MLS Tactical Analysis: Chicago Fire SC vs Columbus Crew SC 1:0



Chicago Fire SC

  1. Sanchez / 5. Ellis, 31. Schweinsteiger, 4. Kappelhof / 18. Conner, 6. McCarty, 12. Tchani, 3. Vincent / 17. Campos / 23. Nikolic, 21. Gordon

Columbus Crew SC

  1. Steffen / 25. Afful, 4. Mensah, 3. Williams, 19. Valenzuela / 7. Artur, 6. Trapp / 9. Santos, 10. Higuain, 18. Martinez / 11. Zardes

Chicago Fire SC couldn’t figure out the best way to attack, but Columbus Crew SC’s technical mistake gifted the host three points.

Chicago’s tactical problem

Chicago lined up a 3-4-1-2, with Bastian Schweinsteiger playing as a sweeper (libero). The formation provides excellent ball control; the three center backs and three central midfielders offer numerical advantages in the middle of the first two lines. For Chicago, it allows Schweinsteiger, their best player and passer, to initiate the build-up and control the possession. When he wanted to push to the midfield, either Dax McCarty and Tony Tchani would drop back with the center backs to maintain the three-man back line.

But the roster’s and formation’s constraints limited Chicago’s offense. Johan Kappelhof and Kevin Ellis often stayed on the same line as Schweinsteiger, so the passing lanes between them were horizontal and predictable. They didn’t use a lot of positional exchanges to create space, so they needed the defenders to advance the ball to push other teammates into the attacking positions. When the defenders couldn’t advance high enough or break Columbus’ first line of defense, Chicago couldn’t attack.

Chicago’s midfielders needed to come back to receive the ball. They didn’t have a creative player, other than Schweinsteiger, who could receive the ball and turned. They could only pass back to the defenders. Chicago couldn’t advance the ball through the build-up, so they hit the long ball forward. This style suited them; Nemanja Nikolic, Alan Gordon, and Tchani were big and dominated the aerial challenge in the middle. But the long ball is difficult to control, and you always have a lot of players jamming the center. Chicago couldn’t generate any genuine opportunity when they had the possession.

Columbus’ poor build-up

Columbus wanted to dominate the possession. Their 4-2-3-1 featured a lot of the positional exchanges and movements to create space and the passing lanes. Wil Trapp would drop back to the defense, either in-between the center backs or on the outside of them, to initiate the build-up. The movements between the fullbacks and the wingers were elaborate: if the winger moved inside, the fullback would surge down the flank. But the fullback could also move inside to receive the pass and solidify the ball control in the center. If they couldn’t secure the ball there, the winger would drop to the midfield and looked to play a diagonal pass to the center in the final third. The fullback sought to create an overload with Federico Higuain and Gyasi Zardes in between the lines.

Chicago didn’t want Columbus to access the center; the host pressed high during the visitor’s build-up and forced them to advance the ball on the flank. Diego Campos, Nikolic, and Gordon pressured Columbus’ center backs and Trapp early in the possession. Chicago’s wingbacks would let Harrison Afful and Milton Valenzuela control the ball before closing down their passing lanes. These encounters determined whether Columbus could create a chance:

Chicago’s 3-4-1-2 only had one wing back to patrol the flank. If he could not close down Columbus’ fullback and let him advance the ball on the flank, his side center back teammate had to move out of the center to confront Columbus’ winger and left a gap in the defense. The Crew could find a lot of space to attack if they broke through the pressure. They generated several chances from these scenarios.

However, the Crew burned themselves with their atrocious technical mistakes; Not only Zack Steffen’s horrendous miss-passes gave two opportunities for Chicago, but his teammates also made a ton of errors during the build-up. Although both teams were technically terrible in the first half, the mistake had a more significant impact on Columbus; they played a lot more on the passes, movements, and dribbles per possession, so they also had more chances to lose the ball.

The game became a losing battle of risk and reward for Columbus; at times they could break through and create a high percentage chance, but they lost a lot more possessions in the dangerous area. They were lucky that Chicago didn’t possess the firepower to capitalize the gift opportunities.

Chicago changed the tactics

Chicago might have scored a goal, but their tactics had not been working. Veljko Paunovic decided to change the tactics and moved to a 4-3-3 after the lead. Chicago could now transition into the offensive phase when Schweinsteiger in the midfield. When he received the ball, he could protect it from the opponent. His teammates could move to the proper attacking positions before Schweinsteiger passed to them. Chicago’s players now could face the defense when they received the ball, instead of having their backs to it when they moved back to help the build-up.

Chicago’s defenders didn’t have excellent passing ranges, so they couldn’t always find Schweinsteiger in the build-up. They still used a lot of long passes. But now Chicago won a lot of the loose ball after the headers; Campos had played like a supporting striker, and Chicago had practically played with two central midfielders before the change of formation. Once Schweinsteiger moved to the midfield, Chicago gained the numerical and technical advantage there. They still didn’t have enough creativity to penetrate the defense, but they could send more crosses into the box.

Columbus took control

The change of formation benefited Chicago’s offense but also hampered their defense. They didn’t want Schweinsteiger to burn all the energy to chase the ball, so they abandoned their high-pressure pressing. Columbus could now have the time to find the optimal passing lane. In the second half, they played with fewer complicated movements and focused on attacking the flank:

They avoided sending the initial entry pass toward the center. Because Chicago didn’t pressure them, their fullbacks could push deep into the midfield. When Columbus found their players on the flank, the defenders needed to shift there to guard the zone. Columbus could often generate a 1 vs. 1 scenario for the fullback or the winger to cross into the box. If they couldn’t find the opening, they recycled the ball to the opposite side. Chicago’s defense struggled to cope with the movement of the ball. They were stretched, and Columbus found a long of gaps to penetrate through the middle. Moving Schweinsteiger to the back also didn’t help because he wasn’t great in defending.

Columbus created several chances but couldn’t equalize. They should regret their horrendous showing in the first half. The possession dominance and the technical blunder make a suicidal combination.

Chicago need to find a creative source other than Schweinsteiger. The long ball strategy will only work if they don’t need to take the initiative. Without seeing a solution, they can’t go far.

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