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Words About Shapes: Klopas The Humble

Fire gaffer favors a stable shape, counts on players to express themselves within it

"Think for yourselves, damnit!"
"Think for yourselves, damnit!"
Jamie Sabau

I don't remember huge swaths of my childhood - not really, anyway. My wife has these detailed recollections of parties, and sleepovers, and events that happened in school; I don't remember the name of my second-grade teacher. I've long assumed this deficiency is down to the rather vicious bullying that was a stable feature of my young life for a decade or so - I was sad, it stinks to remember that feeling of helplessness, and so ... I don't.

(I'm getting to the football. Hang in there.)

I do have a few very clear memories, though - it's not like there's absolutely nothing. The incidents I remember tend to be harrowing or exultant. For example, I remember failing utterly as a fifth grader in the spelling bee. The year before, as a fourth grader in the fourth-fifth-and-sixth grade finale, I'd been runner-up to a sixth-grade girl, making me the presumptive favorite. And I felt it - I just knew, just knew that, on spelling bee day, I was going to stride to the microphone like a colossus, spit out the letters almost contemptuously, and end the day by holding up a trophy in front of my (defeated) peers.

So I swaggered to the mic, full of visions of my coming coronation as King of Words. Dudes would respect me! Girls would like me! Or something. And when my first word came, it was absolute cake - ‘jailbird.' This is crazy! Give me something harder!

And I said: "Jailbird. G ..."

In my memory, there's an audible gasp. Icarus does not stick the landing. I could see the word in my head, see it as plainly as I could see the faces of my peers, gripped by the hilarity of my comeuppance. From favorite to the trashcan in one inexplicable mistake. I slumped back to my chair, scaling it by shimmying up one leg and then rolling onto the seat. Fortunately, it had my name on the backrest, or I might've gotten sat on.

Why had I said ‘G?' Sometimes there's no answer. I was caught in a feedback loop of anticipated self-adulation. I thought too highly of myself.

Not every memory is bleak, though - and this is where football comes in, if you're one of those people waiting for it. I clearly remember the first time I played soccer.

It was in sixth grade phys ed class. Our teacher, a longtime family friend named Dan Reedy, explained to us that soccer is the biggest sport in the world, which we had to take on faith, because in 1980 in Indiana the soccer did not exist. He explained the rules with casual succinctness: Here's the ball, there's the goals; don't use your hands or arms; if it goes past the line, it goes to the other team, just like out of bounds in basketball. Basketball was a frequent frame of reference in Reedy's explanation, because you use what you have, and what he had was a roomful of 12-year-old Hoosiers, so - basketball.

He explained the positions with a deft vagueness; defenders, midfielders, forwards. The keeper can use his hands? Everyone wanted to do that. He divided us into teams, and asked, almost as an afterthought, if anyone had played before. One guy, Brian Martin, raised his hand - a kid who'd just moved to town from Arizona, where apparently they played this exotic world sport in the desert, or something. Brian was on my team. He played forward.

The whole thing seemed exquisitely rigged for failure - take a bunch of 12-year-olds who'd never even seen a game of soccer and roll the ball out there. Reedy was encouraging, always, and full of the sort of gently needling sarcasm that gets people to abandon comfortable non-participation. Within about five minutes of kickoff, I found myself as a midfielder, which meant (in my mind) that I should stay around the center circle, since that's the middle, right? It was the usual cloud-of-kids-following-the-ball thing, and I stood off a bit, trying to imagine how I could affect things.

This, then, is my eternal memory of the first time I played - me, sitting in space, watching a cluster of nonsensical effort, scheming how to make an impact without getting involved in all that. Martin emerged from the cloud of kids, somehow keeping the ball right at his feet, and punched it into the net. 40 yards away, still awaiting something, I raised my arms in celebration, and saw a way.

I stayed back, maybe 10 yards in front of the defenders, and waited for the other team to get ahold of the ball - then I'd knife in, take it off them, and look to release the ball to Brian, as he was the only reliable outlet. That accomplished, I'd return to waiting back, looking for loose balls or a breakout from the other guys, and leave the running in that mess around the ball to someone else.

This is one of the eternal beauties of the game - the fact that it forces you to think on your own, to find a way to solve problems, to express yourself - to, in some ways, reveal yourself. It is no accident that the 12-year-old me - the cautious, canny outsider, obsessed with seeing things differently, accustomed to the effort of anticipation through avoiding beatings from bullies - played a cautious, canny role where anticipation was crucial. Somehow my personality simply demanded I play deep in midfield, breaking up attacks and recycling the ball. And now I wonder: Doesn't everyone who plays go through this?

Which brings us, via the arctic circle route, to the 2013 Chicago Fire as they head down the stretch toward postseason. The Fire have gone through several stages this season, starting as one of the league's worst teams - anyone remember getting clowned 4-1 at home by Chivas USA? - before evolving into a rugged, canny squad capable of anything - the ridiculous and the sublime - and finally, in the last month, into a team that wants to come out and dominate play from the opening whistle.

