Diving Deep: Birmingham Legion 2-1 Pittsburgh Riverhounds
Change-ups aren't just for baseball
There was a lot that went right for the Legion Wednesday evening. About the only thing that didn’t was not winning the tiebreak advantage over Pittsburgh. Except, of course, in some alternate universe the Legion did score that one extra goal they needed. But hey, the Three Sparks are back in control of their destiny, so to speak.
But just because things are working is not necessarily a reason to keep on doing them the same way. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it is not always the best policy. That is especially true when you have a group that can do things in multiple different ways. That has been the Legion’s calling card for several years and never more so than this season. We’ve said it here before: this team is extremely flexible. That can be a huge advantage, and it proved so in this game. So what exactly happened? Well, there are essentially 4 phases to the game, all directed by changes made by Tommy Soehn (whom we don’t speak of enough in these analytical posts). Let’s look at them in order.
Phase 1: From the kick-off
The team came out in the 4-3-3 again, but in this case some changes had to made, as regular starter Marlon dos Santos was unavailable due to yellow card suspension. Typically, we have this set up with two wingers and a single striker. That is because Prosper Kasim and Marlon are able to play on either side and can switch pretty much at will. Marlon’s forced absence made that option unavailable. So Sadik Balarabe was given the nod for his first Legion start. He is mostly a left winger, but has a strong shot with both feet (which Prosper doesn’t). He’s big, fast and powerful.
So Tommy chose to go with a central midfielder (Enzo) and 2 forwards, slotting Sadik in to Juan’s left. And of course it was Sadik who got the assist on Juan’s called-off goal. They worked together really well. During this initial phase, Juan ended up with 3 shots (4 in reality), well above his normal output. He had a second striker to share the attacking duties and was able to use his hold-up play talents to maximum effect.
This is also a really high-pressing formation, a feature we have seen in recent Legion teams, and a good deal of the first half was played in Pittsburgh’s half.
Another factor in the decision to use this formation was the fact that the Hounds have 2 big center backs. Arturo Ordonez is 6’2″, not gigantic maybe, but well above average. Jelani Peters, on the other hand, is a man mountain at 6’5″. Juan and Sadik aren’t midgets either, so there was a good matchup.
I would also note that Peters came forward for corners and other high set pieces, and he was not left alone the way Neveal Hackshaw was in the Indy game. Lessons learned.
So that’s how the game started out, and it was a good game plan. But then Albert Dikwa’s goal precipitated a change. And not a subtle one.
Phase 2: 40 minutes in
Right after the goal, the decision was made to completely change the formation. The team went to the 4-2-3-1, the old standard that we haven’t seen too much of lately. To do this, Juan, Sadik, Anderson Asiedu, Zach Herivaux and Prosper all swung counterclockwise a bit.
Ando moved back into a double pivot role alongside Zach. They played as defensive and attacking pivots more or less interchangeably in similar fashion to how Marlon and Prosper switch wings. Yet another example of the Legion’s flexibility.
Enzo Martinez stayed at the CAM slot, the #8 position, but Sadik slid back into the left wing position and Prosper moved up into the right wing slot. Juan was now back to being the solo striker.
The formation is still good for the high press. Those of you who followed Atlanta United in their MLS Cup run in 2018 should be familiar with how well that can be achieved. United spent virtually the entire season doing nothing else.
And so the press continued, but it forced Pitt to make adjustments of their own. The Legion’s shooting didn’t really increase much after this change – 8 shots versus 4 in the first 40 minutes – but that wasn’t the point. Keeping the Hounds on their toes was. Coach Soehn’s explanation was that “it made them a little more predictable.” Which is to say, Pittsburgh was forced to play the game the way the Legion wanted to play it.
It also meant that Enzo was a bit freer in the way he played. To start with, he now has 3 attacking options to distribute to rather than 2 and also has more width to work with. Moreover, it means the defense has more players to cover. Which is entirely how he came to be in position to get the tying goal just 5 minutes after half time. He was left to his own devices in the Pitt 18 and was able to collect a deflected ball and dump it into the net. With force, that is.
