Every Monday, Colin Chough will put a bow on the weekend’s action with a deep dive into the Fire’s tactical approach during the matchday.
The starting XI that Ezra Hendrickson crafted for the Fire’s season opener, in addition to his tactical approach to the match was nothing out of the ordinary. As expected, the Fire lined up in a 4-2-3-1 system, as did New York City FC. The only real surprise to the lineup was goalkeeper Spencer Richey, who ultimately performed well in place of the injured Chris Brady.
With both clubs playing a double pivot in midfield, it was the objective of both managers to dominate possession. Both teams looked to build out of the back and play through the middle of the park. Both teams, however, found the middle to be extremely congested, especially in attacking midfield. Xherdan Shaqiri, who was again deployed as a number ten by Hendrickson, really struggled to establish a proper foothold in the match, despite playing all 90+ minutes. Although the Fire were, for the most part, patient in their build-out, the ball would often be forced into Shaq’s feet in crowded areas of midfield. He’d often receive the ball with his back to goal, and with 2-3 orange shirts on his back with nowhere to go. With NYCFC essentially nullifying Shaq’s presence in attacking midfield, he eventually started drifting wider to receive the ball.
While Shaq was constantly getting outnumbered in attacking midfield, New York was able to solve the mismatch in this part of the pitch. Talles Magno would often drop into midfield from the striker position to take some of the pressure off of attacking midfielder Matías Pellegrini. The duo’s movement off of one another was dynamic and helped New York break lines that Chicago were unable to in the first half.
Chicago grew into the game, however, and were certainly able to break lines more frequently in the second half. The substitutions that Ezra made were key to the Fire finding some attacking rhythm, most notably, the introduction of Kei Kamara at halftime. Although Kamara didn’t get the goal to equalize the match, he was able to provide the Fire with much-needed hold-up play and movement that was not present during Kacper Przybyłko’s abysmal first-half display. The few times Shaq was able to get on the ball in dangerous positions, his only options would be to play the ball backward, laterally, or to dump the ball wide, hoping that one of the fullbacks or wingers would be on the end of the pass.
With the Fire constantly trying to play the ball on the ground through the middle, playing Przybyłko at the nine practically made zero sense. Starting Przybyłko could have been justified if the Fire were going to play long balls for him to knock down for players like Shaq and Guti, or if Fire attacks were focused on getting the ball wide to create crossing opportunities. However, starting Przybyłko in a trying to pass their way through NYCFC’s press, where the nine needs to be able to play combination plays with the other attacking players to create scoring opportunities, was not the best judgment on Hendrickson’s part. Kamara certainly fit the role better, and the Fire looked much better going forward in the second half.
In the second period of play, the fluid movement amongst the four attacking players gave the Fire some much-needed momentum in the attacking third. The fresh legs of Fabian Herbers, Maren Haile-Selassie, and Kei Kamara gave the Fire some creative spark and lots of energy. The substitute trio would eventually all be involved in the Fire’s equalizing goal.
Haile-Selassie had some interesting moments as an inverted winger during his second-half stint. The Swiss man’s quickness was apparent, and the NYCFC defenders struggled to contain him. He created an interesting dynamic, especially when Shaqiri would go wide to the opposite wing. Shaq’s final ball was never quite right, but a few times, he tried to find the sprinting Haile-Selassie with a cross-field ball that would have opened up the defense. Playing Shaq and Haile-Selassie as inverted wingers could be an option that Ezra could use going forward, especially if Chris Mueller’s injury is a prolonged one. It is a common opinion of all Fire fans that Shaq is better utilized out on the wing, and his struggle to influence the game from the middle of the park on Saturday night further supports this.
I am still unsure about how to feel about the Fire’s press on Saturday. When New York was building out from the back, the Fire’s 4-2-3-1 would turn into a 4-4-2, with Shaqiri pressing as the second striker. This was identical to what they did last season. The press would eliminate the wingers and would prevent the fullbacks from progressing forward in the buildout. However, by eliminating the wide areas, the Fire’s press forced New York centrally, and this is where NYCFC had the numbers advantage. With the Fire’s two deeper-lying midfield players covering the back line, NYCFC’s pivots were able to get on the ball and play, more often than I would have liked to see. Especially in the first half, New York was able to generate successful attacking opportunities that started with central players getting on the ball.
In lieu of next week’s match against Philadelphia, the Fire can take away some positives from their opening game, especially from their second-half performance. Other than the careless giveaway that led to NYCFC’s goal, the Fire were organized defensively and were sound at the back. If the Fire can stay organized and attack with the same energy and dynamic as they did in the second half on Saturday, they will have a chance at a result in Philly.