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Is Man Marking a Realistic, Long-term Tactic for The Fire?

Man marking has been a successful tool in recent games against some of the best opponents in the league. Here’s what makes it effective but risky at the same time.

MLS: Chicago Fire at Toronto FC Martin Bazyl-USA TODAY Sports

The past two games for the Chicago Fire have taken a decidedly defensive approach. Against the New York Red Bulls it was a matter of matching up against their high press; against Toronto FC it was a matter of being the road team against an opponent coming off a dominant win.

One of the main tenets of this defensive plan has been man marking. Against New York, Mo Adams shadowed Kaku. Against Toronto Adams did the same to Alejandro Pozuelo but with much more rigidity.

What is the purpose of this and what is the outcome a team sees from playing this way? Is it a realistic, long-term strategy that the Fire can use to their advantage?

The primary goal of man marking is making it difficult for their best offensive weapon to impose his will on the game. Especially with attackers, the best players are always looking for spaces that the opponent isn’t covering. When a guy like Mo Adams is constantly a yard or two away, there is no space for a guy like Kaku or Pozuelo to sneak into. This leads to those attackers spreading out wide or dropping very deep to pick up the ball. There were multiple instances early in the Toronto game where Pozuelo was dropping right in front of the back line to find a place where Adams wasn’t breathing down his neck.

This sounds pretty great so far, right? Well it’s not exactly as simple as we man mark Pozuelo and therefore neutralize their offense. A defensive midfielder like Adams has to consider the trade-offs that come with vacating his position to follow an attacker. Likewise, the rest of the team needs to recognize when the marker stays or goes. A perfect example of this happened against Toronto for the first goal of the game.

Mo decides not to follow Pozuelo out to the wing, and amidst a bit of chaos Pozuelo finds himself with the ball there. Jeremiah Gutjahr does not commit because Richie Lareya is overlapping, but Aleksandar Katai and Dax McCarty are a bit too late and Pozuelo drops a dime to Jozy Altidore for the goal.

Therein lies the issue with man marking. There are always going to be points in a game where there is a scramble or other situation and a player just has to leave his mark. Those times are where attackers thrive, because that’s when they find the breathing room to work their magic.

The other issue is that in these past two games the Fire purposefully sat deep in their own half, constricting the space the game was played in. If those games had been more open I think Mo and the team would have struggled to keep Pozuelo and Kaku in check while using this strategy.

This strategy is just too situational to use in every game from now until the end of the season. I’m pretty sure Veljko Paunovic doesn’t want to invite waves and waves of pressure from every opponent this season, especially after just bringing in Nicolas Gaitán, who needs to have the ball to make an impact.

I’m very interested in seeing how and when Pauno utilizes this moving forward this season.