Diving Deep: Birmingham Legion 1-0 Tampa Bay Rowdies
Creating controlled chaos
There’s much to unpack in this game; tactically it was a very interesting one. We have talked a bit about Total Football over the past few weeks, and we’ve also touched on midfield triangles. Here they come together to a meaningful degree and the combination is central to understanding how the Three Sparks played this past Saturday.
First though is the lineup Tommy Soehn chose to use. Both the USL site and Fotmob assumed he was playing his preferred formation, namely the 4-2-3-1. To do that, they put Enzo Martinez at left attacking mid and Juan Agudelo at striker. Neither of those turned out to be correct; but what they did get right is putting Tyler Pasher at central attacking mid. That was a surprise to yours truly, and likely to the Tampa coaching staff as well. Tyler and Prosper both on the field meant that there were two left-footed midfielders, but neither of them was playing on the left. Another surprising move.
The formation was, at least initially, more of a 4-3-3, and with Enzo at center forward and Juan at left attacking mid, completely inverted from the expected arrangement. Now, obviously having Prosper wide right and Enzo up top worked out brilliantly, but that was just one aspect of the way the Legion played this game. Let’s look first at the team’s average positions (playing left to right):
I said this was a 4-3-3, right? Well, if you accept that Collin Smith (#4) was at right back, that’s what it is. But I also qualified that with initially. To the eye it looks more like a 3-4-3, or even a 3-3-4, especially with those two arrows added. Collin was playing a very advanced position mostly, pretty much as a right wingback behind Prosper (#10). Gabriel Alves (#16) on the left played a relatively withdrawn position, effectively a third centerback. This becomes even clearer when you look at their personal heatmaps:
Collin on the left, Gabriel on the right. Collin was even more advanced in the first half. This also allowed Prosper to get very deep (see above again); he’s actually the most advanced of any player on the team. So much so that Collin ended the game sending 5 balls into the box; Prosper had another 4 plus the assist (which was already just inside the 18). All but 3 of Prosper’s 27 passes were inside the Tampa half. So too were 28 of Collin’s 47.
So the Legion was playing with what amounted to a 3-man line. Check also how high that line is. The defensive third begins at the right edge of the Legion logo. No one averaged inside that third, Phanuel Kavita (#3) being the closest. And yet, between him, Gabriel and Alex Crognale (#21) they totaled 8 defensive actions, one of which were blocked shots or interceptions, and just 12 duels (they won 6 of them). By himself, Collin had 3 defensive actions (again, no blocked shots) and 9 duels (losing 7, but those were far enough upfield to be not especially dangerous).
So not only was that back line impenetrable, Tampa barely even got to test it. The Rowdies spent barely any time at all in the Legion box and all of their meager five shots were from outside it.
This, then, was a midfield battle. Soccer being won in the midfield is a cliché for a reason. That midfield was 3 or 4 men, depending on how you look at it and depending on who was playing what role at any time. Let’s look at the average positions again, but with a slight modification:
Here’s where the triangles come into play. The key triangle is the midfield trio. This would be true of a 4-2-3-1 as well, with the central attacking mid forming a group with the double pivot pair. That is how this looks in fact, with Anderson Asiedu (#6) and Matthew Corcoran (#17) playing behind Tyler (#15). But like everyone else they are high up the pitch. The three of them are more or less commanding the center circle, literally in midfield. Their combined heatmap covers most of the central third of the field, in fact.
Why are triangles important? For several reasons. First, this means that in any given situation a player with the ball has a minimum of two passing options. Second, those passing options are relatively short, allowing for faster movement of the ball. Third, there will always be extra cover if a pass goes wrong. Fourth, a triangle is much easier to rotate than any other shape, allowing for faster movement around the ball. That last is where this concept overlaps with the Total Football approach. The triangle passing options for any player are constantly changing, and the defense has to constantly adapt to keep up with them.
Now of course we could litter the graphic with triangles, but even with just the one it’s pretty easy to pick them out. Tyler alone could be in 6 of them here (Ando-Enzo, Juan-Enzo, Enzo-Prosper, Prosper-Collin and Collin-Matthew being the other 5 possibilities). From where he sits he has any number of distribution options available (along with simply keeping the ball, which he seems to like a lot). One more look at the heatmap:
This time we have added Tyler’s personal touchmap, including the one shot he attempted. Clearly, the touches are widely spread around his average position, but mostly ahead of that. Which means that he was constantly wandering. It’s also interesting that a good fraction of his touches were in the right side of the attacking half, such that both the Legion’s lefties were crowding that area.
Additionally, he is playing so high that he is more or less a fourth striker in an effective 3-3-4, a little used formation that is usually employed against a team that’s parking the bus. The Rowdies weren’t doing that, so this was a very aggressive call. However, he’s not so far up the pitch that he can’t move back into the midfield easily and back into a 3-4-3.
Note also that Tommy’s first two substitutions were both attacking: Neco Brett for Prosper and Diba Nwegbo for Tyler. Neco nearly broke the crossbar, and Diba ended up playing so high he averaged almost into the Tampa box. This was not a conservative game plan. The only defensive sub was after 87 minutes when Moses Mensah had to come on for Gabriel who looked to be suffering from cramp.
So we had players out of their obvious natural positions (we haven’t even touched on Juan playing out wide left), an unusual but very flexible formation, a strong command of the midfield and an aggressive mindset. All that against one of the premier teams in the USL Championship. Granted, a team that had just lost their head and assistant coaches and were playing under a goalkeeper coach, but still, it’s a loaded and talented squad. The Three Sparks controlled every aspect of this match. Possession, shooting, scoring. They got out of their regular box and it worked brilliantly, even to the point of nearly embarrassing Connor Sparrow with a goal by a 17-year-old. This seemed like a statement game; hopefully the rest of the Eastern Conference is on notice.