“Give me good players, and I will figure it out.”
Those were the words of Veljko Paunovic at Nico Gaitan’s introductory press conference back in late March. I believed him when he said this and I will not pretend to understand Veljko Paunovic and his staff’s direction and instruction on a daily basis.
But I have to ask: what does Paunovic “figuring it out” look like to you? Do you have confidence that he will, in fact, figure it out?
A good manager, and his staff, can juggle many different responsibilities throughout the year at a consistently high level of excellence. Some are constant, ongoing activities that are hard to evaluate at one specific moment in time or without a large sample size; they are tasked with developing players within the team, identifying and evaluating new players to sign, and blending the talent available to maximize team performance over a seven-month season.
The other half of managing a team, the half that involves being a master motivator, setting up the team week-to-week and making in-game tactical and personnel adjustments provides more frequent and concrete data points. I want to pressure test fans confidence in Veljko Paunovic’s ability to “figure it out,” with this existing squad, or essentially solve for this second piece of management over the remaining three quarters of the year. So far, two glaring pieces of evidence lead me to believe Paunovic and staff are don’t’ know how to solve for how this team should play, and we saw a lot of this over the last week.
Let’s start with the team set-up and tactical approach; are you able to discern any significant style of play, or plan, from game to game that makes this team tick offensively other than dumping it long and hoping for some individual brilliance? As I wrote two weeks ago, there is no reason to believe that Nelson Rodriguez and Paunovic have a plan that builds throughout their tenure. But what about game to game?
I’m taking the Colorado game with a grain of salt, as that team is going to give up a thousand goals this year, but I just haven’t been impressed with the Fire going forward. I’ve seen a team that lacks a lot of ideas, relying on Nico Gaitán or Aleksandar Katai to create something alone, or CJ Sapong to outwork someone on the backline.
What do I mean by they lack ideas? When the Fire have the ball, look at their shape: it is largely the same from when they are defending. Other than Gaitan occasionally wandering wide, or Katai coming inside on occasion, they don’t pressure opponent’s backline in any particular way. Late runs from Djordje Mihailovic in the midfield, Katai coming inside to combine with Gaitán in between the lines, or Sapong making diagonal runs into the path of Gaitán’s backline-splitting balls; none of these things are common patterns of play, much less even there.
The second piece, and the most frustrating in my mind, is the in-game adjustments. When was the last time the Fire came out of halftime and you saw an adjustment that made the difference in the game? This could be from a sub, a tactical change, the way they play; the only thing that comes this season was after the Fire went down early to Seattle and they split the center backs and had Bastian Schweinsteiger initiate the attack, but at that point they had no choice.
Let’s take Saturday as our most recent example. Montreal were going to sit in their low blocks, just as they did the previous week against Philly, and the Fire’s plan to attack with their front four only provided only one dangerous opportunity. Yes, Marko Mitrovic was manning the sideline, but an hour into the game was begging for a change. The Fire needed an injection of an impact sub or a tactical change to get more numbers in dangerous areas. The change of Przemysław Frankowski was too little, too late and the Fire come home with a second straight match in which they were shut out.
The plan in place never felt like it was going to provide the breakthrough. Proactive in-game adjustments, which to me are the sign of an elite coaching staff, were not evident. The attacking talent is as good as anyone in the Eastern conference on paper, and they just got shutout over 180 minutes with only a few decent looks on goal. We can chalk it up to a bad week, road games with quick turnarounds are hard, the pitch wasn’t great in Montreal, sure. I don’t think all is lost, I think this team can start to click on the offensive end, but I am not exactly encouraged so far.