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Words about Shapes: Chicago vs. New England - MLS #2

Friedrich's injury status threatens to change the Fire's basic shape and approach

A return to health for Arne Friedrich would be ever so lovely.
A return to health for Arne Friedrich would be ever so lovely.
David Banks

A group mind is a fragile construct, and group thoughts are fleeting things, especially in the rough and tumble of a soccer match. All the planning in the world, all the thinking on space and movement, all the time spent walking through possibilities on the training pitch, all of it melts like a freak June snowfall when and if some members of the group aren't able to get it done, for whatever reason.

Take (please, take) the Fire's insipid, stumbling opening day performance in Los Angeles. Four-nil was frankly a charitable scoreline, and Chicagoans were left with the cold consolation of slow-clapping a native son's first hat trick. The Men in Red, as discussed here last week, had spent the six weeks of preseason working on a flexible, read-and-react 4-4-2 formation, the idea being that our roster was filled with experienced, astute pros who could work out problems in real-time on the field.

Thing was, when the opening whistle blew, our two most experienced, most astute players weren't on the game-day roster - and so we fell into a nervous posture, everyone trying but no one connecting. The effort was there, but the minds were not, and every mistake led to less confidence in each other, a cascading failure of belief, a feedback loop of uncertainty.

The Frings gambit

The most jarring failures were in the back line, where Arne Friedrich's hamstring woes led to Stephen Kinney getting his first league minutes in two freaking years, with the obvious knock-on effect of every other starter thinking "Wow, I need to look out for him." The word trickling out from Fire camp about Friedrich is ominous - the kind of low-intensity, we-don't-have-a-concrete-schedule-for-return one hears when elite athletes cannot get their bodies right.

So we are caught now, in the Frings gambit: We bet the farm on the health of a wise old mind in the center of the park, and the wise old mind (it turns out) is caught within an increasing unreliable body. It is difficult to influence games from a doctor's office. Hey, that's life; we all come to the clearing at the end of the road.

But what now for the Fire? What shapes can they adopt to make up for the loss of their defensive lynchpin(s)?

Status quo: A less flexible 4-4-2

It can be a mistake to change shape dramatically, especially if a team seems fragile, especially early in the season. If a change works, everyone's happy; if it falls flat, you're very quickly falling into disaster mode. With that in mind, the simplest solution is to stay in a 4-4-2 and simplify the mental demands on the players somewhat.

Usually this is done by more closely defining roles and expectations. Instead of telling Dilly Duka, "Hey dudebro, left wing," we roll out a series of situational orders: "Shuttle between the wing and the channels, pinching in when we have the ball not in the attacking zone, wider closer to the goal; read the right back when we do not have the ball. Dribble when it's offered but never force it; favor safe passes farther than 30 yards from the goal." Et cetera, et cetera; imagine these types of orders for every outfield player.

Done properly, this should stabilize a lineup made wobbly by bad outcomes - the game is made simpler for the players, who can then focus their energy on following orders and less on speculating about a proper course of action. Removing that momentary hesitation, that gathering of thoughts, can have tremendous knock-on effects - the tackle that would've been half a step late instead lands, the through ball cancelled by an offside run instead is released in the perfect moment.

The downside of this type of programmatic play is that it also creates an opportunity for countermeasures. Early in the season this is less of a concern, though, especially coming off a 4-0 pasting in which the team displayed precious little of anything positive.

Last year's model

Another option is to revert to last year's default shape, the 4-2-3-1. There's a lot to recommend about the formation - it makes pressing simpler by pushing the wings forward, while the double pivot in front of defense would allow our inexperienced center backs to stay home while still providing cover and support for the outside backs getting forward. Plus, the guys know the shape well after spending all of last season in it.

The hard decisions here involve personnel. Joel Lindpere is not a natural attacking midfielder - he's a box-to-box guy, full of energy and ideas in that role, but his first touch and creativity can desert him when playing too close to goal. Chris Rolfe is a crafty, clever fox in the box, but he's not a solo target man, and when he plays too close to midfield, he tends to get run down like a kitten on a busy road. I touched on these issues in an earlier piece.

Stealing the KC magic sauce

Kansas City ran out to a massive lead in the East last season with a high-pressing 4-3-3. One of the interesting factors about KC's tactics (loathe as I am to tip a cap to Peter Vermes) is that the wingers play as true attacking wingers, not as hybrid midfielders, as is more commonly seen in modern football - think of the 4-3-3/4-5-1 hybrid shape of Chelsea under Mourinho as a contrast.

Also, we could (if we wished) use a double pivot in this shape. A midfield of Larentowicz and Paladini holding with Lindpere farther forward certainly has a lot of bite without being totally one-dimensional. This gets the outside backs some cover, which Sunday's game seemed to indicate was a necessity.

The downside here is the tactic calls for a fairly high back line. The prospect of Stephen Kinney trying to out-think or out-run Jerry Bengtson or Diego Fagundez is not a cheerful one; if we press, the more likely outcome is that the centerbacks stay a bit deeper than they really should, and we run ourselves ragged up top while the Revs play 4 v 3 in midfield.

Three at the back

Once, long ago, before Rupert Murdoch's bags of gold created the Premiership, the 3-5-2 was a favored shape at the top levels of club football. Against a 4-4-2, it seemed to have it all - a spare man at the back for safety, a triangle in the center of midfield for possession, and two up top to keep a counter viable.

Glory be, there's three natural centerbacks in the starting lineup for the Fire. A buttload of midfielders on the roster. A big/small striker pairing. Could this be the answer?

Well, maybe. The standard way to break down a 3-5-2 is to relentlessly push the ball into wide attacking positions. Doing so puts incredible strain on the outside midfielders, which in this tactic are more like defensive wingbacks. Can Segares really handle the running? Would tracking back to defend against the likes of Lee Nguyen take Nyarko out of the offense? The fear is that, in adopting this shape to help out the defense, we become what is known as a 'broken team' - seven or eight men focused on defending, a massive gap, and two or three attackers stranded up top.

Stay the course

One of the characteristics of a winning squad is calmness under pressure. Mediocre teams react to adversity by trying to change something, to make a difference somehow right! freaking! now! They'll give up a goal and lose their shape. Understandable, but awful.

After getting tarred and feathered the way the Fire did on Sunday, it is difficult to avoid that insistent feeling that changes must be made. But it's just possible that tinkering, at this point, is the meta-game equivalent of giving up a goal and losing discipline. Frank had a plan. The team has worked six-plus weeks within that plan. The best idea of all may be to stay the course and hope that reversion to the mean works in our favor.

No shape will make up for midfielders who can't pass to teammates. No shape will make up for forwards whose first touch is donkey-strong. No shape will make up for defenders who freeze when under pressure. The Fire have a deep roster of proven, if not mind-blowing, professionals. If I'm still talking about basic shapes next week, and not tweaks or specific areas of the team, it's a bad sign.

How Frank responds to this leaders-all-injured crisis will tell us a lot about his real confidence in the group. He planned to give them their freedom; can they show they deserve it?