Diving Deep: Birmingham Legion 6-0 Atlanta United 2

Why the 4-3-3 works for the Legion

Obviously, last Saturday’s game was about as lopsided as you can get. The only wider scoring margin this year was New Mexico United’s 7-0 beatdown of Phoenix Rising, but that was a Rising team depleted by COVID and forced to start 8 academy players. The Atlanta United organization has had more than its share of health-related issues this season and the move of various Twonited players to the MLS team (Rocco Rios Novo and Aiden McFadden most importantly) and the trade of Robbie Mertz back to Pittsburgh has left that team a tad on the young side as well.

That doesn’t mean they are completely overpowered, of course, as the 3-3 draw in Kennesaw a few weeks ago illustrated. They are relentless in attack and never stop. But this week they ran into a Legion almost back to full strength and working in a new formation that maximized its primary strengths. They got blown out as a result. Consequently, we need to focus in on that new formation and examine why it is so good for the Three Sparks.

Back in May, when the Legion was struggling in attack, we proposed the 4-1-3-2 as a potential solution to that problem. More recently, Kaylor Hodges over at Hammering Down made the same suggestion. Well, what Tommy Soehn rolled out last weekend wasn’t quite the same thing.

But it was damn close.

The team was announced as a 4-3-3 (Atlanta were in a 4-2-3-1, a formation the Legion is more than prepared to handle). Here’s how the starting XI actually played (bear in mind though that Marlon only played the first half):

Clearly, that is not 3 neatly organized lines of players. If anything, it looks more like 4-1-1-4. Which exists in PES, FIFA and FM but pretty much not IRL. It also shows how little penetration Atlanta was able to generate, but that’s not the point here. The major point is that the 4-3-3 is an extremely flexible formation.

To start off, the 4-3-3 is not really an accurate description of the formation. Here’s how the team initially lines up:

Immediately you can see that the formation is in truth a 4-1-2-3, or even a 4-1-2-2-1. Not quite the same as a 4-1-3-2, but functionally very similar.

Being the astute readers of the game as I know you all are, I imagine you will immediately see that this formation allows for two things. The first is that there is a considerable overlap of responsibilities. This is especially true on the wings, where you the fullbacks, midfielders and wingers all able to work out wide. Against Atlanta the Legion had Mikey Lopez, Bruno Lapa and Prosper Kasim on the left and Jonny Dean, Enzo Martinez and Marlon on the right. An extra wrinkle for the Legion is that Marlon and Prosper have been regularly switching sides. Indeed, the PK that Marlon drew (and Prosper converted) was from Marlon playing on the left.

The second is that the formation can flex very easily into other setups. Key in this, and in a lot of other formations for that matter, is the central defensive midfielder, also referred to as the holding midfielder and yet again as the pivot. The position has two primary jobs: extra defensive cover and attacking distribution. In a lot of ways the position is a third center back, which allows the two true center backs to play a little wider as needed (i.e., when the fullbacks are further upfield). Zach Herivaux started here, but moved to center back when Phanuel Kavita was rested, an obvious adjustment. At the same point, Bruno Lapa at left mid was also taken out. Anderson Asiedu and Matthew Corcoran were brought on in relief. Ando is of course a great attacking pivot, but he is perhaps less effective as a defender. He therefore was more Bruno’s replacement, and Matthew was Zach’s at the holding mid position. That was actually a fairly gutsy call on Tommy’s part, but the Atlanta attack had been so thoroughly snuffed out that it was a reasonable risk.

But I digress a bit. So, with the holding mid moving back and the fullbacks moving up, the formation shifts quickly to a 3-4-3. Also, with two attacking midfielders and two wingers, you have a 5-man offense that can rearrange itself into almost any combination you can think of. As noted above, in this game it was essentially a 1-4, with Bruno moving to a high central pivot position and Enzo moving up as an extra striker.

This formation works particularly well for teams that are fast and can press, high or low (very high in this last game). Sound like anyone you know? I could go on at length about how it operates, but there are plenty of resources online for that already. One I would recommend can be found here. It’s also good for teams that have holdup forwards. The Legion has those in spades right now. Juan Agudelo, Edi Horvat and Sadik Balarabe all look very comfortable playing in that manner. Juan’s shooting output went through the roof in this last game, but he also added 2 assists. Edi is an agent of chaos and Sadik is a goal poacher based on what little we’ve seen of him.

The only real weakness for the Legion right now with this formation is that it is not nearly as fast on the left as it is on the right. Ryan James has not been starting at left back and he was never as fast as Jonny when he has in the past. The same is true of Mikey. Neither is afraid to attack, but Mikey for sure is a much more defensively-oriented player than Jonny. The losses of Freddy Kleemann and then Jake Rufe made options at left back a bit thin. Hopefully Jake’s return will change that somewhat.

Granted, this was perhaps not the best game to assess how well the Legion can utilize this system. It was, on the other hand, the perfect game to try it out. It now remains to be seen whether the team will stick with it against tougher opposition. Will that happen this Saturday? Let’s hope so.

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