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The Optimal First XI: A Chicago Fire Tactical Preview

How will the Fire line up in 2022?

Miguel Navarro
Chicago Fire

The 2022 Chicago Fire should get you excited. After two years of incomplete first teams and not enough from the front office, Georg Heitz and Co, finally, put their money where their mouth is and signed some difference makers. But, what is this team going to look like and how are they going to play?

The truth is we won’t really know until the whistle blows in Ft. Lauderdale, and even then Jairo Torres won’t join the team until May 1st. However, from the preseason and press availability, I think we can extrapolate into a decent approximation on what the lineup could be, and how they’re going to play.

Welcome to the 2022 Chicago Fire tactical preview.

The Best XI

For the first time in what seems like half a decade, the Chicago Fire defense is the area of least concern for me going into the season. The acquisition of Rafael Czichos and the late emersion of Carlos Terán leave created an environment where we don’t have to worry too much about the quality of the backline— especially in comparison to the 2020 and 2021 seasons.

The last few seasons, the club had a tricky time trying to craft around two deficiencies; One: cover for ’s over-aggressiveness and mental lapses. And Two: Communications breakdowns. Both of those were caused by one player, Francisco Calvo. Because of that, the Fire had to play overly defensively to compensate for their shortcomings, oftentimes playing 5 in the back, leaving their midfield stranded in possession and unable to break down opposing defenses.

Mauricio Pineda was a revelation at sweeper, to be sure. But that they needed him there took a lot of the numbers advantage in the center of the midfield that the Fire needed to create scoring opportunities and control the game. With Czichos coming into the squad, the Fire can go back to playing a traditional back 4 with RC and Terán as your center back pairing, and in interviews, Ezra Hendrickson has said as much. With Gaga Slonina holding it down between the sticks, The defense would look like this:

The midfield has the most play to it in how the Fire can line up. Will it be a 5 person midfield with a double pivot, a 3 person midfield with two wingers with a double pivot, or a 3 person midfield with a single DM? The Fire have a lot of tactical room to play around with, and it could change based on the opponent. The acquisition of Fede Navarro last season and Xherdan Shaqiri this winter has created a flexible spine that can be built around, and Hendrickson can be more creative around them to either pack it in against a team like New England who play through the middle or shift it around against teams that are looking to exploit the space on the wings.

Meanwhile, Gaston Gimenez looks like he has renewed his commitment to the club, and in the footage released from practice as well as his performances in the streamed preseason games indicate that he’s 100 percent in on the season. Because of his DP status as well as his renewed commitment, expect to see him in the lineup as often as he is healthy.

This leaves us with Fabian Herbers and Mauricio Pineda on the bench as substitutes, which as far as depth goes, is probably the deepest part of the roster, baring the center backs)

If I were setting up a default tactic in something like FIFA or Football Manager (or if I’m that desperate, eFootball) I’d go with an off-center triangle in the midfield of Fede, Gaston, and Shaqiri, push the wide players up into a 4-3-3.

The forwards are in an interesting spot. A week ago, there were still questions not only about who would play up front, but the quality of player the Fire had to work with. However after the signing of Jairo Torres and the preseason Jhon Duran had, there really isn’t a question anymore of who’s going to start with Kacper Przybylko up top for the majority of the season. The caveat, of course, is who is going to start for the first two months of the season while waiting for Torres to join the team. For me, it comes down to two choices; Fabian Herbers or Brian Gutierrez.

Herbers is the safe option. He can do the job asked of him competently and will work his ass off for the club whenever he’s asked. The problem with him is that he’s the safe/ unexciting option. He’s not going to excel at any one thing out on the pitch, and if they need some individual magic from him to win a game or salvage some points it’s not going to happen more often than not.

Brian Gutierrez is the more interesting of the two with a higher ceiling. His risk though is that he’s young and has a tendency to disappear from games. For every smart, creative, dynamic play he makes he can just as easily disappear from the field. This makes him the more volatile choice. I think the best answer is to platoon the two depending on the opponent, but in a default lineup, I want some of that creativity and am willing to sacrifice some consistency for it. I’m playing Guti.

Altogether, the Fire’s best lineup should look something like this:

The Tactics

Hendrickson has stated during press availability that he wanted his team to press high on defense and force turnovers to play quick counterattacks. With their young wingers and Fede, who has an engine the size of the entire continent of Australia, that’s not only possible but arguably the most effective way to harness his players on the field. However, as we all know from hockey and FC Barcelona in the 2010s the best way to win games is to have the ball and create more scoring opportunities (and finish them.) And the Fire finally have the personnel to play that way successfully. The addition of Xherdan Shaqiri and his ability to spray the ball all around the field opens up attacking possibilities, and he’ll benefit greatly from active attacking legs making runs on top of runs and the space those runs would create.

For example, picture in your head Shaqiri receiving the ball in the attacking half of the center circle. He spins and loses his mark, and now has space to pick his head up. Some possible movements include Miguel Navarro pushing forward from behind. One of the wingers or Przybylko or Gaston Gimenez filling the space in between the midfield and defense created by his turn. Or he could play it backward to keep possession if the space doesn’t open up. Or he could play it over the top to the weakside winger running to the end line forcing the defense to run backward. There are dozens of possibilities for the Fire’s first unit to create chances.

Here’s a basic (poorly drawn) graphic on how I think this should look (the red arrows are the movement, and the black lines are the passing lanes)

Fede Navarro drops back to cover Miguel as he pushes up, shifting the center backs to the right-hand side while Sekulic also pushes forward. Gimenez pushes forward and determines which winger cuts inside— if he runs to the right, the right-winger cuts in and he takes that space, and vice versa. Meanwhile the winger on the opposite side stays wide to put crosses into the box and create overlapping runs with the fullback. This gives Shaq 6 passing options going forward, plus an outlet to reset the attack, including a direct through-ball to Przybylko who should be playing off of the shoulder of the center back.

If this looks familiar, it’s because it’s similar to how the 2017 team played with Nemanja Nikolic and David Accam. That team finished 3rd in the east only behind NYCFC and Toronto. This team has an actual #10 in Shaq instead of piecing it together between Dax McCarty, Luis Solignac, and Arturo Alverez. And while Fede is no Schweinsteiger, his energy and commitment to playing hard should make up some for not being one of the greatest players of all time.

The sky is the limit for how this club can play and succeed. Obviously, this depends on the opponent and who’s on the field. The depth on this team is paper-thin except in central midfield and center back, where it’s just regularly thin. If anything goes wrong, the club will probably have to play a more compact direct style of soccer to compensate for all the young players that are going to have to step in. However, in the event the club end up in magical Christmas land, teams are going to have a hard time stopping the creative engine.

Prediction

This has the potential to be a magical year for the club, but everything has to go right for that to happen. The Club could finish as high as 3rd if things fall apart elsewhere in the east, or as low as 10th if things fall apart on the lakefront. So I’ll say things will go more right than wrong, and the Fire will finish in the playoff picture. They’ll also reach the Open Cup final, and win the MLS Next Pro championship.