Oh, the times, they are a-changin’… Tactically, anyway
On June 4th, Legion went down to Wild Horse Pass Stadium in Phoenix, Arizona to take on the Rising. Going in, I thought it was a certain loss for the 3 Sparks considering injuries, absences, and Coach Tommy Soehn’s refusal to change.
Last night the entire team, and especially Tommy made me eat my words and then some. We saw a new tactic and style of play for the Legion that I do not believe that I ever seen out of a Birmingham squad. While we may have been without our best players in Bruno Lapa and Anderson Asiedu, we looked up to the late night challenge that is the juggernaut Phoenix Rising.
Pre-season I called this to be a loss, thinking Phoenix was going to trample the USL West and return to the USL Finals. Based on injuries, absences, and general form of the team, I’m on record saying the Legion were going to lose by 5 last night. Boy was I wrong. I’ll eat the bug, gladly.
With Bruno Lapa in Brazil and Anderson Asiedu out with an injury, we had to do with what we had. Enzo took up the CAM spot and started Marlon and Prosper flipped from where they normally play. There was a heavy emphasis on playing the overlap and crossing the ball in, which was very success for the first 20′, but eventually lost some steam.
On the other side, Phoenix was down some of their normal cast of crew, using a bit of a makeshift midfield. This was going to be a battle of a great defense in Legion, a powerful offense in Phoenix, and two midfields who will be battling to gain control.
Tommy Soehn put on a tactical masterclass last night. We made changes when we needed, we made the correct subs, we made the tactical changes that we all knew we needed. This was the answer to what we needed all season long, and it happened.
So, what’s different?
Okay, so I know the formation didn’t exactly change but we saw a real shift tactically in this match. How so? We played with speed, more quick passes, and a lot less dribbling. We finally decided to out pace Phoenix and use the press to gain possession.
What is ‘the press’?
A “press” is the shortened form of “pressure.” Simply put, our forwards, Juan Agudelo, Prosper Kasim, and Enzo Martinez, put a ton of pressure on Phoenix. What does that mean? It means cutting off immediate passing lanes, forcing the defender to pass to their second option or back to the goal keeper. This is also simply “defending” the defender. Going in and putting body-on-body to force a mistake. We saw this very early on when Juan Agudelo forced a turnover straight from kickoff. This is something we utilized all night, and when we won matches in the past, it’s something we utilized before.
Check out good friend John Morrissey‘s video on our press and why it works:
Why don’t we do it all the time?
Simply, it’s hard. You wear out your forwards, especially in the summer heat, and could see your attackers on bookings from tackles. We saw at the end of the night, Juan Agudelo was GASSED. Not because he has poor fitness, rather he had been pressing all night in Phoenix, Arizona. That said, it needs to become something we NEED to do to succeed.
What else changed?
A couple of things. We dribbled a lot less. While we were outshot by Phoenix and we took less shots than usual, our shots were more dangerous. How many times have we seen Legion take 15+ shots a game, but they are directly into a crowd of players. This is usually because we dribble into traffic. Last night, we didn’t do that. We saw an opening, and had a go.
The speed factor is real. Check out how fast we went from Jonny Dean to Enzo Martinez to Prosper Kasim to a 1-0 lead. This is just direct, beautiful footy by the 3 Sparks. The breakdown once again by John Morrissey:
We eventually forced the Phoenix backline to sit higher to defend a long shot, allowing our forwards like Juan, Enzo, and Prosper to get behind the defense. A great example of this is the 1v1 Prosper had that was called offsides (wrongly). The backline was playing higher ready for the shot to come, and we just played it out to Prosper where he had a 1v1 with the keeper. This is something we need to continue doing.
Actually, yes. We saw a little bit of the 4-1-3-2 that John Fuller and I were clamoring for. We narrowed our shape to allow Jonny and Jake a chance to make runs on the flanks and we allowed Mikey to drop back to a deep Defensive Midfielder, see below:
This allowed Enzo and Juan to play off each other, allow Jonny and Jake to push higher, and allowed more speed into the attack. This is a must. This is also something that John Fuller talked about in his brilliant article he published very recently.
Frankly, there’s not a lot. The biggest thing is that WE KEEP ON SLIPPING. We just simply cannot stay on our dang feet to save our lives. We need new cleats or something. This is insane.
Other than constantly being on the floor, you could look at the defense and say they’ve been poor, but I disagree. Phoenix was going to get their chances. Despite what stats may say, this is still one of the most dangerous offenses in US Soccer. We may not play another team with this type of attacking prowess. Matt Van Oekel had a brilliant match that kept us in this match, but I would rather have more attacking opportunities and give up a chance than us go without looking dangerous to score at all.
Because of editing and tons of work, I don’t have a ton of time to do full player reviews so I’ll call out some players and talk a little bit.
- Matt Van Oekel is still a beast and we saw that last night. Distribution is still lacking but he is proving to be one of the best shot stoppers in USL History. Plus, should he start against 901 FC on Wednesday, that will be his 100th USL Appearance.
- Jake Rufe came in a tough spot, covering for Ryan James in the left back position. He played well and only had one major mistake throughout the game. While I do believe he is best suited as a sub option, he is far from a liability for the 3 Sparks. You proved me wrong, Jake, and I’m so glad you did.
- Enzo Martinez is still great at footy. Are you shocked? I’m not. He should’ve been awarded the penalty in the first half, but that’s football. He continued to put in one wicked shift for Legion.
- Mikey Lopez is still one of the best defensive midfielders in the game. While I would have obviously wanted Anderson Asiedu out there in some way, I think I would like our holding midfield duo to be Mikey and Anderson and let Mikey sit back. When he plays that almost center back role, the center of the park may as well be shut down.
- Alex Crognale came out and had the best game of the season. For much of this season, he was honestly replaceable by Thomas Vancaeyzeele. I thought Thomas should have been starting, but Alex more than proved his worth. He looked comfortable and made brilliant plays, and came close to having a goal in the first half by way of his left foot. More than just a tall man.
- Prosper Kasim. What else can I say? Dude played a near perfect night. He had one awful cross with his right foot in the first half, but after that he was pure beauty to watch. Peezy is on a different planet right now.
- Juan Agudelo played his best game in Black and Gold last night. While no goals came for him, he looked dangerous and forced the Rising backline into making so many mistakes. He won’t get any special stats, but his improvement in work rate was more than felt last night.
It’s been no secret that I’ve been harsh on Tommy. I mean, why wouldn’t I be? No changed, no creativity, weird decision, but last night was a masterclass. We saw change. We saw tactical changes made mid-match. We didn’t just dribble and pass the ball into the net. We utilized our talent, and while it was a long time coming, Tommy made those changed. Perfect night from the Gaffer.