Last Week: RSL 2, Fire 1
RSL: Real Salt Lake, coming off a midweek game hosting LA, decided to play a diamond 4-4-2 formation and look to hit the Fire on the counter - and, unfortunately for us, it worked to perfection for them. This game as well as their tie against LA should forever put away Coach Jeff Cassar's quest to convert this team - with this personnel - to a 4-3-3. In the diamond, every time a Fire midfielder popped up in a dangerous spot - up popped Kyle Beckerman to douse it. Only when the Fire attacked the wings was there any joy in attack for the Men in Red. On the counter, Salt Lake would send 4 then 5 then 6 players into the Fire's half to attack - then pull the ball back and swing it around to maintain possession and force the Fire to chase. Their success was the result of a group of seasoned players with years of experience, years of training and clinical finishing who were all on the same page throughout the 90 minutes. (Readers may insert their favorite expletives here ...)
Fire: Tactically speaking, the Fire used a 4-2-2-1-1 last week against Real Salt Lake in order to play the role of home team: Take the game to RSL, pressure them all over, possess the ball, develop a rhythm and set the tone. And that they did in spades, as they had the ball 56% of the game and enjoyed the majority of possession in 11 of the game's 18 five-minute intervals. The numbers that describe attacking intent were all Fire: 14 corners to RSL's 3, 14 shots to RSL's 5 - even an 80% passing accuracy. Palmer and especially Jones were monsters in the overlap, while Polster with Watson (and later Cocis) bottled up the middle and Maloney with Shipp buzzed and probed and found openings. The 4-2-2-1-1 was singing all afternoon!
So how did we lose? We lost because we failed to employ tactics and strikers in the final third which were going to be successful. Time after time (after time after time) the ball got wide to the endline and ... nothing. NO runs pulling RSL's CBs apart. NO runs to the near and far posts, so NO space for Maloney or Shipp to arrive late in the middle of the box. Or, time after time (after time after time) the ball got to the corner of the penalty area and ... and ... and ... nothing. NO runs to the ball for a 1-2 to spring inside. NO inside-out movement to unbalance the four defenders and make a lane for the killer pass - it must have been a really frustrating day for Shaun and Harry!
RSL just sat back and headed away every high cross or cleared every misplayed pass. Only when Igbo came on and made a run up the center channel to redirect a brilliant pass from Jones was their any positive impact from any of the front strikers (and then bleeding Nick bleeding Rimando makes the bleeding save).
So, what needs to change? Let's look at that when we preview tonight's game below.
Tonight: Fire travel to NYCFC
NYCFC: Last week against the NY Red Bulls, the Blues employed a 4-3-3 on attack, with a back four of Allen, Wingert, Hernandez and Williams. (Williams is battling a groin pull, so Jeb Brovsky may be deputized there.) Their midfield consisted of Grabavoy, Diskerud and Jacobsen, with David Villa, Shelton and Alvarez up front - at least for the first 35 minutes, until Matt Miazga of the Red Bulls earned his second yellow ... then things got weird. Nonetheless, we should expect to see a 4-3-3 from the Blues and Coach Jason Kreis.
Fire: The 4-2-2-1-1 has become a very good tactical plan for the Fire at this point in this season with the players available (and unavailable). In fact, it looked even better last week with both Maloney and Shipp playing as outside mids. Both were very active and found those little pockets of space across the middle, and both were excellent at releasing Jones and Palmer on the overlap outside. Good defense, improving midfield and ... and ... and ... and there's no two ways about it: Coach Yallop and the rest of the Fire coaching staff need to change who plays up front - and more importantly, how they play. While we're at it, let's steal a page from the very successful Book of Sounders.
The Fire need to recognize that continuing to build an attack which ends with the ball being crossed in the air into the box should not be the attacking focus for the Fire this season. It needs to change for two reasons.
Reason One: None of the players which the Fire can employ up top are deadly in the air, especially with a ball crossed into the box. None can play like Bradley Wright-Phillips, or Chris Wondolowski, or Alan Gordon.
Reason Two: Every other team in MLS has two tall, strong CBs whose first, best defensive skill is to play in the air against the endline cross. So we cross the ball in the air into the box and they head it out, every time.
So, how to be successful?
Play quickly and simply with the Fire's quickest and most dangerous players up front - i.e.m settle on Accam, Amerikwa, Igboananike and (soon) Magee as the two strikers. Then play one over the top and the other underneath, and encourage them to be constantly buzzing/moving/interchanging, learning the same set of runs in the box, the same coordinated movements in the middle third, learning to make runs to the posts when the ball is passed from the wing. Play the ball to feet in the middle or play the ball over the top to stretch the defense. Get the strikers to make the runs to connect with thru balls from Maloney or Shipp or Polster
The entire forward group must work on being predictable for each other and for the mids behind them, and there should be an ever-developing rhythm to their movements. All four players are very quick over 10 yards and all (save Magee) are very fast over 40 yards.
With time and training they could develop into a nightmare set of front-runners a la Dempsey and Martins for Seattle. And once all four are fit and trained, how would you like to be one of the enemy centerbacks - having chased Accam and fought Amerikwa for 70 minutes - watching Igboananike come off the bench as a sub?
So for next week, the Fire should start in the 4-2-2-1-1 with Jones, Larentowicz, Adailton, and Palmer as the 4 in defense, Polster and Cocis/Ritter as the first -2, Maloney and Shipp as the second -2, and with Accam and Amerikwa/Igboananike in the -1-1 spots. Pace outside, control in the midfield, and pace and strength up top ... here we come, New York!