Diving Deep: Birmingham Legion 1-0 OKC Energy

New look, new result

On Tuesday the Football Forge had been preparing to publish a post advocating for a dramatic change in formation. On Wednesday coach Tommy Soehn made the post immediately obsolete by doing precisely that.

A change in formation and tactics is still a legitimate subject for discussion, and we will be doing that in the near future if results don’t soon improve (not that they are necessarily bad right now). This writer is not entirely convinced that the 3-4-3 utilized against OKC Energy is the best option given the team’s personnel, especially when the team is at full strength.

That last of course is always a big caveat, and Legion fans are fortunate that they have a front office that is concerned with maintaining depth. When Alex Crognale went down, the relatively unknown but instantly impressive Ben Ofeimu was ready to jump in. And then they went and grabbed Freddy Kleemann on a loan to be safe. Throw captain Phanuel Kavita in and the team has 4 centerbacks of starting quality. Replacing Mikey L√≥pez isn’t any harder either: the team has Daigo Kobayashi (who got a rare but excellent start in this game), Zach Herivaux, Eli Crognale and Jaden Servania all waiting in the wings.

But that back line strength is huuge and it’s why the team was able to go with a 3-5-2 formation Wednesday evening even without the older Crognale available.

The Legion’s go-to formation has to date been the 4-2-3-1, which has been the lineup of choice over the past few years for teams that want to press and counterattack. It’s now beginning to go back out of style, although it remains popular enough that it will be seen on any given game day. On its face, having four men at the back seems intuitively stronger than having only three. In fact, the reverse is the case. In a four-man back line, there are traditionally two centerbacks and two fullbacks. The term fullback is a bit confusing for those more familiar with American football, as the position is more akin to a tailback or even a wingback. A fullback obviously has defensive duties, but is also very much involved in the attack, and is generally responsible for the service in from the outside (i.e., crosses). As such they have to combine speed, strength and accuracy. That is definitely the case for Jonny Dean, but I think the jury is still out on Ryan James, who has struggled a bit to integrate himself into the Legion squad.

Switch to a three-man back line, and you are adding an extra centerback. The two fullbacks move up to a midfield position and become (also confusingly) wingbacks. Their ability to attack is thus enhanced since they are further upfield, but with their speed they also are able to cover in defense when needed. So the defense is as many as five men, not four.

In this formation you evidently also get two strikers, so it has the benefits of reinforcing both the defense and the attack.

So how did it work out against OKC? Pretty well, as it turned out. Operations were hampered by the fact that the pitch still isn’t in the best of shape, exacerbated by the rain about 20 minutes in. But the opponent was OKC Energy, which made this a prime opportunity to try out something new. The staggeringly ill-named Energy have not won a game since July 17 last year (although they were somewhat unlucky not to get a result in the second of two back-to-back games against Atlanta United 2) and were perfect candidates for a test run.

In the early going, the Legion completely dominated. At half time the Three Sparks had 53% possession and generated 5 shots from that, with 2 on goal. I was somewhat critical of that on Twitter during the game, but on reflection that just proves that maybe live-tweeting isn’t always a good idea. In fact 5 shots under the circumstances – new formation, iffy pitch, wet conditions – really wasn’t bad.

The second half was quite different. Despite having only 43% possession in the second half (it didn’t feel that way though) the Legion ended the game with a very creditable 12 shots, and 5 on goal, including of course Bruno Lapa’s goal (point of interest: JJ Williams didn’t touch the ball but really deserves to credited with an assist). Per FotMob they had a total of 10 good chances, although the final xG for the game was only 0.87 (OKC’s was 0.25).

Defensively, OKC was held to 7 shots (including a late desperation attempt that went well wide), of which only 2 were on goal, and both of those were easily handled by Matt van Oekel. Here’s the shooting grid:

Note that only 5 of the Legion’s shots were in the box; that’s still an area for improvement. Nonetheless, this was still a dominant performance.

As to the team’s ability to play out of the new formation, consider the average positions of the starting eleven:

The Legion are in gold, playing left to right. Bruno Lapa is concealed under the OKC #8 (Hiroki Kurimoto). The 3-5-2 can be fairly easily picked out. that suggests some discipline, which is good. OKC was playing a 4-2-3-1. It’s there, but rather harder to discern, which suggests that the Legion was able to disrupt their pattern of play. Obviously, that’s also good.

The question now, then, is will Tommy Soehn stick with this new setup or will he revert to his preferred formation? Fortunately, we only have to wait until Sunday to find out.

 

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