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Red Bulls Tactical Sips: Chicago Fire 3.0

The Fire have improved since their 2-0 at Harrison in May, but will it be enough against the (maybe) resurgent Red Bulls?

Toronto FC v Chicago Fire FC Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

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

The New York Red Bulls headed into last Saturday with the opportunity to build some momentum. A quick turnaround after the 1-0 victory over Columbus Crew SC presented the opportunity for a nice little boost up the table. The weather obviously had other ideas, stranding the club five points out of the seventh and final playoff place with two matches in hand. Now there’s the upcoming fixture, followed by an international break, and then an absolutely frenzied two-month stretch run.

This week’s opponent is Chicago Fire FC. You may remember this team from less than three weeks ago when the Red Bulls slumped to a dismal 2-1 loss at Soldier Field. The boys from the Windy City are still towards the bottom of the table, recent losses to Orlando City and Inter Miami stalling any upward mobility. Manager Raphaël Wicky has some work to do, but who among us does not? There are several structural similarities between the two squads, so this match could at least be interesting from a sociological perspective.

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

NO STRIKERS

Chicago is one of the worst scoring teams in the league with 23 goals in 21 matches. What’s extra alarming about that rate is that they shoot the ball more than most other teams, hit the target quite often, and play the most key passes outside of the New England Revolution. They’re present in the final third, and Spanish playmaker Álvaro Medrán is quite the prolific creator. So these struggles appear to focus on the end product, which points to the strikers.

In a problem that should be very familiar to the Red Bulls, only one player on the Fire has found the back of the net more than three times this season. That’s a pretty dismal reality for a group that was initially “touted as a possibly overwhelming attack.” The scoring has been better since the beginning of the year, including three three-goal outputs not too long ago. However, the strikers remain out of sorts, not providing the necessary production on a week-to-week basis.

Robert Berić has failed to live up to last year’s promise and Golden Boot runner-up performance, experiencing a horror season of ugly misses and exponentially dwindling confidence. Luka Stojanović caught fire in recent weeks with four goals in four matches, but the Fire would probably prefer a greater contribution from the players that are paid to score. Maybe Stanislav Ivanov will contribute more now that he is back from injury, but who knows? The Red Bulls do have a habit of helping opponents get back on track.

DANGEROUS FULLBACK

When manager Raphaël Wicky made the switch from the 4-2-3-1 to the five-player back line, he freed up his fullbacks to become a more active part of the attack. As noted by Adnan Bašić for Vavel, the group was “a liability defensively” that exposed the formation on the wing. The protection provided by an extra center back has allowed for less risk when venturing forward. That sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

While also maintaining some measure of defensive responsibilities, right back Boris Sekulić has taken full advantage to the tune of two goals and four assists this season. The 29-year-old Slovakia international is one of the league’s best crossers, an ability that is unfortunately wasted on the current edition of the Fire. Red Bulls left back Andrew Gutman has been good but not great, although a similar switch to the 3-5-2 has provided him with similar freedoms and more defensive cover.

CHANGE IN THE WINDS

Despite the postponement of the previous scheduled fixture, there was a significant move made by Gerhard Struber. With more center backs available, the manager had a choice to make at right back. Would he stick with Kyle Duncan or allow Tom Edwards to assume his natural position? The decision was in favor of the latter, which is certainly interesting and could continue for the rest of the season.

This swap may have played out earlier, if not for the rampant injury crisis. Duncan, for all of his solo attacking and pressing talents, is not the best distributor. That happens to be one of Edwards’ strengths, a crosser, cycler, and long-ball hitter that would ideally target Fábio and Patryk Klimala at a greater rate of frequency and success. For Struber, fullbacks are expected to supply “depth and width” in the narrow formation, serving as operators in the build-up.

In a somewhat unique case, this position battle features no consideration for next season, as both will likely be on different rosters in 2022. Edwards’ loan does not have an option to buy, and Duncan is leaving for Europe. The better choice appears to be utilizing the player that better fits the manager’s tactical style, although perhaps the increasingly compact schedule will lead to rotation.

SET PIECES

Chicago plays some of the most boring set pieces I’ve seen. Almost every corner kick goes to the near post or a stationary player posted right in the center of the six. There should be no issues with defending because the ball is clearly telegraphed every time. Don’t look out for the ball to be passed short, headed back across the net, or hit to the top of the box.

This is a selection of corners from a recent match against New York City FC and another against Inter Miami (via MLS YouTube channel):

- Player in the center,

- Near post,

- And central again.

Here are some of the dead ball opportunities from the match against Orlando (via MLS YouTube channel):

- Near post,

- Near post,

- Central,

- And the near post again!

Guess where this free kick – from a better angle that lends itself to slightly more creativity – is going to go.

That’s right… near post!

Where Chicago does demonstrate the slightest amount of creativity is on long throw-ins, as observers may recall from three weeks ago. Center back Carlos Terán likes to push up the field and uncork them whenever possible, with final third restarts becoming a potential set piece. It’s funny because I thought the Red Bulls had a guy who can do that sort of thing. I guess they don’t since they never bother to attempt any.

Gerhard… Can I call you Gerhard? Please, I’m begging you. Just have Tom Edwards do one long throw-in, for all of us, baby.

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