Wednesday’s U.S. Open Cup victory was certainly the best defensive performance that I had seen from the Fire all season. Although on paper the Fire were lined-up in their typical 4-2-3-1 shape, the visitors were really playing a 3-4-3 out on the field.
The Fire would always drop into a back five when defending. Maren Haile-Selassie would drop into the five as a wingback, pushing Arnaud Souquet inside as more of a right-sided center-back. The obvious reason for this adjustment in the Fire’s defensive shape was to cope with Austin going forward. Austin, who plays a 3-4-3 (5-2-3), likes to overload wide areas and create chances from the wings.
By shifting into a 3-4-3, the Fire were able to match up like for like in these wide positions and were never exposed by Austin in these areas. In fact, I still cannot recall an instance in the match where Austin created a chance from out wide. As a further testament to the Fire’s defensive effort on Wednesday night, I do not think that Austin was able to create a chance from open play throughout the entire match.
The Fire certainly kept things tight at the back and absorbed pressure well. Austin held nearly 60% of all possession on Wednesday, but the Fire never let this possession devolve into anything dangerous. The home side struggled to break down the Fire’s organized defensive block as they continued to frustrate Austin. As the hosts became more impatient in their efforts, especially after going down a goal in the first half, the Fire were able to continue to force turnovers and hit Austin on the counter.
Upon winning the ball from Austin, the Fire were great at breaking the hosts’ counter-press. By playing quick combinations with one-another in their own half, the Fire found lots of success in breaking out of their own half and into space further up the pitch. What also helped the Fire break this counter-press was Xherdan Shaqiri’s ability to receive the ball deep and get involved in the build-out.
Not only was Shaq able to keep the ball well for the Fire as he passed nearly 90% on Wednesday, but was also able to find the killer pass to get the Fire out of tight spaces.
Shaqiri’s superb-passing ability combined with the pace of Fire attackers such as Brian Gutiérrez, Maren Haile-Selassie, and Jairo Torres allowed the Fire to find spaces in behind Austin’s defense on the counter-attack. Shaq put on a master-class against Austin as he executed inch-perfect through balls time and time again.
Shaq combined especially well with fellow Swiss attacker, Haile-Selassie. Shaq often drifted to Haile-Selassie’s side and was able to find him in behind. Haile-Selassie, who by nature is an out and out winger who can play either inverted or traditionally, did an exceptional job I thought of covering ground as a true wingback.
The rapid Haile-Selassie was able to blow by Austin fullbacks on the run even when coming from a deep full-back position and looked incredibly fit as he continued to make darting runs on both sides of the ball.
With the Fire locking down defensively from open-play, the only times Austin truly threatened Chicago’s goal were from set-pieces. Austin nearly found a way back into the match through a corner that was heroically saved by Spencer Richey’s face, while a free-kick from outside the box in the opening minutes nearly snuck its way into the corner. Although Richey only had to make two saves on the night, he commanded his box well and certainly showed his experience in between the sticks.
The most interesting aspect of Wednesday’s match was certainly the Fire’s ability to adapt and thwart their opponents by changing shape. The Fire had always been rigid in terms of boldly changing tactics to win matches under Ezra Hendrickson and Frank Klopas has certainly invigorated a newfound sense of tactical ambition into this Fire team. As fans, we can only hope that Klopas continues to confidently execute these kinds of changes based on the match as it certainly shows much needed ambition in what was a very flat Fire team three weeks ago.