There's an inherent difficulty in explaining midfield play - it's not, strictly speaking, explicable. Nothing in soccer happens without the midfield getting involved. A midfield that eschews the grinding mental work of defending will leave their defense consistently exposed; a midfield which cannot summon moments of inspiration leave their attack consistently moribund. The midfield is implicated, no matter the outcome. What is needed is both ice-cold, clear-eyed calculation and boundless, unpredictable inspiration - a rare combination, to be certain.
The 2014 Chicago Fire approach this midfield conundrum without flinching, plan in place. Of the five men in the midfield, one - the defensive midfielder - will handle the cold-eyed calculation part of the bargain, while the other four form a horizontal dance-line, weaving through improvisational changes that will (one hopes) produce inspiration.
In this 4-1-4-1, the role of Jeff Larentowicz (or, in his absence, Logan Pause) is absolutely crucial - not because he's tasked with creating offense, or running about breaking up plays. No, the role of the first ‘1' is that of the team mind, and his first concerns are organizational - how close are the lines? Who's marking whom just before him? In this system, the defensive midfielder is tasked with answering these questions; in this system, the defensive midfielder is the Mind.
The role is mentally demanding almost beyond belief, managing the spacing of nine other people in real time, and so the Mind's physical role is necessarily limited - which dovetails nicely with a Fire roster boasting two cerebral but aging veterans in the position. Larentowicz is not asked to function as a deep-lying playmaker, nor is he expected to daub on the woad and run screaming about breaking legs. The Mind stays central, keeps everything visible, and guides traffic.
The other four midfielders - the attacking band of four - must supply what the Mind does not. They've got to create special moments with the ball at their feet, and use tiny pockets of space to maintain possession; tackle like demons, pass like angels. When this formation is clicking, the midfield band of four is band of dervishes, whirling about the ball and making it dance about them. What they don't have to do is involve themselves in complicated calculations about the advisability of tackling here or passing that; the the complicated stuff is handled by the Mind, and the Motion just obeys a few crucial precepts:
- Fill the four lanes: As discussed in Tuesday's first of this series, the Fire eschew trying to control the wider parts of the pitch, in attack as in defense. Instead, the four-band of attacking mids divide the field into four lanes, with the outer slightly wider than those on the interior. The fluidity and spacing is maintained simply by making certain all four lanes are filled; when Dilly Duka cuts inside, for instance, Mike Magee will likely move against his cut, sliding diagonally to the outside to balance. When someone moves into your lane, you move into theirs. It's simple, but the movement it produces is unpredictable and difficult to manage.
- Mark up without the ball: Find a way to put pressure on the ball. Keeping your lane in mind, control space and deny simple outlets. If the ‘lanes' system is working, there's a coherent band of four midfielders ready to press upon every turnover - the shape doesn't get so deformed that it invites a simple counter.
- Go ahead and try it: There's a lot of cover out here, as the formation is compact and everyone's covering for each other. If you've got an idea, try it; passing square and waiting for a defender to fall down is no fun for anyone.
- Don't ask the Mind to create: If possession stalls, don't count on the Mind to get all Pirlo back there. When possession needs a kick-start, the two central mids should take turns coming very deep - deeper than the Mind - to get the ball and begin circulation.
- Go get the ball: The outside midfielders are not expected to consistently provide width in this tactic; this typical responsibility of the position is replaced instead with a greater brief to go and win back the ball when out of possession. That said, they're not ultra-wide destroyers; expect to see the wings pinching in opportunistically, but not obsessively.