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The Fire’s Formation Problems Are Trickier Than They Seem

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The 4-2-3-1 is flimsy. The 3-5-2 is awkward for the attackers. What can Pauno do to set the team up for success?

MLS: Chicago Fire at LA Galaxy Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

After a disastrous start against the Seattle Sounders last weekend, Chicago Fire head coach Veljko Paunovic made a decision to bring on Raheem Edwards and switch the formation to a 3-5-2. Pauno has rolled out the 3-5-2 plenty of times over his Fire tenure, so this wasn’t unexpected.

When Bastian Schweinsteiger said that he preferred to play center back at this point in his career, it was inevitable that a 3-at-the-back formation would become part of the regular discussion as the main setup rather than just another tool.

The problem is that the 3-5-2 suits the Fire defenders well, but doesn’t really do much for the attackers. Conversely, the 4-2-3-1 they’ve used thus far gives the forward line opportunities but leaves the defense floundering.

This is a big problem with no obvious solution.

4-2-3-1

For the Fire, the 4-2-3-1 is definitely the best way to get the best players on the field and in their preferred roles. With this formation, all of the front 4 can play in their preferred position and role. The problem is that the defense struggles hard when this is the case.

There are two main reasons for this.

First, the fullbacks currently being deployed have way too much defensive responsibility. Three of the four top fullback choices are not nominal defenders, so it’s unfair to expect them to be defensively sound. Even so, their defensive frailties can and will be exploited by even average MLS teams.

Second, Bastian Schweinsteiger may be the most immobile player in the entire league. It sucks, but it’s the truth. He just can’t cover ground like he used to, and that means there’s going to be space somewhere that he can’t get to.

Both of these put quite a bit of pressure on Marcelo and Johan Kappelhof.

3-5-2

The change to the 3-5-2 is a response to these two issues. The 3-5-2 drops Schweinsteiger in between Kappelhof and Marcelo. Doing this reduces the ground that Schweinsteiger needs to cover, and reduces the amount of defensive responsibility on the fullbacks. Defensively, it is meant to restrict space and create a numbers advantage in the back.

It’s the forward line where the issues with the 3-5-2 lie. There are three pure attacking positions in the formation: attacking midfield and two strikers. That means there’s going to be somebody pushed out of their role, or out of the starting lineup completely.

Against Seattle, the change to the 3-5-2 and substitution of Brandt Bronico for Diego Campos meant Przemysław Frankowski was pushed out to right wingback. The Fire were chasing the game by the time this change happened, so he wasn’t expected to do much defensively. In normal game situations he’ll have a lot more responsibility on that side of the ball.

Through three games, Frankowski has been a consistent threat on the wing. I don’t think it’s a good idea to push him back and ask him to patrol the entire right wing by himself. But where do you put him in this setup? The only options are striker or CAM, and Nico Gaitán is almost certain to lock that spot down once he arrives and gets match-fit. That leaves striker as the only available slot left, which doesn’t suit his style of play.

Then there’s the other winger (and Designated Player), Aleksandar Katai. He’s not even going to be considered for a wingback spot, because he isn’t one for tracking back on defense. This again leaves us with only striker as a real option for him (a position he played occasionally last year, with mixed results). Like Frankowski, he is not a natural striker and it would limit his effectiveness. With the 3-5-2 either Frankowski or Katai— and maybe both— will be have to be played out of position.

Is the trade-off in defense big enough to offset playing two of the Fire’s best players out of position? Do you stick with the formation that gets all of your attacking players in their most comfortable positions but sacrifice defensive integrity?

There are no easy answers to these questions. This is the team Pauno has to work with, and somehow he has to try and get some points on the board with a fundamentally unbalanced squad, no matter how he sets them up. I can’t say I envy him.