Diving Deep: The Miami FC 0-1 Birmingham Legion

One formation, two tactics

When looking at the way the Legion played last Saturday we see, as is to be expected, a tactical shift at half-time. A fairly radical one at that. Hardly unusual, of course; that’s what managers are paid for. But the big difference is that the tactical adjustment was done largely out of the same formation rather than by changing the formation.

The formation was the tried and trusty 4-2-3-1. Not my personal favorite for play in the USL Championship (it performs very well in MLS, by the way), but a 4-back approach has worked wonders for the improvement in the Legion’s performance over the past four games (including the Open Cup game) in which the Three Sparks have a 3-0-1 record. Nevertheless, it does seem to be Tommy Soehn’s go-to lineup. And it can be flexible, perhaps not so much as some other formations (such as the 3-4-3 or the 4-1-4-1), but flexible enough.

The change at the break can be clearly seen in two factors: possession and position.

Considering possession first: in the first half the Legion had a whopping 70% of the ball. So dominant was the team that Miami managed just one shot in the half and that took them until the 36th minute. It was on target, but nicely tipped over the bar by Fernando Delgado. The Legion in contrast had 12 shots in the half (and I am pretty confident they were not credited with 3 more attempts early in the game) although only two were on target.

But in the second half the Legion had just under 50% possession to end the game with 59% overall. Which means, obviously, that Miami had a slight possession advantage after the break. Not a huge advantage, but it would appear that they were back into the game. Even with that, they added just 5 more shots and 1 on target (although the double-attempt at the very end of the game was counted as one shot off target, which seems wrong to me). The Legion put up 8 more with 2 on target, one of which scored. That does include Diba Nwegbo’s long-range attempt from his own half, which was as much a time-waster as an actual shot on goal. He probably wasn’t aware of the long-range scoring competition going on in the USL this past weekend. So less possession, but still more shooting. Per American Soccer Analysis, the Legion’s xG for the game was 1.56 and Miami’s a miserable 0.29.

But that’s just half of it. As far as possession is concerned, take a look at the Legion’s heatmaps for the two separate halves:

First half is on the left; Legion is playing right to left in both cases. Pretty evidently, the Legion penetration into the Miami end was much heftier in the first half. In the second half the Three Sparks barely got into the Miami box at all. It also looks as if the Legion were under severe pressure in the second half with that ugly red blob inside the 18. Well, not really. As we already saw, the Miami shooting wasn’t that much better in the second half. To support that, let’s look at Miami’s heatmaps:

Miami is playing left to right. Obviously they were backed up deep in their own end in the first half, but their penetration into the final third in the second half wasn’t all that great either. Which is to say, the Legion stood its ground ahead of the 18-yard line.

So what exactly does this imply in terms of tactics? In the first half, the Legion was employing a high press. A seriously high press. The 4-2-3-1 is very good for doing that, with the two wingers supported by two high-playing fullbacks. The centerbacks are safe because they are lodged behind a double pivot, one of whom is effectively an extra centerback (no different than the single pivot in a 4-1-4-1) in what amounts to a 3-man back line that morphs into 4 or 5 men depending on the situation and the positioning of the fullbacks and the attacking pivot (Kobe Hernandez-Foster in this case). The defensive pivot was Enzo Martinez, the Legion’s all-purpose player. And try to get past him if you dare.

The potential problem with the high press in this lineup is that you have just the one striker supported by a central attacking midfielder. Those were Stefano Pinho and Tyler Pasher, both of whom were coming off massive games on Wednesday (and probably more than a little tired). But if that striker is isolated, it can be hard to get him service around the defense, which almost certainly outnumbers him. Its advantages are that it requires the defense to be on constant alert and near-perfect in their play. Any errors will be brutally punished. With two attacking players on each wing, it can also draw fullbacks especially – and potentially centerbacks too – out wide, leaving a nice empty channel up the middle for the striker to exploit.  But that can demand patience from the attacking team.

The Legion flipped the script in the second stanza, switching to a low block approach. That is, they defended the final third. The heatmaps above show that they did that very well in the game. It means of course that you intentionally cede some possession, which is what the Legion did. From an attacking point of view, the objective is to draw the opposition upfield and expose them to the counter-attack. Which is how the goal was scored:

As the play begins, only two Miami field players are in the defensive half, and very high up at that. Kobe takes full advantage of that. Without even looking, he knows Prosper is wide open over on the right. He sends a long ball across the field and Prosper takes off behind the defense. Prosper was a little lucky perhaps that Khadim Ndiaye slipped, but he had both speed and forward motion over the hapless keeper anyway. He was unselfish to serve the ball in; he could have walked it into the net. But Stefano was following him into the box and even though 3 defenders had made it back into the box there was little they could do.

So in the low block you wait for your chances and take them. Ruthlessly. The same is true of the high press, as noted above, but the means of moving defenders out of position is entirely different. The 4-2-3-1 can be a hammer, but every hammerhead has two sides.

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