MLS Tactics Tuesday: The Constantly Changing Chicago Fire

Posted In Features - By Kevin McCauley On Tuesday, May 10th, 2011 With 3 Comments

The Chicago Fire are not in great form in MLS right now, having failed to win in all of their last five games. Seven games into the season, the Fire have recorded just one victory, a 3-2 win over Sporting Kansas City, the team with the worst record in the league. Last week, a twitter user by the handle of @ugly11 suggested that we take a look at the Chicago Fire in these two tweets. I’m happy to oblige.

Of course, I could provide explanations with a quick 500 words, but I’m an actual crazy person. Once I got going, I couldn’t stop, and I’ve watched four different Chicago Fire games from start to finish over the last couple of days. Yes, it was painful.

Our reader mentioned formation and lack of possession as problems for the Fire, but I’ve heard another complaint from a lot of other Fire fans: Marco Pappa’s lack of work rate. While it’s not absolutely apparent that Pappa is lazy when it comes to tracking back on defense and harassing  attacking players, he certainly does have a deficiency in this department. He may not be lazy, but it’s one of three possible issues. Either Pappa is lazy, he is not an intelligent player, or Carlos de los Cobos is asking him not to track back. These would all be very bad things.

Exhibit A: The game against the Seattle Sounders. In most of their games this year, the Fire have played Patrick Nyarko on one wing and Pappa on the other. Here’s a screenshot taken 10 seconds before a goal, as Kasey Keller makes a long pass to start an attack. He received this pass from his defense, who had possession for a decent period of time. The Fire had not been attacking. Therefore, there is no reason for Pappa to be caught upfield.

Uh oh. If you watched this game, you probably know what’s about to happen. If you didn’t watch this game, Pappa’s absence is about to be a major problem for the Fire. Left back Gonzalo Segares is about to end up in a situation where he is marking two players, which if you didn’t know, is impossible. Here’s another screenshot, taken less than five seconds after the first one.

I actually went into the research for this article with the hypothesis that Pappa’s lack of defensive ability is overstated by fans with a footy value system that centers around work rate and players contributing in multiple phases of play, but my hypothesis was proven false. Pappa’s defensive liabilities are a problem in a 4-4-2 setup, which is what the Fire played in this game. The Fire needed Pappa to be a two-way player. He wasn’t.

It wasn’t all bad for the Fire, though. Patrick Nyarko, who is almost certainly the Fire’s most underrated player, set up their goal and was very good throughout the match. Diego Chavez finished the chance, and he’s also been a positive for the Fire so far. Those two have been good in almost every game that they’ve played, but not as much praise can be given to the rest of the team.

The possession was an issue in this game just as it was in the Houston game that @ugly11 mentioned, as Seattle had the ball for 60 percent of the game. While a lot of this comes down to the fact that Seattle just has better players than Chicago, there are tactical reasons for this as well. In this game, Mauro Rosales played as a second striker/attacking midfielder hybrid, dropping into the space between the central midfielders and the center forward, O’Brian White. Logan Pause and Michael Videira played on the same level in this game, and that level was right in the middle of the pitch. Both the gaps between the strikers and midfield and the midfield and defense were fairly large, and both of Chicago’s central midfielders were concerned with holding their position above all else. This allowed Osvaldo Alonso to dominate on his end of the pitch, while Rosales had lots of time and space on the ball going the other way. Carlos de los Cobos did not get his tactics right on that day.

The next game I looked at was the game against Los Angeles Galaxy, in which the Fire’s opponents were missing two of their star players, Landon Donovan and Juninho. When I saw the lineup, consisting of three central defenders, Segares, and Davis Paul, I assumed a 3-5-2. I saw Paul play as a wing back for the Fire in this formation in a preseason game in Charleston, SC, and I thought he was brilliant. Instead, this turned into a disorganized 4-4-2 where Jalil Anibaba, the right back, wanted to be a central defender. Meanwhile, on the other side, attacking fullback Segares and two-way winger Paul wanted to occupy the exact same positions, all the time. Videira and Pause were generally ineffective again. The Fire had a lot of goal attempts, but not a lot of quality ones. A weakened Galaxy side came out with a deserved 2-1 win.

