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Fashion vs Function

Veljko Paunovic wants possession, but does he have the players necessary to play that way?

MLS: Colorado Rapids at Chicago Fire Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Chicago Fire Head Coach Veljko Paunovic wants to play a possession based offense like we saw in 2017, but not all of the players at his disposal are good fits for that. The Fire have seen some success with playing as a counter-attacking team early season.

Some of Pauno’s players are much more suited to counters than trying to play possession. I want to take a look at some of the players in the squad that fit each of these categories and some that are in between.

This isn’t going to cover a specific starting XI or the gameday 18. It will cover the players best suited for certain playing styles, and players that will have a big influence on the game if used in such a way.


When Pauno has his way, these players control the flow of the offense and encourage movement and fluid positioning.

Bastian Schwinsteiger: A no-brainer. I’ve never seen somebody more calm on the ball than him. He is never ever fazed by a defender coming at him, and I think he is the catalyst for this possession style because his calmness on the ball and willingness to find open teammates is infectious.

Djordje Mihailovic: Probably our best academy product to date. Mihailovic has a great eye for a pass. Against Colorado his goal began with his own entry pass in a very tight window that he managed to see.

Nicolás Gaitán: Our new #10 20. So far from what we’ve seen, he’s very good with the ball in tight spaces, and is an inventive passer. We need to see him play through the middle more often, where those talents would be put to better use when trying to break down a defense.

CJ Sapong: CJ is here with the possession players because of his hold up play. He’s not as technical or phenomenal a passer as the other guys in this group, but he’s been so effective at holding onto the ball and bringing others into the fold.

Counter Attack

These guys are adept at taking advantage of the opponent when they are least aware. They’re always looking to pounce, whether it’s winning balls to start a counter or getting behind the defense to finish it.

Nemanja Nikolic: Niko always watches the players defending him as much as he watches the ball. He looks for the moment where he can create separation. When things are chaotic on the break, Niko has a calm head and looks for space the defenders aren’t thinking about.

Mo Adams: Mo’s ball winning ability is one of the best on the team. He’s quick, strong, and has a good understanding for when to press and win the ball. In a counter attacking system much of the time will be spent in a low block. Constricting the space of the opponents lends itself well to ball hawks like Adams

Przemysław Frankowski: We haven’t seen a lot of Frankowski yet due to unfortunate injuries, but what we have seen of him shows that he is a threat against a team with a lot of space behind them. The speedster is very good at getting behind the defenders, and seems willing to pick his head up to look for others joining the counter.


The guys that can (and do) play a bit of both styles. They are adaptable and can adjust their play to fit with what everyone else is doing.

Aleksandar Katai: Katai is at his best when he can run at defenders and get them off balance with his silky footwork. Katai glides over the field when he has the ball at his feet. He also is good in tight quarters and quite strong, which are both needed for building up possession.

Dax McCarty: The Chicago Fire captain is in his 15th season of his MLS career. He is an elite ball winner and has the ability to start an immediate counter. He also has proven to be reliable when the Fire have the ball, both with finding open teammates and being hard to dispossess.

Early in the 2019 season, the possession game hasn’t been practical. The best performances we’ve seen this season have come from playing bunker and counter soccer.

I think the way to mix the two is to keep possession deep in the Fire half but skip the slow build up. That doesn’t mean launch long balls, but it will take an organized effort to progress the ball more quickly through the midfield.

It is definitely beneficial to have players that can play different ways, but consistency from game to game was seriously lacking in 2018 and it hurt the team in the long run.