Diving Deep: Birmingham Legion 2-1 Charleston Battery

How to dominate without actually dominating

Wednesday evening the Legion had 53.1% possession, lost 57.4% of all duels in the game, had a bare 3-shot advantage over the visitors, generated 2 big chances compared to 1, and had an xG of 1.21 whereas Charleston’s was 1.26. Sounds like a pretty even game, right? And yet, the Three Sparks were in command for almost the entire game. Moreover, the attack had more teeth than we have become used to seeing.

Which is to say, sometimes statistics don’t tell the whole story. Which, for an analytics nerd like myself, is a nightmare come true. Everything about this game simply felt different than the numbers indicate. Even my beloved heatmaps aren’t helping me out here. Take a look:

This is the Legion only, not both teams, and they are playing from left to right. It suggests that the bulk of play was in the defensive half. The good news of course is that there is clear attacking penetration and use of the field’s entire width. It gets even weirder if you consider the average positioning of the players:

Nominally, the Legion were in a 4-2-3-1. If anything, this looks like a 5-3-2 but with the strikers so far wide any kind of shooting chance looks near impossible. The Battery, in contrast, clearly have the most attacking player in the game, Aidan Apodaca (#17). In fact, he was responsible for all 3 of Charleston’s shots on goal, although the one that actually scored was probably the one he was least involved in; it basically ricocheted off his shin. He had 5 shots total in the game, 1 less than Prosper Kasim’s game-high 6. But Charleston’s formation was a 4-1-3-2, which is a pretty aggressive attacking formation. And that doesn’t seem to be reflected in the actual play either, It looks more like a relatively defensive 4-1-4-1. Also, you would think the Battery got called for offside all night. As it turned out, all 4 offside calls were on the Legion.

But this is in reality one of the two keys to this game. Namely, defensive disruption. And the Legion did it way better than the Battery. Charleston’s second striker was Mauro Cichero. He’s #24, and got stuck was back of Apodaca and had just 1 shot in the game. Charleston as a team didn’t even get a shot off until almost 19 minutes into the game. Note also that the Legion were without Alex Crognale again and still did this with just two centerbacks, one of whom was Zach Herivaux who is probably a bit better suited to a defensive mid position.

The other key is attacking speed. By the time Charleston logged their first shot, the Three Sparks had already had three attempts and one of those had scored. In the end, the Legion’s 17-14 shooting advantage broke down to an 8-3 edge in shots on goal. It was incredibly refreshing to see the Black and Gold come with all guns blazing from the first whistle. The first shot was less than 3 minutes into the game.

Now the two keys are of course linked. If you get the opponent on the back foot early and put them in a defensive mindset, their attack strategy gets trashed or at least postponed. Basically, the Legion made the early statement that they were the bigger dog in the fight and rammed that statement down the Battery’s throats.

One more point in this (relatively) brief analysis. That apparent wide attacking positioning is somewhat misleading, but also likely partly intentional. Take a look at the shot chart:

Birmingham’s shooting is much more clustered in the middle of the pitch than you might be led to think. 8 of the 17 shots were from outside the box, which is perhaps not quite as good, even though one of them scored. But the team was clearly able to move the ball in from out wide and create shooting opportunities. Note especially Prosper’s shots (#10). A naturally left-footed player on the right wing, he was able to move in much closer and shoot from that side. One advantage of having a player on the side opposite his favored foot is that he can come in and shoot a crossing ball from the other wing with the foot that is away from goal and has the better angle. That’s how the first goal was scored, and in fact he was moving in from very wide and at speed too. The second goal also took advantage of him being out wide right and faster than the defense, but in a very different way. For that goal he dribbled himself into a position where the left foot had the better chance. Both were great goals and both deserve Goal of the Week nominations. We shall see. At any rate, playing wide does not mean shooting wide. If anything, it draws the defense wide and creates chances.

So, analytics isn’t everything. To that end, I leave you with a quote from the Special One:

Football is a game about feelings and intelligence.

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