Diving Deep: Phoenix Rising 0-1 Birmingham Legion

Legion get the win, but Scearce-ly

Yes, I know that’s a terrible pun, but I raised 4 kids so the occasional dad joke is permitted, OK?

Anyway, the Legion came out of Arizona with 3 points over the defending champions and did it in a relatively new way. This had been indicated in preseason, but was put into meaningful practice for the first time on Saturday. Did it work? Well, yes, mostly.

But first, let’s get two big issues out of the way. Was that play by Pape Mar Boye a handball? During the game I was inclined to say no on the grounds that the arm contact was inadvertent. Watching it again I am a little sure of that. Here’s a video clip of the incident played at about 30% speed:

To start, it’s a pretty poor attempt at a clearance. I think he was trying to play the ball over his head and completely whiffed. There is definitely contact with his arm, but it does appear that the ball hits the arm from behind and that the windmill motion is sort of an attempt to get the arm out of the way. Boye is also trying to avoid colliding with Mohamed Buya Turay, exacerbating the wild motion even more. Overall, I think a call either way would have been fair. Add to that the fact that referee Elvis Osmanovic was well behind the play. He is out of the initial frame of the clip to the left, properly so as Preston Tabort Etaka prepares to take a long range shot. The AR probably didn’t have a clear view of it either.

VAR wouldn’t have helped, because as you can see the video quality at 38th and Washington sucked.

Then, barely a minute later, it looked as if Alex Crognale may have have headed a corner over the goal line. Again, the video doesn’t help a great deal, but after slowing it down as much as possible this frame is, as far as I can tell, the furthest the ball travels over the line before being cleared by Dariusz Formella (the Phoenix striker of all people):

From that angle I would say that the ball isn’t entirely over the line, but it’s damn close.

Goal-line technology? Hah. You need at least 14 cameras to do that.

On to the meaty stuff. The Legion’s new 3-4-3 formation got its first official outing and found itself up against an identical lineup. This was, then, always going to be a frustrating evening for both attacking trios, being matched up effectively man-for-man at both ends. The teams combined for 29 shots, 16 inside the penalty area and 11 on target. None scored. Phoenix had the bulk of the shooting: 18 overall, 10 in the box and 8 on target.

So the first key – other than Matt van Oekel’s masterful goalkeeping – was defense. as the game got into the later stages, the Legion moved to a 4-man back line with Mujeeb Murana entering the game in the 63rd minute and then to a 5-man line with Moses Mensah in the 82nd. That got the Rising really frustrated. And not just in the sense of being stymied – they started to lose their cool. They committed 17 fouls in the game. Of those, 15 were in the attacking half and 8 after the 74th minute. Not a smart way to play when you are chasing the game. Even worse, the 2 fouls they committed in their own half were in second half stoppage time and not too far off their right corner.

I wouldn’t equate Tommy Soehn with Napoleon Bonaparte, but never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.

So the Legion game plan started at the back. The 5 defensive players as a group totaled 17 defensive actions in the game, which is pretty solid. The Rising also used 5 defenders, who managed 12 actions between them.

But after that it flowed through the central midfielders, Enzo Martinez and Kobe Hernandez-Foster in his first USL Championship action. Together they put up 164 passes, 37% of the Legion’s total. That’s impressive, but they weren’t really able to generate much in the way of attack. Here’s their passing map;

Playing right to left, there is virtually nothing in the attacking third other than Kobe taking the corner that Alex almost scored from and Enzo playing the ball into the corner late in the game. Phoenix’ Renzo Zambrano and Jose Hernandez had a very similar experience though.

So the Legion needs better penetration from the middle. It also needs stronger wing play. In preseason we had seen an increase in the team’s crossing play. In this game the Three Sparks only managed 9 crosses, and only 4 connected with a target, although all of those were inside the 18. Again, Phoenix had a tough time with this aspect of the game. Although they managed far more crosses in total, only 5 were accurate and only 4 in the box.

It also didn’t help that Mo (I’m calling Buya Turay that from now on. Way easier) had to leave the game after just 63 minutes. He had a few good chances, although he needed to pull the trigger faster on a coupe of those at least, but he was definitely working his way into the game. Having your #1 target out hurts.

So Phoenix had the rather better numbers on Saturday. You would of course expect that from a new champion essentially celebrating its homecoming. But I would not be surprised to see that become a regular feature of Legion play this season. That’s because the team looks to have opted for a counter-attacking approach. After all, it has worked well for quite a few Championship teams lately, notably San Antonio. The Three Sparks have an experienced and capable defense with some serious depth. If they can keep the opposition from scoring and draw them downfield, then those counter opportunities are going to come. But for us fans it’s going to demand some patience.

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.