It’s an oft-repeated phrase when describing a talented and dynamic athlete: you can’t stop him, you can only hope to contain him. Such a truism certainly applies to Bastian Schweinsteiger, acquired by Columbus Crew SC’s Saturday opponent, the Chicago Fire, amid much fanfare around a week and a half ago.
Schweinsteiger’s arrival unquestionably adds to the intrigue surrounding this weekend’s match between the two archrival clubs. While the prolific German’s resume on the international stage for both club and country is impressive indeed, concerns remained as to his fit on the field for the Fire. Those questions were at least partially assuaged after he played the full 90 minutes on debut last week against the Montreal Impact.
What’s strikingly evident is that Schweinsteiger is as versatile a player as Columbus will play against all year. And it’s that versatility the Black and Gold needs to contain as much as possible if they want to leave Bridgeview with their fourth win in a row. How might they go about doing that?
How Columbus Crew SC Can Limit Bastian Schweinsteiger’s Versatility
A Tactical Dilemma Solved for Chicago
First off, it makes sense to deliver some background information behind the role Schweinsteiger will occupy Saturday. What it speaks to is the solution of a problem posed to Fire manager Veljko Paunovic when it became clear he was joining the club. It’s no secret that Schweinsteiger’s preferred role is that of a deep-lying defensive oriented midfielder.
But here’s the issue.
The Fire already have two starting caliber players well-suited to that task in Dax McCarty and Juninho. And the irony of the whole thing is that, like Schweinsteiger, both are recent arrivals aimed at shoring up that area in front of the back four. If the three of them start, where does the playmaking in advanced positions come from? Will it force Paunovic to shoehorn Schweinsteiger into a number ten? Or will the three somehow act as complimentary parts deep in central midfield?
After one game, the answer appears to be a little bit of everything. Against Montreal, Paunovic deployed Schweinsteiger as a utility man of sorts, relying on his versatility to make the Fire more dangerous in myriad ways on the pitch. Though the result wasn’t three points, it proved effective.
A simple look at his stats on the day tells a fairly telling story: one goal, two chances created, four successful dribbles (best on the team), four aerials won (best on the team), and five tackles (best on the team).
If Schweinsteiger maintains that comprehensive work rate over the course of the season, the Fire are in good hands. But two elements of his game make him dangerous in Major League Soccer. Crew SC needs to limit both if their impressive start to the season is to continue.
Schweinsteiger the Facilitator
Schweinsteiger’s distribution has always been a hallmark of his game. His ability to make pinpoint, laser-like passes with effortless precision is a major reason he’s renowned as one of the world’s best footballers of the past decade. Such a skill set was on full display during Bayern München’s 2012-13 UEFA Champions League triumph.
In 11 appearances spanning 940 minutes of game action, Schweinsteiger completed 87 percent of his passes. That’s not bad considering he averaged 62.4 passes per game which equated to a 12 percent usage rate, the highest on the team among regular contributors. Against German rivals Borussia Dortmund in the final, he was a veritable hub in central midfield, accounting for 14.6 percent of Bayern’s 519 passes in their 2-1 victory.
Fast forward to last week against Montreal, and not much changed. Schweinsteiger’s 73 passes finished second to only Dax McCarty, with 85 percent of them reaching their intended target. As mentioned above, two passes contributed to chances at goal and he also accounted for 75 percent of Chicago’s successful open play crosses.
Visualized on the trusty, old Opta chalkboard, his distributive dimension looks like this.
And here’s his heat map (per WhoScored.com), projecting where the majority of his touches occurred on the field.
How Crew SC Limits Schweinsteiger the Facilitator
The above two visuals present clues as to how Columbus can alleviate Schweinsteiger’s impact at facilitating for his teammates. Part of said impact involves him camping out in that pocket of space to the left of the center circle, pinging balls down that flank or switching the field via long diagonals. Either way, the Crew SC fullbacks must remain disciplined in their movement on the wings.
It’s no secret at this point that part of Crew SC’s tactical mantra under manager Gregg Berhalter is having both fullbacks bomb forward and contribute to the attack. The problem comes when possession is lost. When done so in disadvantageous spots on the field, it makes them vulnerable to counterattacks. Combine Schweinsteiger’s passing quality with David Accam‘s blazing speed down the wings and you have a recipe for disaster in such situations.
For that reason, Harrison Afful and Jukka Raitala have their work cut out for them. Their attacking contribution is important. But with a player of Schweinsteiger’s caliber out there, getting caught too far forward when the Fire have the ball will put undue defensive pressure on the team.
Wil Trapp and Artur will also have something to say as to the eventual result of this game. The Crew SC double pivot in central midfield can help limit Schweinsteiger in their own unique ways. This involves winning tackles, anticipating his tendencies by intercepting passes, and winning second balls. Both are industrious in that regard. To this point, the two account for 29.33 percent of Crew SC’s recoveries, interceptions and tackles.
Put all these factors together and there’s your recipe for slowing down Schweinsteiger’s ability to affect games with his passing.
Schweinsteiger: the Next MLS Incarnation of Frank Lampard
Yes, a nagging calf injury defined much of his short stint in MLS with New York City FC. But when healthy, Frank Lampard made an immense impact and played a significant role in his club’s second place finish in the Eastern Conference last year. Part of it involved contributing an unexpected boatload of goals.
Schweinsteiger appears headed in a similar direction. After all, it took him a mere 17 minutes to produce this touch of class.
Last year, Lampard made his first start on June 18 against the Philadelphia Union and punched in a goal. It turned out to be much more than a mere flash in the pan as well. In four of his next five games, Lampard found the back of the net. Two weeks later, he netted a hat trick in a 5-1 win over the Colorado Rapids. When all was set and done, he finished 2016 with 12 goals, second on the team to only David Villa.
Is Schweinsteiger in for a similar goal-scoring barrage? That’s unclear at the moment. However, his first tally in the league is a perfect example of what happens when teams don’t mark effectively. In the above example, confusion abounded between Victor Cabrera (36) and Hassoun Camara (6) as to their assignment. And Schweinsteiger pounced.
How Crew SC Can Limit the Damage
It’s pretty simple. Want to prevent a player like Schweinsteiger from optimizing space in the box the way he did last week? Don’t give him that space. Don’t ball-watch when crosses come in from outside. And as the old adage says: stick to him like glue.
The combination of solid marking and neutralizing the opposition’s service from the flanks is a key component to Crew SC’s current run of form. In their shutouts of D.C. United and Orlando City SC, Columbus faced 43 crosses from both set pieces and open play. Those two opponents connected on roughly 14 percent of them.
If the Crew SC back line can continue its impressive play, a favorable result is possible. But Schweinsteiger will present a challenge the likes of which they haven’t faced thus far. Nicolai Naess and whoever starts between Alex Crognale and Jonathan Mensah need to be sound in spacing, cohesion and communication. And the back four as a whole can’t be lulled to sleep by his movement on set piece situations.
Columbus Crew SC comes into their second of three games against Chicago this year firing on all cylinders. The Black and Gold are tied with the Portland Timbers for the best record in Major League Soccer. The club’s three-game winning streak is the longest since they won three in a row to close out the 2014 season.
For Crew SC to win its fourth straight for the first time since September 1, 2012, containing Schweinsteiger is paramount. That’s easier said than done. His skill set as a versatile, do-everything machine in the midfield was on full display last week.
But Columbus comes into this match as a confident bunch with a chip on their shoulders. The motivation level will be high considering all the headlines Schweinsteiger is generating. In the end, Crew SC hopes to leave Toyota Park having made it clear that you overlook this team at your own peril.