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Words about Shapes: Chivito Autopsy

Incoherent, fearful team shape led to defensive meltdown in the last half hour

Solutions on the field were hard to come by for these guys last weekend.
Solutions on the field were hard to come by for these guys last weekend.

Here at Hot Time in the Old Town, we do the hard work so you don't have to. "The hard work," in this case, was repeatedly viewing the Fire's 1-4 stinker against the Yanqui-Goats. I'd like to say something clever and hilarious about this game, something that would provide a new context for giving up three goals in the last half-hour and make everyone breathe a big sigh of relief. All clear for the Goat rodeo! ... blech. Sorry. No can do.

Unfortunately, soccer isn't like that. Life isn't like that. No one gets better by saying "I'm better!" I would like to proclaim without reservation that this team is much better than its record, but SCOREBOARD. Professional sports is, to a numbing degree, about results. My love for the Fire doesn't change the fact that, of 19 teams in the league, we have been on balance 19th best.

After the game, on Twitter, a slapfight emerged between two sets of Fire fans - one group vented its frustration, while the other took a "shhh, you're hurting feelings" approach. While I understand the latter feeling, I think it's wrongheaded. A month into the season, this team has been absolute garbage more often than not. Loving the Fire doesn't mean sliding into a sycophant state, where clapping louder makes all the soccer-gods smile upon the Chicago XI. Codependence isn't some deeper form of love.

So how did we get here? How did the Fire go from shackling Kansas City - the same KC team that repeatedly carved open Montreal - to getting humbled by Chivas?

A very loose shape

The simple answer is that the Fire completely lost their shape in the second half against Chivas. The central defenders, whether through timidity or by design, played deeper and deeper as the half went on, opening huge spaces in the middle of the pitch, and that space was exploited again and again by you're-not-Chivas. This was a systemic failure with a lot of moving parts.

One of the basic precepts of modern football is ‘compactness.' Compactness is a concept which leverages the offside rule - because the backline can dynamically redraw the offside line with their positioning, it is possible to dramatically reduce the space one's opponent has in which to play. Imagine soccer without the offside rule - a very different game. Defenders have to worry about the space behind them constantly, and the team with the ball has literally the entire field to play upon.

Fortunately, the offside rule does exist, and its use has become very sophisticated. Most teams aim for no more than 30 yards depth between the deepest defender (and therefore the offside line) and the attack; more than that and you're doing the opposition's work for them, opening space in which to play. In the second half against you're-not-Chivas, Anibaba and Berry routinely were 50 yards away from the attacking quartet of Mackie, Rolfe, Nyarko and Alex.

The results were glaringly obvious. With the 3-band of the 4-2-3-1 playing very aggressively - I'd actually call our formation more of a 4-2-1-3 as it played out - that left an absolutely enormous tract of land for Larentowicz and Paladini to cover. This made keeping possession simple for you're-not-Chivas and much more difficult for the Fire - simple connecting passes from the centerbacks were 20 yards. Our shape was not the shape of a proactive, attacking team, although our front line seemed to think we were.

Trouble in the wide spaces

The centerbacks were not the only defenders trying something different. Our fullbacks - Segares and Thompson - played their usual line, meaning they were level with Larentowicz in midfield, and were very narrow, setting up just at the edge of the penalty area. Seeing the double pivot getting outnumbered in possession, Segares and Thompson frequently pinched in to help possession. When it worked, it worked; when it didn't, it offered huge amounts of space on the flank for you're-not-Chivas to break into.

Ordinarily in this shape, help in winning the midfield comes from the attacking 3-band. The lack of compactness meant they were largely spectators to the travails of the holding mids. On the occasions when they were able to help, winning possession meant the only forward outlet was Mackie, who was then asked to hold the ball against two or three defenders while the attackers covered the extra 20 yards getting forward. To his credit, he often did. Once he tired, though, Maicon Santos did not offer the same skill-set, and the Fire could not keep the ball.

