Michael Cox is a writer and the man behind Zonal Marking, the tactics nerd utopia of soccer content. For years, ZM’s straight-to-the-point style has illuminated the tactical sub-matter of important matches and identified the trends dictating soccer set-ups around the world.
We went back and forth on the 4-1-4-1 formation, national trends, and MLS’s best tactical role model.
Ben Schuman-Stoler: The Fire have experimented this year with a 4-1-4-1 formation, which has morphed in certain times into the more familiar 4-4-2, 4-3-3, 4-5-1, and 4-2-3-1 set ups. Can you say a little bit about the 4-1-4-1 in general? What are its weaknesses and strengths? Are there any teams in recent memory you can recall employing it consistently?
Michael Cox: The 4-1-4-1 isn't particularly fashionable, but part of this is because managers will always call it a 4-3-3 - a 4-3-3 is basically a 4-1-4-1 when it's without the ball. But 4-3-3 sounds much more exciting, so you'll rarely get a 4-1-4-1 hailed as a brilliant system.
The major problem is the fact the lone striker can become isolated, although the opportunity to get midfield runners forward means this shouldn't be too much of a problem if he can drop deep, link play and hold up the ball. That said, the importance of the midfield runners getting forward means the holding player has a huge responsibility without the ball, and can often become overrun at defensive transitions, particularly if the opposition get two players either side of him - he doesn't have the comfort of a partner.
BSS: Is there also anything different a back four (in particular the outside backs) have to keep in mind in a 4-1-4-1 compared to a 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1?
MC: I think the major difference is that the full-backs have to be able to track the opposition’s winger inside. If you're in a 4-2-3-1 and you're dealing with an opposition 4-2-3-1, your two holding midfielders can deal with (a) the opposition number ten and (b) a David Silva-like character drifting inside. With the 4-1-4-1 he'll become overloaded, so your full-backs have more responsibility to move inside and stop him.
BSS: What are your thoughts regarding national-specific or league-specific tactics? Do they ever develop naturally and therefore uniquely for that country/league? Could the ideas developing in the MLS affect the U.S. National Team, and ever add to their chances of international success? In what way has MLS changed or not changed your understanding or appreciation of American soccer and tactics therein?
MC: This is an interesting question. I think it's generally top-down, to be honest - the national side gets success and influences lots of the domestic sides. The best example is Chile - Bielsa went there before the last World Cup, brought in 3-3-1-3 and heavy pressing, and that trickled down to the domestic sides, particularly Universidad de Chile. Now they all play that way, Chile have an identity, and Uni's old coach Sampoali is now the Chile manager, picking lots of his old players for the national side while simultaneously continuing with the Bielsa approach. I gather something similar has happened in Ghana with 4-2-3-1 and counter-attacking play. Really, I think the best way for the USA to arrive at something similar is for Jurgen Klinsmann to come up with something interesting, which then trickles down. It would be tough for him to accommodate MLS-specific tactics on the world stage against more 'advanced' European approaches.
BSS: I'm curious about the ways in which tactical ideas travel across countries. Recently Manchester City's American project nabbed Jason Kreis from Salt Lake City. He's currently doing 6 months at the Etihad to learn and bring their ideas to the States. What do you think MLS's opportunity is with regards to "market research"? How are tactical ideas developed on their own in certain leagues vs. affected by worldwide trends or coaching lineage?
MC: Hmm, that's such a tough question, you could probably write a whole book about it, to be honest. I think the main thing to consider here is that ideas now travel faster than ever before because of the internet etc, and also because coaches and players travel to different countries more than ever before. The globalization of football in the past 15 years or so means theoretically, there should be less boundaries in this respect.
To me it seems logical for an MLS club to look to the Premier League. American soccer seems quite physical and in a certain sense quite basic tactically, and of the major European leagues the Premier League is probably quite a good fit.
Freddie Christiano has been a Fire fan since the club’s inaugural 1998 season and counts Piotr Nowak, Zach Thornton and Sean Johnson as his favorite Fire players of all-time.
Fans spoke loud and clear to determine the winning design and Christiano became more than just a fan on Tuesday night as his design, which garnered a majority of the fan vote, was unveiled as the #cf97ThirdKit winner at the club’s 16th Anniversary Party at Toyota Park. I caught up with Freddie on Wednesday to get the lowdown on how it felt to see his design become a part of club history.
JC: You probably had a little tension going to the party last night. How did you approach the announcement?
FC: I was really nervous because I was up against quality designs – one being the [light blue] kit that I know a lot of fans really wanted to see and the white one which definitely would have fit in with what the Fire have going on with their home and away kits right now.
JC: So, Logan Pause and Gonzalo Segares lift the drape over the design and you see it’s yours… Describe the euphoria.
FC: At that moment I didn’t even know what I was thinking. I was super relieved that it was over and that my jersey was up there. It meant a lot because I worked hard on it and knowing that it got chosen against those other two quality designs meant the Fire community really dug it. Playing soccer and following the Fire – when you can’t be out on the field as a player, I think this might be the next best thing to be a part of the team forever.
