Leading up to the match, Fire fans were not quite sure what to expect from Ezra Hendrickson’s team sheet given the recent injuries within the squad. Most of the question marks however surrounded who would play in the 3 in midfield. Knowing that both Gastón Giménez and Federico Navarro would both probably only be fit enough to play limited minutes, the growing worry for Fire fans leading up to the match was a lack of defensive cover in midfield.
Although Ezra has the likes of deep-lying midfielders such as Mauricio Pineda and Javi Casas Jr. at his disposal, he decided not to feature either of the two. Pineda didn’t see minutes off of the bench while Casas did not even make the bench.
With Shaqiri coming back to full fitness and Brian Gutiérrez in great form, most Fire fans expected the two attacking midfielders to both start. Personally, I expected Ezra to change the midfield shape so that Shaq and Guti could play side by side as number 8s with either Pineda or Herbers behind them. Who am I kidding though? It’s Ezra, 4-2-3-1 is his pride and passion, and there’s no changing that until he switches the team into a five-back to protect a 2-0 lead to proceed to then lose that lead and hand points to our rivals.
So yes, we stuck with the 4-2-3-1 and with a winger and a number 10 in the double pivot. While this decision had many Fire fans (such as myself) scratching their heads, it certainly proved effective throughout the match.
Tonight was the best I have ever seen the Fire press and counter press their opponents in the opposing half/attacking third and I think a lot of credit has to be given to the personnel out on the field for the Fire. Everyone in the Fire’s starting front 6 tonight, apart from Shaqiri, showed great energy and intent in their press. Organized as a unit and the Fire were able to force turnovers in dangerous positions and as a result often forced Atlanta to play direct.
Key to this however were Herbers and Guti. The midfield dynamic tonight was completely different than when a more of a roamer 6 like Herbers plays alongside more of a sitter like Gastón. With two roamers out on the field, the Fire’s midfield line was typically a lot higher than it usually is and was critical to pinning Atlanta in their own half.
As the midfield line pushed forward, the backline naturally followed suit. Tonight was the highest line that I have seen the Fire play, and I can’t say that I’m opposed to it. The one drawback of this however is that the Fire were sometimes on the ropes when Atlanta would play the big ball over the top.
Pushing very high, all of the space for Atlanta was in behind, which they exploited numerous times. For instance, it was Thiago Almada’s long ball over the top that launched the attack that would eventually wind up in Chicago going 1-0 down.
It was a trade-off. When the Fire could stop the buildout before Atlanta could release players forward with a long ball, Chicago often found themselves in really dangerous positions to capitalize on turnovers. However, failure to trap Atlanta in their own half often had repercussions, especially when Atlanta could get off 2-3 quick passes that would break multiple lines in just seconds.
Although the press finally paid off in the 90th minute when Kacper Przybyłko capitalized off of an Atlanta United hospital pass, the Fire certainly had their chances to make Atlanta pay earlier in the match.
If the Fire could’ve matched their quality of finishing to their quality of pressing, the game would’ve been over well before the Fire’s late equalizer. It was this lack of a final product however that let the Fire down in the end. Instead of establishing control in the match by going up by a goal or two off of an Atlanta turnover, the Fire chased the game for 90 minutes and left it to a game of fate that they wound up losing in the 99th minute.
Although I have praised the Fire thus far for their effort and commitment to pressing, they left much to be desired in terms of the technical aspects of the match. Crossing, passing, finishing, nothing seemed quite right on. This could however be because the Fire were trying to force things for most of the match. Holding onto just a one-goal lead, Atlanta were totally content getting all 11 men behind the ball and defending in a compact and organized block while the Fire chased the match. Although they may have turned the ball over quite a bit, Atlanta must be credited for their commitment to getting numbers back and behind the ball to thwart Chicago and make them impatient going forward.
The more the Fire forced things, the worse the quality of the product turned out to be. Multiple instances that come to mind were the Fire consistently dumping crosses into the box when outnumbered and outmatched in terms of size. Not giving the Fire anything, it was one of the only ways Chicago could fight the organized defensive unit that was Atlanta, yet attempt after attempt, deliveries into the box were either dealt with defensively or subpar at best.
The introduction of Fede and Gastón brought some calm to the Fire’s sense of urgency to force everything through the compact Atlanta block. Following the duo’s entrance, the Fire looked more technically in tune and in control of the match when in possession. They started to work their chances a little more and move the defense a lot better.
Although the Fire began to improve their performance after this substitution, Chicago still struggled to reward their hard pressing with deserved goals and it ultimately cost them the match. It is incredibly unusual to see a top team such as Atlanta concede as much possession as they did in yesterday’s match and the Fire did not punish their opponent accordingly.
In matches where you work so hard defensively against top teams like Atlanta, it is truly a shame to not get a result because of a lack of creating/finishing goalscoring opportunities. As the Fire will look to improve on this disappointment, they must look at ways to both break down low blocks and improve upon creating and scoring in transition.