites on the internet, but if you use it enough you notice the deeper you dig, the less certain you can be about to details. I suppose that’s how life is in general, but when trying to accurately identify soccer formations, things can get a bit dicey. But with that caveat in mind:

Formation Times Started Ratio Record (W-L-D) Points Per Game Difference
4-2-3-1 12 40.0% 6-3-3 1.75 +46%
4-1-3-2 8 26.6% 0-3-5 0.63 -47%
4-4-2 4 13.3% 1-3-0 0.75 -37%
4-4-1-1 4 13.3% 2-2-0 1.50 +25%
4-1-4-1 2 6.7% 0-1-1 0.50 -58%
Table 2 - Chicago Fire detailed formation frequency, results

Chicago was much more successful with a five man midfield; specifically, the 4-2-3-1, the set-up de los Cobos initially used as a response to the Fire’s slow start. Between its first use on April 17 at DC United and Chicago’s loss at Columbus on July 3, the Fire was 4-0-2 when using the system. The only other losses the team suffered while starting that set-up were at home to Real Salt Lake (0-1, July and at Houston (3-4, August 21).

Something else happened around that July 3 loss: de los Cobos stopped using Marco Pappa as the central, attacking midfielder. Part of this may have been Pappa’s health, with the Guatemalan missing time in the middle of the season, but part of this may have been coaching prerogative, as Pappa was used on the left and right of midfield during the season.

For a formation like the 4-2-3-1, one so dependent on the play of that fulcrum midfielder, starting the right player in the middle can make or break your approach’s success. At least, that’s what this look at the numbers shows, identifying who de los Cobos was apt to start as the creative presence in the 4-2-3-1.

Central, Attacking Midfielder Times Started Ratio Record (W-L-D) Points Per Game Difference
Marco Pappa 5 41.7% 3-0-2 2.20 +83%
Baggio Husidic 4 33.3% 2-2-0 1.50 +25%
Freddie Ljundberg 3 25.0% 1-1-1 1.33 +11%
Table 3 - Chicago Fire central attacking midfield (4-2-3-1) frequency, results

Broadening the discussion beyond the 4-2-3-1, here is a look at other central midfield options Chicago used, though I’ve teased out the deep sitting midfielders. We’ll look at those in a second. For now, here are the central and attacking midfield options de los Cobos employed.

Formation Times Started Ratio Record (W-L-D) Points Per Game Difference
Marco Pappa 5 16.7% 3-0-2 2.20 +83%
Baggio Husidic 5 16.7% 2-2-1 1.40 +17%
Freddie Ljundberg 5 16.7% 1-2-2 1.00 -17%
Logan Pause, Peter Lowry 3 10.0% 2-1-0 2.00 +67%
Peter Lowry 3 10.0% 0-1-2 0.67 -44%
Other deployments: 2 starts - Lowry/Husidic, Pause/Husidic, 1 start - Husidic/Justin Mapp, John Thorrington, Pause, Pause/Thorington, Pause/Bratislav Ristic
Table 4 - Chicago Fire central midfield frequency, results

Now let’s look at the main deep lying midfield deployments:

Deep Midfield Times Started Ratio Record (W-L-D) Points Per Game Difference
Logan Pause 9 30.0% 0-3-6 0.67 -44%
None (Flat) 8 26.7% 3-5-0 1.13 -6%
Logan Pause, Baggio Husidic 6 20.0% 3-1-2 1.67 +39%
Other deployments: 2 starts - Husidic/Peter Lowry, Pause/Mike Banner, Pause/Wilman Conde, John Thorrington
Table 5 - Chicago Fire deep-lying midfield frequency, results

The “None” distinction deserves some explanation, since that’s were I grouped the 4-4-2 and 4-4-1-1 set-ups, formations which can used their central pairing deep. With that in mind, it’s easy to group “None” with the Pause/Husidic combination and conclude Chicago was much better when employing a tandem. Logan Pause as a one man shield did not work.

And one more piece of detail, this time looking at forwards. Chicago had five different combinations they used at least three times, Brian McBride as a lone striker being the most popular.

Formation Times Started Ratio Record (W-L-D) Points Per Game Difference
Brian McBride 11 36.7% 5-3-3 1.64 +37%
Collins John 3 10.0% 2-0-1 2.33 +94%
Calen Carr/Freddie Ljundberg 3 10.0% 1-2-0 1.00 -17%
Patrick Nyarko, Brian McBride 3 10.0% 0-1-2 0.67 -44%
Collins John, Freddie Ljundberg 3 10.0% 0-3-0 0.00 -100%
Other deployments: 2 starts - John/McBride, Nery Castillo/John, 1 start - Stefan Dimitrov, McBride/Castillo, Ljundberg/McBride
Table 6 - Chicago Fire forwards frequency, results

All six tables point toward the same conclusion. Chicago was markedly better when playing a 4-2-3-1, specifically when Marco Pappa was in the central, attacking midfield position. That formation also has the virtue of giving Logan Pause help in deep midfield.

Still, one more factor could be influencing these numbers. Perhaps Chicago just happened to play 4-2-3-1 against bad teams, making this data more a function of opposition strength than team performance.

The numbers would support that argument, though considering there were only five MLS teams who Chicago didn’t play a 4-2-3-1 against at least once, it’s unclear that numbers the numbers are meaningful. Only Dallas, Seattle, Colorado, San Jose and Toronto failed to face Chicago’s most effective set-up. They combined averaged 41.2 points, once you take the points they earned against the Fire out. The set of teams that faced Chicago’s 4-2-3-1? They averaged 37.8 points, a 3.4 point difference that was less than the difference between Dallas and Colorado’s end of season point totals.

About Richard Farley -

Displaying 2 Comments
Have Your Say

  1. Chris says:

    Wow this is a great article going into serious detail.

    Fire fans hate the lone striker, but it seems that should be reconsidered.

    • Kevin McCauley says:

      I think the Fire’s personnel is great for 4-1-4-1 or 4-2-3-1. Pause and Maric will probably make a very good central pairing, and I like Pappa, Bone, and Nyarko as that band of three behind a striker.

Leave a comment

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>