JC: While your design isn’t straight up “Municipal Chicago” it does have some more subtle marks to pay homage to the city. One mark is the skyline element on the back of the shirt… Explain it for more clarity.
FC: The stripe on the front was a representation of the Chicago flag colors with the blue and white stripes and when it wraps around it makes a silhouette of the Sears [Willis] Tower.
JC: How much has your phone been buzzing since the announcement?
FC: Friends and family that voted, I got a million text messages from them. A lot of tweets and new followers on my Twitter account, random Facebook friends – it was a cool feeling to get that response from people.
JC: Along with the prize of having your design chosen, you’ve also won a trip to Portland to see the Fire play the Timbers in 2014, as well as a shopping spree at the adidas store out there. I hear you’re getting married in June, what if the game clashes with the wedding date?
FC: I don’t really know what I’d choose there! I’m taking my fiancé to Portland with me but if they’re on the same weekend, that’d be a tough one. I don’t know how that’d work. If it does clash, maybe I’ll alternate and go to the All-Star Game instead.
Over the weekend, Chicago Fire Season Ticket Holders began receiving #FIREUP renewal packets in the mail regarding 2014 Season Tickets. Chicago-Fire.com did a Q&A with Vice President of Ticket Sales, Service and Operations Mike Ernst to explain the philosophy behind some of the changes to the club's Season Ticket packages next season.
Chicago-Fire.com: Why is there a reduction from a 20 tickets to 18 tickets in the Season Ticket Holder packages?
Mike Ernst: Having discussed the potential move in the past, there are a couple of reasons we decided to make the switch this year.
First, we have seen over the course of the past several years that the Bonus Games were not always popular with our Season Ticket Holders. When we had a match against a big-name team like Manchester United, people were extremely happy, but if the game(s) were against a perceived lesser opponent, people were not as interested and were less likely to attend.
I think this stems from the fact that the games are exhibitions in nature and often times the regular starters did not play due to the competition calendar.
As a Club, we have tried to do our best to balance making sure the First Team is rested and has a competitive advantage in games that count (MLS Regular Season & U.S. Open Cup) while also putting on exhibitions that attract new, prospective fans.
C-F.com: Does the exclusion of Bonus Matches from this year’s season ticket packages mean the Fire won’t be hosting international friendlies next year?
ME: Far from it, exhibitions against international opponents will continue to be a focus for our Club going forward and we will give Season Ticket Holders the chance to purchase their tickets for any of these games before the general public. In addition, Season Ticket Holders will be able to purchase these tickets at a significant savings off the face value.
These matches give us the opportunity to raise the profile of our Club with the opponent’s fan base and the broader general public. The goal of hosting these matches is to attract local fans of another Club to a Fire game with the aim of converting them to supporting their local Club.
It is critical for the continued growth of our Club to recruit new fans and then convert them to Season Ticket Holders over time.
C-F.com: Why has the Club shifted course on U.S. Open Cup games with the offering of the U.S. Open Cup Series Ticket? What does that mean?
ME: The U.S. Open Cup Series ticket will be the 18th game in the season ticket package. That ticket (and parking if applicable) will be good for up to three games if the Fire host the 3rd Round, 4th Round and Quarterfinal at home.
This change is the next step in ownership’s commitment to contend for the U.S. Open Cup on an annual basis. In the past, we have and have not included U.S. Open Cup games in our season ticket package. We feel it is important to take this step, so that we give the guys on the field the best possible competitive advantage.
In the event that we do not host a U.S. Open Cup game at home, the Series ticket will be good for exchange to another MLS regular season home match.
C-F.com – What benefits are changing for Season Ticket Holders in 2014?
ME: The Club is committed to providing Fire fans with the best season ticket benefits in Chicago. In 2014, we will continue to offer free parking/$6 parking where applicable, the same exchange program to help you avoid wasting tickets, and a 20% off savings on merchandise at the TOYOTA PARK team store and online. In addition, it is important to note that we are not raising the price of tickets on a per-game basis.
Our goal is to continue to grow the season ticket base, so that we put the Club in a situation to sellout every match at TOYOTA PARK and thereby provide the team on the pitch with a home-field advantage. While that will not happen overnight, we believe that providing all Fire fans with an affordable and flexible season ticket option is critical to achieving our goal.
C-F.com – When can Season Ticket Holders expect to receive tickets for 2014?
We are expecting the 2014 season to begin sometime in early to mid-March, so we are aiming to have Season Tickets out by mid-February. It is important to us to make sure that this process goes as smoothly as possible.
In addition, we are still looking at options on how Season Tickets will be formatted for next year. There will be more information on that in the coming months.
Instead of talking to him in 140 characters, why not join him live for a Google+ Hangout Friday afternoon?
Daniel will begin taking your questions at 12:15pm CT but you can begin asking him questions for the chance to win
- 2 FREE Premier tickets to Saturday's match vs. Philadelphia Union
- 2 FREE tickets to next Thursday's Art of Futbol event
- A team-signed Chicago Fire ball.
The soccer world was stopped in its tracks Wednesday as legendary Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson announced this season would be his last.
“I actually heard this morning before training. I had a moment. Then I had a moment to think. It’s just sad. I know it’s the right time but sometimes as the speculation has kept on going you start to think it’s never going to happen. You think he’s going to be there until he dies.
