Forming a lineup around the injuries of Jairo Torres, Federico Navarro, and Chris Mueller, Fire head coach, Ezra Hendrickson, still managed to find a way to start the match in something resembling a 4-2-3-1 formation. Left-back Miguel Navarro started as a wingback but played in a role resembling the left winger/attacking midfielder. With Navarro constantly criticized for his lack of attacking ability, it was certainly a surprise to see him in a forward position; especially when considering that the Fire had healthy attacking options on the bench (most notably, Brian Gutiérrez and Maren-Haile Selassie).
However, this was not a traditional 4-2-3-1 system. At times, especially in the first half when the Fire had 11 men, it almost looked like total football. Throughout the course of the opening period, the fluid system fluctuated between a 4-2-3-1, a 4-4-2, a 4-3-1-2 (4-1-2-1-2), and a 5-2-1-2 (3-5-2).
Players were drifting all over the place. Fabian Herbers, a natural winger, started as a central midfielder due to injuries. He would often go extremely wide and high on the right hand side, leaving Gastón Giménez alone in the pivot. As Shaqiri did last week, he would also drift wide from his central position to pick up the ball on the right wing. The Fire also often looked like they were playing with two central strikers. This was expected however, as Chicago started the match with both Kacper Przybyłko and Kei Kamara. When the Fire did devolve into a front three though, it was Przybyłko who would always stay central, and Kamara, who would be instructed to go wide.
Like last week against NYCFC, the Fire would press the back line in a 4-4-2. The only real change in terms of pressing was personnel. With Kamara in the mix, Shaqiri would be the player on the far right in midfield as opposed to one of the two front players.
Once the Union were able to break the initial line of Fire pressure however, Miguel Navarro would drop in as a left wing back, making it a back 5, pushing Kendall Burks centrally.
In possession of the ball, the Fire would build with a back 4, with Navarro typically going higher to receive the ball. They would build in a 4-4-2 and in a 4-3-1-2, with Navarro, Gastón, and Herbers playing in the flat 3. As the Fire progressed down the pitch, both fullbacks would go high, leaving Gaston sitting in front of three Fire center-halves.
This match was much more open then the fixture against NYCFC. It was end to end, with tons of space in the central areas of the pitch. Whereas against New York, central midfield was clogged, it was the wide areas that were getting overcrowded with numbers. With both teams playing with high fullbacks that would overlap wide forward players, the main battle was out on the wings. Central players were granted lots of space as there were huge gaps in midfield. With Herbers flying forward and the two number 8’s in Philadelphia’s midfield diamond going wide in attack, there were gaps to expose for both teams.
However, the case for both teams was not knowing how to exploit this space. The concept of having almost “too much time/space” on the ball was evident, as neither team was able to really carve out any solid chances by playing the ball through the open midfield.
The turning point in the match from a tactical standpoint came just 5 minutes into the second half. Fabian Herbers, who was the Fire’s week one MOTM and was included in the MLS TOTW, saw red after making a careless challenge to pick up a second yellow. It would ultimately cost his team as the Fire were forced to battle out the remaining 40+ minutes in a low block against a hungry Philly team.
Following the red card, Jonathan Dean and Chris Mueller were brought on as substitutes to play in the wide positions of midfield in a 4-4-1 formation.
Playing in a low block with just Kamara staying high as a lone number nine, the Fire could not create anything offensively in the second half. Kamara did extremely well to hold the ball up for the Fire, but at 38, didn’t have the legs to turn and beat the entirety of the Philly defense all alone. When he had support, it just wasn’t enough. The wide players were never quite close enough to him to create combination plays, and the Fire could never break down the Union. Chris Mueller’s injury was also apparent. He certainly lacked his usual energy and sharpness and looked extremely tentative during his second-half cameo.
Playing with ten men, Fire’s fullbacks did not have the freedom to fly up the field as they had in the first half. Although it was apparent that the Fire could not create chances without overloading wide areas, the objective of maintaining a 0-0 draw away from home was evidently more important.
Sacrificing offensive creativity for defensive solidity looked like it was going to pay off, up until Philly’s unfortunate 90th minute goal.
It will be interesting to see what Hendrickson does with his team for next weekend’s matchup against Cincinnati. With Shaqiri also having appeared to pick up an injury, and with the suspensions of Kamara and Herbers, the list of unavailable crucial players continues to grow. A system change might be needed. In the first half, the Fire looked solid in a back 5 with attacking wing-backs. Their best chances of the match came from wide areas, and the Fire have players fit to field a solid back 5. Then comes the question of whether the Fire then plays with four flat across the midfield with a lone number nine, or if the Fire plays three central midfielders with two strikers.