London Calling

Football - Manchester United v Arsenal UEFA Champions League Semi Final First Leg

I started watching soccer - seriously watching soccer - in the summer of 2002. I was 12 years old, living in Florida and already nutty about playing the game. But I had never paid any attention to the actual professional product on the field. I had heard of Zidane, Ronaldo and some of the bigger American names but I couldn't begin to tell anyone what club team they played for, let alone the what traits they possessed on the field.

But with the summer of 2002 came a new edition of the World Cup. I found my interest peaking in the buildup to the tournament and decided to give watching soccer a chance, waking up at 6 a.m. one June morning to watch the U.S. play Portugal in the Americans' opening match of the tournament.

By 8 a.m. I was officially hooked.
The Americans stunned heavily favored Portugal 3-2 in that match and I fell head over heels for the game. All of a sudden I couldn't get enough. Brian McBride, John O'Brien, Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley, Clint Mathis and Brad Friedel became my heroes. I felt a connection to them. I would recreate their moves in my backyard. I would celebrate their goals in front of my TV, feel their pain when they lost, and share their pride when they won.

But the U.S.'s magical World Cup run had to eventually come to an end. They were controversially denied advancement to the semifinals by Germany (and a Torsten Frings hand ball) and my soccer-viewing world came crashing down around me. Miami didn't have a MLS team at the time and the game, which I had been incredibly exposed to for 4 short weeks, abruptly disappeared from my life. There would be no more watching on TV, no more recreating the flashiest moves in the backyard, no more lunch table chatter about the latest match.

But I wasn't ready to give up on watching soccer. So, after doing some research (that mainly consisted of scrolling through a copy of FIFA and choosing a good team to follow) I turned to England - where Arsenal was busy tantalizing the U.K. with their unique blend of world class defense and attractive attacking soccer.

I started following the North London club (mostly over the internet) soon after and was immediately intrigued by the way they attacked; a method combining quick 1-2 passing with incisive runs and shots from strikers Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp.

I continued to follow Arsenal through the 2003-04 season, which (as many of you surely know) saw the so-called "Invincibles" go undefeated in league play. Watching that season play out, with its entertaining style of play and incredible results, I became fascinated by the idea of possession based attack. I didn't want to watch run and chase soccer. No long balls for me, please. Give me a team that plays with one or two touches, that knows where the next pass should go, and is always making off the ball runs and I'll be happy.

That's why watching the Fire last season was very frustrating at times for me. Granted, the Fire's more-direct style produced results, but their play seemingly always left me with a little more to be desired. Their endless onslaught of long passes from the backline to the forwards was a strategy that left them vulnerable, misused the team's superior talent, and - too often - left me unenthused.

And watching 2009 come to an end the way it did - with the Fire unable to muster a goal in 120 minutes of play against Real Salt Lake - was a microcosm of everything that went wrong with the attack in 2009. The team wasn't fluid. Too many long balls were unsuccessfully played. Too often the attack became a one-man dribbling exhibition. There wasn't enough off the ball movement.

That's why I want to see the Fire make a tactical transition this offseason. I want to see the Fire implement the Arsenal system - one with a free flowing, dynamic, possession driven attack - in the future; starting in 2010.

I'm not saying that introducing such a system would be easy. In fact, it would be quite the contrary. However, all of the players in the Fire's projected starting 11 for 2010 have the ability to play in that system. They all have the prerequisite technical ability and knowledge to be able to pull it off - it's just a matter of whether or not the Fire staff wants them to.

If the Fire decides to go in a more attacking direction this offseason (which, judging by his comments, Technical Director Frank Klopas seems to want) they'll need to switch a few things up in the attack.

