From the very first minute of the very first friendly in 2014, the Chicago Fire under Frank Yallop have lined up exactly one way - in a 4-1-4-1 formation. In this series of short essays, I hope to explore the aspects that distinguish this tactical structure from those Chicago has used in the past and jump-start conversation about the shape and organization of the club.
The 4-1-4-1 is a modern possession tactic which simplifies the roles of the striker and defensive midfielder, making those two the reference points around which the team organizes, while the two lines of four function as traditional midfield and defensive lines. (We will get into specifics for each position in further editions of Words About Shapes this week.) It is typically played in conjunction with high pressure, the defense playing a high line while attackers try to win the ball in the opponent's half - the soccer equivalent of, perhaps, a three-quarters-court diamond-and-one press in hoops: Physical, demanding, but seeking a balance between aggression and cleverness.
The 2013 New England Revolution under Jay Heaps played the 4-1-4-1 well, and stand as a handy comparison.
Compactness is one of the foundational principles of modern football tactics. Teams which keep their lines tight limit the space available to the opposition to play, and get more bodies around the ball in midfield. It's the subtle beauty of the offside rule - every possession is a quiz in team shape and awareness.
Unfortunately, it's a quiz the Fire have frequently lost in recent years. Compactness requires confidence, awareness and commitment; too often, Chicago has looked like 11 guys about to enter a blamestorming session. Enter Yallop, and hopefully those problems exit - the Fire have been tight and cohesive front-to-back in preseason, keeping the lines drawn close together.
Compactness is a concept that bleeds into the other precepts listed below, and all of them should be considered of a piece in this tactic. A team that presses high but is not compact will offer plenty of passing options behind the midfielders and in front of defense; a team that plays in a fluid manner but loses compactness is in danger of the players losing each other; and so on. The ability of the Fire XI to maintain their spacing discipline will go a long way toward determining how much control the Men in Red can exert on a given match.
The 4-1-4-1, as played by CF97 under Yallop, follows the general gegenpressing template - whenever circumstances allow, attackers are asked to harass defenders deep in the opponent's end, hoping to force turnovers. Most clear-cut goal-scoring chances in soccer are the result of forcing defenders to defend in transition, to turn and face their goal - this approach tries to generate those opportunities in bunches.
Of course, it doesn't always work, which is where the above concept of compactness comes into play. The defense will play a high line - assuming positions around the midfield stripe - in order to compact the space in front of them and deny those under-pressure opposition defenders a simple outlet pass. If opponents are struggling to connect passes from the back, and are forced to simply whack long balls, the tactic is working.
The danger of a high line is, of course, that one is leaving a tremendous amount of space for an enterprising striker to exploit - witness last year's defensive meltdown in Vancouver as a textbook example of a high line going wrong. If the pressure up top fails- if an opponent has time to settle the ball and pick a pass upfield - then playing a high line turns into a fast-break seminar for the other guys.
It's all connected: The attacking unit needs the defenders to keep spacing discipline to make certain their pressing effort isn't wasted; and the defenders need the attacking unit to make certain their pressure is astute and effective to ensure that the defenders' spacing discipline isn't an invitation to a jailbreak. The ‘team mind' gets tested at every turn.
So what separates the 4-1-4-1 from a super-high-pressing 4-5-1? I'd argue it's the fluidity of interchange among that attacking band of four.
Last year's Revolution presented a lovely study in this fluidity. Rowe, Nguyen and Fagundez would exchange positions laterally and in depth, making marking assignments difficult, and played simple one- or two-touch football through midfield. (This was exacerbated by the tendency of the Fire two play a two-man central midfield against their triangle, but that's an idea for another column.)
Chicago is loaded with clever, mobile attacking midfielders - Magee, Duka, Shipp, Rolfe and Alex could answer to that description, with pure wingers Nyarko and Atouba also in the mix. This system asks that, in possession, the players express themselves and their games while remaining positionally responsible. In other words, if Magee darts forward on a back-post run, then Alex needs to cover the space he's left.
The lynchpin of this fluidity is the one guy who's not asked to interchange - the defensive midfielder. Larentowicz isn't asked to be clever, and he's not asked to cover a tremendous amount of ground - what is asked to do is command the organization of the team in real-time on the field. While the defense pulls up just behind him, and the attacking four-band whirls into action, Big Red is tasked with keeping the shape both tight and balanced.
Width is a release
The final piece of this basic tactical puzzle is how wide the team plays. If compactness determines how much control a team exerts over the run of play, then width affects how much freedom is allowed down the middle. In short, this tactic uses width as a change-up and a release, and treats the wide spaces on the field not as something to be controlled.
The primary difference is the alignment of the outside attackers - instead of playing as true wingers, staying wide to force the opponents to cover the space, the outside midfielders are asked to pinch in and help win possession back. Essentially, the Fire sacrifice some space in the attack to make it difficult for their opponents to quickly transition from the back.
Of course, this doesn't mean the space simply vanishes. In extended possession, the fullbacks will come forward to join the attacking group, giving the pinched-in wings some support from the outside as well as opportunities to combine. Playing the wings narrower also means that space is generally available to relieve pressure, should the clutter in the middle make playing forward difficult.
So there it is: Compactness, high pressing, fluidity and narrowness - the basic precepts of the Fire 4-1-4-1. This series continues Wednesday with an in-depth look at the tactical instructions for the defense, then continues on Thursday (midfield) before wrapping on Friday (attack).
But what do I know? Maybe you're seeing it differently, or have some nits to pick. For that, we created a section called ‘Comments' - check it out!