Diving Deep: Birmingham Legion 2-1 Hartford Athletic

The attack is getting stronger

The phrase “it’s a game of two halves”1Attributed to the late great Jimmy Greaves. has of course become a cliché, but phrases get that way largely because they are true. The idea that a game can change at half time is also self-evident, and ingrained into the design of almost all team sports after all (except hockey, but “it’s a game of three periods” just doesn’t have the same ring to it). The half-time break isn’t just to get a rest, it’s also to make tactical adjustments. And so a game can change dramatically in the second half.

It applies to this game quite clearly. The first half of the game was, essentially, all Legion. That is, until the equalizing goal by Ashkanov Apollon, making up for conceding the penalty kick that put the Three Sparks in the lead for the first time this season. Prior to the PK, the Legion had already attempted 8 shots. Of those, only one was on target, but two of the misses hit the woodwork (hard, in Anderson Asiedu’s case). Three were blocked, so in truth only two were really off the mark. That’s pretty solid shooting. After the PK, Juan Agudelo added two more shots before the half, both blocked. In contrast, Hartford had just three shots in the half, two of which were on target, the other one on target also by the aforementioned Apollon, who from his left wingback position it seems represented the entirety of the Athletic’s offensive punch.

That goal took some air out of the Legion’s lungs, and although Hartford only had one more shot in the half (way wide by Rashawn Dally), they ended the half looking rather shaken by the goal. Whatever was said at half time, it didn’t really look like it worked, because the home side came out very tentative after the break compared to the all guns blazing attack they had been running in the first half. It took them a good ten minutes to get their heads back into it and start pressing the attack again. But that lasted maybe ten minutes itself before the game slipped back into a relatively even midfield battle. It wasn’t until very late in the game that the Legion really asserted control again. Of the team’s 8 second half shots, 5 were after the 80th minute and 3 were in stoppage time.

That’s not to say that the Athletic were truly allowed back into the game. Granted, they attempted 6 shots in the second half compared to just in the first, but none were on target. Only 3 were from in the box, and only 1 from really close range. But it did feel like Hartford had been given the chance to take charge. This is very unlike the Legion, which as much this season as in prior years is very much a second half team. Thursday evening, for example, all the scoring was in the second half. And that Open Cup match can’t be blamed for the Legion maybe tiring in the later stages of the game: Hartford also had a game that night (against Oyster Bay, which they too won 3-1) and had to travel for this game. Granted, only 5 Athletic players started both games as opposed to 7 Legion players, but Hartford also ended up on Sunday without their primary attacking threat, Juan Obregon, Jr. after the midweek game due to injury. So, no excuse.

Thus, it would seem that either a tactical change or just lost nerves were the likely cause of the change in the Legion’s play in the second half. Neither would be good.

Anyway, there’s a lot to unpack in this game. Since it was the Hartford goal that seems to have been the major turning point in the game, let’s take a look at that first. I noted in the player ratings yesterday that Mikey Lopez was not at fault for Apollon scoring, even though it was on his side of the field. This graphic shows why quite obviously:

The Hartford attacker circled by himself is Apollon, who for several seconds has barely moved, probably not believing how open he is. The two players circled together are Mikey and Prince Saydee, who was the player who started for Obregon and was one of the two forwards in the 3-4-1-2 Hartford was using. Plus, he was right in front of goal and clearly needed to defended. Mikey made the correct choice. That is, under the circumstances. But look at the big group. You have three Hartford players (Andre Lewis with the ball, Rashawn Dally and Joel Johnson) defended by five Legion players (from left to right, Thomas, Phanuel, Alex, Jonny and Enzo) who have seriously overcommitted to that side. Lewis was heads up enough to know that Apollon was sitting waiting for service. If just one of those 5 had covered Saydee, Mikey would have been free to cover Apollon. Heck, if Thomas had been just a tiny bit further upfield the cross would have been blocked. You also have to wonder exactly what kind of shape the Legion was trying to hold here.

Most of the goals conceded by the Three Sparks so far this season have been due to defensive errors like this. This is fairly basic stuff that needs to be fixed. However, if they can keep the error rate down to one a game, that’s also pretty good.

The attacking side of the Legion’s play is much more interesting. Let’s start by checking out the heatmap for both teams for the full game:

The Legion is playing from left to right. And that is a very nice giant red blob all over the Hartford end of the field. Not only is the Hartford 18 almost completely covered, but the entre width of the field is also well covered, and the blob extends all the way back to about the Legion defensive third. The small red blob over the Legion 18 is largely due to playing the ball back to Matt van Oekel or the centerbacks for redistribution, not a result of Hartford attacks.

This means the play was stretched in both directions, laterally as well as end to end. It gets much harder to defend if you have cover a large area. And let’s also not forget that Protective is a pretty big field. Someone in the attack has a much improved chance of getting open when you do that. Moreover, it’s the lateral stretching that we are not used to seeing. The Legion loves to play up the middle, and in fact did a good bit of that in this game. The wide play is one of the things we have been missing. The average position chart shows this, more or less:

There is some bunching in the middle here, but bear in mind that Jonny Dean’s (#24) positioning is affected by the fact that he played nearly a third of the game on the opposite flank. Note how far out Mikey Lopez (#5) is. Add in Ryan James and he is almost as wide as Mikey if not as far upfield. But generally speaking, the team is quite spread out, especially end to end. Note also that Bruno Lapa (#8) averaged slightly higher upfield than Juan Agudelo (#99), which emphasizes that Juan is as much a hold-up player as a pure striker.

The passing chart for all three wingbacks (Jonny, Mikey and Ryan) is enlightening, giving a better indication of their wide play:

They were playing deep and wide, which is highly appropriate for a Sunday game. And note how many crosses they hefted in. A good number of those were in the air too.

So the Three Sparks finished with a total of 19 shots (and a very healthy 2.41 xG). That’s their second best this season after the Tulsa game. That of course was a much different game, being played on the postage stamp that is ONEOK Field, which was ironically well suited to playing Route 1 as the Legion has tended to do. But half their games this year will be played at home (duh) on a big field that favors fast wide play. In the three prior home games they managed 5, 7 and 7 shots. Admittedly, those games were against stronger opponents than Hartford, but the totals are unacceptably low. Has the Legion figured out how to use its new home field? Let’s hope so.

Which makes Friday’s visit to Detroit’s Keyworth Stadium interesting (as if it wasn’t already). Keyworth’s field is infamously narrow. In fact, they had to widen the playing area by a yard on either side to comply with USL requirements. The old touchlines have been painted over in a very poorly matched green, which makes the players look like they are constantly out of bounds. From what I can gather, the field is about 67 yards wide with the new lines. That’s about 8 yards less than Protective. Those 4 yards on either side make all the difference. Will the Legion revert to its old central playing style, or will they try to use as much of the field as they possibly can? Roll on Friday night.

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