Diving Deep: Birmingham Legion 1-0 Memphis 901

We don't need no pyramids. Even inverted ones.

To start off, I don’t think I’ve ever been happier to have been utterly wrong in my predictions two games in a row. Having expected to feel lucky get out of these last two contests with 2 points, the 6 that actually transpired are incredible. The Phoenix game was a confidence booster, no doubt about that. This last game against the hated enemy, who just happen to be riding atop the entire league, is a season changer.

So how did the Legion win these two games? Well, obviously we already examined the Rising game in the last edition of Diving Deep. But rather than look at this game in isolation, how about a little comparative analysis? One good reason to do that is because the starting lineups for the two games were the same. Now in this regard we to take into consideration that Prosper Kasim was injured in the first 20 minutes on Wednesday night (although Memphis and the referee let play continue for a full 6 minutes before letting Ryan James enter the game) so that changes things quite a bit.

With that in mind, the first big difference is the formation. Against the Rising Tommy Soehn used the 4-2-3-1. Against 901, with the same 11 guys, he opened the game in a 4-3-3. . Or perhaps more accurately, a 4-3-2-1, the so-called Christmas tree formation, since he used Juan Agudelo in a solo striker role. To do that, he moved Enzo Martinez from central attacking mid to right mid1The league’s website shows him at left mid, but that is incorrect., pushing Zach Herivaux to central defensive mid. Enzo is easily versatile enough to make that kind of change, and  in fact he did it many times with the Charlotte Independence. I’m not convinced that’s it’s the best use of him, though. In any event, this was clearly a more defensive posture than in Phoenix. And that was probably a good decision with Memphis having been scoring pretty much at will lately.

Well, that’s how it started. But take a look at this:

First off, you won’t believe the amount of Photoshopping (well, GIMPing actually. I’m cheap) I had to do to get this right. First I had to take out both opponents and their logos, then flip one game because it was set up in the opposite direction, then flip it again because it was on the wrong sides. A nightmare.

Anyway, what this shows is the average positions of the Legion starting XI in both games. On the left is the Memphis game, Phoenix on the right. Both games are playing left to right. As far as the Phoenix game is concerned, it looks like the attack was very concentrated in the middle, when the reality is the team played pretty wide. But remember that Prosper (#10) and Marlon (#11) switched flanks at half time. On average, then, they played very centrally; in reality they were out wide. Adjust for that and it’s a pretty organized 4-2-3-1. Not only that but it’s spread out nicely. A pretty aggressive game plan, all told.

In contrast, the Memphis positioning is way back towards the Legion end. You do see Prosper and Marlon playing wide again, and this time in their original positions (Soehn did briefly switch Marlon and Ryan James in the second half, but that didn’t last long). Marlon’s penetration upfield is about the same as in Phoenix as well, and Jonny Dean behind him (#24) is in almost exactly the same spot. Jake Rufe (#13) at left fullback is not quite as advanced and that reflects the additional defensive work he did on Wednesday. Enzo (#19) is also very wide to the right.

So it looks like the offensive game plan was somewhat similar – run it up the right side. Memphis’ answer to that was pretty simple: hack Marlon to death until we can’t get away with it any more. And Jonny Dean too when he gets dangerous. Even spending an inordinate amount of time on the turf, Marlon still got 5 crosses into the box though.

Defensively, the plan was pretty simple – clog the final third and don’t allow any lanes to attack through. Mikey Lopez (#5) played a fairly similar role to the Phoenix game, but as with most the term, somewhat backed up. But as a left mid in a 3-man line rather a left mid in a 2-man line, he is surprisingly centrally positioned. Memphis had to get through him before they even had a chance to deal with Alex and Phanuel at the back. The result? Memphis had just one shot on goal all night, and that came directly off a long free kick that Phillip Goodrum conned the ref into awarding by bouncing dramatically off Phanuel. That is to say, it shouldn’t have happened and there were no legit shots on goal.

In the first half, the Legion was trying to play an opportunistic counterattacking style, and it nearly worked – Juan Agudelo had a very good early chance, and several others followed it. But it is hard to counterattack if you have been successfully keeping the opponent out of your own final third. They haven’t been sucked deep enough to create a numbers imbalance on the counter, at least not consistently enough.

The problem was that the Legion were too defensively arranged to press like they did against Phoenix. Tommy Soehn was tight-lipped about the adjustments he made at half time, but in the second half we began to see the press emerge. And when Anderson Asiedu and Edi Horvat came on, it was back to the full press. Not only that, but run it up the gut. Marlon had played wide; Ando played completely central. In the end, it worked.

So, two questions:

First, did Tommy Soehn give too much respect to the Memphis attack? Maybe just a tad. Area Code FC, coming into the game, were averaging more goals per game than anyone else on the league. Even after getting blanked, they are still tied for best with San Diego. But then, they have had a relatively easy schedule to date. And they are straight back to that: their next game is at Hartford next Wednesday. After that, not so much. They are a formidable side, but they may be in for a dose of reality as the season becomes more of a slog over the summer. Moreover, the Legion have now shown that they can be held at bay. They had not failed to score since the opening weekend, when they got trounced 0-3 by Pittsburgh.

Second, is the counterattack a viable option for the Legion? Again, a definite maybe. Counterattacking needs speed, and the Three Sparks have that in spades. But the team is also big. Both up top and at the back. It’s built for the press. Counterattacking may be good when you are up against an opponent that clearly is the stronger side, but frankly, aside from the few weaker teams at the bottom the table (and most of those will be gone to MLS Next Pro soon) the league is pretty even across the board in terms of talent.

Next up is New Mexico United, who after Memphis’ win streak was snapped now hold the league’s longest win streak at 4. It could be 6 before they welcome the Legion (they play Oakland and Rio Grande Valley first). Another chance for the Three Sparks to bring the hammer down on hubris? We shall see.

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