Diving Deep: Sacramento Republic 0-1 Birmingham Legion
Smokin' the bears
Sometimes the best game plan is to just park the bus. Sometimes a bus isn’t big enough, so you roll in an 18-wheeler.
The Legion didn’t go with either of those options. Instead, they went whole hog and parked a freight train. Right over the crossing.
After 63 seconds, attack more or less went out the window. The team had just 4 more shots after that, and none were on frame. For a team that was averaging 14.1 shots a game entering Saturday night, that’s a staggering change of approach. In contrast, the Republic attempted 19 shots, well above their previous average of 13.5.
It didn’t do them much good. On their way to the first home loss of the season, the Republic managed to get only 3 of those shots on target. Considering that 11 of those were taken from inside the penalty area, that’s not great (and only 2 of those were on target).
We’ve talked quite a bit about the new gegenpressing style the Three Sparks are playing. Which is more or less how they scored. That the goal was scored so quickly is all the more impressive because the Legion did not take the opening kick and thus did not have possession. Indeed, of the 63 seconds it took to score, they controlled the ball for maybe 25 of them at most. Sacramento were pushed back almost immediately, with the Legion pressing very high with four men up top to open the game. And then the speed factor came in. The scoring sequence actually started with Matt van Oekel, went through 5 more players and consumed just 19 seconds end to end.
They did not of course abandon it after the goal; it just wasn’t very effective, and especially not after a major and very sneaky shift in the second half almost certainly birthed in the devious defensive mind of coach Tommy Soehn.
And when you can’t attack, you defend. Like crazy.
But don’t forget: the Legion is for now without the services of left back Jake Rufe, and the previous alternate at that position – Mikey Lopez – was also not available. Which meant that Ryan James was pressed into service at that position. He has of course played considerable time there for the Legion, but not this season, which has seen him getting relatively limited time and mostly as a winger. Against a very solid attacking team that could have been an obvious weak point to exploit.
And the Republic tried to, although they also kept Jonny Dean on the other side running around pretty hard too. They made 8 open play crosses from Ryan’s side as opposed to 4 from Jonny’s (not including crossing plays inside the box). Only 1 found a friendly player. Not too surprising really when you are trying to get the ball over two giant center backs.
So exactly how did the Legion keep the bears at bay? Well, with three tactics. The first was simple: just pull everybody back. Tale a look at this shot from about the midpoint of the second half:
All 11 Legion players are in this shot, which is entirely in the defensive half. 4 of them are in the 18. Only 7 Sacramento players are visible, and of those only 3 are really involved in the play. Each of them is marked, and there are at least 4 defenders available for additional help. This play, like most of the others, ended up going nowhere.
Another shot from a few minutes later:
9 Legion players in this shot; only 5 Republic players. Every one of them is marked, including the throwing player (Jack Gurr, an Englishman previously with Atlanta United in both the USL and MLS).
Which segues nicely into the second tactic: good old-fashioned man-marking. Here’s another (slightly blurry) shot from just a little later:
Only Juan Agudelo is out of frame here for the Legion. He is just off to the left, but even without him it’s pretty much the defensive third of the field we can see here. Only one Sacramento player is not directly marked, and Zach Herivaux is headed straight for him. The player with the ball is Jack Gurr again and his only option is to play the ball back, which he does, to left back Dan Casey and start the attack all over again.
And so on ad infinitum. This was possibly the most organized display of man-marking you could ever expect to see. Since the Republic had to leave at least 1 or 2 players back to respect the Legion counter-attack, they were always going to be outmanned. Attack is not necessarily the best defense, but it is a critical part of any defense.
The third tactic? Well, a couple of the shots above give a hint as to what that might be. Here’s another hint:
Playing from right to left, these are the first (on the left) and second half touchmaps for one Legion player. That player? Anderson Asiedu. It’s relatively subtle, but Little Tank played in a relatively advanced position in the second half as compared to the first. Which also means that another player was in a more defensive posture than in the first half. That player? Enzo Martinez. They effectively switched positions, with Ando looking very much like a CAM and Enzo like a defensive mid. Little Tank may be a 5’6″ ass-kicker but Enzo is (a bit) bigger and just as physical. Add to that the fact that Ando got a first half yellow and putting him in a slightly less dangerous role makes perfect sense. Several of the Legion’s second half attacks (which were admittedly scarce) were from attacking distributions from Ando to Marlon.
Enzo is not shown in the second of the three shots above, but is barely out of frame. In the first though he can’t get much deeper, and is just above the D in the third (Ando is the player rushing to help Zach cover Gurr). That is not to say that Enzo did not play high when needed. If his assigned man was deep, so was he, pressing the attack back as far as possible. And then he would retreat to cover the back.
This quick vid shows how all of these tactics worked together:
So, Enzo moves very deep to cut off the cross, the Republic players are (mostly) man-marked, and at one point in this clip the Legion had 8 players inside the 18, far more than they needed to cut off the weak cross that resulted from Enzo’s defending. The final outcome of the sequence was a very half-hearted long-distance shot well over the crossbar that would have been blocked by Zach anyway had it been any lower.
Usually when a team is playing an entirely defensive strategy, it becomes a very tense and unnerving experience to watch as a fan. In this instance, I would say that was not true. Yes, there were a few heart-stopping moments, but it was not a edge-of-the-seat chew-your-fingernails kind of game. The Legion always looked composed and confident on the field, with or without the ball. If anything, they looked better without it. It was quite a show and a defensive coach’s dream.
One final point: this is not that much of an outlier for the Legion. After all, Matt van Oekel is tied for the league lead in clean sheets with 8. The Legion is 4th overall in goals allowed per game overall (0.89), 2nd at home (0.63) and 7th away (1.1). Take out that unfortunate game in Atlanta and the away average improves to 4th and overall improves to 1st (tied with San Antonio). The Birmingham Legion, simply put, is a defensive machine.