Diving Deep: Birmingham Legion 3-0 Memphis 901

They still have to play us twice

In assessing how this game went, it may be useful initially not to focus so much on what the Legion were able to do, but on what Memphis 901 were not able to do.

The most obvious missing factor is of course being able to score. In the course of the game Area Code FC managed to generate just one decent scoring chance. FotMob credits them with no big chances, but the only time they seriously threatened to score was on Akeem Ward’s shot in the 5th minute that hit the post. Personally I think that if it had been any closer to going in Phanuel Kavita had it covered, so not that great a chance. After that they had no shots on goal until Phillip Goodrum’s attempt from distance in the 52nd minute. The only other shot on goal came from substitute Dylan Borczak and it didn’t exactly put Trevor Spangenberg under stress. As a group the starting front four (Goodrum, Laurent Kissiedou, Luiz Fernando and Bruno Lapa) managed just 4 shots between them. Fernando, usually pretty threatening, managed none.

With a whopping 66% of the possession (and 71% in the first half) they were able to create absolutely nothing. They totalled just 10 shots, with four off target and 4 blocked. That was 1 more shot than the Legion generated with barely half the possession, and the Legion’s shooting seemed far more dangerous. The only xG rating I can find for the game is at footystats.org; Memphis apparently had an xG of 1.44, just slightly less than the Legion’s 1.53. I question those numbers, to be honest. If accurate, Memphis seriously underperformed and the Legion overperformed (and frankly, they should have had 2 or 3 more).

Akeem Ward was, as it turned out, a big factor in the game. As close as he came to scoring, he made up for that egregious act in several ways. First, he nearly got himself sent off with a second yellow (and the referee was probably a tad kind not to do so), and then got beat to the ball on Juan Agudelo’s opening goal and then was nutmegged by Enzo Martinez for the second. A miserable evening for the former Legionary.

So: the big question: how was it that they were so incapable of doing anything? Well, to start, let’s take a look at a chart we don’t normally get to see. This is called a passing network, and it comes courtesy of MLS who conveniently are doing stats on the Open Cup now that their own teams have all  been involved.

This is a modified average positions chart. Legion is on the left and Memphis on the right, both playing towards the middle. The twist is that the players are connected by gray bars of varying thicknesses. Those represent the volume of passes between the players. The thicker the bar, the more passes that went between the two players connected by it.

Both teams played a 4-2-3-1, and if anything the Memphis formation is rather more organized than the Legion’s, as well as being a little advanced up the field. But notice how the thickness of the bars is clearly heavily weighted to the back four. Note also that striker Phillip Goodrum (#10) got service from just 1 player (Jeremy Kelly, #18), and not that much of it.  It’s also clear that they tried to go up the middle, and with the Legion’s holding midfield, that’s a losing strategy.

The Legion evidently did most of its attacking up the left wing, with Gabriel Alves  (#16) and Prosper Kasim (#10) doing most of the work. Collin Smith (#4) helped out on the right wing in a very advanced position, but interestingly got all of his service from Anderson Asiedu (#6) and nothing from Alex Crognale (#21). Moreover, the Legion used the complete opposite approach: they went wide. Juan Agudelo (#9) got his deliveries from Prosper and Collin rather than from Enzo Martinez (#19). 2 of the goals came from wide play, the first off a short corner and the third from Juan getting the ball wide right. Another interesting point is the absence of pointless toing and froing between Alex and Phanuel Kavita (#3).

I should point out that the lack of a bar connecting players does not mean there were no passes between them, just not enough to show given the limitations of the graphics. It also doesn’t show attempted but incomplete passes. It also can’t display long balls very easily, and on the Legion side at least there quite a few. Still, this is very revealing.

From the Legion side of things, the game started off very slowly. Clearly the ultimate goal was to counterattack from a low press. The first ten minutes of the game were something of a feel-them-out phase, with the team apparently happy to let Memphis mostly dictate the play. If you are confident in your back line, that’s something you can do without too much risk. Once that was figured out, things immediately changed.

After that, the game was a showcase in how to control a game without controlling the ball. And that’s the core of the low press strategy: you can come so far but no farther. You can have the ball, but you’re going to have to pass it backwards pretty soon.

All told, this was a true team effort. The Legion’s various individual parts were all working seamlessly together and the end result was what you should expect from such a unified display.

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