2021/22 Fortuna:Liga MVP Race (4/4): Crowning Hložek and listing my own analytics darlings, Pt. 1

Indeed, as all clubs open the first stage of 2022/23 preparations, I’m still refusing to let go of the past season. Heck, it even feels weird to me to type 2022 and 23 next to each other. I’m not there yet. It’s not even a full month ago that Bohemians and Teplice successfully defended their top flight status in a lukewarmly contested play-offs. So let’s take one final look back and carefully consider the best players on each position we had the distinct pleasure of watching in 2021/22. And if you don’t feel like doing it now, this late, then remember it’s all your fault anyway.

This is my first time doing this — crowning a Fortuna:Liga Most Valuable Player based on an arbitrary model that has very little of my own subjective feelings going into it. You can read its comprehensive introduction here, but if you followed the entire series, there’s a precious little suspense to it all.

It’s been a start-to-finish race from Adam Hložek who’s, most significantly, never found a rival in the field of Team of the Week shortlist appearances (19; the runners-up had 15), combined for the second most “important points” (7+6; behind only Jean-David Beauguel) and chipped in with 50 primary or secondary actions leading to a wasted goalscoring chance (joint-3rd most).

Adam Vlkanova, the league’s leading chance creator, had done his best but could only close Hložek out with more than 100 MVP points left to be cleared (Hložek won with 1712,9 to give you a rough idea of what territory we are in). Ewerton da Silva took a bit of a breather towards the end of the season but still managed to hold off the challenges from two premier F:Liga goalscorers, Jean-David Beauguel (4th) and Václav Jurečka (5th).

If you’re keeping tabs on winter departures, Nico Stanciu’s autumn exploits proved to be good enough for 12th place — a remarkable achievement in and of itself—while Fortune Bassey comfortably held onto his status of Dynamo České Budějovice 2021/22 MVP, eventually checking in 23rd league-wide.

As for the entire All-Stars XI, this is what the model spit out in the end:

I must say this is, fittingly, the best XI the model has produced all season long.

But this isn’t where we wrap things up, of course it’s not. You wished for some “analytics candidates”, too, and I’m more than willing to grant you the wish.

The catch is, this is pretty much just me and myself only.

There’s no advanced data discourse in the Czech footballing community (yet), so when I refer to “analytics darlings” below, it’s actually just my model’s darlings while some other individuals, let alone companies with greaters resources, may — and certainly would — beg to differ. At the same time, you’ll sort of have to take my word for it as this is only a foreplay for the real thing — the big season previews that shall start dropping in this space come July 16.

It’s exactly a month away, folks!

I haven’t found the time yet to write a proper introduction to the much more intricate second model of my own that has undergone a large-scale makeover in data collection methods as well as metric selection—but it’s the one where I don’t care for the public stats like goals, assists, clean sheets and instead use the broad Wyscout database to (largely manually) carve out a set of 17 to 18 metrics covering all sorts of attributes for all 7 basic player roles separately (goalkeeper, centre back, fullback, defensive midfielder, attacking midfielder, winger, centre forward). That gives me seven contextualized mini-models to play with. It should be fun to track the overlaps and point out the differences.

Here’s how we’re going to go about it: we’ll sort through all those 7 common roles to be found on just about any team and list the following for each…

  1. The public sphere pick: who my MVP model offers up as the best choice
  2. Does it hold up analytics-wise? how well does he do in the second model
  3. The public sphere snub: who comes second or third in my MVP model
  4. The analytics darling: a surprise selection based on underlying numbers
  5. The bounce-back/breakout: either a player with greatest positive change in overall percentile from 2020/21 on one position, or a star newcomer
  6. The drop-out: either a player with greatest negative change in overall percentile from 2020/21 on one position, or a noted star’s fall from grace

Goalkeeper

The public sphere pick: Jindřich Staněk (FC Viktoria Plzeň)

For a long time, it was Aleš Mandous atop a hotly contested leaderboard and while he’s done nothing wrong, Staněk ultimately overtook him thanks, in large part, to more appearances — simple as that. Curiously, Mandous was rather convincingly the better rated goalkeeper by Deník Sport (5,8 vs 6,3 average mark) but Staněk holds a more significant advantage with 3 man of the match honours from the same newspaper (compared to 0 for Mandous), highlighting his more visible — and frankly needed — heroics in Plzeň goal.

Does it hold up analytics-wise? Reasonably so. He grades out as the 3rd best.

