Diving Deep: Birmingham Legion 2-0 Louisville City

Attacking from the rear

For the second straight game, the Legion found success scoring against a 3-man back line. That’s something they have struggled with mightily, and not just this season. Moreover, the two back lines they scored on were two of the best in the league. This is good news indeed.

Against Louisville City especially, and to a lesser degree against Sacramento Republic as well, they did this by reverting to their best style and dictating how the game would be played. What is that style? Counterattacking, of course. Drawing the opposition in and exploiting whatever chances they allow you to have.

Typically, this approach means that the opponent will have the lion’s share of possession (which, frankly, is a far less important stat than in, say, football). That was certainly the case with SacRep, who had a 13.6% edge in owning the ball. Not so much with Louisville, though, who had just a 0.2% advantage. Which is to say, none at all. In fact, the Legion actually attempted more passes (458 to 448) and had a slightly better passing accuracy (80.3% to 79.2%). Add in that the Three Sparks tried 71 long passes to Lou City’s 49.

But the game definitely felt like a counterattacking one, didn’t it? The two Legion goals were opportunistic as hell. No one in their right mind would anticipate Diba Nwegbo trying to keep that ball in play. Centerback Wesley Charpie wasn’t entirely fooled, although he got drawn way out of position and was pretty sure the ball was over the line. Here’s the key moment in that play:

So, that’s Charpie with Diba. The other two centerbacks are also in the frame: Sean Totsch in the middle and Kyle Adams on the far right. But Totsch is the right back and Adams the left back. Charpie is the central centerback and has gotten suckered into following Diba. Totsch is more or less where he should be, but Adams is covering Charpie’s assignment. So what does that mean?

A wider shot makes this really obvious. Adams is shadowing Neco. That has left a big gap on the left side of the defense and who else to ruthlessly exploit that than Enzo Martinez? He now has the ball and all the time in the world to slam it past Semmle. That’s not Diba on the left, by the way; he’s understandably flat on his back by the advertising boards. It’s Juan Agudelo, who was credited with the assist.

The second goal also went though Diba, and in a not entirely different way. For the first goal, Diba was served a long ball by Matthew Corcoran. On the second he was served an even longer one by Enzo from well inside the Legion half. Here’s the key moment again:

This one has to be even wider. Here’s how the play progressed: Collin Smith throw-in deep right to Alex Crognale, Alex a long ball to Prosper Kasim at midfield, Prosper a pass back to Enzo, and Enzo a deep ball to Diba, who ends up fouled in the box for the penalty kick. Diba, by the way, had just tried a shot barely a minute earlier and the ensuing goalkick is essentially what put the ball deep in the Legion end.

This is true counterattacking: the opponent has been drawn way upfield. Other than Semmle in goal, there is no one in the Louisville defensive third. What you see here are Totsch, Adams and Charpie (left to right). This time they are at least in the proper order, but they are way over to the right. Even though Diba has already made them suffer once from the left and nearly a second time they are covering what they probably think is the Legion’s stronger side. By the time Diba collects the ball from Enzo he is way behind Totsch, who ultimately has nom option but to commit the foul Diba was drawing him into.

The thing is, Lou City was not totally wrong to be covering the Legion right flank. As the game went, Collin Smith was playing more as a wingback than as a fullback. Moses Mensah on the left was playing somewhere between a fullback and a centerback. The Legion was playing almost as a 3-4-3 rather than a 4-3-3 at times. Take a look:

This is the combined touchmap for Moses (yellow) and Collin (red), playing left to right. Clearly Collin played much higher than Moses. He also took twice as many throw-ins. The one that led to the PK? It’s the one to the extreme left.

But here’s the third thing the Legion did to completely confuse Louisville: quite a few of them were playing more or less out of position. Prosper was essentially a center mid. Which I thought was great as his lack of a right foot would not be quite as much a hindrance as out on the wing. Enzo was playing effectively at right wingback, but he can play pretty much anywhere he wants. Juan was right wing, and used his holdup play to great effect there. Diba was left wing. Fair enough. Neco was striker. Also fair enough. Matthew was a solo pivot. Not exactly out of position but he’s used to having a partner in Anderson Asiedu and that’s a key role to hand to a teenager in a big game. Gutsy call. The Legion is back to playing Total Football and it’s glorious.

That didn’t stop with the starters. The subs were all defensively-oriented players: Mikey Lopez, Jake Rufe and Gabriel Alves. Mikey came on for Diba. He is good on the left side but played mostly in a central role as that second pivot alongside Matthew. Jake was the really sneaky move, though: he replaced Prosper in what anyone would rationally think of as a bus-parking move. But Jake was more in the attack than the defense. In fact, his average position (granted only about 12 minutes of actual playing time) was easily the highest of any Legion player in the game. And Gabriel, the final sub for Neco, wasn’t all that far behind him.

Attack is the best form of defense, I guess. After all, if the ball is being held way deep in your defensive end you are going to have trouble attacking back. If anything late in the game was when the Legion held most of its deep possession. They were heavily in their own end most of the game. Here’s the heatmap:

Again, playing left to right. And very little penetration into the Lou City 18. And you would think that this means the Legion were under serious pressure a good deal of the time. But no. Yes, Louisville spent a good deal of time in the Legion half, but they too did not enter the box all that much. In the entire game they attempted just 4 shots from inside the penalty area and only one of those (a high looping header that gave Matt van Oekel no trouble) was on target. And they only had 2 hots on goal the whole game (and the other one was generously credited as being on target in my opinion). The Legion were limited to just 8 shots, but 6 of those were from inside the area and 4 were on target. Their xG for the game was 1.75; Lou City’s was just 0.69. Meaning, the Legion’s few chances were all high-quality chances. Not so much for Louisville.

And that’s how it went down. We need more of this as we progress into the season’s final third.

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