Diving Deep: Memphis 901 3-2 Birmingham Legion

Late collapses are not good

This one was a masterclass in how not to protect a lead.

It was also an object lesson in poor defensive play and tactics.

On top of that, it was also a primer on not using offensive power adequately.

That last has, frankly, been the story of the Birmingham Legion all season long, and, to be honest, throughout its existence to date. If you track the goal production of the Legion over its 2⅔ seasons so far, the team started off with an anemic 1.03 goals per game in 2019. That weakness was clearly recognized in 2020, and the team brought in Neco Brett to fix that. There was an immediate improvement and GPG jumped to 1.81, but that’s still not trophy-caliber production. This year, 2020 Golden Boot winner Junior Flemmings was added to the mix. GPG this year so far? Just 1.36. Birmingham is currently tied for 17th in the league in scoring. Shot production is pretty good: the Three Sparks are 8th overall with 287 in 22 games. But that means the shot conversion rate is dire: the Legion is 23rd overall at just 10.5%.

On the upside, defense is solid. Goals allowed have dropped every year and are at 1.14 per game this season. Not bad at all.

Until last Saturday, that is.

As we have previously noted, the Legion have performed well this season with a 3-man back line, and notably less so with a 4-man line. This time the formation was supposedly a 4-3-3, matched up almost directly against Memphis’ 4-1-4-1 (which is in fact an adapted 4-3-3: the defensive mid and 2 central mids act as a three-man squad). However, it operated more as a 4-2-3-1:

This would be less than ideal, as that formation has been the least successful of any attempted by the Legion this season. Note especially that Thomas Vancaeyezeele (#27) was lined up as the right mid but ended up effectively flipping with Anderson Asiedu (#6). Also odd is the organization of the back line. Both Jonny Dean (#24) and Ryan James (#7) played rather less wide than normal. And that is on a notoriously narrow field to begin with – baseball stadiums do not translate well to soccer, as anyone who has ever played at New York City FC can tell you. Worse, Alex Crognale (#21) and Phanuel Kavita (#3) are playing wide. And look who is running loose in that big gap between them – Kyle Murphy (Memphis #9) who is that team’s target forward. He didn’t score this time around, but he did get 5 shots in, all but one from pretty close range.

It has to be said that Memphis didn’t look too organized either; their central 5 are extremely compressed. And yet they had the run of the game. They had a 10-point possession advantage, and racked up 21 shots to Birmingham’s 10. 9 of those were on target. The fact that they trailed twice is, I would say, misleading. The Legion relied on goal line clearances at least 3 times to keep the 901 at bay, and Matt van Oekel still had to make 4 saves. For a team that is built on a solid defense (despite adding all that attacking talent), that seems like desperation play.

That desperation play broke down in stoppage time. That’s hardly surprising. Not once, not even twice, but three times. Granted, Raul Gonzalez’ at-the-death golazo winner was more or less unstoppable at any stage of the game, but the fact is that it should never have come to that.

Coach Soehn went with a late park the bus tactic to see the game out, bringing Ben Ofeimu on for Neco Brett in the 86th minute. A central defender for a striker. OK. But he had just 10 minutes earlier taken Anderson Asiedu out for Jaden Servania. A defensive mid for an attacking winger. So the net effect was that the defense wasn’t reinforced at all. And everyone else had been on the back foot all game. That’s mentally and physically tiring. Not optimal for a defend-at-all-costs plan.

The alternative is to attempt to keep the ball in the opponent’s end, preferably at the corners. That’s also tricky, but Servania has shown he can do it quite ably when called on. So why not exploit that skill?

This also brings up the issue of effective player utilization. Probably the two most underused players on this Legion squad are Junior Flemmings (who wasn’t available for this game and was also underused by Jamaica – of the 3 games this round he started only one, and that is the only one they got any points from) and Ben Ofeimu. Yes, Ben is still young but this is already his 4th pro season and he has shown himself to be a strong central defender. So why not have a much stronger back line of Crognale, Kavita and Ofeimu? That’s three giants right there. On that postage stamp field they could lie head to toe across the field and cover the entire width. Murphy’s attacking lane would have been at most a single-lane back road, not the interstate highway he was offered.

In conclusion, this was a poorly managed game on the Legion’s part. The decision-making has to improve – and fast. The season is getting short and FC Tulsa is out for blood. After Wednesday night’s win over Indy Eleven (courtesy of a rather iffy penalty) they trail the Legion by just 2 points and are riding a 5-game win streak. The Three Sparks cannot afford any more slipups.

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