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Words About Shapes: The press is the best playmaker

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Or, why the Chicago Fire don’t need a traditional No. 10

MLS: Toronto FC vs Chicago Fire
Just constantly hassling dudes is a big part of the plan.
Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

Of all the patterns and expectations that make up supporting a club, maybe the most malleable are those centered around formations or style of play. For example, Arsenal supporters were delighted with ‘1-nil to the Arsenal’ until they won a different way, and have spent the last decade entranced with the newer notion … until it stopped winning. Now they’re looking back at that ancient defensive solidity not as stodginess, but surety. The results color everything.

it’s not hard to understand why. One of the revelations of soccer analytics is just how much luck means in football. Single biggest factor, overall, in soccer game outcomes: Luck. But that’s the ‘noise’ in our efforts to understand the great teams from, for example, the Chicago Fire’s past. Supporters sift their memories to develop a composite ‘Chicago Fire’ way to play. For me it’s:

  • Swagger: Team carries itself as if it’s here to drink your milkshake
  • Quality: The swagger is deserved
  • Intelligence: Comfortable in all phases of the game, flexible, adjustable
  • Filthiness: Not afraid of the dark arts

Folks, we may just have ourselves a Chicago Fire squad here.

So the Fire have run out this stable starting XI we’ve seen a few times now. It’s something like this:

Chicago Fire 2017 opening day - MLS - Football tactics and formations

It’s been described variously as a 4-4-2 (by Velko Paunovic), a 4-2-3-1, and a 4-3-3*. What it really is is a series of defensive triggers and cover zones; their positions have little to do with how they intend to attack. What the formation is telling you is how the Fire are going to press. Again and again in preseason, the Men in Red harried wild passes and poor touches into fast-break looks at goal.

Forward band: Aggressive and canny

The things a formation sheet won’t tell you are vastly more important here. This team sets a high defensive line and presses hard - and seems to have the intelligence and quality to pull it off. The difference in pragmatic group intelligence on display from previous XIs is striking. Even familiar players seem renewed.

David Accam, for example, plays very high on the left wing, but not - as in previous years - strictly as a long-ball outlet. Instead, his primary responsibility is using his blistering speed to close down hurried passes caused by the canny pressure of Michael de Leeuw and Nemanja Nikolic. The transformation is notable once he’s won the ball; instead of using pace and trickery to try to dribble into the goal (as we’ve seen before) he’s playing head-up, combining quickly, his pace just another in packed toolkit.

Where was this guy? Waiting for those runs, probably. Because Accam playing head-up is now rewarded by seeing cunning, perfectly-timed runs from Niko and de Leeuw and the ability to play quick 1-2s with passers as accurate as Dax McCarty and Juninho. It’s just that simple. David’s not playing as if he’s the only talent on the team because he doesn’t feel like the only talent on the team.

Niko and de Leeuw, meanwhile, are forming a two-man murder squad up front. De Leeuw seems to be the trigger man, calling the central band forward when he sees the opportunity coming. What’s striking is how early he sometimes does this - loping after a central defender, he’ll read that his simple outlets are closed down long before the defender realizes it. Nikolic chases tirelessly in the thankless task of shutting off the early switching pass, and always seems to have near-post and far-post runs pre-imagined for a turnover.

Central band: Real recognize real

If the front three seem to always be snapping and snarling, the central band adopt a slightly more pragmatic view, necessarily. If Dax McCarty and Juninho aren’t the best central midfield duo for the Fire since the legendary Jesse Marsh / Chris Armas, who then? The thing to notice is the cooling balm of wisdom - this is not a young group, and it shows in the way they understand how to manage the ups and downs of a game. Passages out of possession are a part of the game, as well as set pieces, transitions … and this group seems to see the next thing coming.

Their first task, though, is disaster prevention. Both Dax and Juninho are adept at controlling breakouts through the middle with cunning spacing, cutting off forward combinations and allowing the front three to run back into the play. Watch the pair of them off the ball - always checking both shoulders, making little 2-3 step adjustments to keep a particular pass or option unavailable. It’s not that no one else does it. It’s that not many in MLS do it as well as either of them.

The combinatorial effect of two guys who are very, very good at controlling defensive space is hard to overestimate. Small pressing errors that would’ve resulted in a two-pass counter against the Fire in years past instead become frustrated long-balls, easily retrieved by the defense.

No traditional No. 10, but Nowak would’ve thrived

One final piece of the ‘traditional Fire approach’ is one that is not honored in this formation - the so-called ‘tradtional No. 10’, a pure creator who looks for moments to unlock the defense. Think of Blanco here.

The reason is really quite simple: In a committed high-pressing system, there’s simply no room high up the field for a guy who won’t run hard to defend. The pace and aggressiveness necessary to truly put pressure on professional defenders is simply not a part of the standard toolkit of the classic No. 10.

Also, chances in this system tend to be created in transition, and are best maximized by incisive, high-tempo play. Imagine, for example, we’re in a universe where de Leeuw was more of a ‘classic No. 10’ than an aggressive second forward. In the moment after Accam turns someone over, what’s his first instinct going to be? Make a run goalward, or drop into space to keep the ball?

For a classic No. 10, there’s only one answer - a string-puller wants to pull strings. De Leeuw checks into space instead of joining with Nikolic on front post / back post runs. Relieved at not needing to make any decisions, both centerbacks converge on Niko, leaving Accam his only option - play through the playmaker, who’d better do something amazing to make a better chance than the one we left behind in our universe.

The good news for traditionalists is that the Fire’s tradition of a strong player in the 10 shirt was started by Peter Nowak, a guy who’d do very well indeed in this system. Nowak’s boundless energy, giddy filth and quality around goal would’ve filled the de Leeuw role masterfully. In fact, Michael de Leeuw may be the most similar player to Nowak in Fire history - smart, aggressive all-rounder who verbally leads the line, great finisher, better schemer.

*I’d say 4-3-3, because the primary expression of this formation is defensive (i.e., the high press), and they go at that with two bands of three (Accam-de Leeuw-Nikolic, Dax-Juninho-Alvarez)