The public sphere snub: Aleš Mandous (SK Slavia Praha)

Don’t let Europa Conference League cloud your judgement: domestically, Aleš Mandous has been a highly dependable goalkeeper for Slavia and remained one till the very end — not causing a single conceded goal when all was said and done and wrapping up the season as the 5th most valuable Slavia player per my model. While he’s prevented almost double the goals Staněk has per Wyscout, Mandous isn’t one for a spectacular save which means he was never the popular choice — but that doesn’t stop him from being a worthy one.

The analytics darling: Pavol Bajza (MFK Karviná / 1. FC Slovácko)

How do you reconcile the fact that the 2nd best goalkeeper per my model — and the very best shot stopper with little to no actual competition — is all the same unwanted by Slovácko who triggered a fairly expensive option to buy on the 3rd worst goalkeeper per the same model? Shrug and roll with it, I guess. I’m not sure you could make a case for Karviná not getting relegated had Bajza come over in summer already, but conceding more than one goal on just 5/12 occasions was a little miracle behind this defence. In isolation, Bajza posted four performances that qualified as steals in terms of goal preventing; Karviná took six points from those games, which is fine but also not great. Hradec Králové who — as opposed to Slovácko — don’t require a capable distributor and need an upgrade on Vilém Fendrich should pounce on him right now.

The bounce-back: Tomáš Grigar (FK Teplice)

Since the already covered Bajza would be the breakout star of the season (at, erm, 30), we go with the bounce-back case at this position. It comes with a caveat, mind — the seasoned veteran is commonly all over the shop in his penalty area, awful with his decision-making on when to come out and costing his team some points and nerves with 4 goal-allowing errors — but Grigar’s return to glory in terms of pure shot stopping can’t be understated. The Teplice goalkeeper has produced a league-leading 8 steals and performed an unrivalled 0,87 high-danger saves per game (25 in a season total). In the end, he went from 6,9 overall percentile to a respectable 73,9 (7th best).

The drop-out: Jan Šeda (FK Mladá Boleslav)

Technically, it’s Jiří Letáček who’s dropped an astonishing 95,7 percentile points in a dramatic year-over-year turnaround, but since we are dealing with dangerously small samples in the case of both seasons (and a young goalkeeper with plenty of time to put it all together), I’d rather pass for now. Šeda has been a staple in Mladá Boleslav goal, meanwhile, and he took a nosedive as well — going from 86,2 percentile all the way down to 17,4. Šeda didn’t save much, wasn’t dependable or consistent, and only grades out as elite in terms of long pass and pass to final third accuracy — two of the most random metrics relying a great deal on how much of aerial dominance you’ve got upfront. Since Šeda suddenly completed 68,4% passes to final third instead of 51,7% last term, you wonder how much of this wild swing is on his distributing skills and how much of it is down to Milan Škoda / Daniel Fila.

Right back

The public sphere pick: Alexander Bah (SK Slavia Praha)

To his credit, Jan Mejdr has made it interesting along the way and never dropped out of the race (left just 50 MVP points behind), but only one pick feels right. Bah will be sorely missed and had TAA-esque influence on this Slavia side. He’s actually notched the most important points on team (2+6), directly or indirectly contributed to a remarkable total of 15 goals scored, and is leaving as the 10th most valuable F:Liga player—despite being a fullback.

Does it hold up analytics-wise? Absolutely. Back-to-back triumphs for Bah.

The public sphere snub: Jan Mejdr (FC Hradec Králové)

If Bah was the 10th most valuable player league-wide, then Mejdr was 11th. In a way, then, it’s kind of harsh to not have Mejdr in the All-Stars — especially as he tied Bah in TotW nominations (10), important assists (6) and even topped him in chance-creating actions (34 vs 29) — but what can you do?

The analytics darling: Alois Hyčka (FK Teplice)

*speaks up to eventually cut through Teplice fans’ hysterical laughter*

I’m dead serious. There wasn’t a more notable beneficiary from the Jarošík-induced change of game philosophy and the much-welcome shift to the possession-based football it has brought than good ol’ Alois Hyčka. He might not be the most aware defender but he continues to excel in combination play, thus experiencing a remarkable resurgence at 31 years of age. And no, it’s not even my model having an inexplicably soft spot for Hyčka; he lurked in the 18,5 percentile last year. A couple of minor tweaks to the model and more than a couple of tweaks to Teplice’s playing style later, he beats all but 2 RBs.

The breakout: Juraj Chvátal (SK Sigma Olomouc)

There were games in which he was too quiet. A little too many games, in fact. And while I issued wee pushback on his initial hype (down solely to the unsustainable — and unsustained — assist explosion early on in the season), I can’t say Chvátal’s sudden ascension to a Slovak international is undeserved either. This guy is, by all means, a passing weapon; an incomplete fullback perhaps, but one with an especially developed eye for a through pass, stretch pass, progressive pass (down the line)… you name it. The range is there. Chvátal came over from Slovak 2nd tier to land right in the 86,7 percentile when you account for all 49 regular fullbacks — that’s one amazing achievement, and one of the 2021/22 success stories however you slice it.

