Diving Deep: Birmingham Legion v. Atlanta United 2 double-header

Two very different games

As promised on Twitter, we are going to take a side-by-side look at the two back-to-back home games against Atlanta United 2. Four goals in each game but rather different results. And there were quite a few other differences too. Let’s go through them.

Field Conditions

Haven’t heard much about this as it relates to the game last Saturday, but the major (and totally predictable) downpour just before the game had a significant effect on play for both teams. With the BBVA Field pitch thoroughly waterlogged again, attempting to play the ball on the ground or through the air proved almost impossible, especially on the wings, where the field is a tad lower and doesn’t drain as well. The ball simply stuck and refused to move, either on the roll or on the bounce. This resulted in players frequently finding themselves running beyond the pass to where the ball would have been under normal circumstances. The players themselves were also unable to play as fast, seeing as they were running in a marsh.

That affected the Legion perhaps more than Twonited, and Jonny Dean and Ryan James in particular. Speed on the wings is the Legion’s biggest threat.

On Wednesday, we had a minor drizzle before kick-off, and a very pretty rainbow over the city, but the field was more or less in perfect condition. The game was much faster, and in that it heavily favored the Three Sparks, especially in the second half (whatever the Legion staff does for conditioning, it definitely works – the team is regularly stronger after the break). It was end-to-end stuff for a good part of the game too. Entertaining to say the least.

Lineups and formations

Atlanta first: the team’s lineup is something of a revolving door given their status as an MLS “reserve” team. They made three changes to their lineup in the second game, dropping Bradley Kamden Fewo, Ajani Fortune and Amadou Diop and adding Darwin Matheus, Tyler Wolff and Phillip Goodrum. Goodrum admittedly scored the tying goal in the first game, so there was some logic to that change. They played a 4-3-3 in both games, but shuffled the lineup a fair bit. Most significantly, Aiden McFadden played attacking mid in the first game and right back in the second. He spent a lot of time going forward in the second game, but taking your most reliable scorer out of the direct attack seems odd, except that they have been doing that to him all season.

The Legion made some big changes. Still without the services of Bruno Lapa (who is sorely missed), Coach Soehn opted for a 4-1-4-1 formation in the first game. That’s in essence a 4-3-3 with a bit of tweaking. Thomas Vancaeyezeele was played in the defensive mid position, and Prosper Kasim and Jaden Servania were utilized as wingbacks, but with an attacking mid role to perform. JJ Williams, Junior Flemmings and Zach Herivaux were all left on the bench, a rather surprising decision. Prosper and Jaden started left and right respectively, but after about 25 minutes flipped sides in an early adjustment. Neither setup really worked in the conditions, and both were replaced by JJ and Junior in the 63rd minute. The improvement in play was immediately obvious.

In the second game, the lessons had clearly been learned, although Soehn rolled the dice once again. This time he went with a standard 4-3-3. JJ, Junior and Zach all started, and Prosper started at right attacking mid. To everyone’s amazement, Neco Brett was on the bench though. But with the firepower the Legion possesses, it didn’t hurt. This gave Junior the chance to really show his chops for the first time. Neco did get a run out of course, replacing Prosper in the 70th minute even though the Legion were sitting on a two-goal lead. Offense is the best defense, after all. Also not starting was Ryan James, who was replaced by Mikey Lopez, who continued his jack-of-all-trades career, switching from right central mid to left fullback. It worked out rather well.

Possession and attack

Atlanta had about a 3% edge in possession in both games, although the second game felt like it was dominated by the Legion. They outshot the Three Sparks 17-14 in the first game, and 7-4 in shots on target. In the second game, that was flipped, with the good guys going 17-13 and 6-2 respectively. Two shots on target is not going to get you far against Birmingham’s stout defense and goalkeeping. And the 11 remaining shots were largely well wide of target too; Atlanta was basically shooting wild all night.

The Legion is now encroaching on the enemy’s penalty area much better: in the first game, all but three shots were inside the 18, and in the second, all but two. The five outside the 18 weren’t all that far out either, and one was a free kick. That is a very good development, although there were still a fair number of chances not taken, which has been a bit of a problem all season. The Legion’s xG for both games was good: 2.49 and 2.71. The first xG includes a penalty kick, of course, which is a near 100% chance, but the team exceeded its xG in the second, and that is unusual.

Another excellent development was the Legion’s fast response to going down a goal. From the restart to the goal there was just 17 seconds of play, which has to be the least amount of time any opponent has ever sat on a lead against the Legion, and by a pretty wide margin. Typically Birmingham will regroup after an opponent’s score and resettle before attempting to get back on even standing. This time they were hungry for revenge and caught Atlanta out at the time when they would be most relaxed.

Conclusion

To this point, the Legion’s arsenal has included speed, attacking firepower, defense and depth. To those we can now add flexibility, with two more formations and lineups run out and tested. Absent a very late goal in the first game (and at least one uncalled PK), both would have succeeded. Moreover, that attacking firepower is now actually showing what it can do.

And all of that should give pause to all of the Three Sparks’ future opponents.

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