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Is Gutjahr’s Debut a Sign of Things to Come?

Jeremiah Gutjahr stepped into an unfamiliar position in his debut. An astute gameplan and great performances from his teammates helped with his transition.

MLS: New York Red Bulls at Chicago Fire Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Chicago Fire homegrown player Jeremiah Gutjahr made his debut and first start on Saturday against the New York Red Bulls. Jorge Corrales and Raheem Edwards were both be out of commission and will be for the next few games, so Gutjahr was asked to step in. Being asked to play a completely new position in his very first professional minutes was likely intimidating, but it shows that Head Coach Veljko Paunovic has confidence in Gutjahr.

Gutjahr looked as if he was instructed to play as a stay-at-home left back. Instead of pushing high and wide as the fullbacks normally would, he was left deep to provide an option in possession. I think this was a function of the gameplan that Pauno designed to combat the Red Bulls.

The Red Bulls are, more than anyone else in MLS, notoriously a high pressing team. One way to combat this is to try to bypass the press altogether and play direct. On Saturday we chose the direct route, having only 35.9 percent possession to New York’s 64.1. Ceding possession and going long against a high pressing team doesn’t allow them to use their primary defensive weapon, and attacks the space they leave open behind them.

So Gutjahr’s role in this as a fullback is to be an outlet on the back line and to play direct when he sees it. Even when playing direct, there need to be some safe options open in case an attacker isn’t. His passing map is almost exclusively short sideways passes or long vertical ones.

This sort of tactic isn’t going to risk throwing numbers forward when there’s a high percentage chance that the opposition will come away with the ball.

This direct play made for a consistent positional assignment for Gutjahr, so he was rarely up-field when the Red Bulls started a counter attack. I think this helped him adjust to his new position because it meant he usually had the game in front of him as opposed to trying to play catch up. It reduced the amount of space he was responsible for on both sides of the ball.

Gutjahr performed well in this new role, but I don’t think we should expect it to be the norm.

There were excellent performances all around Gutjahr on Saturday. Bastian Schweinsteiger was excellent and had one of the best centerback performances we’ve seen from him, earning him an MLS team of the week spot. Mo Adams was arguably the best player on the field, and his partner in midfield­–Dax McCarty–was named to the bench for the MLS team of the week.

Performances like these take pressure off the other defenders. Call me crazy, but I don’t expect three team of the week deserving performances to be a regular occurrence for this defense.

I also fully expect Pauno to go back to his preferred playing style and try to build possession by pushing the fullbacks forward more. Seeing Gutjahr in this type of role will be more indicative of his capability to play fullback on a regular basis.