Nicolas Gaitan - Chicago Fire - press conference - Nelson Rodriguez - Veljko Paunovic
Alex Campbell

Warshaw: How, why and where Nicolas Gaitan can best help the Chicago Fire

You know how you have that list in the back of your mind, of players you see in Europe or South America and hope an MLS team makes a run for them?

It’s not the Lionel Messi or Zlatan Ibrahimovic list, it’s the Giovincos – the players who might not sell out a stadium on name recognition alone, but could light up the league.

Nicolas Gaitan, the Chicago Fire’s newest signing, was on my list. We could get our first look at the Argentine creative midfielder on Saturday, when the Men in Red host the New York Red Bulls (1 pm ET | TV and streaming info).

Gaitan, who was introduced to Chicago media on Thursday, broke through at Boca Juniors in 2010 before heading off to Benfica, where he won three Portuguese league titles, led the UEFA Champions League in assists in 2011-12 and made the Europa League Squad of the Season in 2013-14. From Benfica, he moved to play for Diego Simeone at Atletico Madrid, and then to China to join Dalian Yifang.

A quick breakdown of Gaitan as a player:

  • He’s comfortable with the ball and excellent in tight spaces
  • He’s creative and can make eye-popping plays, but doesn’t go for them too often; he’s fine completing simple passes in certain parts of the field
  • When he gets space in the attacking half, he’s a multi-faceted threat
  • He can run at defenders and take them one vs. one, but usually prefers to thread a pass
  • He has superb vision and quality of delivery

He has a gorgeous left foot – the closest comparison in MLS would be Carlos Vela, except that Vela’s slightly quicker and more of a goal threat, while Gaitan’s a little better in midfield possession and prefers to find an assist rather than a goal.

He’s solid in the defensive phase, as anyone who plays for Simeone must be, but he doesn’t look like he’s a natural defender or like he particularly enjoys defending.

Basically, Gaitan is everything you’d expect from someone who’s played 16 times for the Argentina national team and 46 times in UEFA Champions League (plus 23 times in Europa League).

Here’s a reasonable expectation for Fire fans: a Nico Lodeiro-like impact. Gaitan has that type of ability.

Fire boss Veljko Paunovic has a few options on how to use Gaitan. If Paunovic chooses to stick with the 4-2-3-1, the former Benfica captain can play any of the three attacking midfield spots. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him rotate Gaitan through all three in the first few weeks to see who compliments him best. It would leave Djordje Mihailovic, Aleksandar Katai, Przemyslaw Frankowski, and CJ Sapong to compete for the last two spots.

Another option would be to switch to a 3-5-2 variation, as the Fire did in the second half against Seattle in Week 3. Bastian Schweinsteiger dropped to center back, Brandt Bronico joined Dax McCarty and Mihailovic at center mid, Frankowski moved to right wingback and Sapong played striker next to Nemanja Nikolic.

Gaitan could potentially take Bronico’s spot in the lineup. If Paunovic really wants to get saucy, he could play Katai at left wingback, too. That gets his best 11 players on the field.

Yeah, I know, that’s bonkers. But three notes:

  1. We’ve seen Paunovic do outside-the-box ideas before
  2. There appears to be a steep drop in quality after the Fire’s top 11 players, so there’s an urgency to try something to get all 11 on the field
  3. You kinda want to watch that lineup, don’t you?

(Reports suggest that Nikolic is on the trading block, so perhaps Katai would move to striker, Raheem Edwards would play on the left, and it’s not quite so bonkers after all.)

Gaitan doesn’t fix the Fire’s biggest deficit – the defense. He’s not a sure thing, either; no one is (as Atlanta fans may be learning at the moment). But he’s absolutely someone you get if you have the chance. We’ve seen what Lodeiro offers a club. There’s no reason to think Gaitan can’t do the same.

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