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Words About Shapes: Addition of Schweinsteiger will change the Fire's shape

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Recruitment of Germany, Bayern legend should point the Men in Red to counter-attacking football

AS Saint-Etienne v Manchester United - UEFA Europa League Round of 32: Second Leg
“This idiot American thinks the Fire should flirt with catenaccio, Basti.”
Photo by Christopher Lee/Getty Images

There’s no question that signing Bastian Schweinsteiger is a big deal for a Chicago Fire side that has seen its prestige and profile plummet over the last decade. Signing anyone from the commercial/football juggernaut that is Manchester United carries with it a guaranteed windfall of international attention; make that player a 32-year-old who captained a rampant Germany to the most recent World Cup title and you’re signalling that your intention is to compete for trophies now. Today. This year.

Our question is, how? How, exactly? On its face, the Schweinsteiger acquisition is a classic MLS 2.0 Designated Player deal - snatch a big name for one last big payday, boosting the league and club’s Q-ratings and selling some shirts, regardless of how the big name might fit into an MLS roster or his team’s style of play. ‘Schweini’ began his career as a wide midfielder, but as time (and tens of thousands of minutes of high-level football) began to sap his quickness, he’s thrived playing deeper in central midfield. Which, one recalls, is the part of the field where the Fire already have former MLS Best XIers Dax McCarty and Juninho, with third-year stalwart Matt Polster about to come off injury.

Realistically, what should we expect from Schweinsteiger? His injury difficulties have sapped his former ability to run all day, meaning he can’t be counted on to cover a huge amount of space defensively. He’ll be very clean with the ball, incredibly intelligent about adapting to differing phases of the game, and his passing range will leverage a whole different array of options for the front-runners on the roster. That said, he’s not a classic No. 10 who will live in Zone 14 and make chances, preferring instead to pull the strings from deeper in midfield. Which is where our pondering on how the Fire plan to win now, today, this year, with the roster as it’s currently assembled begins.

So, how is this going to work?

Now, this is not to say that acquiring the Bayern and Germany legend is a bad idea, far from it - just that he’s not an obvious like-for-like upgrade for anyone in the current Fire shape, which, as we’ve talked about previously, is a lopsided, left-leaning 4-4-2, like so:

The Fire’s basic shape so far in 2017.
Graphic by Sean Spence

Assuming that the Men in Red didn’t sign either Dax or Juninho to sit the bench, that leaves Arturo Alvarez’s spot on the right flank as Schweinsteiger’s only like-for-like option. Unfortunately, that slot in our current shape comes with a staggering amount of defensive responsibility, as right back Michael Harrington generally takes up a position higher than the central midfielders. The feeling here is that Chicago is not paying Schweini more than 4 million dollars a year to run his twangy hamstrings into retirement covering the flanks.

In short: The shape will have to change. But how?

Most likely option - a 4-3-3

Assuming that, going forward, Chicago is built around a midfield triangle of Schweinsteiger, Dax and Juninho, the most likely shape is probably a proactive 4-3-3, with Alvarez sacrificed and Michael de Leeuw moved nominally to the right wing, like so:

The simplest version of a 4-3-3 featuring Schweinsteiger
Graphic by Sean Spence

The exact orientation of the midfield triangle would probably be extremely fluid, but offers some indication of the Fire’s intentions. Dax, generally, is the most defensive of the three; most of his scheming seems to involve denying the opposition its way. Whether Dax is considered a lone defensive midfielder is a question largely answered by Juninho’s responsibilities - is he having to shuttle to the right to cover Harrington’s runs? If so, he and Dax are in a double pivot behind Schweinsteiger. If not, Juni and the German should be working on a pulley system as paired box-to-box guys in front of Dax.

Another possibility is that the Fire will try to feature Schweinsteiger in a role similar to that played by Andrea Pirlo with NYCFC - the soccer quarterback, a deep-lying playmaker screened by two very canny and experienced lieutenants in Dax and Juninho. Like:

Another 4-3-3 alignment, this one with Schweinsteiger protected in the deep-lying playmaker (‘soccer quarterback’) role
Graphic by Sean Spence

In this version, all possession is quickly funneled to Bastian, who floats into vacated channel spaces deep in the Fire’s own end to find time to pick out pinpoint passes to the front-runners. Juninho, especially, would find his role changed in this system, as he’d be counted on to be the late runner from midfield after Schweinsteiger plays to a wing, which would bring his sometimes-sparking mid-range finishing into play more often.

RIP high press? Hello Christmas Tree?

Oddly, adding a tremendously skilled player to the Fire midfield may make the team more defensive in nature. One knock-on effect of Schweinsteiger’s signing could be the abandonment of Chicago’s on-again, off-again effort to press high up the field. Schweini’s positional sense, added to that of Dax and Juni, will surely be formidable, but asking these guys to sprint in bursts repeatedly for 90 minutes sounds like a lovely way to make certain they don’t really ever play together, thanks to injury. In short bursts, such pressing could be devastating given the overall intelligence of the group - but as a bread-and-butter strategy, with a roster heavily weighted toward a set XI, it’s madness.

I’d propose shape and approach which seeks to erase most of the advantages of modern gegenpressing football: an old favorite from Serie A, the 4321 ‘Christmas tree:’

The ‘Christmas Tree,’ a 4-3-2-1 where the fluid, active front three look to break out from a compact defensive formation
Graphic by Sean Spence

The Fire’s approach in this shape would be quite different from the zippy, proactive style most in favor around the world today. Instead of trying to pin the opposition deep in their own end, unnerve them with physical pressure, and convert mistakes into chances with quick combinations, in this shape the Men in Red are built to absorb a battering, draw the opposition into attack, and then spring out for lightning counters.

This is a variant of the ‘Bastian the soccer quarterback’ shape mentioned above. Schweinsteiger plays as a sort of forward libero, tasked with finding a ball that will set the David Accam-led counter on its way, while Dax and Juni continue to make the midfield a no-fly zone, as well as shuttling to cover fullback runs on their side. And they all start very deep, completely fubar-ing all the most popular zonal pressing schemes.

Properly configured, this shape will constantly flirt with becoming a ‘broken side’ - seven defending, only three attacking. The magic comes when the front three develop enough fluidity and familiarity to act as an offensive terror squad, able to consistently fashion chances at pace against retreating defenders. By turning the opposition Zone 14 into a land of blood and bone - a simple enough task given the defensive minds in the mix - Chicago trades illusory control for fewer, but more substantial, ventures toward goal.

The advantage would be pronounced against modern zonal high-pressing systems - commit players forward to win the ball, and get burned when our best-in-MLS midfield makes triangles and finds the release pass. At least, that’s the idea.

Schweini’s not a simple fit, but he’s a good one. Somehow, the Fire have to make this work. Here’s to hoping Velko Paunovic can find a way to put this talent together into a winning side.