Diving Deep: Birmingham Legion 3-1 Indy Eleven

An old-fashioned beatdown

It’s been a while since we last saw the Legion go all-out attack from the opening whistle, so it was high time we did. On Sunday the Three Sparks came out guns blazing and proceeded to ram it down Indy’s throats for 90+ minutes.

The thing is, they did it with just one true striker. With Junior Flemmings on international duty and JJ Williams walking around with his knee in compression sleeve, Coach Tommy Soehn didn’t have a great deal of options available for this one. So once again he rolled the dice and came up with a slightly different lineup.

In the current 4-game win streak (now the longest in the USL Championship), the Legion have used the 4-2-3-1 three times. The only deviation was the less than optimal 4-5-1 at Sporting Kansas City II. That was a defensive move, and in light of what SKC II did to Louisville City this past weekend it was probably a good decision that was unfamiliar to the team but ultimately worked. Against Indy we were back to the 4-2-3-1, which has been used in 3 differing ways. Against Atlanta United 2 it was  a moderately high press on a much younger and very overpowered side. Against Charlotte Independence it was more of a counter-attacking strategy. This time, as noted above, it was a very high press that came out with the clear intention of blasting every available opportunity against a struggling side was thought early in the season a potential division contender.

The major change in the lineup was playing Ryan James as an attacking midfielder rather than as a fullback or a wingback, and slotting Mikey Lopez in as left fullback. That relieved Ryan of the need to either make fast recovery runs or to hang back in order to fulfill his normal defensive duties. Consequently he played on average in a more advanced position than Jonny Dean, and in fact most of his touches were in the Indy half. This made him much more on an attacking threat than usual, and also freed up some space in the middle of the pitch.

So, in the first 30 minutes the Legion racked up 8 shots while limiting the Eleven to zero. Of those 3 were on target, including of course Neco Brett’s early goal after just 8 minutes. By the end of the game the tally was 23-10, and 10-4 in shots on target. The 3-1 scoreline though rather understates the degree of one-sidedness. Indy keeper Jordan Farr (who also earned serious street cred by being the first to talk back to the ever-vocal Magic City Brigade) was forced into 7 saves, several of them spectacular. Matt van Oekel had a couple of great saves of his own at the other end, and the two of them were outrageously snubbed in the Save of the Week nominations. Fotmob considered all 23 shots to be chances. It could have have been a massacre.

Which also goes to show that the xG stat (like pretty much all stats) has its limitations. The Birmingham xG for this game was 1.53. Jake Rufe’s nightcap score had an xG of just 0.04 and Eli Crognale’s bomb (which is up for Goal of the Week) rated even less at 0.02, contributing to that lowly number. And 15 of the shots were from outside the penalty area.

And that doesn’t take into account the chances that weren’t taken. Jaden Servania alone had at least two good chances that for whatever reason he didn’t pull the trigger on. And there were several more. Still, 23 shots is a huge number that is practically unheard of around here. The team is averaging 9.75 shots per game, so this was 2.36 times that.

As to this being a very high press, take a look:

Fully 7 Legion players averaged inside the Indy half. And check out Neco Brett: he averaged behind the entire defense. Moreover, it was a very organized 4-2-3-1, which in attack looks like 2-4-3-1, with the two fullbacks pushing up, which is what we have here. On the other end, only Phanuel Kavita averaged inside the defensive third, and that just barely. It doesn’t get much higher than that.

To make matters worse (for Indy, that is), when Soehn subbed in defenders Jake Rufe and Ben Ofeimu for attackers Neco Brett and Ryan James, the obvious conclusion was that he was parking the bus. Except that Ben played as a true striker and Jake played more or less in the same position as Ryan. My section of the grandstand found that extremely amusing, and especially so when Jake finished the game off.

So what we learned here was that the Legion’s flexibility – which has long been very apparent – extends beyond playing in different formations with different lineups, it also includes playing in differing styles within the same formation. The bag of tricks is very deep and is, it seems, far from empty.

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