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Analyst's Corner: Words About Shapes

Words about Shapes makes a return as Ruben takes a look at the pros and cons of switching to a 4-4-2

MLS: Atlanta United FC at Chicago Fire Jamie Sabau-USA TODAY Sports

If you listened to the Hot Cast this week, I floated the idea of the Fire playing a diamond 4-4-2 to get the best of their personnel, especially if they want to play all four of their dynamic players simultaneously. But what would this mean for how the Fire would look on the field? What would change, what would get better, and what would the trade-offs be?

Let’s start with what the team looks like now. Here’s how they lined up in their4-2-3-1 against Atlanta.

It’s a fairly common starting tactic. A double pivot with two DM’s both playing a hybrid 6/8 style (a 6 is a classic defensive midfielder who disrupts opposing attacks and interrupts the opposition’s rhythm, and an 8 is a box-to-box midfielder who acts as the link from defense to attack). In modern soccer, this is a fairly common setup because of its tactical flexibility. It can morph quickly between being aggressive or defensive based on the game state and it has the distinction of having the most central midfielders to control the middle of the field similar to the way you would want to control the middle of a chess board.

The Fire, however, have an interesting wrinkle in its setup. When pressing and in transition, it looks like this.

Does that look like something else? When the Fire don’t have the ball, and even sometimes when they do, they look like they’re in a 4-4-2. This allows for a more aggressive number in the attack and gives the striker more support by giving him a strike partner to play off of. This seems like a good thing to do, but there’s a big problem. When Shaqiri pushes forward, the Fire essentially lose their playmaker at the top of the formation. This leads to confusion and a lack of direction in the final third, with runs going unnoticed and players complaining to each other about not getting the ball.

So what’s the solution? Start in a 4-4-2.

This will have multiple positive impacts on the Fire attack. For one, it would get Kacper Przybylko in a situation where he’s most comfortable. Both he and Duran wouldn’t have to bear the attacking load by themselves. They can play off each other, creating more good scoring opportunities for both of them more often. It also lets Shaqiri still run the show from the center of the park while not having to worry about doing that plus creating space for his striker. It also lets him get into position for cutbacks from the wings in the pocket of space at the top of the box for shots or long rebounds.

Where the tradeoffs come is in defense. The Fire would lose their double pivot that has worked so well in helping them to be tied for second in clean sheets with 10. Instead of the two hybrid 6/8’s they have now, they would be just playing with a number 6. Presumably, that would be Federico Navarro, but I wouldn’t count out the pressure of having Gaston Gimenez and his DP contract making his way into that position instead.

So what does this look like in practice? For starters, here’s what the defensive responsibilities look like in the 4-2-3-1.

And here’s what it would look like in the diamond 4-4-2.

It seems obvious to say out loud but without the double pivot, there’s more defensive responsibility for Fede (or whoever is there). There’s twice as much ground to cover and less cover if a mistake is made, plus twice as many opposing players to track. Fede specifically doesn’t have a problem doing this now, but how much of that is the confidence that he has someone to cover him versus what he can do by himself? If they were to switch to the diamond, that’s a question that they would have to know the answer to before they make a change to playing this way full time.

The other problem this presents is the fact that the Fire would lose their numbers advantage in midfield. Instead of playing 2 vs 1 against the opposing playmaker, it would be a straight-up 1v1 with the 10 on the other team. One of the things the Fire have been so good at is disrupting the passing lanes from either side of the 10. They lose that and as a result, put more pressure on their already taxed center backs to disrupt and cut out passes, which could lead to more 1v1s with Gaga Slonina if they lose those duels.

The big question with this change is; Is the increased attacking threat worth it for the potential lapses on defense? If you ask me, I think the answer is yes. I trust Ezra Hendrickson, CJ Brown, and the rest of the coaching staff to get the defense right even if they stumble a bit. And something has to help this offense score goals when they're not counter-attacking or scoring off of set pieces. This team needs more firepower, and putting an extra striker up top would solve a lot of problems. Plus, they already kind of do it anyway.