Diving Deep: Charleston Battery 0-3 Birmingham Legion

Wer nicht mit uns ist, ist gegen uns

As previously noted, we have been pretty snowed under with work lately. As a result, we (and yes, this a royal we) haven’t gotten around to the regular Diving Deep columns the last couple of games.

Well, we’re back to it, but we also don’t want to completely ignore the Louisville City and Atlanta United 2 games. Rather than break down those two games in depth separately, how about we just highlight a single play that had a huge impact on both games. Here it is:

Yeah, that one. It happened all of 23 seconds into the game in Louisville. It’s a key play as it plainly took Jake Rufe out of his game; he was subbed off at half time of the game and had not looked himself all half. Against Atlanta United 2? Well, he was out for the game having “picked up a knock.” And he’s now out for 6-8 weeks as a result.

The result of that play, by the way, was a throw in to Louisville. Which of all the dubious calls in that game was frankly the most egregious. At a minimum that was an obvious foul committed directly in front of the AR; in almost any circumstance it’s a red card as well. And it sure appeared that Wesley Charpie did it intentionally. After all, Mikey Lopez got a second yellow in that game for stepping on an opponent’s foot. Stomping on an opponent’s you-know-whats is apparently OK though.

Referees are unfortunately loath to hand out red cards early in games, especially to the home team. And certainly not that early. It does happen, however, the world record at any level being a mere 2 seconds in a rather amusing incident. As far as I can tell, the US professional record is 34 seconds, And if you think the name Joe Nasco sounds familiar, he was in fact on the Legion roster in 2019 but never played. That Charpie “play” would have set a new record. Such is life.

Obviously, the Legion was somewhat hobbled by that injury during the Louisville game, and with Mikey Lopez seeing red later in the game along with coach Tommy Soehn, the game in Atlanta was marked by terrible defensive errors as well because we couldn’t put together a comprehensive back line. Life in the roster lane.

Anyway, with Mikey and Tommy back, the Battery were looking at a team that was in no mood to drop any more points. Considering how bad that team is right now, that’s not a good thing. Now Mikey Lopez is not necessarily the best option at fullback, but for now there’s not much choice (so no more cards, man!). Well, as long as Ryan James not being used as a fullback, at least.  But the thing is, Mikey really wasn’t used as a fullback either.

The lineup was announced as a 4-2-3-1 with Jonny Dean and Mikey at the two fullback spots, and that lineup was a direct head-to-head matchup with Charleston. But it played more like a 3-5-2. Here are the average positions for the starting XI:

As you can see, Mikey (#5) is nowhere near as advanced as Jonny (#24). Mikey had no attacking plays, including no attempted crosses. Jonny had 4 attacking plays, including of course a goal and an assist, and also had 3 touches inside the Charleston 18 (2 of which resulted in goals). Mikey never entered the box. He barely even entered the final third, come to that.

But that was of course by design, as he was essentially playing as a third centerback in what was clearly a very high line. The upshot of this was that the Battery managed a mere 6 shots in total, only 2 on target (neither of which troubled Matt van Oekel in the least) and only 2 shots from inside the Legion 18. Their season average is almost twice that at 11.95 shots per game. IN similar vein, their game xG was 0.24 versus an average 1.19.

At the other end, it was an entirely different matter. As previously noted, the Three Sparks played more as a 3-5-2. Looking at the chart above, it even looks more like a 3-3-4, except that no one has really used that formation much since the 1960s. Enzo (#19) was playing more as a second striker rather than as a CAM, and Marlon (#11) and Prosper (#10) were also pretty high. And since Zach (#20) and Ando (#6) were patently operating as a double pivot (as the 4-2-3-1 would determine, in fact), the formation was close to a 3-2-5.

That’s damned aggressive, obviously. And it worked. The Legion pumped in 16 shots, 11 of which were inside the 18, and 7 on target. The game xG was 2.63, well above the season average of 1.57. And there’s the small matter of 3 goals and the team’s best margin of victory this season.

Note also that this was done with a paltry 38.3% possession (and of course, as usual, it certainly didn’t feel like it was that low). But that was because the team was able to utlize the counter-attack and press almost at will. This has become the best playing style option for the Legion, and I suspect we will see a lot more of it yet this year. It also helped that with the Battery barely able to get into the attacking third, the counter-attack was being played from a relatively high position to begin with. Add to that the Legion’s clear speed advantage, especially on the right, and the result becomes almost preordained.

There is a term for this style, by the way. It’s called the gegenpress. Or, since that’s a half-German term, the Gegenpress. Before you ask, it has nothing to do with the pre-game meal. Gegen (pronounced gay-gun, sort of) is German for against, or, in this case, counter. The basic concept is that whenever you lose possession you disrupt the opponent’s in as high a position as possible in order to win the ball back in an advantageous position. It also emphasizes speed, which lends it to the Legion’s biggest strength. The system has become pretty popular in Germany (hence the origin of the name), in particular at Borussia Dortmund while a certain Jürgen Klopp was managing the team. And yes, he took it with him to Liverpool (yuck). But he didn’t originate the concept. That was primarily the work of one Ralf Rangnick, who was most recently interim manager at Manchester United, who were not able to make it work anywhere near as well. United’s new manager, Erik ten Hag, seems to have a similar philosophy and based on today’s 4-0 preseason win over Liverpool (ha!)1, in Bangkok of all places, already has figured out how to make it work.

Anyway, this is quickly devolving into mere rambling, but how much is there to say when you beat a weak opponent? I recommend you go read up on the gegenpress; there’s plenty about it on the interwebs. And then you can show your friends you’re as smart as the Football Forge.

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