Diving Deep: Atlanta United 2 0-4 Birmingham Legion

Mission accomplished

If there is a team in the USL Championship that the Birmingham Legion has completely figured out, it has to be Atlanta United 2. In all meetings to date, the Legion is 6-0-1 and has outscored Twonited 20-3. That includes two 4-goal games and 1 5-goal game.

That’s somewhat surprising, give that of all teams in the Championship, Atlanta is probably one of the hardest to predict. All the MLS secondary teams are that way to varying extents, but likely none more so than the Georgians. Most importantly, it’s nearly impossible to guess what the lineup will be.

In this case, the team had two players down from the MLS squad – goalkeeper Alec Kann and forward Erik Lopez. Lopez also played with them last Saturday against Tampa Bay. They lost both games an aggregate 0-6. The rest of the team remains relatively young, but includes several talented players. Not least among those is Aiden McFadden, whose promotion to the first team has likely been delayed only by virtue of that team’s dramatic turnaround (they have won 7 of their last 8 and are easily the hottest team in MLS right now), and former Legionary Josh Bauer.

The age differential is definitely a factor – the Legion’s starting XI for this game averaged 26.3 as compared with Atlanta’s 22.7, about 3.5 years apart. That gap increases to 4 years if you take the two goalkeepers out. Further, Atlanta had 3 teenagers starting; the youngest Legion player was JJ Williams at 23.

There is no substitute for experience. There are also no substitutes for strength and speed. Comparatively, the Legion was playing a royal flush against maybe two pairs. And with the team more or less back to full strength, they had 3 or 4 aces waiting to be dealt in.

Thus, Tommy Soehn was in the enviable position of being able to rotate the squad. Junior Flemmings, Ryan James, Anderson Asiedu and Matt van Oekel were all rested. If Zach Herivaux hadn’t come down gimpy, Anderson likely would have rested even more than he did. Ryan also saw time in the game, but only 7 official minutes. Matt clearly wasn’t needed, and Junior wasn’t even in the squad.

And then he rolled out the 4-2-3-1, which had not seen the light of day since very early this season, and without success. There’s only one good reason to use that formation: you are going to press the hell out of the opposition. When you have the physical advantage, you can do that. And boy, did they ever.

Note that all of this was in anticipation of Sunday’s game against the Charlotte Independence. The Independence are not far behind the Legion in terms of performance to date this season and are not an easy win by any stretch of the imagination. They also had a Wednesday game, which they won 2-0 over The Miami FC, although the result was rather deceptive (it included some tough misses by Miami and a terrible own goal), and are now on a 4-game win streak. So having a midweek opponent of your own that you can feel confident of beating even without some regular starters was about as good as it gets. Indeed, it may even have been better than a  rest, given that the team desperately needed a morale booster.

Frankly, the 4-0 scoreline was rather flattering to Atlanta. The Three Sparks ended the game with an xG of 3.04 (and it is very rare to get an xG that high, and even rarer to beat it), but that is likely giving less value to some attempts than they truly deserved. And Alec Kann made some impressive saves too. He had 4 stops on the night to keep the game more or less respectable.

The Legion started the game as they meant to finish it. By the time Thomas Vancaeyezeele scored the game-winner in the 16th minute, Birmingham had already logged 3 shots. After that goal they took a bit of a breather, ending the first half with just 1 more shot, which was equal to Atlanta’s 5 in the half (all of which were either blocked or well off target). In the second half, the Legion stepped it up, as they often do, bringing to bear all the advantages they held over the youngsters. They pummeled Kann’s goal with 13 more shots. allowing just 6 more at the other end. Only 2 of those were on target, and Spangenberg handled one comfortably and the other spectacularly. But that was the only action he got called on to perform all evening.

To give Twonited credit, they kept trying to scribble on his clean sheet. But that just gave the Legion more opportunities to score, including the capper deep into stoppage time.

The difference in the game was that Birmingham was able to do what Atlanta attempted to do, i.e., press. Atlanta probably didn’t have the best formation to do that with – a 3-4-3, which is really defensively oriented – but they tried it anyway. Doing that against a more powerful opponent is gutsy, but it means you have to be able to absorb the press and at the same time not leave yourself open to the counterattack. That latter is how Neco scored both his goals, the first from a starting position in his own half  and the second from not too far into Atlanta’s. Here’s how the press worked out:

This shows the average positions of the starters in the game, the Legion in black going from right to left. 5 of the team averaged inside the Atlanta half: Neco, Prosper, JJ, Zach and Bruno. Eli Crognale as a substitute also averaged in that half. At the other end, only Alex and Trevor averaged inside the defensive third. In contrast, Atlanta had 4 inside the Birmingham half, and all 3 defenders were in their home third. Further, those 4 were flustered pretty much around the center circle. The heatmap also shows them barely penetrating the Legion 18. Of the Legion’s 18 shots, 12 were inside the penalty area; only 6 of Atlanta’s were.

Obviously, you can’t do this to everybody, and I would not expect it this weekend even. But it’s fun when you can.

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