Diving Deep: Birmingham Legion 0-0 Louisville City

How useful is a 1-man advantage really?

Before getting into the direct game analysis, let’s consider this: the combined PPG of the Legion’s four opponents to date is a whopping 2.16. The Three Sparks have played 3 of the top four currently in the Eastern Conference and the top team in the entire league over in the Western Conference. That’s a pretty tough way to start the season. Granted, more than 2 points would be nice (it really should have been 7) but this is nothing to panic about. Just yet at any rate.

Anyway, the big issue in this game was how come the Legion could not score when they were a man up for 50 minutes? Well, there have been quite a few studies done on this. To an extent they conflict but generally speaking they find that playing 11v10 is not that great an advantage. A 2006 paper1“Ten Do It Better, Do They? An Empirical Analysis of an Old Football Myth”, M. Caliendo & D. Radic, Forschungsinstitut zur Zukunft der Arbeit, June 2006 found the following:

Our results indicate that the scoring intensities of both teams do not differ after the expulsion. Conducting scenario analysis reveals that the impact of a red card depends on the minute of the expulsion and does not have an impact at all if given at the end of the first half or later. [emphasis mine]

The same paper also found that the relative strength of the two teams in the game had an effect on this. That is, the game was affected in different ways depending on whether the stronger or weaker team received a red card. Note that the score at the time of the red card is not what’s important here; it’s the relative ability of the two teams to create scoring chances. Which is to say, the xG of both teams doesn’t change much after the red card.

In the case of Saturday’s game, the two teams were more or less evenly matched. It is true that the Legion had probably been the better scoring threat up to the time of the card given to Napo Matsoso, but after evident dominance by the home side for the first 15 minutes Louisville City had been working its way back into the game. The card was shown in the 42nd minute (with about 5 minutes of playing time left in the first half, which is as close to half time as makes no difference.

And that is key. All that Lou City had to do was hang on for 5 minutes and then they got a whole 15 minute break to reevaluate what they were doing. In fact, they made a significant formation change that led to the Legion changing its own formation twice in order to find a breakthrough.

Matsoso was playing as the central midfielder in a 4-3-3. That is, he was the pivot. Obviously, that has a huge negative impact on a team’s ability to distribute the ball. So the issue for Lou City coach Danny Cruz at half time was: does he roll the dice and replace him with an attacking player or play safe and replace him with a more defensively minded player and go for the draw? In the end he opted for a fairly defensive option. After the break he didn’t pull just one player, he pulled two. Out of the game were left winger Enoch Mushagalusha and center forward Wilson Harris. In were defensive mid Sean Totsch and midfielder Carlos Moguel Jr. Cruz left Brian Ownby alone up top (and to his credit he worked like a dog in that role), setting up in a 5-3-1 formation.

That is clearly defensive, but that doesn’t mean that Lou City didn’t go for it on occasion. In fact, they had 6 shots in the second half com pard with just 3 in the first, and two on target, both, as it happens, by Sean Totsch, although neither caused Matt van Oekel any difficulty. The defense clearly worked. The Legion’s 16 shots were evenly split between the two halves and only 2 of the 5 on frame were in the second half (although that increases to 3 if you count Bruno’s Lapa’s attempt that hit Macky Diop).

Finding a clear line to goal through 5 or 6 defenders is not an easy task. And it didn’t help of course that Lou City keeper Kyle Morton stood on his head2OK, I know the term comes from hockey, but applied to soccer it is really dumb. and also acted as a magnet for any on-target shot the Legion took.

In order to try to find that line Legion coach Tommy Soehn made two changes. The first was after 60 minutes when he put Bruno Lapa in for Marlon Santos, who other than a good chance very early in the game had not really produced much. The decision to go from a 3-4-3 to a 3-5-2 when you’re a man up seems a bit odd, but the addition of Bruno as a central attacking midfielder makes a lot of sense, as he is exactly the kind of player who can disrupt a tightly formed midfield. If anything, a 3-5-2 would probably have been better from the get-go. Bruno did what he had been tasked to do.

But the breakthrough still did not come. Tommy’s second change was a bit puzzling though. In the 82nd minute he took Mikey Lopez out and put Macky Diop in, effectively going back to a 3-4-3 and at the same time switching Jonny Dean from left to right wingback. Macky has size and strength, but he has yet to demonstrate himself as a significant scoring threat. That is of course also true of Edi Horvat, but he sems like the better option in this situation. But the bigger problem was that the change left the team without a true left wingback and therefore limited the Legion’s ability to spread the defense. In the end, it almost worked.

To highlight exactly what Danny Cruz did, here are the average positions of all players in the game, including substitutes:

Obviously, it’s a bit messy with 6 extra players shown (Cruz later subbed out the yellow-carded Corbin Bone and the exhausted Brian Ownby). His key half time additions are #4 and #8 in black. In total he had 7 field players average in their own half. Notably, the center lane is completely clogged.

Was going for the draw a cynical move by Lou City? In this particular game, I think the answer is clearly no. To an extent they had been outplayed and had been on the back foot much of the early going. On the road against a good opponent coming away with a 1 point when you are a man down is tantamount to a win.

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