After securing a 2-0 victory against Austin in the U.S. Open Cup at mid-week, Frank Klopas decided to stick with the five-back for Saturday’s match against the New England Revolution.
Wednesday’s match against Austin was the first time this season that the Fire played with three center-backs and a pair of true wing-backs, and inevitably was the team’s best defensive performance of the season thus far.
Looking to repeat this kind of result, it only made sense to play this way again. Not only did playing with the back five allow the Fire to match up like for like with the Rev’s 3-5-2 shape, but also permitted the Fire to rotate their starting XI.
Saturday’s match was the Fire’s seventh in the month of May, and crucial players such as Brian Gutiérrez, Rafael Czichos, Arnaud Souquet, and Kei Kamara all started on the bench while Federico Navarro served his red-card suspension.
As opposed to the game in Austin, where the Fire played with a front three, the Fire started Saturday with a strike partnership of Georgios Koutsias and Kacper Przybylko. By not playing with any true wingers, wing-backs Maren Haile-Selassie and Miguel Navarro had more space to operate in wide areas and make runs on and off the ball.
What I really like about this shape is how it allows the Fire to move in possession of the ball. I thought the movements of Koutsias and Shaqiri were most notable as the system allowed them to float in and out of pockets all over the field to receive the ball.
Koutsias would float into defensive midfield sometimes to get the ball and, the next minute would be poached out on the left wing to receive a cross-field ping. Shaq would also drop deep and sit in front of the Fire’s back three to pick up the ball but would also find himself out on the right sideline to combine with Haile-Selassie and switch the ball to Koutsias and Navarro on the opposite wing.
A massive reason why the Fire were able to establish an early lead/foothold in this match was due to the movement of these players. By floating in and out of pockets and never possessing strictly in their 3-5-2 (5-3-2) shape, the Fire were able to successfully move the ball around their opponents and take control of the match.
However, once the Revs started stepping higher, especially after going 2-0 down and being forced to chase the game, cracks began to emerge when in possession of the ball. With the Fire’s best ball-playing midfielder (Fede) out suspended and their best ball-playing center-back (Czichos) rested, and on the bench, the Fire had some scary moments in possession, which included the turnover at the back that led to the Revolution’s opener.
Still struggling to resist New England’s newfound sense of urgency and intensity, the Fire saw their lead disspitate in just minutes as the Revs grabbed a second goal. The half-time whistle certainly came to the Fire’s saving grace and gave the team some time to think and reset.
However, the Revs carried their first-half momentum into the beginning of the second half as the Fire remained the second-best team on the pitch. The Revolution continued to pin the Fire in their own half and either force mistakes in possession or force the Fire to play long.
After spending the first 15 minutes under the cosh, Klopas made some much-needed substitutions that reinvigorated the Fire. Although none of the subs performed particularly well individually, the changes certainly brought some life into a side that had been chasing shadows since the Rev’s opener in the first half.
With these fresh legs out on the pitch, the Fire were finally able to escape the Rev’s high-press with a quick free-kick from Shaqiri. The free-kick sent Haile-Selassie running at the Rev’s backline as Chicago pushed numbers forward to join him. Although the attack eventually broke down, it allowed the Fire to push players forward and finally establish a presence in the opposing half after 50 minutes of being pinned in. The Fire were then able to do what the Revs had done to them for so long and were able to trap the home side in their own half and force a turnover in possession that would lead to the Fire’s go-ahead goal.
The Revolution then responded by bringing on former USMNT striker Joey Altidore, who would just minutes later score the equalizer off of a corner. Although the Fire were by no means sitting back and protecting their lead as they had in previous games under Ezra Hendrickson, it was the second goal of the night that the Fire had conceded off of a corner kick and these two goals ultimately cost the Fire two crucial points.
For not just the players but for fans as well, it is incredibly frustrating to work so hard to then just throw away points off of lapses in concentration and attention to detail on something like a set piece. Despite the immense pressure that the Revs exerted upon the Fire after going 2-0 down, the Fire did a good job of staying organized and not allowing the Revs to create any blatant scoring chances from open play. A 30-yard screamer and two corner kicks would ultimately cost the Fire a defensive effort that probably warranted all three points.
So although the Revs did manage to put three past the Fire on Saturday, I do not think that it was truly an accurate depiction of the defensive display that the Fire showed for the majority of the match. I think the five-back system is certainly something that should have Fire fans excited after seeing how it worked out against Austin and in the opening 30 minutes against New England.
From what I saw in these last two games, the Fire can organize themselves defensively in this new system and will be hard to break down to create actual scoring chances from open play. In order to make this defensive effort pay off however, the team must improve upon building out of a high-press in this shape. If the team can build and dictate defenses as they did in the opening thirty minutes of Saturday’s match, this system certainly has a future for the Fire.