1) Ditch the long ball

I get that Brian McBride is a fantastic target forward. However, he isn't nearly as dangerous challenging for a 50-50 at midfield as he is with the ball at his feet in the opponent's half. If the Fire started to play a more possession based style of attack, McBride would find himself with the ball on his foot (with the ability to shoot or lay a pass off to a cutting Patrick Nyarko or Marco Pappa) much more often. This simple change in strategy (finding midfielders out of the back instead of hoofing the ball 50 yards up the field) would decrease turnovers and the reliance on one player (McBride or Nyarko) to chase down the numerous balls that fly over their head.

2) More off the ball runs

One of the most disconcerting things I remember from the Fire's loss in this year's Eastern Conference Final was the lack of off the ball movement. One player would get the ball, look up, and have no one to pass to because none of his teammates would put themselves in a position to receive it. Why this was the case, I'm not sure anyone can say. However, it must improve if the Fire want to play with a more indirect buildup next year, as an absolute key to that style of play is having every player willing (and able) to put themselves in a position to get the ball and do something with it.

3) Bring in more one and two touch passing

A staple of every single Fire training session I attended last year was a quick drill that limited the touches of every player. Essentially a glorified session of keep-away, about eight Fire players would arrange themselves in a circle with two (or so) defenders in the middle. Each attacker would have a limited amount of touches (at most three) to get the ball off their foot and onto a teammate without the defender getting it. But during most games, that drill (and the lessons that go along with it) was left on the training field. Many players on the Fire (most notably Cuauhtemoc Blanco) would take their time with the ball on their feet - a tactic that slows the attack down and kills any chance of a possible counter. The Fire won't have Blanco to do that this year, so I expect to see a faster paced buildup regardless of any tactical changes, but the Fire would do well to decrease the amount of touches each player takes before sending a pass to a teammate.

4) Sign (or trade for) a central midfielder who can take the game by the horns

Don't get me wrong, I really like what John Thorrington and Logan Pause bring to the Fire. Each is fantastic at providing a great defensive presence in the center of the Fire's midfield. However, I feel like they play a little too alike to have in at the same time. They're both defensive minded and now that the team is without Blanco (who would occasionally drop back in between the center midfielders and McBride) they'll need a new center mid to be an attacking threat. Possible players the Fire could acquire that somewhat fit this mold include Guillermo Barros Schelotto (who is unhappy in contract talks with the Crew) and Amado Guevara (who had a very strained relationship with new Toronto FC coach Preki when both were at Chivas USA).

With all of 1300+ words of that said though, it's important that I note one more thing. It doesn't matter what style the Fire uses as long as they're winning. Give Chicago a MLS Cup title and I'm sure everyone could pretty much care less what it looked like on the field.

If there's any debate of which way to go though, I hope the Fire follow in the footsteps of what drew me into watching soccer way back in 2002; soccer played with heart, resiliency, and passion with a little bit of possession-driven attacking sprinkled in.

Comments

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  • I would like to see the new coach put Tim Ward into Pauses position. Logan is way to negative in his play. Ward was a HUGE loss for us this season. Him and Segares going down this year was the reason we didnt make the final. The 2 of them kept the opposition on their toes and could play a good ball into the box. They could also take on defenders and both had decent shooting abilities. Getting healthy is going to make a huge difference next year. If we got GBS then we would have a great team again this season. The only thing that we are really losing is our great depth.

    ------BMB----------Nyarko----------

    Mapp-------------------------Pappa

    ----------Thorrington-------------

    ------------Ward------------------

    Banner----Conde-----CJ------Desan

    -----------Busch------------------

    If that is our starting lineup at the start of the season, we will once again have the best team in this league. So lets let Klopas do his job and find a manager that can put these pieces together and give us a great 2010 season.

  • your four reasons are nice and all but the number one thing the fire needs is someone who is even a shadow of that man in the picture you posted. bringing in wynalda or some other room temperature-IQ type is going to lead to more of the same.

