Diving Deep: Atlanta United 2 0-1 Birmingham Legion

Citius, altius, fortius


Tony Annan’s tenure as head coach of Atlanta United 2 came to what must have been a disappointing end Sunday. Annan left the club Monday to take over as head coach of the University of South Carolina men’s team after seeing Twonited stumble at the death thanks to a very silly foul in the penalty area by Tyler Wolff. Wolff should have known better given his pedigree – his father is US national team hero and current Austin FC head coach Josh Wolff – but his youth got the better of him.

Although Atlanta were unlucky not to earn a point from this game, they were also lucky not to concede multiple goals. More accurately, they were lucky to have Rocco Rios Novo in goal. The Argentinian youngster[efn_note]A special apology to Hammering Down podcast listeners is needed here: in the preview edition of the pod I discussed with Kaylor Hodges the unlikely callup to the MLS squad of Rocco Rios Novo since teams generally do not use international roster slots on goalkeepers. That is true, but I completely forgot that Rios Novo, while he holds Argentinian nationality, was born in LA and so would qualify as a domestic player. That totally changes the calculus on whether that will happen should Atlanta United choose to extend his loan from Lanús or buy him outright.[/efn_note] stood on his head in the game, recording 6 saves including 4 inside the 18, and also had the presence of mind to come out and challenge Junior Flemmings in the game’s final sequence and reduce his angle of opportunity enough that he pushed the ball just wide.

The Legion’s xG for the game was 2.23, so it could have been fairly lopsided. Oddly, United’s xG was 0.88, considering that they logged precisely zero shots on goal. Go figure. Still, that is a creditable xG for the Three Sparks, and gives reason for hope that more goals are in the offing.

So how did Birmingham dominate this game so thoroughly? Well, the Olympic motto in the dek is one reason – faster, higher, stronger (pointless diversion: has anyone ever considered how dumb it is that an event based on an ancient Greek event has a Latin motto?). The team the Legion faced had a total of 5 MLS team members (Wolff, Ronald Hernandez, George Campbell, Mikey Ambrose and Alex de John). That’s about average for Atlanta, but of that group only Ambrose has really extensive experience. Overall, the Legion outsized them in every sense of the word. And in the faster category, this game showed just how mobile Jonny Dean is.

In fact, this post could simply be a Dean highlight reel. Jonny was all the pitch – quite literally – and was effective in attack and in defense. He created 6 chances (of an impressive total of 14) and had passing accuracy of 84.6% on 39 attempts. That’s very high for a winger, who will normally make a large number of low-percentage passes (i.e., crosses). He was also more involved in the attack than Ryan James, as is usually the case (pointless diversion #2: has anyone considered how cool it is that our two wingbacks are named James and Dean and why hasn’t the team used this golden promo opportunity?). Anyhow, Dean has blistering speed and showed it big time on Sunday.

This was also the second outing for the newly adopted 3-5-2 formation and this definitely looks like the way of the future for the Legion. This time around it was slightly different. For a start, Freddy Kleemann was recalled by Austin FC and had to be replaced. Alex Crognale was still not ready to start (although he made a very welcome cameo appearance after the goal), so Zach Herivaux was plugged in as the middle centerback. Eli Crognale started in place of Daigo Kobayashi, and switched places with Anderson Asiedu. But despite those changes the actual usage of the formation was remarkably consistent. Here are the average positions for the midweek game against OKC Energy:

In this graphic the Legion is in gold, playing from left to right. Bruno Lapa is hidden under the OKC #8 (confusingly also Bruno’s number). As you can see, I’ve grouped the team into three boxes, which makes the setup look as if it;s a 3-4-3 rather than a 3-5-2. More on that in a moment. Now look at the formation against Atlanta:

This time our boys are in black, playing right to left. Careful comparison will show that the setups are hardly any different. In fact, they are so similar that the angle of the boxes on both graphics is identical (10° off the vertical, if you really want to know). Moreover, they are tilted to Jonny Dean’s side in both cases. This is, I suspect, at least partly intentional. As noted, Dean is faster, which means that his ability to track back on defense is better than James’. Ryan’s defense is also arguably better (against Atlanta he had 10 defensive actions vs. Jonny’s 3).

As a result, if you put the boxes on the vertical, you could arrange the team as a 4-3-3, James being the additional defender. Dean coming back fast makes it a 5-2-3. And to close out the game, bringing Alex Crognale on for Bruno made it a 6-2-2. And even with that there was a breakaway counterattack.

Now, is it truly a 3-4-3? Well, not really. It’s a 3-5-2 with an advanced midfielder (i.e., Lapa), such that it’s a 3-4-1-2. Further, the right side interior midfielder (#16, Kobayashi against OKC and #6 Asiedu against Atlanta) is pushed forward, so in a sense it’s a 3-3-2-2. The team is playing to its strengths both defensively and offensively.

The point here is twofold. First, the Legion is after just two games paying the new formation with remarkable discipline. Second, that discipline does not prohibit flexibility. And that is a very good sign. It does bring up the question of why was this adjustment not made before. There could be any number of reasons. Maybe it had been in the offing for a while but Tommy Soehn wasn’t yet comfortable rolling it out in game situations. That’s entirely speculative and at this stage irrelevant. This is what the Legion is as a team now, and it holds a lot of promise.

As to the low scoring so far, well, it’s coming. You finish with finishing, after all. And as previously noted, when you come up against high quality goalkeepers, that make it all the harder. And the Central Division is at the moment looking like a much tighter group top to bottom than anyone would have anticipated before the season. At some stage the floodgates are going to open, and it’s going to be glorious.


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