The dust has begun to settle from the Chicago Fire's signing of Bastian Schweinsteiger.
A few days after the announcement, everyone has had a chance to process the move, evaluate it and wonder how it will help the team. The big question that remains is how will Schweinsteiger fit in with this group?
While central midfield had been a problem for the Fire last year, the additions of Dax McCarty and Juninho, both former MLS All-Stars who are currently still in their prime, seemed to have filled the hole. Now Schweinsteiger comes in and the Fire have a glut of central midfielders.
When asked about finding a way to get all three on the field, coach Veljko Paunovic said it's not a concern at all.
"We were thinking about that a long time ago," Paunovic said. "We were preparing him and other guys to play together. We know what we are doing."
Paunovic wouldn't give much away about how the three would play together in midfield or what specific role Schweinsteiger would play. Will he be an attacking midfielder? Will he sit deep and have one of McCarty and Juninho move up?
"He's going to play the role of the midfielder," Paunovic said. "The midfielder has to play different roles depending on the situation so it's a proven player and I don't think that there is a question about his qualities and what he can bring to our team. For sure he can play, helping our team to build the attack, to help the organization of the play and then in the final third we all know that he can produce passes in the final third and score goals."
While Paunovic wouldn't give any hints as to how Schweinsteiger fits into the Fire's midfield, general manager Nelson Rodriguez did. Sort of.
"There's a current trend that the only way to be a successful No. 10 is to go to Argentina, find a No. 10 fairy tree... and that's the only way that you can have a 10,” Rodriguez said. "I'm not saying that Pauno is going to play him in the 10 role, that will be Pauno's decision. But there's a lot of different types of playmakers that can impact a game."
That answer implies that maybe the Rodriguez and Paunovic view Schweinsteiger as an attacking midfielder in MLS. Even though Rodriguez volunteered the concept of Schweinsteiger of a playmaking No. 10 without being asked about that role, he wouldn't commit to it.
"Pauno and I clearly have had discussions and we were comfortable with it in that regard," Rodriguez said of Schweinsteiger's fit. "I'm loathe to say No. 10 or otherwise again because I think those conjure up preconceived notions and I would also point out that Bastian played in attacking midfield role for Bayern in some of his last years there to great effect. We're talking about a player whose versatility, his intelligence through his dominance of the ball allows him to play a lot of different roles. I think that we all tend to fall into traps and want to define players in a very small way. Some players can transcend those definitions by virtue of their versatility. I think Bastian is one of those guys."
So if Rodriguez and Paunovic won't give much away yet, let's have fun speculating as to how the Fire may line up with the German in the fold.
For starters, there are some basic, reasonable assumptions you have to make when coming up with how things could fit together. These assumptions largely dictate the options available.
Neither Juninho nor Dax McCarty are going to the bench.
The simplest lineup solution would involve having Schweinsteiger step into his natural position and no one moving out of their natural spot. However, that's not going to happen because Juninho and McCarty are too good and too important to send to the bench. That's why this isn't simple. Finding a way to fit three central midfielders into the same starting lineup will require some creativity from Paunovic.
Nemanja Nikolic, David Accam and Michael de Leeuw all must start.
Like Schweinsteiger, Nikolic and Accam are designated players and will start when healthy. Hypthetically, the Fire could have Schweinsteiger come in as an extra midfielder in some sort of 4-5-1 (or 4-3-3) formation and have the Fire play with only one forward, which would be Nikolic. The problem with this is de Leeuw, who was arguably the team's best player after debuting last August, is too good to send to the bench. In this scenario he is left without a spot. Does he move into a wide position to accommodate Schweinsteiger and send Arturo Alvarez to the bench? This seems plausible, but less than ideal for de Leeuw, who has proven to be an effective goal poacher.
Given Rodriguez's quotes about Schweinsteiger being a playmaker, here are a couple ways this could work with him as the highest of the three central midfielders.
First, a 4-2-3-1, which Paunovic has used for most of his matches with the Fire. Schweinsteiger has more offensive responsibility here.
Second, a more traditional 4-3-3 where Vincent and Harrington will have provide more attacking width.
The differences between these two are subtle, but these seem to be the most likely possibilities.
But what about something very different? What about a 3-5-2? Paunovic tried this formation a few times last season, but often times it looked more like a very defensive 5-3-2 because, as he even said, the wide defenders weren't getting forward enough. Different personnel could change that. Behold:
The benefits to this are that the Fire's best offensive players are all on the field at the same time in their natural positions and Schweinsteiger won't be asked to cover a lot of ground with Juninho and McCarty playing behind him centrally.
However, there's always risk going with a three-man back line. McCarty and Juninho can provide better cover and support than the Fire had last year when trying this formation. Another option would be to have Brandon Vincent replace Alvarez to have a more defensive-minded player on the field.
The answer won't come until Schweinsteiger makes his first start in a Fire uniform, and even then Paunovic may tinker or change his mind.
"I would just say I don't think people should make an assumption as to how we're going to line up or play or what roles we're going to fill," Rodriguez said. "I think that we have to allow this team to come together. We have to allow this team to play together. We have to allow competition to change to determine who plays."