Saturday's scoreline didn't show it, but with a surface watch of the Chicago Fire's 1-0 victory over Columbus Crew SC, you'd have missed one of the most interesting tactical games of the season.
Fire head coach Veljko Paunovic lined up his team in a 3-5-2 (or 5-3-2, if you prefer) formation, with star midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger … in the middle of the three-man backline – a switch Paunovic first made during Chicago's Week 5 draw against Portland. Moving a man who has won Bundesliga, Champions League, and World Cup medals as a winger and center mid to defense changes the outlook of a team. That's what you need given how bad they were defensively. Through the first 210 minutes of the season, the Fire had given up six goals (pacing for more than three conceded per game).
Pushing Schweinsteiger back accomplished two things for Paunovic:
- Limiting the central space in which opposing teams could find dangerous positions.
- Putting his most experienced player in the position most suited to organizing everyone else.
And though Paunovic hasn’t mentioned it publicly, Chicago's offseason trade of winger David Accam might have made this formation switch inevitable. Given Accam's pace and dribbling ability from the wide areas, much of their success revolved around Accam’s ability to stretch opposing defences; they have yet to replace that threat, essentially running out the same lineup and same style without the singular piece that made it so effective.
Chicago signed winger Aleksandar Katai to create from the channels, but his game involves tucking in more rather than beating players wide. As a result, the Fire's outside backs provided their width in the final third. With need for a new approach and a way to advance the outside backs into the attack, the 3-5-2 becomes an obvious move. Destiny, however it happens.
Paunovic again opted for the 3-5-2 against Columbus, while remaining aware of Schweinsteiger's specific skills and vulnerabilities in the key role. He’s excellent at passing, reading the game, and organizing his teammates, yet relatively limited when it comes to cutting, jumping, or running in the open field.
Consequently, Chicago entered the Columbus game with four clear principles:
- Press high up the field whenever Columbus tried to play out of the back.
- If Columbus broke the initial high press, have the center backs track Crew SC players in the midfield.
- If Columbus maintained possession through the midfield, drop to protect the space behind the defenders.
- Trust in Schweinsteiger.
Pressing high had more to do with proactively targeting Columbus than anything Chicago wanted to fix. Columbus tries to play out of the back on almost every occasion, and Chicago felt they could take advantage – and did, as Fire striker Nemanja Nikolic picked off a stray pass and scored in the 27th minute. The Fire coaches had told their forwards that Columbus 'keeper Zack Steffen has a penchant for playing out from the back and it could be exploited.
Chicago pressing Crew SC 'keeper Zack Steffen as he attempts to play out of the back.
The central backs tracking midfielders is a core element of a 3-5-2: With three players covering a space that two generally occupy, one can roam into other zones. Against a team playing only one striker, as Columbus does with Gyasi Zardes, a 3-5-2 team needs to send one of the three center backs to pick up other players where the opposition has a numerical advantage. Against Columbus, one of Schweinsteiger, Johan Kappelhof or Kevin Ellis would dart forward to mark playmaker Federico Higuain before the Argentine could receive the ball.
Schweinsteiger ranges into midfield to pick up Crew SC playmaker Pipa Higuain, leaving the other two center backs to handle the lone forward.
As for dropping the group once Columbus gained possession in the middle third, that seems a direct result of Schweinsteiger’s presence in the backline. At age 33, he can no longer turn or cut the way one would like to see from a center back. If Chicago tried to pressure in the middle of the field, Schweinsteiger would have too much space behind him to cover. Chicago clearly accounted for that, yet Columbus still attacked it over and over, successfully. Columbus earned all of their best opportunities seeking out early and direct opportunities behind Schweinsteiger:
Warshaw-Schweinsteiger vs. CLB
The most unique part of the game plan was Schweinsteiger going wherever he wanted to go and doing whatever he wanted to do. While Schweinsteiger was supposed to be playing center back, he occasionally would pop up in the midfield and hang for a minute. Whether this was designed, with Paunovic telling his player something along the lines of “Read the game, sniff out danger, and go after it,” or if Schweinsteiger just wandered out of position, only two people know. But Paunovic wanted to give Schweinsteiger a leadership role and he certainly did.
Left: Schweinsteiger in the 6th minute, asking for the ball as a center mid;
Middle: In the 12th minute, from a sweeper position;
Right: In the 15th minute, back in midfield for possession.
Here’s the wrench. After Nikolic scored, Chicago abandoned the 3-5-2 for the next 40 minutes. Schweinsteiger moved back to midfield in a clear 4-3-3. On the TV broadcast, Fire sideline reporter and MLSsoccer.com National Writer Paul Tenorio noted that he heard Paunovic say he wanted to try to gain more control of the ball – by adding another possession player to the midfield – as Columbus had been seeing the majority of the possession. Given Crew SC finished the game with a total of 65 percent possession, the in-game adjustment didn’t seem to impact much.
Then in the 68th minute, with center back Ellis getting treatment for an injury, Paunovic called Schweinsteiger over again and told his player to return to center back:
Schweinsteiger played the last 20-plus minutes back in defense, recording a team-high 11 clearances. Four came after Columbus targeted the space behind him and took a good shot before Schweinsteiger cleared the rebound. Make of that what you will.
Ultimately, the Fire won. And Paunovic said in his postgame press conference that it’s the exact type of ugly win he had asked his guys for. But Columbus hit the woodwork three times. While Chicago earned their first shutout and first win, questions remain: Is Schweinsteiger in defense a long-term answer? Does the return of rookie CB Grant Lillard give Paunovic a new and better option in the back?
This is a case of a manager identifying issues and actively trying to problem solve. The results will show in the record.