Set plays have shockingly been very kind to the Chicago Fire this year. According to WhoScored, the Fire are tied for 2nd in Major League Soccer on set pieces goals with 12. This past Saturday against FC Cincinnati, the Fire went up against a team that is quite good at defending set pieces, and it seems like Veljko Paunovic set up a specific plan to avoid aerial confrontations with centerback Kendall Waston (6’5”). Some of the strategies can be picked out from watching open play crosses as well.
To take away the height advantage, many of the Fire’s crosses in the game were low to the ground or at waist height. Waston can’t beat us in the air if we never give him the chance, right? A result of keeping crosses low is that it is difficult to ever get the ball past the first defender. The workaround to this is to put in early crosses with the intention of bending the ball in behind the defense.
Deep crosses work great for this because the further the ball travels, the more time it has to bend. In the very first minute of the game, Nicolas Gaitán took a deep free kick where he was able to do exactly this. On deep free kicks the defense will hold their line higher, leaving more room behind them to potentially exploit. Francisco Calvo was very close to opening the scoresheet in the first minute because of this. Frank Klopas and Dan Kelly both mentioned this tactic multiple times during the broadcast, and it almost seemed like they were looking out for it.
What happens on plays like corner kicks where there is no space to play in behind the first man? You use near post runs. Four of the five first corner kicks of the game were played in to the near post, and 3 of them saw Calvo right in the mix for winning the ball. Add that to the first minute free kick and that means that Calvo was specifically targeted on near post set pieces four times in the first half alone. In these situations there was no Fire player in that area to begin with so that Calvo would have a straight shot to where the ball was to be played.
This tactic did, unfortunately, change when Gaitán came out of the game in the 58th minute. His replacement, Djordje Mihailovic, does have a good delivery on set plays, but he’s not at Gaitán’s level yet. The Fire had 9 total corner kicks in the game, but ultimately nothing came of them. Does the end result of a 0-0 scoreline take anything away from using such a specific plan for set pieces? I would say no, because I believe that the idea was to take away an advantage of the opposition and not to accentuate an advantage of the Fire’s.
Do you agree? Disagree? Did we show too much respect to Waston and Cincinnati, or was this a smart workaround to a potential roadblock? Let me know what you think in the comments.