  • Wow. That was a great post. I'm twelve years old, and what got me into soccer watching was Germany '06. I went to my first Fire game in that time period, and it has changed the course of my free time. The Fire need to employ a strategy that takes advantage of the skills of Pappa and Nyarko and allows players to improve one another. The Fire have a good midfield with good passers which would make this strategy work for them, especially if Klopas can get the dream signing of GBS. Let's hope that Frank goes out and changes things, making TP a much more exciting and happier place next year.

  • The most frequent thing I yelled at the field this entire season was around pace of play. Though not Brazil, I do think that the Fire had and continue to have, a superiorly skilled adn technically gifted team realtive to other in MLS. The problem is that slow play of the ball (and movement off the ball) neutralizes that advantage bringing the Fire to the level of the rest of the teams. I absolutely agree that they need to mvoe the ball faster and possess it more to be successful against the primarily bigger and more powerful teams in thsi league.

  • Great post, Sam. Couple observations in response, though. First, those of us who've followed soccer longer than yourself can remember when the Fire did, in fact, play the ball through the midfield. That was when Nowak and Kovalenko (among others) were on the roster. It looked and worked better than the current team, but it was hardly Arsenal football. This style requires quick thinking, exquisite control and an subtle understanding of the game. There are mabe two players on the current roster who can read the game well enough to play this style, and they lack the techinque to carry it off.

    Second, as a lifelong Aresenal fan (they are my favorite team in any sport), I am often frustrated by their inablility to play the occasional long ball. Many of their actual goals come from timely and incisive passes from midfield, springing an attacker through the middle of the defense. They actually struggle most when they are down and must work the ball through the defense--which happens to be their preference. The problem with this style is not simply that it takes lots of patience and precision, but that involving more players in attack actually helps the defense by taking up all the space in the attacking third. With 5 or 6 Arsenal players added to 8 or 9 defenders, there simply is no room to maneuver. The point is that a good team should be able to play both ways. Yes, it is much more exciting to watch lots of quick and precise passes, but I would not ditch the long ball entirely; you need that weapon in your, ahem, arsenal.

  • In reply to tribhater:

    A long ball springing a forward who has beaten the offside trap is one of the most exciting plays in all of sports, except it generally won't work if it's not a surprise.

  • In reply to tribhater:

    That's a very good point. I definitely am all for balance in a team and should have made that a little more clear in the post. A team that can (and does) play with both possession and the long ball is a major headache for any opposition and probably the best route to go.

    And one more thing I should clear up, I'm not expecting the Fire to be able to pull off the "Arsenal" style of play anywhere nearly as well as the actual Arsenal squad. I would just like to see a move in that direction next year.

  • In reply to tribhater:

    agreed. One of the biggest thing that got me mad this year was when the WHOLE GAME would just be the defense lobbing the ball down the filed and hoping one of the forwards got to it. What got even worse was when both teams were doing it and the game just became lobbing the ball 50 yards forward, 50 yards back. 50 yards forward......50 yards back.

    I'd much prefer the balled played on the feat and some creative, not even creative but just technically good and simple, passes.

    And agreed, we need a new guy in the midfield. GBS would be nice. OR this guy

    http://fireatthebridge.blogspot.com/2009/11/in-to-offseason-we-go.html

  • In reply to tribhater:

    Sam- wow that's a brilliant connection. What made me first love the game, and how does that drive what I want to see in the Fire's future? It's key to increase our speed and reduce the long ball. Ward will prove his worth again.
    GBS would be a great acquisition, I'm open to Endo playing here. What will Klopas say about the $ and how would things need to be structured for Blanco to return post cup?

  • How many Asian players are in the whole league? I think Klopas is doing a fine job this off season and GBS would be a better signing that that guy. You dont use your DP on a player that hasn't done anything at a top level. And definitely not on a defensive midfielder.

  • Great Article! The fire defintiley defintiley definitley need a few midfield players who understand the game and know how to read their teamates and the game! That was obviously one of the failures of 2009 was being blind and carelessly giving away chances due to the lack of awareness .. much attributed to the midfielders.

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