The Fire were a treat to watch Saturday night as they defeated Atlanta United 3-0, avenging a 3-1 loss to Atlanta earlier in the season. With Soldier Field opened up to 100% capacity, 15,000 fans joined in on the fun and made the atmosphere the best it has been since the Fire moved back to their original home.
Ignacio Aliseda led things off for the Fire with a first-half brace. Álvaro Medrán helped create the first goal as he made an effective run past an Atlanta defender. As he flew toward 18-yard box Medrán sent a lovely pass to Aliseda, whose shot deflected past Atlanta keeper Brad Guzan.
Defender Miguel Navarro was instrumental in Aliseda’s second goal as his high press forced an Atlanta turnover. The ball found Aliseda just 25 yards from goal, but the Argentine attacker still had much to do. However, Aliseda calmly curled the ball past a cement-footed Guzan from about 18 yards out, giving the Fire a 2-0 lead right before halftime:
Atlanta United out-possesses nearly every team they play, and Saturday night’s match was no different. Overall, the Fire were out-possessed 63%-37%, but that did not mean Atlanta was finding clear-cut opportunities on goal. In fact, Atlanta did not have their first shot on target until goalkeeper Bobby Shuttleworth was forced into a relatively easy save by a George Bello attempt in the 71st minute. Overall, Atlanta had just two shots on target all evening.
The Fire continued to play well in the second half and scored arguably their best team goal of the season. Nacho Aliseda and Álvaro Medrán combined beautifully in the middle of the park, leading to Aliseda being in acres of space. A simple through ball found Przemysław Frankowski – who was making his first start since playing with Poland in the Euros – and the winger slotted it past Guzan for the 3-0 lead:
The game was done and dusted. The final half hour went without incident as an Atlanta shot off the crossbar in stoppage time was the biggest risk to the clean sheet. The Fire collected all three points for the second time this season and all were happy in the dressing room and postgame press conferences.
An Outlier? Or a Sign of Things to Come?
While there were nothing but smiles after the full-time whistle, Fire head coach Raphael Wicky stressed the importance of moving forward.
“But at the end of the day, I told them, be happy tonight and proud of what they’ve done tonight because it’s not an easy situation. But then we have to keep working.” Wicky continued, “Tomorrow, we go back to work and we prepare for Wednesday. You know better than I, who have followed this league for many years, every game is tough in this league. So very happy tonight, we’re going to enjoy tonight and then tomorrow, we go back to work and prepare for Wednesday.”
It is a quote that will not cause headlines and is similar to what coaches have been saying for decades. We must keep improving. We must move forward. We can’t rest on our laurels.
All of this is true, especially when you’ve only won two of 11 matches, but Wicky’s quote did spur on multiple questions. Where has this been from the Fire all season? Was Saturday’s performance an outlier or a sign of things to come? How can this team harness the confidence they gathered from Saturday’s win and use it effectively moving forward?
I am not sure of the answers to these questions but there are a few observations that can begin to help formulate some:
Wicky’s Tactics & Possession
Raphael Wicky moved to a three center-back formation for the Union match last weekend and continued its use versus Atlanta. The Fire gave up an expected goals allowed (xGA) of 1.1 in each match, the lowest amount of xGA in all but two of the Fire’s nine preceding matches.
This may not be a surprise given there is an extra center-back, but the possession stats are also interesting. The Fire were out-possessed in each of those matches (42% vs. Philadelphia) after the system change. Before that, the Fire were out-possessed in just one match out of nine where they played a back four formation (at Atlanta United).
The last two games showed the Fire effectively (at times) soak up pressure and hit teams on the counter-attack. They showed flashes of that versus Philadelphia and were brilliant at doing so versus Atlanta after, most likely, practicing the formation for a couple of weeks.
Does the three-at-the-back system work for the Fire? Will they be able to consistently soak up pressure from better attacking teams than Atlanta? Will the Fire’s attacking players continue to be cut-throat in front of goal or will we continue to see chances go wasted and unfulfilled?
These, any many other questions, will be answered over time if Wicky continues to implement a three-at-the-back system, which I certainly believe he will continue to do, at least in the short-term.
Nacho’s Coming Out Party & Medrán Partnership
It was Aliseda’s 26th match as a Fire player and this one was certainly his best. A combination of feeling lonely due to being without his family for months on end in the middle of a pandemic and some minor injuries has deprived us of seeing why the Fire signed Aliseda as a Designated Player.
Finally feeling his best with COVID-19 restrictions coming to an end, Aliseda showed us why the Fire signed him as a DP, scoring a brace and registering an assist on the Fire’s third goal.
Is this Aliseda’s breakout match? “I hope that it’s a great start for me.” Aliseda said. “I think a game like tonight gives you the confidence for what’s coming ahead, which in this case is Wednesday’s game. I think you always have to keep working hard and working the same way that I’ve been working before.”
Raphael Wicky added “I’m very happy for him as well that tonight, actually, he showed this determination to go towards the goal. That’s something we were talking with him (for) a long time, even in the offseason and start of preseason, that we want to see more determination from him going into 1-v-1s, going towards the goals and I think both goals showed that today and other actions as well.”
Time will only tell if we begin seeing the best of Nacho, but one thing that may help us see that more consistently is his partnership with Álvaro Medrán.
The two players started together for the third time overall this season. The first time was against the Columbus Crew, which was a poor performance, but the other two were against the Union and Atlanta United.
Could an Aliseda-Medrán partnership form the newest dynamic duo in the Fire attacking midfield? Again, that’s a question that will only be answered in the coming months.