This offseason, the Chicago Fire brought in a new player who filled an outstanding positional need in the squad. 29-year-old central defender Marcelo was acquired from Sporting CP to partner with the longest-serving player currently on the roster, Johan Kappelhof.
It’s early days, and the Fire’s results haven’t lived up to even modest expectations. But on the backline, at least, there are signs that the partnership between Kappelhof and Marcelo is starting to come together.
In many ways, Kappelhof and Marcelo are very similar players. They’re both very comfortable on the ball and willing to push forward if they are given the space to do so. They’re also capable passers, which, once they really gel, could go a long way toward smoothing over the team’s problems with distribution. Vejlko Paunovic wants his centerbacks to have these skills in order to help with the build-up. If one of the defensive midfielders drops into the back line— which they often do in possession— there’s going to be space opened up if the opponent follows.
Bastian Schweinsteiger is on the decline, but he is still capable of directing his teammates into space with his passing. With these two centerbacks being such capable dribblers and passers, they’ll be able to make the most of Basti’s gifts.
On the attacking side of the pitch, things are a little more complicated. Marcelo is a little too slow with the ball at times. It’s not that he’s incapable of playing quicker, but he tends to slow down the recycling of possession once in a while. I suspect Marcelo will improve here once he gets more time with the squad and adjusts to Pauno’s expectations.
Kappelhof and Marcelo are both very mobile, which lends a distinct quality to the Fire’s defensive strategy. Marcelo has said in interviews that he sees his positioning and pace as his biggest strengths, two qualities he shares with his partner in central defense.
Yet for all of their similarities, Kap and Marcelo do have some key stylistic differences. Kappelhof tends to read passing lanes and tries to intercept passes. By contrast, Marcelo prefers to confront opponents directly and strip them of possession. Their separate approaches to pressure, if cultivated and channeled well, will add layers and nuance to the Fire’s defense.
Obviously the two centerbacks have some work to do. Both of them struggle in the air, giving target strikers opportunities to score. This has already cost the Fire goals and points. If Basti is moved back into a third centerback or sweeper role, this problem may only be exaggerated.
Which ties into the other weak point in the partnership— their limited time to iron things out. If Pauno does indeed move to a three-in-the-back system, as many fans and a quorum of Hot Time staffers think he will, the need to accommodate a third partner may hinder Kappelhof’s and Marcelo’s chemistry-building.
All that aside, I think Marcelo and Kappelhof are a good pairing and I’d rather they stay that way. If they get time to develop their partnership, they could be a dominant force in the league. Whether they’ll get that time remains an open question.