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Johan Kappelhof’s Inverted Right Back Excursion

Why Johan Kappelhof’s role changed against Columbus— and what it says about Veljko Paunovic’s coaching style

MLS: Chicago Fire at Columbus Crew SC Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

During Saturday’s rivalry matchup with the Columbus Crew I noticed that Johan Kappelhof was drifting inside more often than usual and playing as an “inverted right back”. It happened enough that it looked like a tactical decision for this specific game. This decision tracks with Veljko Paunovic being the type of manager that changes his tactics from opponent to opponent.

Even when the teams were getting ready for the kick-off, Kappelhof was higher and more tucked in than a right back would normally be. When the Chicago Fire kick off, he is about 5 yards away from Brandt Bronico and the right back spot is completely empty.

Why would Paunovic make this decision, and did it achieve it’s desired effect? There are two advantages I think Paunovic was trying to exploit by doing this. One has to do with Aleksandar Katai and the other is about controlling the midfield.

Aleksandar Katai is a typical inverted winger, he gets the ball out wide cuts into the middle. When inverted wingers cut inside it is the job of the fullback to overlap and provide the width. Against Columbus, Katai stayed out wide in an attempt to exploit an advantage over Columbus left back Connor Maloney. Katai is significantly bigger and more experienced than Maloney, it’s a logical matchup to exploit. As a result, there is no responsibility for Kappelhof to get forward. It would be a waste to just have him sit on the back line, so the solution pushed him to another area of the field that could do with an advantage in numbers.

Do not be fooled by the Crew’s place in the table, their midfield is formidable. Having Dax McCarty and Kappelhof behind Nicolás Gaitán and Brandt Bronico created a square in the midfield going up against the Crew’s measly triangle. This also put much less pressure on Gaitán because the Crew midfield needed to close down Kappelhof and Dax while also preventing Bronico and Gaitán from getting open. This is the magic of overloads.

I can’t decide if it worked, though. In some ways it did–the Fire midfield was more populated and kept Gaitán up the field in possession, and Katai remained isolated on the wing against Maloney. On the other hand, it didn’t have an impact on the outcome of the game. It is difficult to evaluate something that achieved its desired effect but did not influence the outcome.

This is part of the issue with Pauno’s management style being so erratic. Managers that use the “inverted fullback” are managing teams that dominate the opposition and dictate the game. Pep Guardiola, the manager that made this popular, requires his teams to have the majority of possession and press immediately after loss of possession. For the Fire this decision was situational, only being a way to not waste Kappelhof while providing the width was being covered by Katai.

This is something that would have worked spectacularly in 2017, where teams were adjusting their tactics to fit a dominant Fire identity. If the Fire can get back to having an identity then I’d love to see more of this type of adjustment. For now, it’s just reactionary soccer.