On the 27 December 2019, Chicago Fire named Raphael Wicky, a native of Switzerland, as their new head coach. Wicky had already made a name for himself in the US as the nation’s former u17s head coach. However, he was mostly known before this for his work at FC Basel. During his time at the Swiss giants, he led them to a league and cup double in the 2016/2017 season. The following season ended up with him losing his job. However, during this season he managed to beat both Manchester United and noisy neighbours, Man City, in the Champions League.
A week prior to his appointment Chicago Fire appointed a new Sporting Director, Georg Heitz. Heitz hired Wicky as the head coach as the pair previously worked together at Basel and Heitz believed Wicky was the man to lead Chicago Fire forward. Wicky’s philosophy centres around quick, dynamic play, with an emphasis on attacking football.
Since the beginning of the MLS is Back Tournament, Wicky has been deploying a 3-5-2/5-3-2 formation with Chicago Fire in the majority of the games, particularly the latest matches. The side above is arguably his strongest line-up, however, there are some different possibilities. Jonathon Bornstein and Miguel Navarro have rotated at left wingback since the restart of the MLS. The right centre-forward role has also been rotated a few times also. CJ Sapong and Ignacio Aliseda have battled for the supporting role next to the consistent, Robert Beric.
The back three of Francisco Calvo, Mauricio Pineda, and Boris Sekulic have been fairly consistent, and all three have been deployed together as the centre-backs in Chicago’s last three games as of writing. The midfield three is also quite consistent in Chicago Fire’s line-up. Alvaro Medran, Gaston Giminez, and Fabian Herbers have played in each game since the restart of the season. However, Luka Stojanovic and Elliot Collier have also been rotated into the side multiple times. They tend to be substituted for Herbers to add a new dimension to Chicago Fire’s midfield.
Chicago Fire out of possession:
Since Wicky took over at Chicago, it is very obvious the style of football he has been trying to implement. He wants his side to be excellent in possession, and defensively solid out of possession. However, Chicago Fire have quite a lot of frailties, especially defensively. This has forced Wicky to deploy quite negative tactics to avoid these frailties being exploited. Chicago have averaged less than 40% possession in their last three games, in which they played a 5-3-2.
Chicago Fire set-up in a 3-5-2 shape, which off the ball turns into a 5-3-2. They sit in a low defensive block at the edge of their 18-yard box and look to deny the opposition space in behind their backline. One of their major weaknesses defensively is the lack of pace in their defensive line. This causes Chicago to get caught out by the opposition playing balls in behind their backline.
The footage above is a recent example of a side exploiting their lack of pace within their centre-backs. Chicago just lost the ball in the middle third and their centre-back (circled) stepped out to close down the ball-carrier. This left a massive gap in behind for the opposing striker to run into and score. The low block helps to prevent this.
Wicky wants his side to press high when the opposition is in the build-up phase of play. However, if they manage to play through Chicago’s high press, Wicky’s men drop off into their defensive low block. They tend not to put pressure on the opposition’s backline in these areas, as they are not dangerous areas.
In this footage, Chicago’s 5-3-2 low block can be seen in effect. In this case, Seattle Sounders, are a team that like to push their wingers inside to link together in the central corridors. There is very little room for them to do so here and they are being forced to play the ball back to the harmless areas of the pitch, such as with the backline.
Not only do Chicago allow the opposition to have the ball with their centre-backs, they also allow them to have the ball in the wide channels, in the space in front of their own wingbacks. Wicky also sees this as a harmless area.
The important focus defensively is to limit the opposition’s ball-time in the central areas and halfspaces. They do so by making sure that their two centre-forwards are positioned to sit on the opposing midfield pivot player. The midfield pivot is the director of his team’s play. He can dictate the tempo of his side and is crucial for them with regards to teams who like to build their way through the thirds. Another example, this time against the Vancouver Whitecaps, can be seen here;
Limiting the pivot’s space stifles Chicago’s opposition’s build-up play, particularly in the central areas. They won’t have time and space to turn on the ball and pick out a forward pass. Stifling the opposing midfield pivot is something that Wicky’s men do exceptionally well. The teams they have played have been forced to be more patient in possession against Chicago as a result.
Chicago’s offensive set-up:
As stated before, Chicago have been forced to be quite defensive during their post-lockdown matches. That being said, they are still quite exhilarating in possession. Wicky is clearly trying to transition his side from being a defensive side, which they were before, to a side who dominate their opponents with ball possession.
