Diving Deep: Memphis 901 1-2 Birmingham Legion
Memphis claiming to be good is obviously a bluff
The really interesting thing about this game was not simply that the Legion dominated it from pillar to post, but rather that they did so while having to completely change the tactical approach. And at a relatively early point in the game too.
That of course was necessitated by the injury to Mikey Lopez, who left the game after 39 minutes (but playing just 34). And that raises another issue. The injuries to Mikey and later to Neco Brett were both non-contact events on the horrific temporary sod over the infield dirt at AutoZone Park. That has been a disgrace all season. Frankly, it’s amazing Memphis 901 has any players left standing at this point.
Anyway, Tommy Soehn switched things up entirely, putting Diba Nwegbo in, replacing a defensive mid with a winger (not that the Legion has any other position players to sub in). And things got even more mixed up when just 17 seconds after play resumed Jake Rufe handled the ball in the box. That gave Memphis their best scoring chance of the game. The two events aren’t related, but they combined to really screw with the original game plan.
The team was playing nominally out of its standard 4-2-3-1, but even before the Lopez injury it was hardly playing that way. Here are the average positions for the starting XI (playing right to left):
You can extract a 4-2-3-1 out of this, but let’s combine that with the heatmap for the first half:
The Three Sparks were heavily overloading the left wing. That in itself is an interesting choice as Memphis is fairly equally manned on both sides. The Legion chose to go after Luiz Fernando, Leston Paul and Aiden McFadden, leaving Akeem Ward, Jeremy Kelly and Jelani Peters alone. Peters was possibly the deciding factor in this; he’s a bruiser at left back.
Note then that Moses Mensah (#33) is somewhat higher up the field than Jake Rufe (#13). That’s more or less the same as what the team did against Miami the previous week. Which would have worked out well if Jake McGuire had not stood on his head. Moses is in fact as high up as Mikey (#5). You could argue then that this was a 3-3-3-1. It’s a pretty aggressive formation that was used occasionally by Marcelo Bielsa at Leeds United and copied by Mikel Arteta at Arsenal. But it also has the flexibility to morph into a 4 or 5-man back line as needed. The PK aside, Memphis managed just 6 shots in the game and only 3 in the box. Of those, 3 were after the 80th minute (including 2 in the box). They were basically shut out. Here’s their heatmap through 80 minutes:
Very little incursion into the Legion final third.
Back to the Legion attack: Moses was not really used as a winger; his passing almost exclusively vertical, with only one attempted cross. His job was to feed Juan Agudelo (#9). The Legion had put up 3 shots in that opening stretch of the game; Memphis had none. Admittedly they were all from distance, but one was on target. All was looking pretty good. And then the Legion was forced into a change. Let’s take a look at the Legion’s average positions again , but this time we will add in all 3 substitutions:
Yeah, that’s a headscratcher. Ignore for the moment the final substitution (Collin Smith for Prosper Kasim). Tyler Pasher (#15) taking over for Neco (#11) was much a like-for-like as the Legion could muster, but Tyler is a winger at heart and played rather wider than Neco did. The big change was Diba for Mikey. A massively attacking switch. As to what the formation shifted to is difficult to tell. You could argue for 3-2-3-2 or perhaps a 4-2-4, although that assumes Moses started hanging back a bit. He didn’t in fact; after the substitution he had more touches in the attacking half than in the defensive.
Moreover, the play was even more to the Legion’s left than before (and yet more with Tyler). Staggeringly, Memphis did not seem to try to exploit the obvious hole on the right, other than the play that generated the PK. They were drawn in in what seems a very reactionary response.
So let’s call this a 3-2-3-2.Another flexible setup that can have 5 at the back when needed. But it also very good for the press. And pressing is exactly what the Legion did. A very high press. Memphis had a massive 62.5% possession in the game, but the majority of that was in their own half. Their passing accuracy in the Legion was a moderate 65.1%, but they managed only 16 crosses with it (the Legion had 11 in barely over half the possession) and of those just one found a target. That was a corner kick almost 4 minutes into second half stoppage time that Bruno Lapa headed way wide (and would have been covered by both Enzo and Trevor if it was on target). But it’s hard to get attacking plays off if you are in your own half (ironically, the PK resulted from a long switch play from deep in the Memphis end).
The final substitution was ostensibly a defensive one late to park the bus. But look how high Collin Smith (#4) ended up playing. Pretty much a wingback, which is what he really is. His presence kept the play to the left where the Legion had been in control all night already, but also a 5th back as needed.
So this game continued the Legion’s run of winning form when giving up the ball (12-6-4 now). When having the possession advantage it’s down to 1-9-0. Bizarre, but that’s how this team rolls.