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Words About Shapes: Basti the Libero

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It’s not a solution anyone wanted, but playing Bastian Schweinsteiger as libero seems best way forward for Fire

MLS: Portland Timbers at Chicago Fire Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

The good news is that we’re used to this here in Fire-land, amirite? Year after year, Chicago Fire supporters hew to a familiar emotional routine with their consistently underwhelming Men in Red, barely nodding at denial (“We could win the East”) before a quick shuffle through anger (“N-Rod f--ked up!”) and bargaining (“God, I promise to live right if Matt Polster can be healthy”).

It’d be easy to get hung up on depression (“Why should I care if they don’t?”), and many do, which is why we are here today. We are here to move past depression, past the soul-deadening contemplation of entropy and dissolution, into the grey, tolerable final stage: Acceptance. Understand that no one is promising happiness at the end of this journey. This is about fashioning mediocrity out of collapse.

So: Assume the roster is the roster. Assume everyone who’s hurt will be out for at least as long as predicted, and that it will take recovering players at least a couple of weeks of practice to be even close to sharp enough to play in a match. Assume there is no deus about to get ex machina. How can these Fire grind out points until midsummer?

The problem so far

Through three games, the 2018 Chicago Fire are a functional demonstration of the idea that defending in football is largely a matter of organization and concentration, a mental test - how else to explain the utter failure of so many otherwise fine footballers as a defensive unit?

Experience and reputation are the currency of idea-exchange while the ball is in play, and the Fire don’t have much in circulation on the backline right now. Johan Kappelhof is a jewel, a technical defender who can peer around the corner to see the next play - but he’s also a quiet guy who is visibly uncomfortable with the kind of ‘stand here, do this’ marshalling that João Meira specialized in the last two years. The remaining centerbacks are too young and too prone to personal error for their opinions to be given much weight during the run of play; so, too, Richard Sanchez’s promptings are probably a couple of clean sheets away from meaning anything.

As a result, the Men in Red are incredibly prone to the kind of mental errors that leak goals - missing a mark on a late-arriving midfielder, for example, or failing to press out on a winger and so allowing a cross - which adds an element of anxiety to every confrontation.

Basti the libero

Moving Bastian Schweinsteiger into the center of a three-man central defense undoes all this negative calculus at a stroke. Basti’s uncanny vision and commanding demeanor changed the posture of the Fire defense immediately last weekend, making them sharper, more confident and more aggressive. Kappelhof, freed from being The Man in the back, returned to his fluid and daring best.

The position Basti is playing isn’t exactly centerback, and it surely isn’t sweeper. In a twist that seems foreordained, it’s a style of play made famous by an earlier Bayern Munich legend, der Kaiser, Franz Beckenbauer: The libero, soccer’s great contradiction - a creative defender.

It’s a heavy lift, asking one guy to both mind the defensive shape and also, bee tee dubs, create some chances when you’ve got the time - but a careful pondering of the options available points so obdurately in this direction that it seems a done thing now. Basti in midfield puts two of Tony Tchani, Drew Conner and Mo Adams on the bench; Basti in defense leaves out only recently-injured and completely unproven rookie Grant Lillard. However the back seven or eight line up, the Chicago attack will be Nemanja Nikolic, maaaaybe Aleksandr Katai and a host of kids. If the defense continues to flail as it has done to this point, their introduction to MLS will be smashing their heads against massed defenses, down a goal, always.

The case against

There’s a few reasons this might not work:

  • Basti might balk: Schweinsteiger could be forgiven for feeling that he’s not really willing to reshape his game and his approach, especially to bail out what has been a demonstrably underwhelming performance from Nelson Rodriguez in the executive suite. Basti’s at the point in his career where he can do what he wants and has little to risk in telling guys like N-Rod and Paunovic to stick it.
  • The donut hole: The Fire’s lack of creativity in the attacking midfield zone has been an issue since Cuauhtemoc Blanco departed nearly a decade ago. While Basti’s best position isn’t attacking midfield, he’s arguably still the best player in essentially any role on this roster, so it makes some sense to try to get him into that space. (Counter-argument: Basti functions best in that space on the move, not playing like a No. 10, as he demonstrated by surging through the zone from his centerback spot on Saturday.)
  • More ill luck: An injury to the notably injury-prone Schweinsteiger would put the Fire’s season into unsparing focus - 2018, lost to N-Rod’s comeuppance; time to play the kids.