With two games instead of one to look at, you’d think there’d be a lot to sink in, but the loss versus FC Cincinnati on Wednesday and the draw against the Philadelphia Union were completely different games. So let’s discuss the differences and figure out what all this could possibly mean on this week’s What We Learned.
The tactics used by Chicago Fire head coach Raphael Wicky were completely different. Against the Union, the Fire played 5 defenders in a 5-3-2. Against FC Cincinnati, the Fire lined up with six defenders, two of which were played in the midfield as part of a 4-2-3-1. Johan Kappelhof and Jhon Espinoza were assigned to play as a central defensive midfielder and right winger respectively. This let FC Cincinnati dictate the terms of the game by cheating to the left side of the pitch, giving Ignacio Aliseda no room to work. Having Kap and Espinoza be the primary ball handlers meant that the Fire’s passing rhythm (or lack thereof) was a step to a step and a half slower. That let FCC shift to the left without losing anything because it was easier than normal to recover and pressure the players in unfamiliar positions.
While Kap could be excused, they were playing the worst team in the league at the time and Kap had a lot of minutes at the 6 in the preseason, Espinoza on the wing was a complete misread of what makes Espinoza an effective attacker at wing-back. What makes him good is his ability to overlap and control passes at speed, creating dynamic chances at crossing the ball in or cutting it back in the vacated space.
What he is not good at, is taking on defenders at a standstill in the middle of the park to start an attack, often passing it to said overlapping fullback. But that’s what you have to do on the wing in Raphael Wicky’s system. More often than not, the wingers tuck inside creating passing lanes for the fullbacks to go forward, and you have to have fast feet and exceptional awareness to play well. While Espinoza has good feet, he doesn’t know where the ball needs to go until he can see it, slowing down the attack to where it’s easily defended.
Meanwhile, on Saturday, Wicky switched up the formation by playing 5 at the back, with Mauricio Pineda playing the Sweeper a la Beckenbauer either behind or just in front of the center-back pairing of Kappelhof and Calvo. This gave both CBs some extra protection on defense, which was relevant on more than one occasion. But the real revelation was Wicky fixing his mistakes and started players in their proper position, including Alvaro Medran, who gave a man-of-the-match performance back in the deep-lying playmaker role he relishes in playing.
The moral of this story is “Play players were they’re comfortable and they’ll perform.” When Wicky and his staff didn't do that, they lost to one of the worst teams in the league. When they did, they got a result against one of MLS’s best. If you're going to change formation and tactics, make sure the players can do the job you want them to do.
The Fire Need A Striker
The other big thing to come out of the last week is that the Fire are in desperate need of another striker. Robert Beric is either uninterested or incapable of staying onside when the team puts together a good sequence, ruining any chance of him even putting a shot on goal, and Chinonso Offor isn’t ready to shoulder the responsibility of leading the line. That leaves the bulk of the goal-scoring to capitalizing on set-piece opportunities or low percentage shots from out wide. As The Athletic’s Paul Tenorio tweeted, “there’s not one player on that roster that scares anyone in MLS in the final third. Not one.” The Transfer window opens next Wednesday, and the Fire needs to make a move quickly, or else we’re looking at a 3rd wooden spoon in 7 years.
I know there is a whole Wicky Out thing happening in Chicago right now, but there's not one player on that roster that scares anyone in MLS in the final third. Not one. Other issues on the roster, for sure, but there is absolutely no threat on this Fire team. #cf97 #cffc— Paul Tenorio (@PaulTenorio) June 27, 2021
Everything Evens Out in the End
Time and the universe always lean towards balance. There was no better example of this than in the match against Philly. The Fire’s first goal was scored by quite possibly the greatest own goal of all time, up to and including the goal Spain scored on themselves earlier today. Glesnes was the unfortunate soul to stick his foot in front of a cross and chip it over Andre Blake’s head. And then to close out the goalscoring for the evening, Boris Sekulic had a ball go off his shoulder into the back of the net. Each team had a ridiculous own goal to cancel out the other team’s, and the world was back in balance.