Diving Deep: Birmingham Legion 2-1 Charlotte Independence

Enzo Martinez tried it again, but it didn't help this time

Yes he did. At this point Anderson Asiedu needs to buy a dartboard, fix a picture of manbun’s (he doesn’t deserve a capital letter) evilly grinning face on it and throw darts at it 24/7.

In the 21st minute Anderson picked up a yellow card (thankfully not his second this time around) courtesy of a foul call drawn by Enzo Martinez, who rolled dramatically on the grass. If anything, it was Martinez who committed the foul, bringing Anderson down with him on a lunging pass attempt. Worse, the referee allowed advantage to be played for several seconds before deciding it was a foul by Anderson and stopping the Charlotte attack that was still in progress.

The Independence were a goal up at the time thanks to a glancing header by Christian Fuchs, but that’s about as far as their dominance of the game got them. Ironically, Martinez may have stopped a promising attack with his antics.

Anyway, this was the second straight outing in a week for the 4-2-3-1, which had seen great success in Atlanta. Rolling it out again against Charlotte was a bit – OK, a lot – riskier, as the Independence is by and large a stronger squad than Twonited and came into the game on a 4-game win streak in which they had scored 10 and allowed 0. But Coach Soehn and his brains trust must have seen something in the visitors that suggested they might be vulnerable to a setup that favors the press.

This time the press wasn’t quite as aggressive. Regular readers will know that against Atlanta, five players averaged inside the attacking half, and only Alex Crognale averaged inside the defensive third. Here’s how it went down on Sunday:

Once again, the Legion had 5 average inside the Charlotte half, but they didn’t penetrate quite as deep as on Wednesday evening. Even so, that’s a fairly imposing line of offensive power. On the defensive side, Phanuel Kavita joined Crognale in the home third, thereby indicating rather more respect for the Charlotte attack.

That respect was probably correct. Charlotte outshot the Legion 16-6 in the game. That sounds like a major difference, except that only 7 of those 16 were on target. In contrast, all of Birmingham’s were on frame. That’s unusually efficient, but it does also mean that the Three Sparks failed to pull the trigger a number of times. And having the two centerbacks play relatively deep was also wise, especially in the 44th minute when Alex was called to make a goal line clearance of Jake Areman’s attempt.

You’ll also notice that Ryan James (#7) played a more withdrawn role than Jonny Dean (#24) on the opposite flank. To some extent, he played as a third defensive back. Consider this:

This is their combined heatmap. Playing left to right, Ryan is up top. Ryan’s penetration into the Charlotte 18 was limited: it’s just that one blue smudge on the right corner of the 8-yard box. The rest is Jonny. In contrast, Jonny’s withdrawal into the Legion 18 is mostly the blue smudge in a similar position. Ryan however got right in front of goal quite a bit. In attack, Ryan had just 2 crosses to Jonny’s 4 (although all 6 were unsuccessful). And while we are on the subject of our two fullbacks, not only are they James and Dean, but they are also 24 and 7. How has the front office not made anything of this glorious dual viral opportunity?

Now Charlotte was playing 3-4-3, which is relatively defensive approach itself. That suggests they were also rather leery of the attack they were up against. Interestingly, in the 4-game win streak they used the 4-2-3-1 in the first 3 games, but switched to the 3-4-3 for the game against The Miami FC the previous Wednesday and were frankly a bit lucky to get the win. They also played the 4-2-3-1 in the last game before the win streak, which was a draw, also against Miami. So this week they moved to a relatively defensive – and less effective – setup they were unused to playing. In fact, in the graphic above, it looks more like a 3-5-2, so even more on the back foot. That was probably a strategic mistake. Yes, they were giving the opponents their due but 2 games in 5 days using a new formation is not necessarily optimal, especially at this point in the season when habits are already very well formed.

And that may be an unforeseen bonus to the ever-changing Legion formations (or was it planned?). The team has used at least 5 different formations (4-2-3-1, 4-1-4-1, 4-3-3, 3-4-3 and 3-5-2 to my recollection) this season and has now found success with pretty much all of them. That indicates a significant degree of flexibility in the team’s playing style. Add to that the improving health of the team (a rarity late in the season) and things are looking good for the final stretch and the playoffs. I still think the squad is best built for the 3-4-3, but you go with what works to beat the other guys. And the Legion is demonstrating it can do that.

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