Every coach instills an identity into his or her team.
Tom Thibodeau’s Bulls were known for high effort and defense. Phil Jackson was known for the triangle offense. Ozzie Guillen’s White Sox took on his loose demeanor. U.S. Soccer under Jurgen Klinsmann is known for, well, maybe that’s not the best example.
The question is what is the Fire’s identity under Veljko Paunovic? What does a Veljko Paunovic coached team look like? What is unique about it?
It’s only been four matches, but Paunovic is starting to show what he is as a coach with the Fire.
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Building out of the back
This is something Paunovic talked about repeatedly when he was hired and throughout the preseason. He wanted his team to build out of the back, and it proved costly when the team executed that strategy in the windy season opener.
However, the Fire are starting to figure out how to build out of the back more effectively. The second, and maybe more important, part is to link that build up play into scoring chances and goals. Still, the team isn’t relying on as many long balls from defenders as it used to.
Paunovic’s willingness to change formations between matches and within matches has stood out early on. Through most of the preseason the Fire stuck to a 4-2-3-1 formation which Paunovic said is the team’s base formation. After starting with that setup for just one half in the first match of the season, Paunovic has gone away from it regularly.
From the second half of the New York City FC match on March 6, when Jonathan Campbell subbed on, through the Columbus match two weeks later, the Fire shifted to a three center back formation. The Fire defended with five for the second half against NYCFC and for full matches in Orlando and against Columbus. Paunovic said after the Columbus match the formation was a 3-5-2 and the wing backs needed to play higher up the field to help with possession play.
In the 1-0 win against Philadelphia most recently, Paunovic went back to a four-man back line in a formation he called a 4-2-3-1. That looked more like a 4-4-1-1 at times. Regardless of the specifics of the formations, Paunovic has shown a willingness to switch tactics frequently.
“I think we go into a match thinking what’s the best way we’re going to be able to defend and also attack,” midfielder Arturo Alvarez said. “I think it varies, but we’re getting there. I think it’s good for a team to adapt to different formations.”
Perhaps this is more related to the personnel Paunovic has available, but the Fire appear to be a team built around defense first.
“You have to build your team with a good defense and then improve from that point,” Paunovic said after the 0-0 draw with Columbus on March 19.
Since the disastrous defensive performance in the first match of the season, giving up three first half goals in a 4-3 loss, the Fire have allowed just one goal in three matches. Part of that could be put on the emergence of the rookie Campbell, who didn’t play in the first half of the opener, but it also appears that Paunovic wants a strong defense to build around before addressing the attack.
“I think if you watch the games you can tell we’re pretty structured defensively,” midfielder Michael Stephens said. “Everybody knows where they’re supposed to be, their roles, and then we build from there. So we build from the back. We’ve got two shutouts in a row so I think if we play strong defensively and let our offense build off of that and continue to improve our offense then we’re going to be in good shape.”
One more thing that can be learned from Sunday’s upcoming match at NYCFC will be how Paunovic adjusts to an opponent he has faced before, especially one the Fire faced so recently. Will Paunovic come out the same way in Yankee Stadium as he did in the home opener with only minor adjustments or will he change things completely to give the opponent a different look?
Paunovic’s tenure with the Fire is just starting so there will be plenty new things to learn about his tendencies, but it’s clear that some of them are already showing.