Throughout, they've utilized a rather simple 4-4-2 formation, pushing back against the trend of single-striker sets. The status of that 4-4-2 in the minds of Chicago supporters has changed as the results have changed; many felt it too naive early in the season, too prone to pressure, too static in attack, yet somehow the same arrangement in October feels opportunistic and swashbuckling. How has it changed?

It's changed because the people playing it have changed. Klopas' tactics are very player-centered, based upon loose frameworks of responsibility and opportunity - the tactical equivalent of laissez-faire economics. Let a thousand flowers bloom! Let the people closest to the problem attempt to solve the problem! In this case, the people closest are the players, who are asked not simply to fill a role, but to think about filling a role, and to talk to their teammates about possible solutions. Frank asks our fully-grown professionals to think for themselves.

Now, this is an increasingly unusual solution in soccer. The ascent of Mourinho and his progeny as the default management model - meticulous, controlling egocentrists - has begun to place more responsibility upon the coaching staff, asking them to anticipate any problems and devise solutions, then disseminate those solutions prior to kickoff. It's an understandable, if limiting, solution to the problem of controlling the chaos of a match of football - the NFLization of the beautiful game.

Klopas is a different model of manager: Self-effacing. Positive. Passionate, but not full of pronouncements. And his tactics are based, not upon theories about how to control space (or any other high-falutin' idea), but instead upon getting the best out of the roster. At some level, Frank seems to understand the truth that junior-high PE revealed to me: Players are who they are, and they're most effective when they can do what they do best.

How Klopas' tactics have changed

Klopas started 2013 still very much enamored of the double pivot, and understandably. The 2011 and 2012 editions of the squad depended upon Mexican stalwart Pavel Pardo to control tempo and manage the phases of the game; as Pardo was nearing retirement, he couldn't begin to patrol the space in front of the defense alone, so Frank did the sensible thing and played Logan Pause alongside Pardo. Pause carried a lot of water so that Pardo could think, and look for space, and communicate.

The addition of Jeff Larentowicz, in the wake of Pardo's retirement, meant the Fire had a different look in midfield for ‘13. Big Red lined up next to Pause, and each seemed to wait for the other to fill the ‘Pardo role.' Meanwhile, a great deal of water was carried to no place in particular. Klopas adjusted in midseason by slotting Alex alongside Larentowicz and asking him to do a fair bit of dirty work. And, long story short, it mostly worked. Big Red needed help in the anchor role, but not full-time help, so Alex's more attacking natural game gave the side balance going forward.

The whole thing changed, again, with the addition of Egidio Arevalo Rios. A couple of games were enough to demonstrate the truth of Rios - he is absolutely world class in the anchor role at the base of midfield, and absolutely average when asked to create things going forward. When paired with Larentowicz or Pause in a double pivot, his impact is blunted; his magical anticipation seems to get occluded when there's a teammate impinging upon his space.

So, again, an adjustment was needed, and again, Frank stayed within the framework of the 4-4-2, redefining roles or asking the players to do the same. Big Red came in to play the Pardo role, but in his way, careening around deep in the opponent's midfield, summoning chaos as a forward destroyer. Rios stays back, where his uncanny ball-recovery skills are like a warm blanket for the entire team. The fullbacks, emboldened, step forward to press, allowing the wings to press, and somehow the Fire morph from an XI who keep their shape but not the ball to an aggressive, pressing group.

Here, then, is the essence of what Klopas brings to the table, tactically: He encourages his players to do what they do best, and devises a team shape to try to get the best out of the players he's got. If Caleb Porter is Portland's Andres Villas-Boas, then Frank could be our Roy Hodgson. Klopas understands something Mourinho never truly will: It's not about him. It's about the group.

In his short managerial career, Klopas' teams have made a habit out of rallying from bad positions to scrape out a result - witness the Fire's tendency to take points after giving up the first goal. We heard this winter that players want to come play for Frank, likely because he's not the kind of boss who gets his ego in the way. The tea leaves indicate that Klopas is a players' manager, which makes sense, given the tactical predilections I've described - a gaffer who lets you think for yourselves? Yes, please.

There's downsides, of course. Is Klopas going to come up with a tactical wrinkle which exposes the opposition? Is he going to consistently scheme a way for the squad to out-perform its talent? It seems unlikely, at this point. What we can say is that he will find ways for players in good form to have an impact on the game - and isn't that what management is really about?

We have a man in charge who believes in the community, believes in the city, and bleeds Fire red; a man whose first thought is the group, not his career. His tactics, widely derided as naive, on further thought reflect a commitment to showcasing his players and their talent, not his overweening genius.

Do we really want a manager who's so certain he's The Difference? Who will swagger up to the mic and miss ‘jailbird?'