Diving Deep: Birmingham Legion 1-0 New Mexico United
Winning without the ball
If there is a statistic in soccer whose importance is utterly exaggerated, it would be possession. The performance of many teams is predicated not on how much they control the ball, but by what they do when they have it and by what the opposition does – or, perhaps more accurately, is allowed to do – when they have it. The 2022 San Antonio team was the textbook example of how this is done successfully. They won the championship after all.
The 2023 Legion team also demonstrates this rather nicely. Over the 28 league games so far this season, they have had more than 50% of the possession just 8 times. The Three Sparks’ record over those 8 games is a jaw-dropping 1-7-0. Over those 8 games the team allowed 19 goals while scoring just 6. And 2 of those were penalty kicks. The Legion was shut out in 3 of the 8 games. The team’s xG for the 8 games was 13.79 (1.72 per game), so they underperformed by 7.79 xG. The opponents’ aggregate xG was 10.19 (1.27 per game), so they massively overperformed by 8.81 xG. On that same xG basis, the Legion should have won 6 games. The only win was back in July, a 1-0 result over the Tampa Bay Rowdies, also the only game in this group in which the Legion did not concede a goal. They in fact conceded multiple goals in all but one other game.
In contrast, when controlling the ball less than 50% of the time, the Legion record is a healthy 11-6-3. 33 goals scored as compared with xG of 26.05 (1.30 per game). 28 goals allowed versus xG of 28.88 (pretty much on the money there). xG also says they should have lost 13 of the 20 games. 5 clean sheets to boot.
The team’s sweet spot seems to be between 45 and 50%, where the record is 7-4-1 (PPG of 1.833). Less than 45% possession the team is 4-2-2 for PPG of 1.75, pretty close but not quite there, although only 2 losses is impressive. One could also argue that the best results come below 40%, where the Legion is a perfect 3-0-0. Two of those wins were over FC Tulsa though, so take that as you will. The third is, ironically enough, over Tampa again, also a clean sheet (with no shots on goal, the only time the Legion has achieved that this season).
Even worse, of the high possession games, the 2 highest were both against Detroit City. You know how those went. Also in the mix were Indy Eleven and The Miami FC, teams the Legion should be able to beat (they did beat Indy when having less possession in fact; they have yet to play Miami at home).
More data: in the high possession games the team took 14.25 shots per game as compared with 11.35 in the low possession games. They allowed 10.25 shots per game as compared with 12.10 per game. Both of those are hardly surprising in light of the possession numbers, you would think. However, shots on target in the high possession games were 3.75. In the low possession games? 3.80. The opponents managed 4.50 and 4.35 respectively, So the Legion’s shooting was marginally more accurate and the opponents’ shooting marginally less accurate when giving up the ball.
So what does all this mean? Well, a winning team that concedes possession likely does at least two of three things and more likely all three. Those three things are counterattacking, high pressing and strong defense. In reverse order, those means not allowing too may scoring chances, keeping the opposition in its own end as much as possible, and punishing them when they do advance. The high press is the most optional of the three; good defense most certainly is not. It’s also tricky to press high if you are focused on defending.
Against New Mexico United the Legion did precisely that. The average positions chart gives an indication of how:
The lineup was announced as a 4-2-3-1, as usual. If anything, that has become a false flag operation, as the Legion almost never maintains that formation any more. There are a few things to note from this. First, the team is very compressed in the middle third of the pitch. That alone made the team very difficult to penetrate. Second, the two fullbacks, Collin Smith (#4) and Moses Mensah (#33), are not advanced up the field at all. That’s pretty unusual for the Legion, and especially for Smith, who is perhaps best utilized as a wingback. Conversely, it eliminates one of Moses’ biggest weaknesses, which is getting caught out of position in defense and not recovering. Third, the double pivot, Mikey Lopez (#5) and Matthew Corcoran (#17), are also playing deep, covering the back line as extra support. That’s not to say that the four were uninvolved in the attack; with the exception of Moses they most certainly were. Matthew especially had two excellent scoring chances. The big change though is the fourth point. The front four were playing extremely flat.
That is, the formation looks more like a 4-2-4 than a 4-2-3-1. That’s looks like an easy adjustment to make; just have the attacking midfielders move up a bit. But the kicker is that in most instances of this formation there are 2 strikers in the middle supported by two wingers. The good news is that in Juan Agudelo (#9), Enzo Martinez (#19) and Neco Brett (#11), the Legion has three players well versed in playing striker. Juan has also mutated into a pretty good winger, and Enzo of course can play wherever he wants. In this particular setup you can see that Juan, who was out on the left this time, and Prosper Kasim (#10) were playing fairly narrow.
That’s how the high press part of the game plan was executed. Right out of the back, New Mexico were forced to go wide. And Enzo and Neco were constantly in keep Andy Thomas’ face whenever he had the ball as well. Thomas, by the way, is young by goalkeeper standards at 25, and was playing only his second USL Championship game (he’s on loan from the Seattle Sounders), so disrupting him was probably not too difficult (the Magic City Brigade also did their part in this. Notably, they made cracks about him being German which likely annoyed him given that he’s Russian). Anyway, going wide at the back meant staying wide in attack to get around six defensive players. In turn that necessitated making crosses. New Mexico made 19 of them in the end, connecting on just 4, and 2 of those went way wide. And when your home field is a baseball park, crosses aren’t your forte. The Legion also found targets with 4 crosses, as it happens, but attempted only 10.
Ultimately, New Mexico were limited to just 8 shots and 4 on target. And 2 of those weren’t difficult to deal with (the other two though merited a Man of the Match award for Matt van Oekel). The Legion also had four shots on target (and really should have had more, to be honest). But the Three Sparks racked up 20 shots in total, all but 6 from inside the penalty area. The Legion had 49.9% of the possession this game, mathematically the minority of course, but barely so. Even so, they did 2.5 times as much attacking with it. Moreover, the Legion has allowed fewer shots just once, in the 1-1 draw with Sacramento Republic, who were limited to just 6 shots despite having 56.8% of the possession.
20 shots is a lot of counterattacking, almost impossibly so. It was in at the most shots the Legion has taken in any league game this year. Even more remarkably, there wasn’t a single shot by either team in the first 20 minutes. The attacking was primarily a result of the high press this time; with most of the Legion’s speed on the bench (in the shape of Diba Nwegbo and Preston Tabort Etaka) that was unavoidable. But high pressing can be a counterattack in and of itself; if you recover the ball high, you can attack very quickly. That being said, the Legion goal came from a progressive play all the way from the back. That and some appallingly bad defending by New Mexico:
10 New Mexico players in the shot, 9 of them in the box, and they managed to get beat by 3 Legion attackers. And leave Neco wide open.
One more thing about ceding the possession advantage: you would think that mental lapses in defense would be more likely to occur when you are constantly on the back foot. Fatigue would set in and mistakes would inevitably result. And as we noted last week, the Legion has been guilty of that far too often this season. But here’s the thing: it seems to happen more often when the Legion has the possession advantage. That would lead to the possible conclusion that the lack of concentration is a byproduct of overconfidence. When your game plan requires you to defend extensively, you focus better.