Diving Deep: Louisville City 2-0 Birmingham Legion

Too much experimentation?

 To start, I don’t believe this one was as bad as the scoreline suggests. Take away an extremely iffy penalty call, JJ Williams angles his header two inches to the left and we have a 1-1 final score. Moreover, Jonny Dean getting turned around on the assist for the Louisville open play goal was a rarity. Both Louisville goals were rather lucky, shall we say.

That being said, it was probably not the right game to choose to for the first attempt at a new formation. Unless Tommy Soehn had been working towards this for a while, and perhaps saw something in Lou City that made him feel this was the best choice, it seems strange that he would roll out the previously unused 3-4-3 against probably the strongest opponent in the division, and in their (very large) house to boot.

Thankfully, the Legion’s trips to Lynn Family Stadium are done for the regular season, and Los Morados have to come to the Bank twice yet. Secondly, it is my own feeling that the 3-4-3 is possibly a better option for the Three Sparks than the 3-5-2. More on that later.

Statistically, it was a relatively even game, and in some ways it was dominated by Birmingham. And yet, just as the Legion beat OKC Energy despite not leading in most of the stats, the same was true here, but in Louisville’s favor. Birmingham had 56% of the possession and was considerably more accurate in its passing (83% to 78%). Shots were even at 8, and Louisville had 2 big chances to the Legion’s 1 (due to the PK, of course). That also shows up in the xG: 1.95 to 1.01.

There are two issues that were major factors in the loss. Here’s the first:

The Legion’s shots are on the left, Louisville’s on the right. Red arrows indicate shots off target (and that includes those which hit the woodwork, btw), blue are blocked shots and green are on target. The Legion had only two shots on target for the game, and bot of them were well outside the 18. Louisville had 6, and four of them (including the PK again) were in the box. Matt van Oekel was forced in making 4 saves, including an incredibly daring one outside the area (the one from #24, Kyle Greig).

The second reason is closely related:

This is Birmingham’s heatmap, playing from right to left. There was virtually no penetration into the Louisville box. It’s hard to take shots from close range if you can’t get into close range.

There were a few things that did go well, though. As has been previously observed, the Three Sparks have been heavily reliant on the counter-attack. That is at least in part a feature, not a bug, of the 3-5-2. On Wednesday we saw a rather different style, with much more midfield control and methodical offensive development. That the front three didn’t get the service they needed was more the result of a strong Louisville defense than poor distribution. Indeed, distribution and control in the middle of the field were excellent:

On the left is Louisville’s passing map, going from left to right. Birmingham’s is on the right, and going from right to left. These are rather busy, but what should be evident is that Lou City’s passing was broken up everywhere. The Three Sparks in contrast were very difficult to dispossess everywhere except in the final third. Even so, the Legion had more accurate passes in the attacking half (201) than in their own half (197). That’s not a big difference, but being more accurate in the attack, even by a thin margin, is relatively rare. Fix that final third issue (and to some extent the infamous zone 14 too), and things should get a lot more fun.

Another key to this loss was that the Legion seemed to have much the same trouble with Louisville as they did with San Antonio. That is to say, they were up against a very physical opponent. Three Legion players went down to hard challenges in the early going and that should have been a major red flag. It also suggests there was a degree of backing off in the final third too.

However, the fundamental error in this writer’s opinion was in benching Ryan James and especially Bruno Lapa. Starting Mikey Lopez and Daigo Kobayashi instead was an interesting decision, let’s say. Not that either of those players are weak by any stretch of the imagination, but Mikey has been out for several weeks and Daigo is more of a bit player at this stage of his career. That Lopez was subbed out at half time for James was a good indicator that maybe he still isn’t 90 minutes fit, and also he has not featured in the new formations as yet (4 minutes against OKC hardly counts).

Here is a 3-4-3 that I would like to see the Legion play with:

It’s the 3-4-3 diamond. It was pioneered by that footballing genius Johan Cruyff. You can read more about how he used it here. It has the advantages of being flexible in attack, midfield and defense, with the two points of the diamond (Lapa and Asiedu in this lineup) being able to switch out of the midfield at will, into the attack and defense respectively. Note also that I selected Ben Ofeimu as the central defender. I could just as easily have placed Zach Herivaux there (who was very good against Louisville), but Ofeimu is a full-time defensive player whereas Herivaux is not.

This lineup potentially optimizes Birmingham’s strengths in all phases of the game. Will we see it at some point?

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