Diving Deep: Birmingham Legion 2-1 FC Tulsa

If you think really hard, maybe we can stop this rain

This week Diving Deep was almost literally true. We could have been discussing the finer tactical merits of a water polo match, but the rain gods were somehow appeased and the brooms expertly wielded by the team’s owners and management brought an end to the otherwise interminable delay. Those who remained were then regaled with 30-odd minutes of late and wet but entertaining soccer, with the two teams trading off goals to finish off the game.

The 2-1 scoreline, and the stats overall, are frankly overly generous to FC Tulsa, who came to Birmingham having lost the previous two games by a combined score of 9-1. They weren’t any better here in the Magic City. They held 56% of the possession, and outshot the Legion 18 to 13. But here’s the big difference: in terms of big chances created they were a big old goose egg. The Legion weren’t exactly stellar in that regard either: they generated just one big chance.

In some respects it was a goalkeeper battle: Matt van Oekel (who until Wednesday was leading the league in saves with 25; San Diego’s Trey Muse managed 6 saves that night to pass him) made an impressive 8 stops (including the Championship Save of the Week on Dario Suarez’ free kick) to Sean Lewis’ 4. A few of those 8 saves were completely routine of course; Tulsa managed to accumulate an xG of just 1.07, meaning that their one goal was exactly what earned. Birmingham by contrast had an xG of 1.62.

That is still low, but this was also the Three Sparks’ first multi-goal game this entire season, and the team looks increasingly threatening on goal. Indeed, they came out of the gate in this one hungry to score. Take a look at the first half shooting:

The Legion’s shots are on the right. Tulsa in contrast had just 1 shot on goal in the entire half. All that possession led to very little offensive production. This is because the Legion were much more defensively arranged than has been the case under the 3-5-2 so far. In the previous edition of this series, we saw how the midfield 4 (it is still a 3-4-1-2) were set up to benefit from Jonny Dean’s speed, with him relatively advanced compared with Ryan James. This time it was different:

The Legion are in gold, playing left to right. Dean (#24) is even with James (#7), and both are behind the two central midfielders (#6 Anderson Asiedu and #20 Zach Herivaux). Whether this tactical shift was due to the team giving credit to Tulsa’s attack or an adjustment due to the weather can’t be known, but regardless of the reason it worked.

Note also an offensive shift. Bruno Lapa (#8), is ahead of both forwards (#23 JJ Williams and #11 Neco Brett). Despite playing only 58 minutes, Lapa had 2 shots (1 on target), which was one more than JJ took in the entire game. Neco had 3 shots, so 2 goals is a pretty solid conversion rate. He was replaced by Junior Flemmings, who had just one blocked shot in the 32 minutes he played, and was in fact in a more traditional position for the attacking midfielder. Bruno also had a whopping 95.2% accuracy on passing, so he was a major threat all night.

That’s not intended to be a knock on JJ or Junior, however. After all, they were responsible for the assists on Neco’s goals. Indeed, the second goal was a nicer goal than it gets credit for. It was scored in traffic, and the pass was off the outside of Junior’s right foot and placed on the outside of Neco’s right foot for the shot. Not easy under the best of conditions, and pretty tough to do on a very wet field.

JJ had a very mature game, all told. He played as a classical back-to-goal striker, using his considerable size and strength to advantage. He may score very often that way, but he is going to draw defenders away from Neco, Bruno and Junior (whichever of those three happen to be on the field), but also from then wings. With his back to the net, he is then in a position to pass the ball back outside to Dean or James, who can then reset the attack and send service into the box.

That Birmingham did not some close to Atlanta United 2’s 5 goals or Sporting Kansas City II’s 4 goals against Tulsa should not be viewed as a concern. The 3-5-2 is not a high-scoring formation; it’s defensively oriented in a lot of ways and is often reliant on the counterattack. The Legion, with its speed is very good at that last item. The team is also very hard to score on. At 5 goals allowed in 7 games, only the Tampa Bay Rowdies (3 goals in 6 games) are giving up fewer goals. And Matt is tied for first in the league with 3 clean sheets. When you don’t allow goals, you always have a good chance to win.

And that is very good sign.

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