Diving Deep: Birmingham Legion 2-0 Loudoun United

Formations? Who needs formations?

OK, it’s taken us a while to get around to analyzing this one, for which we apologize, but like most of the rest of you we have this thing called a life that has a tendency to get in the way of things. We also have another thing called a job, which really gets in the way.

Anyway, here we are, and this was a very interesting one, tactically speaking. If you’ve listened to the Hammering Down episode on the game, you’ll have heard Kaylor Hodges talking about “Total Football” with regard to the game, and to a very large extent it applies. Simply speaking, the concept is that any outfield player should be able to play any position and take over for any other player who happens to be out of position at any given time. Total formational flexibility, in other words.

Total Football has a long history going all the way back to the 1930s. Englishman Jimmy Hogan is frequently credited with its invention. He developed it in association with his friend, Austrian Hugo Meisl, which led to the huge success of the Austrian national squad (the “Wunderteam”) in that period. It was used in various places all over the world, but didn’t really find its true form until the 1970s in the Netherlands, where the term totaalvoetbal was coined. It is probably not a coincidence that Ernst Happel, another Austrian, was active in coaching club and national teams in Holland at that time, but it wasn’t until Rinus Michels and Dutch legend Johan Cruyff latched on to it that it really became what we know today.

No style of soccer is ever static, of course, and Total Football has in fact if anything come full circle. Hogan’s approach was to utilize quick, short passes. That went away for a while, but ultimately reemerged in Spain, especially at Barcelona under Pep Guardiola, where it became known as tiki-taka.

Total Football, obviously, asks a lot of a team’s players, and it means you need to have an unusually skilled squad. That can be very difficult to achieve, especially in lower leagues, but if you can build such a squad, it’s a huge advantage. The system  can also make incredible use of a “false 9” – basically a nominal center forward who spends a lot of time playing in deeper roles.

You can probably see where I am going with this. The Legion may or may not be the most talented side in the USL Championship, but they do have some seriously versatile players. Enzo Martinez, for a start, can play almost anywhere on the pitch, certainly anywhere in the midfield or attack. Juan Agudelo is having something of a renaissance to his career playing a deep position from the striker slot. Anderson Asiedu will wreak havoc wherever you ask him to. The team’s wingers – Tyler Pasher, Prosper Kasim, Diba Nwegbo – all look comfortable switching from side to side. Alex Crognale and, to a lesser extent, Phanuel Kavita, are not afraid to mix it up in attack. The Legion has fullbacks who can easily move to wingback, Gabriel Alves in particular (oh, Jonny Dean, please come back!). Matthew Corcoran is still just a kid but he and Ando can both play as the attacking or defensive half of the double pivot.

OK, so maybe not exactly Total Football, but close enough. In fact, Total Football does have one weakness – defense. It’s easier to get defenders to play attacking positions than the opposite, especially given that center backs tend to be large human beings and strikers…not so much. But if you have 2 or 3 players at the back who anchor the team while everyone else floats like a butterfly you have a nightmare for the opposition to deal with.

Which is why Alex and/or Phanny mostly get upfield for set pieces only, and usually only one of them at a time. Phanny did get an open play shot off in this game, though.

The team’s average positions for the game will perhaps help clarify this a bit:

This was announced as a 4-2-3-1. But as you can see, Juan (#9) averaged slightly deeper than Diba (#7) and almost on top of Tyler (#15). Neither Diba nor Tyler played wide at all. Enzo (#19) was about where you would expect a CAM to be, but with Matthew (#17) right up there with him they were more of a high double pivot. with Ando (#6) backing them up. In fact, this looks like a 4-1-2-3, which is a slightly defensive adaptation of the 4-3-3, often used by Jose Mourinho at Chelsea (I’ll wait until you’re back from the bathroom).

Now let’s take a look at the substitutions, of which there were only three:

In order, they were Neco Brett (#11) for Matthew Corcoran, Moses Mensah (#33) for Diba and Ben Reveno (#2) for Jake Rufe. The first of those is the most interesting. It was clearly an attacking move. Not trying to date myself, but this looks like the 2-3-5 formation that I grew up playing. It was once known as the pyramid (especially if you include the goalkeeper), but is not to be confused with the 4-3-2-1 formation which is the more common use of that name today. It was first recorded in…1880. There are indications of it being used in 1877 to win the Welsh Cup, by, of all teams, Wrexham. It was most famously used by the Uruguayan national team in the 1920s and ultimately the 1930 World Cup. It could also be looked at as a 4-2-4, which the Brazilians developed in the 1950s. Either way, you need excellent center backs (yours truly played that position as a total hacker who later found rugby more aligned with his talents). You all know where the Legion stands on that front.

Either way, it was aggressive, to say the least, and resulted of course in a goal 13 minutes after Neco entered the game, although Diba had left the game at that point and Moses was playing a bit deeper. The final substitution also looks very attacking, but bear in mind that what you want a fullback to do late in a game you are leading is to hold the ball as deep in the opposing end as possible.

Now let’s take a look at the heatmap for Ando and Matthew. Note, they were nominally the defensive midfielders:

Now, this looks like they were providing a solid defensive wall. All well and good. But they also spent a considerable amount of time in the attacking half. Of the 2 blobs in the Loudoun penalty area, the one towards the top of the picture is where Ando provided the assist on Diba’s goal. And Matthew took a good few of the corners (quite a responsibility for a youngster). But that defensive wall? It was mostly in the second half. And Matthew averaged almost as high as Enzo (#19), who took on a ton of defensive duties in this one, freeing up the pivot pairing to do what they were doing.

OK. One more graphic. Can you guess whose personal heatmap this is?

If you guessed Tyler, 10 out of 10 for thinking logically. However, it belongs to Juan. The center forward. In fact, Tyler’s heatmap looks very similar. And note their average positions above, pretty much on top of each other. Now, assuming the Legion back office has not built some technology allowing its players to run through each other (which at times in this game it kinda felt like they had), they were obviously not in the same places at the same times. So Juan was not just that false 9 we mentioned earlier, he was a false 9 masquerading as an extra winger. Bear in mind also that Tyler loves to work the ball in from a wide position (although he needs to pull the trigger rather faster than he does many times). This drew the Loudoun defense to their left and opened things up for Matthew, Ando and Diba.

Will the Legion be doing this again any time soon? My guess is, maybe 2 of the next 4 games. Coming up this weekend is a trip to San Antonio. San Antonio is not a team that is easily fooled, but they will be without a couple of key players. It’s possible in Texas. After that the Legion heads to Las Vegas. That’s a near certainty. After that though are two big conference matchups, at home against Tampa Bay and then off to Louisville. Two teams that will not be easily fooled by crafty tactics.

Unless, that is, the Legion gets really, really good at it.

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