Diving Deep: Hartford Athletic 0-1 Birmingham Legion

Is there such a stat in soccer as a forced error?

I had to think long and hard about this one, as frankly there wasn’t a great deal of tactical interest about it. It came down in the end to this: the Legion played 90 minutes and then decided to press.

Well, to be honest, that’s a little unfair. The Three Sparks did try to press in the first half; they just weren’t very effective with it. The second half was largely a mirror image of the first, with Hartford doing most of the attacking and the Legion absorbing it as they so frequently do on the road.

The Legion took 13 shots total in the game, less than half what they racked up Wednesday against Loudoun United. Of those, 9 were in the first half. A couple of those were half-way decent chances, but the combination of a decent Hartford back line and a pretty good goalkeeper in Yannik Oettl kept the score sheet blank.

That was the result of the combination of essentially two things. The first was that for whatever reason the Legion opted not to use its speed. The Three Sparks are probably one of the fastest teams in the USL. We saw that on display aggressively last Wednesday as they ran the visitors into the ground for a solid 90 minutes. Top to bottom, the team is fast, and with recent signings is getting faster, in particular Mataeo Bunbury. If anything, it’s one of the squads greatest strengths. So not utilizing it is baffling at best.

The second thing was that Hartford decided to sit back deep in defense. They did to the Legion what the Legion did to Sacramento Republic a few weeks back: put as many men behind the ball as possible. The difference of course was that the Legion had a very early lead to defend. Hartford, who had weathered a 32-shot barrage by the Rio Grande Valley Toros in Texas on Wednesday, had no such advantage, so the game plan was pretty cynical. They were set up in a 4-1-4-1 which is easily capable of placing at least 5 players in defense at virtually any time.

That’s not to say that they didn’t take their chances. Indeed, they outshot the Legion 18-13, although the visitors were better in shots on target, 8-6. The Legion also had the better xG (1.32 to 1.17, so that’s not really saying much). On the other hand, in terms of big chances, Hartford had 3 and the Legion had just 2.

Anyway, if you are not playing at speed, then a team intent on defending has that much more time to retreat and organize at the back. Worse, the Legion was really slow in the attacking half. This graphic will tend to highlight that:

Here the Legion is playing from right to left. The triangles are dribbles. Red triangles are unsuccessful dribbles. 2 of those are inside the Hartford penalty area. What this says to me is that the team got moderately high and then found itself short of passing lanes or other attacking options. I’ve previously discussed how this team’s roster lends itself to pressing and counter-attacking, the so-called gegenpress. This is an object lesson in how not to do it.

The only time a counter-attacking team should be dribbling in the attacking half is when you have a break with 1 or maybe 2 players in attack. With no one to pass to, the striker has to use his own speed to create a chance or give a second player the opportunity to get into position to give him options. Those dribbles will mostly be through midfield and into the infamous zone, not out wide like we see here. But when you have 4 or 5 guys in the final third but 6 or more opposing them, it’s basically futile to dribble the ball around looking for options. There won’t be any and continuing to dribble just gets you face to face with a defender. Or more. Pass the ball back and reset.

So how do you counter against a team that is hell bent on defending? Well, the Athletic, as noted above, were not entirely defensively oriented. They did attack, especially in the second half. Patience is a virtue in such situations. If you are confident of your ability to defend, then wait for the opponents to get drawn as high as possible, press them into making an error (known as the low press) and then punish them mercilessly with a fast counter. The Legion doggedly refused to do that last Saturday.

The opposite of the low press is, shockingly, the high press. And it was ultimately the highest of high presses that led to the goal. We have seen Legion attackers do this more and more lately. Notably, Edi Horvat does it all the time on the field. Juan Agudelo uses this too, when he is high enough. Enzo Martinez does it and Mataeo as well. That is, pressuring the keeper when he can’t pick the ball up (i.e., when the ball is passed to him on the ground). Personally, if I saw Edi or Enzo charging at me, I’d be in a damn hurry to get rid of the ball and hightail it for the restrooms. In this case though it was Marlon who rushed Oettl into what was really his only mistake of the entire game and that was all she wrote.

High press or low press, the aim is to create chances. The difference is simply in the position on the field where the chance arises. When the Legion do it, they do it well. So why don’t they do it all the time?

One last thing: I’m a Manchester United fan, but can we please not wear read and white again?

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