Where to play Rolfe?

Klopas assured us throughout the offseason that he wasn't interested in seeing Chris Rolfe expand his winger repertoire. "He's a striker, and we're going to play him as a striker" was the gist. So why was Rolfe on the left wing for this game?

I should say up front that I see what Frank is getting at, using Rolfe in this way. We tried using Chris underneath the striker last year with some success, but once the word got out that the guy could be muscled out of his game, the jig was up. Alex clearly handles the physicality of the central position better. On the left, you'd hope Rolfe could play as sort of an inside-left - cutting infield on his stronger foot, looking to combine or crank up his quick, heavy shot. I picture him pulling a fullback with him, releasing Segares into that space, or moving off the ball in combination with Alex and Mackie.

Problem is, he's not getting it. Rolfe looks confused in the role, which is odd, because it's not exactly an exotic one in modern football - every league has teams using inside-out wingers nowadays. Does he feel Frank misled him? Is he getting instructions he cannot or will not follow?

Some of the blame has to go to the spacing, again. With the fullbacks playing so very narrow, Sega's rushes forward against you're-not-Chivas were often inside Rolfe - essentially, Sega claimed the channel, forcing Rolfe out wide and onto his weaker foot, with predictably lame results. Also, the generally spread-out nature of the team shape meant that, to pitch in defensively, Rolfe needed to sprint back an extra 15-20 yards. Players have to manage their own energy levels during a game, and Chris Rolfe is not one of those three-lung freaks who run all day. So he started floating high, looking for space, hoping that he could make up for his lack of possession work by creating chances. It didn't happen.

Players-solving-problems-on-the-pitch was the entire focus of preseason. Rolfe, for now, has not found a solution.

Recursion: Our cover needs cover

Larentowicz was another guy hung out to dry by the spacing against you're-not-Chivas. When we acquired the big ginger, I somehow missed the fact that - despite looking every inch the mauling destroyer - he has never been highly successful in that role. He's a big guy with decent range, his passing range is substantial, and he has a cannon of a shot, but he's not a ground-eating screen for the defense. In other words, he would be a lot better off with a more defensive partner alongside him.

Unfortunately, we don't have that option. His likely partners - Paladini and Lindpere - each lack the safety-first instincts the position requires. So Big Red is shackled into being the stay-at-home guy, and it's not been great. His short passing under pressure can be wayward, which is of course anathema so deep in the pitch. These could be nothing more than adjustment woes, but after six weeks of preseason and a month of games, they shouldn't be.

A possible solution is to play Pause beside Larentowicz. The captain is a natural defensive midfielder, which would free Larentowicz to play the role in which he was so successful for Colorado and New England - the box-to-box guy, the late arriver, the outlet pass in possession.

Where do we go from here?

Pondering all these problems - the loose shape, the deep line, Rolfe and Red sucking - it's hard to see a tactical advantage to the decisions the Fire made against you're-not-Chivas. A deep, narrow backline makes sense if you're trying to soak up pressure and hit on the break, but in that case the midfield needs the memo, and you need to go back in time and not do the Oduro trade, since he seems purpose-built for the tactic.

My supposition is that these failings are the result of a group loss of nerve, a cascading failure brought on by fear of failure. The center backs start playing deeper, wanting to be certain the play happens in front of them; the forward line starts hoping for a miracle ball, waiting way up top with their hands up, saying "Me! Get it to me!" hopelessly; the midfield scrambles and claws to no effect when outnumbered 4 or 5 to 2. Every little mistake leads to another, and another.

As discouraging as the results have been so far, it's not hard to imagine the vicious cycle of mistake-fear-confusion-mistake turning to a virtuous cycle of success-confidence-daring-success. Save possibly Segares, there is not a single player wearing red whose performance has been at their career standard. It could get better.

The manager's job is a lonely one. Frank is surely hoping his players will figure it out; I'm just wondering whether his players are hoping he does likewise before this season vanishes down the drain.