Diving Deep: Birmingham Legion 3-0 San Antonio

No mercy, no quarter

While it was certainly pleasing for the Legion to keep pace with the Stallions in blanking a team from the Alamo City, the 3-0 win has to get something of an asterisk. San Antonio has been on a disastrous slide of late, losing four straight games and scoring only once in that stretch, and falling to 10th in the West as a result. But there is at least one big reason for that: for Wednesday’s game they were down 10 regular players, mostly due to injury. That included former Legionary Juan Agudelo and perhaps most importantly midfielder Kevon Lambert who was on international duty with Jamaica (they play Mexico tomorrow in the Copa America1The US starts its campaign in the tournament 5:00pm Sunday against Bolivia.). They had just 4 field players on the bench and had just 12 senior players to call on for the game, filling out the roster with academy signings.

That’s not to say that the Legion has been without injury issues this year, of course. Both senior keepers are out right now, such that the team had to sign two players this week. Mohamed Turay hasn’t been seen since the first game of the season, Mikey Lopez and Matthew Corcoran are out for the year. Such is life. San Antonio get some sympathy, but only so much.

San Antonio’s problem in this game wasn’t necessarily its lack of players (although they were clearly exhausted by the final whistle). At least, not its only problem. Also affecting the team was its playing style. Head coach Alen Marcina, who has been with the team since 2019 and leading it since 2020, has throughout his tenure doggedly stuck to a defensively-oriented approach. San Antonio typically cedes the possession advantage and relies on its strength at the back to fend off attacks and create counter-attacking opportunities.

They did precisely that in the Magic City. For the game as a whole they had less than 36% possession and even in the first half it was under 38%. Playing on the back foot like that is extremely tiring, both mentally and physically. And when you consider that your substitution options are highly limited, it’s even worse. In fact, San Antonio didn’t make any subs until the 71st minute and the other three were all after the 88th minute. Pretty much the entire starting XI effectively played the full game.

The formation was a very cynical 5-3-1-1. To their credit though, they did at least make attempts early in the game. The only San Antonio shot from inside the Legion 18 was in the tenth minute (by Kendall Burks, a defender). It went wide. The only shot on target they managed all game was also in the first half, but it was a long-range lob from 10 yards inside his own half by Mitchell Taintor (also a defender) that gave Legion keeper Jayden Hibbert absolutely no problems. Five shots in the second half were all off target and mostly by very wide margins. They finished the game with 0.51 xG.

That played into the Legion’s strengths as we have seen develop over the past few weeks, namely a high-pressing attack out of a 4-3-3, supported in this case by a pretty high mid block. Take a look at the average positions in the game:

Only three Legion players averaged inside their own half. Even Hibbert spent a lot of time, especially in the second half, hanging out not too far off the center circle. Both fullbacks (AJ Paterson, #20 and Derek Dodson, #14) look more like wingbacks in this setup. 8 players in attack is giving the opposition very little credit.

So that was the tactical approach. The strategic approach was essentially to wear the opponent out. The Legion had just four shots in the first half, although three were inside the 18. But the second half…

Jake Rufe was subbed out at half-time in favor of Preston Tabort Etaka. That was probably, at least in part, motivated by Jake’s yellow card, but I suspect that an early entry into the game for Preston was always planned, if perhaps not quite that early. With the substitution the Legion moved from the 4-3-3 into an effective 4-2-4. Obviously, that’s a very aggressive attack-oriented formation. It is, however, often used in a counter-attacking mode, but that was clearly not the case here. This was simply ramming it down the throats of a weakened opponent.

Ultimately, the Three Sparks piled it on in that half. 18 shots, of which 12 were inside the 18 and 10 were on target (9 inside the box). That’s a massive half of attack. The Legion xG for the game was a healthy 2.69 and only the fifth game this season in which the team has scored in excess of its xG.

That also means that San Antonio keeper Kendall McIntosh racked up 7 saves (mostly by punching) in a herculean individual effort to keep the game respectable. For my money he was the game MVP, certainly for the visitors.

Another way to see how much more the Legion pressed its attack in the second half is provided by the heatmaps. Here are the heatmaps for the two halves:

First half on the left, Legion playing left to right in both halves. That’s beating on a dead horse. Bear in mind also that San Antonio did not have last weekend off. In fact they played the league’s hottest team, Indy Eleven, losing 0-1, as did the Legion the previous week. This one was not, to put it mildly, a fair fight.

It also doesn’t help that, despite doggedly sticking to a defensive-minded philosophy, Alen Marcina has played 5 different formations in the past five games. Against Memphis (the last game they won) it was a 3-4-3, against El Paso a 4-4-2, against Tulsa a 4-3-3, against Indy a rarely-used 3-1-4-2 (a defensive adjustment of the 4-4-2) before the 5-3-1-1 used Wednesday. When you have a weakened roster, making constant lineup changes like that is asking a lot of your players, many of whom will not be regular starters.

That is to say, San Antonio’s coach contributed materially to his team’s demise. The team has made some strange decisions of late, not least of which was benching Jordan Farr last season in favor of Dutchman Nick Marsman (who is now back in the Netherlands. Is Marcina not the coaching mastermind many of us thought he was? That’s not entirely clear but he is quickly running out of time to fix a growing problem.

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