The Chicago Fire have been plagued by injuries for the entire 2018 season. Six players are currently out— down from earlier in the season— and the club has really suffered. Chicago are now riding a four game losing streak in the league and find themselves slipping further and further away from a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. But there is some relief on the way as a key player is set to return to the team.
That’s a grinning Michael de Leeuw basking in the glow of victory following a small-side training tournament yesterday. De Leeuw hasn’t seen first team action since last September after suffering a brutal cruciate ligament injury. MdL’s race to full health is good news for Chicago Fire fans— and for head coach Veljko Paunovic, is coming not a moment too soon.
De Leeuw has been greatly missed, both for his locker room presence and his production on the pitch. He’ll almost certainly walk right back into the Starting XI once he’s clear. Now the clock is ticking for Veljko Paunovic, who must figure out how to best set up the team to accommodate the lineup.
Here are three potential ways Pauno could bring back Michael De Leeuw into the Starting XI.
Attacking Midfielder in a 4-2-3-1
Paunovic opted to roll out a 4-2-3-1 in the Fire’s most recent game against Toronto FC. This change from the usual 4-3-3 was a result of the injury to Dax McCarty, who will miss a couple of weeks with a hamstring problem. If Paunovic decides to keep this formation for the foreseeable future, it would suit a returning De Leeuw, who could slot right in to the attacking midfield position. Against Toronto, Diego Campos got the start at the #10. The Costa Rican wasn’t near horrific, but showed he has not yet developed the technical ability needed for the role, as his turnover lead directly to Toronto’s opener. MDL has this ability, and can offer much more. The midfield role would allow him to track back and help defensively but also give him the freedom to make late surging runs into the penalty area. Chicago need another goalscoring tweet to ease the pressure off Nemanja Nikolic and Aleksandar Katai. De Leeuw could be just the man for the job.
Right Wing in a 4-3-3
Paunovic has relied on a 4-3-3 ever since taking the reins in Chicago and will probably revert to his preferred position when Dax returns from injury. When he does, he would have a harder time fitting MDL into the side. Paunovic could work around the team balance issue by throwing de Leeuw out on the right wing. The Dutchman has been able to adapt to the role in the past and is still a better option than what the Fire have played out wide earlier in the season. MdL’s willingness to track back allows the right back to push up the field and create overloads on the right hand side. De Leeuw can either whip in crosses himself or crash the back post when a ball comes in from the other side. However, this change could force new signing Raheem Edwards to the bench, which would be harsh on him. The Canadian youngster impressed on his debut and seems to be a part of the Fire’s plan for the foreseeable future. It would be a good selection headache for Paunovic who would finally have some much needed depth.
Striker in a 4-4-2 Diamond
The 4-4-2 diamond is a tricky formation and easy to get wrong. But when it works— as seen with the Red Stars— it can be deadly. This Fire team might just have the personnel to make it work.
Dax would sit furthest back, with Brandt Bronico and Bastian Schweinsteiger just in front of him. Katai would take on the #10 role at the top point of the diamond. And Nikolic and De Leeuw would lead the line. MdL started his Fire career as a striker, playing the end of the 2016 season up top before Niko joined the club. He would play alongside the Hungarian in this formation, and it could very well get the best out of both of them. Nikolic has been struggling to gain space at times this season, owing to other MLS teams figuring out ways to defend against him. With a complementary goalscoring threat in De Leeuw beside him, opposing defenders would have to keep an eye on both of them at all times. The pair have linked up well in the past and could reestablish that connection quite quickly. With Katai creating behind them, the Fire could have an incredibly potent front three to end the season.
How do you see MdL fitting back in? Let us know in the comments below!