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Versatility Has Been Key to Fire’s Recent Defensive Success

The Fire’s ability to switch formations and player positions at a moment’s notice has made them more solid in the back

MLS: Minnesota United FC at Chicago Fire Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

The Chicago Fire’s back line has done a fantastic job these past few weeks, recording three clean sheets in a row. One of the reasons is their ability to shift the positions on the back line at a moment’s notice.

Veljko Paunovic has had the back line shifting between a four and five man setup at different points in the game, and it’s all thanks to the versatility in the players that are available.

The versatility of the players playing these very malleable positions is key in making the switches comfortable for everybody on the team. The fullback position is where it would be most apparent. At the very beginning of the New England game we saw something strange­– Jorge Corrales playing left winger. This wasn’t just a left wingback position, because in situations where the defense was getting set, he was positioned directly in front of Francisco Calvo who was in the traditional left back spot.

This same thing happened with Przemysław Frankowski after about ten minutes in when Pauno gave the signal to Bastian Schweinsteiger.

He’s obviously indicating four there and then looks like he said “tell Johan” and gesturing to push wider, which makes sense because immediately after this Johan Kappelhof was firmly in a traditional right back position with Frankowski in front of him at right wing. Frankowski was able to step back into right back at times, but this was the shape until the last half hour of the game shifted to 5 in the back.

I think this is a really smart way to use the versatility of Frankowski and Corrales. I am all in on Frankowski, I think he’s a stud, and his versatility just adds to that. I feel safe with him patrolling the right wing, be it wingback or winger. Corrales is more of a concern, but I have to admit that he’s been good since he returned from his injury. He has a decent eye for when to get forward and overlap, which has been useful for his role recently. I also can’t help but think of Raheem Edwards, who seems to be absolutely perfect for this shifting, hybrid role.

The other players that made this possible were Calvo and Kappelhof. They have both played in a different hybrid role, which is shifting between centerback and fullback. Calvo has done a fantastic job for being with the team for less than a month at this point. His mobility and comfort on the ball make him well suited to play either centerback or left back. Kappelhof is similarly mobile and comfortable on the ball. Kappelhof has played right back for the Fire before so I think this transition was smooth for him. He really shined in this role against Minnesota United, so I’d be shocked if we didn’t see him there again.

I think the reason this can be so useful for the Fire is that opponents won’t always be coming up against the same setup from one minute to the next. It has a similar effect to swapping the wingers, which we know Pauno likes to do. This type of in-game change can allow the Fire to choose whether they want numbers in midfield or numbers on the back line.

In the games against New England and Minnesota the Fire chose to have numbers in midfield for a majority of the time. The Revs and Loons didn’t pose much of a threat, so having a numbers advantage on the back line wasn’t really necessary. Against better teams I would expect to see a 5 man back line for a majority of the game.

I’ve been really impressed lately with Pauno’s ability to use the team’s versatility to their advantage. Changing the positions of players in game has some risk to it, but it seems like Pauno has them well organized and properly communicating in order to negate that risk. I’m looking forward to seeing more of it.