Now we reach the end of the beginning. Shaun Maloney's coming along any moment, and will be an integral part of the Chicago Fire in 2015. Now comes the preseason, the mystical process of tuning shape and responsibilities, of forming the attachments and aversions which will play out silently over the course of the season. But every thread of that narrative is implied by the meticulous selection of the players which make up the roster.
Of all the pieces added by Frank Yallop and Brian Bliss this season - the hungry young Africans by way of Scandinavia, the repatriated Chicagoans, the Homegrown players, and the rest - it's this final one that provides that last bit of context for all these deals. And, thankfully, it's a process which has seen Frank Yallop remain relatively transparent in his aims; if we take him at his word, we already have an idea how the Men in Red intend to play this season.
A 4-3-3: "David's always been a wide left player"
The youngest of Chicago's Designated Players, David Accam, gives us our first serious clue. In a conference call, Yallop says that "David's always been a wide left player" and that he expects to play "a version of the 4-3-3" to make the most of him. In that same conversation, he also indicates that he sees Kennedy Igboananike as a striker, and mentions Maloney "is another guy who can create and score from that position underneath (the striker)."
Given Accam lining up from a left wing forward type of position, there's a few 'versions of the 4-3-3' that present themselves. The differences between these alignments have more to do with the capabilities of the players within them, and less to do with actual tactical adjustments. Most of the greatest tactical innovations involve understanding what it is a player is good at, and trying to find opportunities for that thing or those things to make up a majority of his responsibility.
Example: Mike Magee is mentally nimble, good at ghosting into space, and a solid finisher? Maybe let's allow him to press onto the opposition's backline but not too much, which puts him in perfect position to drift back-post after a turnover.
So, Accam's slashing in from the left. He's also a player who likes to play wall-pass combinations around the area, so he'll need a partner or partners for those. Iggy's a striker, and do Prado as well. Yallop's imagining Maloney in 'that position underneath.' And it's a 'version of the 4-3-3.' And we're trying to put together a set of responsibilities which will match each player's strengths. Whew.
Considering all that, here's my guesses as to the likely default shapes for the Fire in 2015. All of these are subject to extreme changes as the crucible of preseason refines the roster, but these are best guesses as to Yallop's intended style of play given the guys on the roster just before the open of training. As you read this, tick off in your mind the likely problems; I've omitted my opinions about those in favor of letting the community have its say.
Possibility 1: Almost the RSL diamond
Let's start with the DPs. We'll put them where they're described playing. So, Accam on the left, Maloney under the striker, and Iggy up top. If this is to be a 4-3-3 and not a 4-2-3-1, Maloney won't have an attacker to his right; all that space becomes a conceptual playland for him.
Behind, the Men in Red feature a safety-first trio of capable tacklers, with Razvan Cocis and Michael Stephens still providing a quality connection to the attack. Joevin Jones (or Greg Cochrane, or Pat Doody) will be encouraged to burst forward when Accam drags defenders infield.
This is certainly not a classic 4-3-3. In all, this alignment most closely resembles the 4-4-2 diamond as played lately by Real Salt Lake, with Iggy in for Saborio, Accam in the Joao Plata role, and Maloney as Javier Morales.
Possibility 2: A 4-2-3-1, basically
So Palmer needs more cover, and the pressing scheme of that almost-diamond was gonna be whack, amirite? How about we just sliiiiide Mikey Stephens out to the right flank - he played there with LA - and make it a 4-2-3-1? As long as we understand that Stephens' role on the right is more defensive and connective than dynamic, this could work.
Of course, you've removed that triangle from midfield. Maloney works hard without the ball, but he's a 5-foot-7 trickster amongst cruder, more powerful men when he dips deeper in the park. Stephens could pinch in, but must guard against leaving Palmer exposed, and in this formation would be dragged out of those scrums by his pressing assignments. Which means that Cocis and Matt Watson must successfully resprise their Juninho/Sarvas impersonation - surprisingly effective for Cocis' injury - in the new year to make this a successful shape.
The attack would slant strongly to the left in this shape, with Jones and Accam providing most of the burst.
Possibility 3: Maloney to the wing in a truer 4-3-3
As we saw with Harry Shipp last year, Yallop is not afraid to position a free playmaker on the wing. Maybe he meant 'that position underneath' less literally than we're thinking? Moving Maloney to the wing restores the central-midfield triangle. In this shape, the Scot is asked to play a bit like Sporting KC's Graham Zusi - tremendous freedom, but also a weight of responsibility for creating variety in the run of play.
Possibility 4: Wee man deep, wing counters all day long
We break Yallop's mold most definitively on this final option. Igboananike moves to the right wing, with do Prado coming into the No. 9 role and Maloney playing deeper in central midfield. The speed on the wings would lend itself to breaking at pace; it's not hard to imagine Cocis and Maloney spraying passes into space for Accam and Iggy to run onto.
If possession becomes an issue (again!) for the Fire, this approach could de-emphasize keeping the ball in favor of adopting a solid defensive shape and capitalizing on turnovers through sharp-edged moments of inspiration.