While driving home from work the other day, I saw an unusual kickaround - two really young kids, a guy who looked like their grandfather, and a golden retriever. The dog was making it hard for the kids, just exploding with joy and never leaving the ball for a moment; the children (who were, maybe, three?) waved their baby-ish feet at the thing, occasionally making contact. Grandpa would nip in and peel the ball away from the dog every so often, giving it to the children for one glorious, unhurried touch, before the retriever returned, all tawny fur and delight, to hog it once more.
It's important to remember - since last night's game so resembled that one at times - that Chicago v Tottenham meant exactly as much as that grandpa-and-the-dog kickaround. This game will sink into the ground like a mild, soaking morning rain; there will be no trace of it come sunfall tomorrow. Sure, Spurs got two and we go none, sure. We kept score, and 0-2 was the score. Any Tottenham fans who want to tear at the collar of their replica kit and rage-celebrate can go ahead and bro it up.
See, this wasn't so much a competitive contest as it was a series of intense internal scouting missions. It was a reasonably well-played game both ways, and understandably: This was a pair of exams from a pair of managers who need to see what their team has: A midterm of sorts for the Fire, an entrance exam for Spurs.
Tottenham's at the very beginning of learning the gegenpressing system Mauricio Pochettino has brought with him, a system that propelled a young and energetic Southampton to new heights in the Premiership last season. The first goal, in the fifth minute, was a perfect example of the form. Lovel Palmer recovered possession, and Tottenham's attackers stayed a step off to take away forward passes - one of the key concepts of gegenpressing is to take away constructive passes and force the ball backward until it is in a vulnerable position. So, with forward options taken away, Palmer rolled the ball back to Sean Johnson in goal.
That was the ‘trigger,' and Pochettino's machine went off as planned. Harry Kane burst forward to pressure Johnson, while Lewis Holtby - spotting Fire defender Patrick Ianni upfield and unable to show for the ball - sprinted in from the right wing to close down Jeff Larentowicz, who was Johnson's other nearby outlet. Johnson's sharp pass to Larentowicz prompted a heavy touch from the experimental center back, and his languid response to it made it clear that he had no idea Holtby was arrowing in behind him.
Gegenpressing's most famous exponent in world football is now, of course, the rampant German national side, and this goal had a whiff of that soul-crushing fourth against Brazil - it was just. so. easy. Holtby blew past Larentowicz at speed, took the ball on his foot, and had most of the goal to shoot at - but instead rolled a simple ball to Kane who had the entire goal to shoot at.
So far, so good for the exam from the Tottenham side. They'd add a second, in the second half, that involved Aaron Lennon being quick as a waterbug and a clinical finisher, but that was purely extra credit.
For the Fire, this was a midterm, of sorts. It's become clear that the talk of being ‘a tweak or two away' from winning the East were the kind of jovial bullshit that one simply has to expect - I mean, whaddayagonnasay? "We are tearing this thing down. And the contracts the previous guys struck were, like, they-dropped-some-acid crazy. So this rebuild will be slow and painful and we'll totally be threading the needle not to suck for this year at least."
Everyone knows that every company in the world is in the full-time happy-talk business - our immortal masters have decreed it so. We're rebuilding; we're constrained; so the question that needed answering from this midterm was this: Is there anything here we're missing? Is there a way to shuffle this particular deck we've overlooked?
There were some qualified maybes.
- Larentowicz, after that heavy touch early, settled in rather well at the back and could be useful in the position. He's a different centerback than we currently have - he keeps his head up, and plays (unsurprisingly) like a midfielder. He's also more cautious, tending to give ground and keep his feet.
- Harry Shipp is hitting the rookie wall, hard. He's lost half a step in quickness, and more worryingly, his ideas have been blunted, which speaks of a weary player for whom the game is passing too rapidly to process. You know how it's hard to think when you've got a high fever, or you're exhausted? Shipp's game is hugely mental.
- Sean Johnson is very, very good. Kyle Renish looks very good. We lose a ‘very' in the transition, but ‘keeper isn't a problem position for us.
- Dilly Duka, on in the second half, showed a lot of burst, as well as combining well on little 1-2s through the middle. The lack of this internal two-way attacker (think Lee Ngyuen for New England) may have doomed the 4-1-4-1 early on; perhaps playing Duka inside is the answer? Or is the difference merely one of motivation?
- Matt Fondy is a very modern extravagance: The defensive forward. His movement and decisions when playing without the ball are very good, and he's clearly tireless, but his repertoire of offensive tricks is rudimentary. A useful piece, if he were on a deep team with a defined tactical system. Right now, he isn't.
- The starting centerbacks began the second half as if they'd had their pride stung, and the difference between the pairs was remarkable; after halftime, the Fire were very forceful. Soumare, in particular, can look so impressive for stretches; his ability to fly in aggressively, wrap his leg in some weird angle, and pry the ball loose speaks to an agility that's hard to figure in a man that size. It's showings like this that make the odd mental meltdown so soul-crushing.
Now Yallop, Pochettino and their respective staffs pore over these exams and make plans for the next. How will the Spurs continue to adapt to their new paradigm? What extra gear can Yallop extract from shuffling his smallish roster?
Chicago returns to action that counts Wednesday night in Toyota Park, when the livewire attack of Vancouver visits. If you wore white and booed Mike Magee tonight, there's another opportunity to do so then. Until then, I'm going to think of this as just Granpa, two kids, and a dog, Part II.