The formation remained a 4-2-3-1 for the remainder of the game. But there were still two crafty adjustments yet to be made. Both resulted from substitutions. Interestingly, the Legion made only 2 substitutions in the entire game, a very low number in modern soccer, but they both were highly strategic in nature and were instrumental in getting the win.
Phase 3: 55 minute mark
After 55 minutes, Prosper, who had been struggling somewhat to use his preferred left foot on the right wing was given a rest and Bruno Lapa came in. Bruno wears #8 for a reason, and that meant that Enzo shifted over to the right wing. Enzo of course is the Legion’s most versatile attacking player,. so this was no big deal for him.
With Bruno in the mix, the Legion now had speed to add to quality distribution as well as a right wing with an effective right foot. The dangers for the Pittsburgh defense had changed again. It should be noted that the Hounds had made no substitutions at this point, and wouldn’t for another 14 minutes.
But that was too little too late. 11 minutes after Bruno came on he found Enzo charging towards the right side of the 18. Close to the goal line he turns and crosses the ball in low towards Juan. But Juan (the solo striker now, remember), who has attracted no less than four defenders, has the sense to leave it alone because Sadik has been left conveniently unmarked and calmly roofs the ball into the net for the go-ahead goal.
So at this point it’s time to defend the lead. Or perhaps extend it. Offense is the best defense, after all. Up to this point, the Riverhounds have managed just 2 shots in the second half. One of those was by Russell Cicerone and so badly off target it went out bounds on the touch line about 6 yards deep. Cicerone is Pittsburgh’s biggest scoring threat and the Legion handled him in much the same way as they had handled San Diego’s Kyle Vassell, Miami’s Kyle Murphy and Memphis’ Philip Goodrum. That is, they shut him down. Between them, those 4 elite USL scorers managed just 5 shots and none on target.
It’s also hard to score when the ball is at the other end of the field. After Sadik’s goal, Cicerone was Pittsburgh’s first man off with his shot total at 1, even though the Hounds are now chasing the game. So now it’s time for one more change.
Phase 4: 72nd minute to the final whistle
Seeing Jake Rufe waiting at the half way line to come on, the immediate thought was that the team is now going to park the bus. When the player to leave was identified as Sadik, that reinforced that idea. And it was correct, sort of.
But Tommy had yet another trick up his sleeve. Or rather, he played his favorite trick once again. The old switcheroo. Jake is best known as a left fullback. Instead, he came on as the right fullback. Jonny Dean, who has spent the entire game wearing fairly deep tracks up and down the right side, gets a bit of a break by moving up to the right wing spot. That dislodges Enzo, who is perfectly happy to move over to Sadik’s spot at left wing.
It turns out that Jake can play right back pretty well. And the game plan was largely for him, Jonny and Juan to take the ball to the right corner and keep it there.
There were just 4 shots in this final phase of the game, 2 on each side. Both of Pittsburgh’s were taken by Peters (a center back, if you recall), who ended up frustrated enough to get 2 yellow cards in this stretch and a slightly early shower.
All of these changes were relatively subtle, except the initial formation change. But they couldn’t be achieved fluidly without a well-coached squad that can play in numerous different setups. Enzo alone played 3 different positions – and if you consider the #8 slightly different in a 4-3-3 than it is in a 4-2-3-1 (and it is to an extent) then he played 4 positions. Not many players can do that in a single game. The impact of all this on an opponent has to be mind-blowing. The need to constantly adjust your own play to match what the other team is doing is confusing and exhausting, both mentally and physically.
So what does this mean the Legion is becoming? We have seen them as a counterattacking team. We’ve seen them press low. We’ve seen them press high. We’ve seen them park the bus virtually an entire game. We’ve seen them in multiple formations. We’ve seen players in multiple positions. Jürgen Klopp would love this team. Marcelo Bielsa would love this team. Jose Mourinho would love this team.
But most of all, I think Johan Cruyff would love this team. Because this team is as near to Total Football1That is, the philosophy that every player should be able to play every position in every formation, a concept used by Cruyff and Rinus Michels before him. as you’re going to find in the USL.
And it’s a beautiful thing.