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Red Bulls Tactical Sips: Chicago Fire

A slightly different type of pressing team comes to Harrison this weekend

MLS: Chicago Fire FC Training
Former Swiss international midfielder Raphael Wicky is entering his second season as Chicago manager
Handout Photo-USA TODAY NETWORK via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Welcome to Tactical Sips, a semi-regular pre-match post featuring taurine-spiked breakdowns of the upcoming game.

Two matches into the 2021 season and the New York Red Bulls have two losses. The LA Galaxy methodically defeated the high press, sticking to a steady diet of wing play and decreased possession. Manager Gerhard Struber has many questions to answer, although the challenge may appear larger than it actually is after a shortened preseason. His tactical machinations and lineup experiments demonstrate the confidence of a person with job security, although a cynic may see a hyper-focused sea captain willing to go down with his ship. Expect the tinkering to continue against this week’s opponent.

Chicago Fire FC is winless in 2021, coming off a 3-1 loss to Atlanta United. The team is led by former FC Basel manager Raphaël Wicky, now in his second season. Despite finishing at 11th in the Eastern Conference last season, few changes were made to the roster. Bluntly and briefly, this match should be the first victory of the season for the Red Bulls, and failure to secure three points indicates the existence of severe foundational issues that must be addressed.

Let’s dive into the shallow depths. Here are four things to watch.

1) Chicago also pushes numbers forward

The Red Bulls are playing a lot of long balls, advancing play with the rabid ferocity that would alarm animal control. The tactics have been fruitful, creating high octane chaos and resulting in a few goals, but neither match provided a defining performance validating the new manager’s core beliefs. The upcoming fixture could be that breakthrough, as Chicago’s less intense press has a tendency to leave space in between the back line and midfielders.

On the attack, Wicky’s side will sometimes have four players hugging the offside line. Even after losing possession, the formation is slow to reconfigure on defense, with at most one holding midfielder attempting to slow a counter-attack or clean up. By continuing to charge forward and pouncing on second balls, the Red Bulls can exploit a preoccupied, error-prone, uncommunicative opponent that is merely killing time before heading into the final third.

2) Teams are exploiting the Red Bulls’ left side

The secret is out. With the Red Bulls allowing fullbacks to roam up the field, opposing wingers can push forward into empty space and have a free run into the final third. Here’s a fun little heat map from the match against the LA Galaxy (via WhoScored.com):

(via WhoScored.com)

The picture on the left is the Galaxy’s entire team. The picture on the right is Andrew Gutman. The Red Bulls’ fullback is enjoying a solid start to the season on the attacking side of the ball, but teams targeted his half of the field for two straight matches. While contributing more in the final third, he does not possess the inimitable recovery abilities of Kemar Lawrence. Compounding issues was left-side center back Amro Tarek’s inability to close down the wing and prevent penetration.

In the opener against Sporting Kansas City, the Red Bulls deployed a four-man back line, which resulted in Gutman staying back a little more. While the roster’s current fullbacks are more suited to the swashbuckling 3-5-2 formation, the overall composition of the team is not. For the next few weeks, discretion could be the better part of valor, continuing to press and play vertically while using the less overrun 4-4-2. Of course, Struber may opt for “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead,” as he does not seem the type to be bothered by what the other team is doing.

3) Where are the fabulous set pieces?

The first historical on-field trademark of Red Bull football was creative dead ball plays. A then-lower league Leipzig garnered global attention for turning every kick-off into a goal-scoring opportunity, a strategy replicated by New York to relative success. A true disciple of the organizational ethos, Struber displayed that same spark, his teams utilizing a dizzying array of quick layoffs and designed runs to confuse opponents. To the disappointment of those expecting more razzle dazzle in the first two matches, there has yet to be a zip-zap, Two-Bit Joe, or even a simple hoo-dee-lee-doo.

Perhaps a casualty of the shortened preseason, the lack of set piece success is an indication of how Struber has so far been unable to exercise true control over the squad. Often a foolishly overlooked part of the game, dead ball opportunities are the clearest indication of a manager’s attention to detail and focus on the training ground. AC Wolfsberger and Barnsley were both able to outperform expectations, aided by taking advantage of corners, free kicks, and even the occasional throw-in. Their implementation might require more time, but the first appearance should be celebrated like white smoke at the Vatican.

4) There is evidence of growth

The Red Bulls’ first goal against the Galaxy is a perfect demonstration of Struber’s attacking system, particularly with regards to attacker positioning and movement. A driving solo run forward by the fullback, Gutman, allowed Brian White to push to the wing and receive the ball. The striker then cut inside, with three available passing options: towering target striker Fábio closer to goal, eventual recipient Gutman continuing his run, and a late-trailing Cristian Cásseres Jr. at the top of the box.

“[This season] I think there’s a lot more responsibility for the forwards in terms of positioning,” said White prior to last week’s Galaxy match. “We have a role in the sense that we need to be disciplined in our position that will manipulate the defense and manipulate space. So, it’s a little different. It’s something that hasn’t really been a main focus in my career before. It’s been cool, it’s been interesting, I’ve been learning a lot, and I’ve really enjoyed this process.”

There was a bit of luck involved considering White lost and regained possession, but the general intent was present in that one simple highlight. The installation of Struber’s system will take time, but it can function and perhaps some of the roster’s existing players are more suited to the style than previously believed. These are new roles for many of the players, and the learning process was disrupted by the cancelation of preseason friendlies.

What tactical storylines are you expecting to play out in the match? Let us know in the comment section.