Chicago Preview: The Wingback Dilemma

Why NYCFC’s outside backs cause matchup problems for a 4-2-3-1.

In the beginning, fullbacks marked wingers because one was an outside defender and the other was an outside attacker, and God saw that it was good. Then about a decade ago fullbacks ate from the tree of knowledge and figured out they could attack too, and wingers sighed a little louder than was totally necessary and said unto the Lord, fine, whatever, we’ll track back. Winger and fullback followed each other up and down the pitch, for it is not good that the man should be alone.

Then along came a three-center-back trend out of Italy and the rise of wingbacks, who were neither fullback nor winger. And, well, just look at poor Nico Gaitán’s reaction when Anton Tinnerholm gets the ball here.

The teammate he’s exasperated with is Jeremiah Gutjahr, a 21-year-old homegrown who filled in at left back for Chicago while Jorge Corrales was hurt. Which, fine, rookies make mistakes, and part of the reason MLS teams overpay aging DPs like Gaitán, an Atlético Madrid and Argentina alum, is to impart some tactical nous to the kiddos. But you can understand Gutjahr’s confusion: Why should he, a fullback, be marking Tinnerholm, the outside back on NYCFC’s defensive line? Isn’t that the left winger’s job?

There’s nothing fancy about NYCFC’s ball movement or positioning in the clip. And there’s nothing generally wrong with Chicago’s defense, whose 1.19 home-adjusted expected goals against per game are seventh best in the league. Rather, the reason Tinnerholm is open has to do with a fundamental matchup problem for teams defending in a 4-2-3-1, MLS’s most popular shape, against Dome Torrent’s 3-4-3.

When NYCFC’s right center back is on the ball, the opponent is stuck with a dilemma. Chicago’s left winger can’t slide over to cut off the passing lane to the right wingback, because NYCFC’s three-back line is so wide that the angle would pull him almost all the way to the sideline and open a direct route to the right winger. But he can’t cheat back far enough to catch up to the right wingback after the ball is played, either, because the wingback has pushed up around the halfway line. The alternative, then, is for Chicago’s left fullback to scoot forward and mark NYCFC’s right wingback himself—but that’s still not ideal, since it opens space behind him for the right winger to exploit. By slipping between the defensive lines, NYCFC’s wingback is practically guaranteed to get open in the buildup and wreck Chicago’s shape.

Like you probably guessed from Gaitán’s flailing arms, Chicago gameplanned for the fullback-marks-wingback option when these teams met in April. Once they got warmed up, it played out pretty much as planned, and NYCFC’s wingbacks had limited influence in the buildup. But the knock-on effect was that Chicago’s high fullbacks left room for NYCFC to play quickly up the wing, and Ebenezer Ofori took full advantage.

Here’s the basic move for NYCFC: a wingback receives the ball in the buildup, draws a fullback marker, and one short relay later they’re into the wing space Chicago’s fullback vacated.

This particular play starts a little too high and slow to create a chance from the wing, but it’s a move NYCFC returned to over and over in that game, often with dangerous fast break results.

Will Veljko Paunović change Chicago’s approach today? He could do what the L.A. Galaxy’s Guillermo Barros Schelotto did and switch to a three-back formation to try to match up better with NYCFC’s wingbacks. That wouldn’t be a total novelty for the Fire, who recently slipped their way too enthusiastic newcomer Francisco Calvo into a back three to plow New England, 5-0. (Then again, I mean, New England.)

Or maybe Paunović will decide a 1-0 away loss to NYCFC wasn’t so bad and we’ll see the wingback dilemma play out again in Illinois. If it does, watch out for Alexandru Mitriţă, who was injured last time these teams met. He’s been known to cause problems when you give him an open wing to run into. ❧

Image: Charles Sheeler, Wings