In the times that Chicago does get to set up offensively, they are very structured. Wicky deploys a 3-1-4-2/3-1-2-4 in possession with Chicago. Giminez plays as the single midfield pivot player. Both of their wide centre-halves push very wide, almost as fullbacks, to cover the width of the pitch. Giminez’s role as the single pivot is to take the ball from the backline and progress his side further up the field. The other two more advanced midfielders push higher and position themselves beyond the midfield line. In the footage below, we can see Chicago’s set-up in possession of the ball;
As we can see, Giminez is about to play the ball to the advanced central midfielder who has pushed up behind the opposition’s midfield line, either into the halfspaces or the central corridor. The reason the wide central midfielders push into these areas is to give Giminez more room to play into. The opposition’s midfield line has to drop deeper in order to mark these advanced midfielders. This, in turn, creates more space centrally for Giminez to drive into or pick a pass.
The role of Sekulic:
Boris Sekulic has a very interesting role whilst Chicago Fire are in possession. In the first phase of attack, when the backline is just circulating the ball, looking for an opening in the opposition’s first line of press, Sekulic stays back as a part of the back three. However, once the ball is progressed through the opposition’s forward line, Sekulic advances up the field. Under Wicky, he has been deployed more as an auxiliary right-back than a right centre-back in the back three. This is a very similar role that Frank Lampard employed Cesar Azpilicueta in, with Chelsea, against Manchester United in the semi-final of the FA Cup this season.
Since Wicky likes his side to attack in the wide areas, Sekulic pushes up either to the right flank or the halfspace. This is to create an overload on the right flank with the wingback, right central midfielder, and Sekulic. Sometimes, the ball-near centre-forward also drops to create a greater overload on this flank. Sekulic’s original position is as a right-back so he is no stranger to attacking in these areas.
In the footage above, Chicago are creating a numerical overload with five players against Vancouver’s three. They easily play through Vancouver on this flank, allowing them to break down their defensive block. Sekulic tends to make many advanced runs, such as the one in this image. He and Frankowski, the right wingback, rotate positions quite a lot in the attacking phase. If Frankowski stays wide on the right flank, Sekulic will push into the halfspace. However, if Frankowski pushes into the halfspace, Sekulic will maintain the position on the right flank. This is so that they are not occupying the same space on the pitch.
In Chicago’s last three games as of writing, they had 41 attacks down this flank, despite their lack of possession.
The average positioning of Sekulic can be seen from Chicago’s average positioning. This is from their match against the Vancouver Whitecaps. The numerical overload can also be seen in Wicky’s side’s average positioning.
Exposed at the back:
Wicky’s deployment of Sekulic as an auxiliary right-back is quite innovative, particularly in the MLS. Chicago also commits many players forward alongside Sekulic. This helps them have overloads all over the pitch when they are in attack. However, the major problem it poses, is that this leaves space exposed at the back for the opposition to exploit. The main example of this being against the Vancouver Whitecaps.
Chicago Fire dominated possession in that game and looked extremely lively throughout, particularly in the first half. Regardless of this, as they committed so many men forward, trying to breakdown Vancouver’s 4-4-2 low defensive block, there were massive gaps there to be exploited by the Whitecaps. Once Chicago commits many bodies forward, it is difficult for them in defensive transition to recover. They rank rather low on defensive recoveries compared to the rest of the league;
When Wicky’s men do try and recuperate defensively by dropping back into shape, it is very disorganised and can easily be opened up by the opposition. An example of their defensive struggles can be seen in the following image;
Vancouver exploits Chicago’s lack of organisation in their defensive recovery. A simple through pass into a gap in the defence sets the player through on goal, in which he capitalised on it and put the Whitecaps ahead.
Raphael Wicky still has a long way to go with his new Chicago Fire side. They have many frailties, most notably in their defence, and struggle to stay in games due to their defence letting them down time and time again. This could be down to a lack of concentration from the defenders. However, it is more likely down to a lack of quality. The lack of quality is the reason that Wicky had to change from a back four to a back five for the restart of the MLS.
Nonetheless, there are still promising signs, and signs of transition for them. A transition that sees them becoming less of a defensive side, to more of an expansive team, especially in possession. It is important for Wicky if he is going to be a success, to get the backing of Chicago’s board in the transfer window. If they allow him to get a fast, quality centre-back, Wicky will be able to push their defensive block higher up the field. This will allow finally allow him to achieve the kind of football he was brought in to play.