“I guess he’s made his decision it’s just a tough one because he’s simply irreplaceable. He’s given the club so much and as he said he left the club in the best possible state.
"I’m curious to see who the next manager is going to be. I’m sure whoever it is he’ll take after Sir Alex. He can’t be him but he can follow the tradition and apply his philosophies to keep the club at a top-level.
“I’d absolutely be alright with the next guy being David Moyes. That guy’s demeanor and his success with Everton with a smaller budget make me feel he’d be successful at United. I think he’s a player’s coach, every player he’s had plays hard for him.
“To go to a bigger club like Manchester United, he’ll have a lot more flexibility and I think he’d be really successful. I’d vouch for him and I hope the United faithful would be behind him.”
“It’s a sad day. I woke up and checked my Twitter – that’s how I found out. You knew at some point it had to come to an end.
"It’s pretty sad but at the same time it’s great to celebrate what he’s achieved. I grew up a United fan and he’s the only manager I’ve known there.
“Sir Alex is such an iconic figure around Old Trafford and in the English game and he’ll forever be the greatest manager there. It’ll be pretty weird to see someone else sitting where he was – I don’t know if they’ll be chewing gum or not but it’ll be sad to see someone else step in.”
We got some great news today that Saturday's match vs. Columbus will be carried LIVE and for FREE on MLSsoccer.com as the el Jimador Tequila MLS Stream of the Week.
A few notes in order to watch on Saturday...
* The stream is available only at MLSsoccer.com and fans must use a device with Adobe Flash player.
* The stream is available to fans inside the U.S., Canada, and Mexico
* An MLS Network account is required. Register at MLSsoccer.com or at the top left of Chicago-Fire.com
Saturday's game will be carried on television in Chicago with a carrier announcement to come on Thursday.
Fire head coach Frank Klopas did his first media round-up of the week on Wednesday. Some choice quotes from this afternoon's session:
On Paolo Tornaghi's experience stepping in for Sean Johnson last season
"He basically came in at that point as a younger third keeper but he won that second position in preseason and the games that he played. We had a veteran guy as our number two, knowing that Sean had Olympic qualifying games, you saw that he was the one that started in the first game in Montreal.
"We have all the confidence in him, he’s played well and we know we’re going in a situation with World Cup qualifying and Sean being with the national team, its great for him but we have all the confidence in Paolo in moments like this to step in and do a good job because he’s very good ‘keeper."
On Bakary Soumare’s comments regarding his desire for a trade to the Fire
"With the salary cap and what teams want for players, it’s not always so easy. I know Baky very well, he spent a long time here and I saw that. It’s great when you treat guys in the right way, they feel this is always their team. There's always a lot of implications but you look into every situation for sure."
On the team’s outlook to bring in a striker before the summer transfer window
"We’re looking at everything. Any opportunity to see if we improve the team we’re going to look at it. You might feel there will be need somewhere, players might become available but the needs might be something different. We’re looking at all that but also knowing that it’s early in the season."
On the personality of Chivas USA coach Jose Luis Sanchez Sola
"I don’t know the guy. It seems like he has the team on the right track and they’re working hard and he’s done a good job so far. Other than that, I don’t know. He’s a competitive guy just like I am."
We're happy to introduce a new video series to Chicago-Fire.com called "Both Sides of the Badge".
This week we talk to Daniel Paladini about his devotion to the club's supporters and ask him to do his best Frank Klopas impression:
If It seems like its Goalkeeper Week here on Chicago-Fire.com, well maybe it is... Sean Johnson is with the U.S. Men's National Team, meaning Paolo Tornaghi is the starter on Sunday, making way for Alec Kann to officially sign with the club on Tuesday in order to back him up.
I got a lot of quotes from goalkeepers (and their coach) the past few days... It'd be a shame if they went to waste so I've included some of the more interesting ones here...
Chicago FIre goalkeeping coach Aron Hyde
On having two returning goalkeepers for the first time since 2009
"Its never easy in MLS with the salary cap to maintain players year-to-year. In previous years we’ve looked to experienced guys to guide Sean along in his development and this year we didn’t need that. We’ve got a very young goalkeeping group – its probably the youngest in the league. Sean’s not a young goalkeeper anymore –he’s at nearly 80 games in his career. We don’t have any issues there anymore. Obviously he can get a little more continuity in the group and Paolo is a good goalkeeper and is more than capable of stepping in. He didn’t let the side down last year and we’re positive and optimistic he’ll do the same on Sunday."
On Alec Kann's attitude as the third goalkeeper
"He’s coming in willing to learn. He has a good attitude, he works hard – you can’t fault him for anything there. He’s a good guy to work with. He’s been good with the other two and you hope he realizes he’s here to push and he wants to play as well. He has to be ready."
Chicago Fire goalkeeper Paolo Tornaghi
On communicating with a changing backline
"Its important when everyone steps on the field to have a positive performance. I thought our defensive line was very good on Saturday. We work together every day so to me it doesn’t matter who the first 11 are, all the players train and stay focused to be ready for Sunday."