The third game I looked at, the one that our reader initially asked about, was the Houston game. Somehow, this game ended in a 1-1 draw, but the score was very fortunate for the Fire. Houston were the much better team and their possession advantage only increased when Colin Clark was substituted on in the 67th minute. Geoff Cameron was the best midfielder on the pitch, and Will Bruin was impressive as well. The Fire’s goal was absolutely gifted to them by Corey Ashe, who slipped and gave the ball away to Pappa to start the move. Other than that, the only opportunities that the Fire created were off great passes by Nyarko, who strengthened my claim that he’s the Fire’s most underrated player.

However, in this game, our reader’s claim that the formation was a 4-1-4-1 was false. It was very much a 4-4-2 with Dominic Oduro and Chaves playing as strikers. That 4-1-4-1 makes an appearance this week, though, and it could have a future in Chicago.

The Chicago Fire drew the Vancouver Whitecaps 0-0 on the weekend, but it was quite possibly their best performance of the season, save for some problems. Dominic Oduro played out on the right wing, and he was very ineffective. I’m not entirely sure why he played there, even in the absence of Nyarko. Carlos de los Cobos had Davis Paul available on his bench, and he’s a much better winger than Oduro. He’s not as fast, but he is better in literally every category.

Chicago held 65 percent of the possession in this game, and their midfield was the reason why. Departing from their normal setup, Chicago played a formation that one could call a 4-1-4-1 or a 4-4-1-1, depending on your explanation. It’s really not that important, honestly. What is important is how those three central players with some midfield presence operated, and how it affected the team. Corben Bone, making a rare start, was certainly a central midfielder, but we can argue all day long about where to place Daniel Paladini and Gaston Puerari in a formation in numerical notation. Palladini was the most defensive of the three midfielders and Puerari the most attacking, as they set up in a staggered manner in the middle of the pitch. This allowed them to keep the ball very well. Bone, in particular, passed the ball very well throughout the game and made a case for extended playing time in the future. Unfortunately, Puerari often dropped too deep, leaving Chaves isolated up top, while Oduro was poor.

Carlos de los Cobos is definitely onto something with his most recent setup, and he could have the Fire back into a playoff position shortly with a few minor tweaks. If a healthy Nyarko or Davis Paul is in for Oduro while Puerari stays closer to Chaves, the Fire will be able to create more chances without sacrificing possession numbers or defensive stability. CdlC has utilized a variety of formations in his time with the Fire, and he’s finally onto a great idea. Hopefully he runs with it and makes slight tweaks instead of making another major formation change.

About Kevin McCauley - Kevin McCauley is the Editor in Chief of The Allocation Order. He is also the world football editor at SBNation Soccer.

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  1. [...] Kevin McCauley: The Constantly Changing Chicago Fire [...]

  2. merwin says:

    The Fire have played the same formation with the same personnel starting the past two games. In the first game against Colorado the Fire yielded the bulk of possession 64%-36%. While earning a 1-1 draw. So we will have to wait and see if this formation can hold a bit more possession. Paladini has been very good so far in the deep midfield position eliminating turnovers from that spot.

    At times this season Marco Pappa has worked hard defensively. When he has everything working he is an able defender. When his offensive game drifts into “I’m going to dribble at 4 guys and not pass” his defense suffers along with the rest of his game. I think the multiple attempts at formations this season are in part due to trying to hide Marco’s defensive limitations and accentuate his offensive strengths

    Patrick Nyarko is really good I think every Fire fan would acknowledge he is a key member of the team. Yet he doesn’t have any sort of shot and is a below average finisher. He can get himself into great spots and is an accomplished passer but his offensive game is limited somewhat due to his inability to put dangerous shots on goal. His hustle, defensive work and ability to get fouled are great attributes and he should be on the field when fully healthy.

    Your evaluation of Davis Paul is generous. I watched the same pre season games you did and yes he looked good. At the same time he looked lost in his first half of MLS experience and that can’t be overlooked. Oduro has provided some spark,in the game against Colorado he provided the assist on Pappa’s goal. At this point in his career Davis Paul has yet to muster a shot on goal or create a goal for one of his teammates. To claim he is “better” than Oduro is a giant leap of faith.

  3. [...] is a new Post at MLS Tactics Tuesday: The Constantly Changing Chicago Fire – The …. The Chicago Fire are not in great form in MLS right now, having failed to win in all of their last [...]

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