Diving Deep: Birmingham Legion 0-1 Indy Eleven

The Hoosiers have a day out at the beach

In this new series we will take a close analytical look at the Legion’s performance in each game and try to figure out how the game was won or lost. We’ll run through the key stats, and review the tactical breakdown.

Obviously, this was not a great one to start the series off with. To lose the home opener for the second time in three years was not on anyone’s radar, especially after the team had made some key acquisitions to boost results. So what went wrong?

Well, quite a few things. First, the condition of the pitch cannot be ignored. From simply walking into the stadium and looking at the surface, it was clear that the issues that had come to the fore in the last friendly against the Chattanooga Red Wolves had not been resolved. Apparently the problem was with the switch from winter rye grass to the more summer-friendly bermuda grass. This is a common strategy for sports fields in the US, but there a couple of risks in doing it. Bermuda grass (as I found out in my own back yard) loves sun, but hates shade, excessive moisture and cool weather. Which was the big problem – not enough of the former and way too much of the latter. It probably also didn’t help that the Atlanta United friendlies were played pretty much underwater, which likely chewed the field up even more.

The solution the UAB grounds staff employed was to cover the field with sand. Not a good idea. Sand doesn’t encourage growth; the only reason to put it on a grass surface is to level it out. It works great for that, and eventually the grass will grow through, but it takes a while (again, I found this out in my own yard. Man, I hate yardwork). It is not a short-term solution. The field has two weeks to improve before the next home game, but frankly it just be resodded. In fact, that should have been done before the first game.

The impact the field had on the game was obvious. The Three Sparks are built for speed (ironically, Indy Eleven are not). Speed is not easy to achieve on a poor surface, and particularly not one that slides out from underneath your feet. Both teams spent the entire afternoon slipping and falling. If it wasn’t a disgrace it would have been comical. Even beach volleyball is played on a more secure footing than that. But it took Birmingham completely out of its game and worked to Indy’s strengths.

One of those is its defensive rigor. Martin Rennie has his team play a 3-5-2 formation as standard; Tommy Soehn prefers a 4-2-3-1. Now, it would seem that having a four-man back line is more defensive than a 3-man back line. Not so. In the 4-man setup, the two outside backs are, somewhat confusingly, called fullbacks. In reality, they are halfbacks – half defense, half attack. In the 3-man line, all three are centerbacks, whose primary responsibility is defense. Add to that the 5-man midfield, which can clog up the field and make offensive penetration very hard. It’s also perfectly fashioned for parking the bus and sitting on leads. The 3-5-2, by the way, historically has been used extensively in Italy’s Serie A, which not coincidentally is also one of the more boring among the world’s top leagues.

You need two things to beat this kind of setup. One is snappy, accurate passing. Another is speed. You have to get behind the defense before it can respond. The 3-5-2 can be very susceptible to the counterattack. All three of those are things the Legion are good at. But if you can’t play fast, the other two are almost impossible to achieve. The Legion game plan was basically DOA.

Still, it’s not as if they weren’t trying to make it work. Consider this:

This is known as a heatmap, and it can be very revealing. The USL includes them as part of their standard stats package. For this game, that can be found here. In this case, the Legion are playing from left to right. The coloring moves from green to red as the level of play in any part of the field increases. Generally, the reddest areas are in the middle third of the field. That’s true here, but there is substantial green within the Indy penalty area. That indicates that Birmingham did in fact get penetration. Note also the wing penetration – it’s almost all on the right.

Break it down by individual players and you will find – probably with no surprise to most of you – that this is entirely due to fullback Jonny Dean. He is likely the fastest player on the team and this is exactly what we want to see him doing. In contrast, Ryan James on the left did not succeed anywhere near as well. Here’s the heatmap for the two of them:

So, even with the poor field conditions Dean was able to get deep. But what did he do with it? Well, not much. In the entire game Birmingham attempted just 12 crosses, of which only 2 were accurate. Getting the ball deep outside is one thing, getting it into the box from there is quite another. And of those crosses, Dean attempted just 3, all of them unsuccessful. James fared no better: he was 0 for 2. The crosses that did find a target were from Anderson Asiedu and Bruno Lapa, neither of whom plays very wide.

The heatmap for Indy shows even less penetration, by the way. In fact, pretty much the only dangerous incursion into the Legion 18 was in the 28th minute. Which is of course when Manuel Arteaga scored. The rest of the game they just sat back and defended. Rather cynically, especially in Karl Ouimette’s case. Here’s another telling graphic:

This shows the average position of every player in the game. Birmingham was very disciplined; you can clearly see the 4-2-3-1 formation being maintained throughout the game. Indy’s 3-5-2 by contrast morphed into more or less two lines of 5. Not easy to find the gaps in that. That’s not a bus they parked; it was a massive 18-wheeler.

Overall, the Legion dominated the stat sheet. They held a 56-44 edge in possession, were more accurate in total passing (80-% to 77%) and had more shots (10 to 8), and more shots on goal (3 to 2). On the other hand, Indy had more shots inside the 18: 5 to 2, although 2 of those were on the scoring play since the goal came off the rebound from a Matt van Oekel save. Those were of course the 2 shots on target Indy had in the game. That was also the only save MvO had to make all day.

All told, the game was an exercise in frustration, and I think that is precisely what Indy was looking for. They succeeded. In the second half especially, the Legion’s communications began to fail and all that possession went to waste. Even though they clearly maintained their structure, they were unable to do anything with it.

Obviously, one game does not constitute a meaningful sample, but it does tell other teams how the Legion can be held off. Fortunately, the Central Division is not loaded with defensively-minded clubs. Louisville and Tulsa, the two other danger teams in the division, are much more attacking in their mindset. Will they adjust that for the Legion? Well, we won’t have to wait long to find out. Louisville are up on Saturday; the two haven’t met since 2019, when they played three times, twice in the league and once in the US Open Cup, and never in the new Lynn Family Stadium. The first game in Louisville (a rare Sunday morning fixture due to a rain delay) was an all-out shooting war that ended in a shock 3-2 win for the Legion. LouCity won 3-0 later that season at BBVA Field, and also won 1-0 at home on a heartbreaking late penalty in the USOC. 9 goals in 3 games. If the Legion keep the communication lines open, and Louisville weaken in the absence of a head coach (unlikely, but we can dream), Saturday could be very entertaining.

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