Diving Deep: Birmingham Legion 1-1 Pittsburgh Riverhounds

New squad, some of the same old problems

Everyone has of course been talking about the elephant in the room last Saturday. Of course, elephants are not in short supply in Alabama, and in fact it may be more accurate to note that there were two elephants in the room. Or, like Avondale’s Miss Fancy, maybe it would even more accurate to say that there were two elephants notable by their absence from the stadium.

One would be the complete disappearance of customer service at Protective. More than enough has been said on that, and it’s hardly relevant here. The other would be the equally apparent lack of a central attacking midfielder. Which is to say, Enzo Martinez. Not that I would want to compare Enzo to an elephant. That would be completely inaccurate and unjustified. Oh wait, I just did…

The problem with sports is that you can’t just show up and play the game. You also need training. And preseason warm-ups. But the risk with both of those is that you can pick up injuries in them. Especially when you are working to get up to full fitness after the offseason break. Consider the Rowdies’ Leo Fernandes, the current USL Championship MVP, who will miss this entire season after rupturing an Achilles tendon in a preseason game.

So the Legion started the season without Enzo and Mikey Lopez, both of whom had medical issues, and Neco Brett had barely managed to get back into the country thanks to visa delays. Not optimal.

On the other hand, the Three Sparks had a flurry of late signings last week to fill out the roster: Ben Reveno, Diba Nwegbo and Collin Smith. All young, and all three started the game. Two of them went the full 90. That’s something of an indication of the lineup quandary that Tommy Soehn faced for this season opener.

I suppose you could say there is a third missing elephant: that would be either Bruno Lapa himself or a fitting replacement. A roster with only one strong CAM on it is taking a big risk.

Now, we have seen Anderson Asiedu on occasion, and especially late last season, move up into that role. So it is arguable that we do have a player who can slot into that position fairly comfortably. Ando is, after all, a great distributor of the ball. For whatever reason, the team opted to go with a different plan. Frankly, it really didn’t work.

The lineup was announced in the stadium as four defenders, three midfielders and 3 forwards. Ah, I thought, a 4-3-3, excellent. That would indeed have potentially put Ando in a CAM role. Likely with Smith on his right and Reveno on his left, leaving a fairly aggressive top three of Diba, Juan Agudelo and Tyler Pasher. That’s not what happened at all.

The actual lineup was in fact a 4-2-3-1. Personally, I like that formation. It’s great for the press, has defensive strength and can make for very attractive soccer to watch. Those of you who are also Atlanta United fans (quite a few, I imagine) may know that they used it almost exclusively in their first two seasons, culminating in an MLS Cup in 2018. But you need a roster that’s built for it. The Legion doesn’t have one, at least not currently. When the team moved away from it last season, the results started to pile up. I have advocated for a 3-5-2 or a 3-4-3, and I still think either of those would work well. Currently the Legion has three centerbacks. Reveno is nominally a centerback. but he is a versatile player (he didn’t have a great day Saturday though) and is the – temporarily at least – the Zach Herivaux replacement. He was the defensive half of the double pivot, so he was close to that role. The team also has a goodly number of players who would function well as wingbacks: Smith, Gabriel Alves (who didn’t start), Moses Mensah, Lopez.

But a 4-3-3 would also work well for this roster, especially if organized as a 4-2-1-3 (maybe more of that in a another post at some point).

The biggest oddity in the lineup Saturday though was that Collin Smith started at left attacking mid. Smith is a right wingback/fullback, and in fact ended playing both those positions at later points in the game. That wing-switching ploy seems to have become a hallmark of the Legion and often works very well, but as noted in yesterday’s Player Ratings post, that’s quite a tall order for a young player. It also had Juan at essentially the CAM position, and effectively playing as a false 9 (although we did also have a true 9 in Diba). That’s not exactly his strength and isn’t what he was brought in to do.

Necessity is the mother of invention, I suppose, but this time, unless Enzo is back for Friday, they’ll need to go back to the chalkboard. Against Pittsburgh – who are known for doing this – the game got completely bogged down in the middle third. Here are the average positions for the starters:

You can at least see that the formation was consistent – Smith (#4) looks relatively central, but remember he switched flanks. Totally compressed. Another indication of how things went is Ando’s passing chart:

I’d tell that the Legion is playing from left to right in this graphic, but that’s almost irrelevant as the majority of the passes are simply sideways and going nowhere. An exercise in futility.

So…what do you do when the midfield is locked up tight and you have no CAM? Well, here’s a hint:

This is the combined passing chart for Alex Crognale and Phanuel Kavita. Basically, a ton of long balls out of the back. The centerback duo racked 26 long passes between them. As you can see, a lot of them are an ugly red. Long balls are a low percentage option. They also rely to a large extent on forwards being able to outmuscle the opposing centerbacks. Juan had some success doing that, but Diba ids not as big or strong.

One more thing, and something that appeared to have been corrected in the preseason game against Huntsville. Namely, crossing the ball. Specifically, aerial crosses. Now, granted: if you can’t get the ball out of midfield and are bombing it on from the back, you aren’t going to have too many wide chances (another issue with missing a CAM). Jake Rufe’s corner assist excluded,. here’s the entire crossing chart for the team:

A whopping 6 crosses, all unsuccessful. Two of them ended up blocked short. In short, not good.

Is the return of Enzo the magic elixir to solve all these problems? Well, if you’re going to rely on one guy to make the team, that’s an issue in itself, but the answer is obviously no. Yes, a top notch CAM is going to open up all sorts of options, but you still need everyone else to execute. The Legion has the players to do that, of course, and this was just game 1 of a long season. A major overhaul is not needed, but the solution is also not a few minor tweaks. I counsel patience.

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