The drop-out: Martin Sladký (SK Dynamo Č. Budějovice / FK M. Boleslav)

It tells you a lot that Dynamo had initially brought him on board to provide veteran presence only to be gladly getting rid of him as soon as in winter, flipping him on loan to FKMB. Sladký never found his footing in 2021/22, seemingly always missing a step or two and severely hampering the build-up of his teams. Last season, he made for an unspectacular but decent middle-of-the-pack fullback; this season, only his teammate Pavel Novák and Antonín Křapka looked to be even less effective fullbacks in my model’s view.

Right centre back

The public sphere pick: Lukáš Hejda (FC Viktoria Plzeň)

Once a fairly expansive centre back, Hejda has settled into a stay-at-home centre back for Michal Bílek’s Plzeň, and it’s been a key personal transformation within the championship-winning transformation. Only one centre back completed more through balls per 90 mins than Hejda in 2020/21 (Simon Deli), whereas now he didn’t complete any. Even longer ago, Hejda effectively stopped carrying the ball forward. Now his dynamism is gone, but his superior feel for the game isn’t — otherwise, surely, he wouldn’t have overseen the most clean sheets from start to finish in the competition (16).

Does it hold up analytics-wise? For all the above-mentioned… nope. Below average. But my model can’t capture the intangibles such as leadership etc.

The public sphere snub: Filip Čihák (FK Pardubice)

Going strictly after a right centre back, you have to drop down more than 300 MVP points to reach for Filip Čihák, which hardly qualifies as a “snub”, but when you consider he’s made it all the way up to 90th spot on the league leaderboard as a Pardubice centre back — partnering either a debuting top flight centre half (Karel Pojezný / Robin Hranáč) or quite possibly the worst centre half around (Martin Toml) — it suddenly feels absolutely fair enough. Toml was implicated in a total of 19 goals conceded per my notes; Čihák in 3. Across a pretty much identical playing time sample. Besides, apart from being a formidable aerial threat on attacking set pieces (a big reason why he’s here, as the alternative public sphere pick), he would qualify as an analytics darling, too. But I’ll save this ammunition for my season preview, if you don’t mind.

The analytics darling: Jaroslav Svozil (FC Baník Ostrava)

This guy has a strong track record in my model which, in case of centre backs, stretches all the way back to his first top flight season. Last term was a bit of a downer for his standard (60 percentile), but the previous year he was at 89,8 (moving to Baník halfway through) and in his last full Opava season Svozil actually landed right where he did this year: just below the top option at ~98 pct. Now, my model certainly isn’t perfect (and it shifts), but I believe this is still a fitting testament to Svozil’s versatility — one that’s clear at first sight, as well. He took the mantle from Patrizio Stronati in that he never fouls low in the pitch, he’s highly dependable in all kinds of duels in danger areas, and he’s very comfortable on the ball both in terms of carrying and passing it forward.

The breakout: Martin Vitík (AC Sparta Praha)

The Sparta youngster has followed pretty much the perfect trajectory thus far. In his age-18 season, he flashed brilliance and confidence on the ball. In his age-19 season, he took a step back, regained swagger in the 2nd tier with the reserves, and then returned in full swing — as a legitimately pivotal defender. At this point, my only major lingering reservation about the 19-year-old is his progressive passing that still leaves a lot to be desired, and it’s where Filip Panák has been missed dearly — and will likely continue to be for long.

The drop-out: Daniel Köstl (Bohemians Praha 1905)

I was never a fan. But my model liked his 2020/21 contributions a fair bit (81,8 percentile) so who am I to argue with it? This season, however, the model’s impression fell right in line with my eye test. Köstl suddenly grades out as a 31 pct player who’s only above average in offering up a sizeable threat upfront via penalty area entries, xG and xA. That sounds about right as his defensive movement / game remains sluggish at best, outright dumb at worst.

Left centre back

The public sphere pick: Dávid Hancko (AC Sparta Praha)

A brilliant centre back is usually portrayed as one of the most vital cornerstones of a championship-winning team. Sparta have had one for three seasons on the trot now, and they’ve topped out at 12 points behind the 1st place. If Brian Priske doesn’t figure it out early enough, this could potentially be one heck of a squandered piece of the puzzle. Per my MVP model that’s tilted heavily in favour of attacking-minded players, Hancko stands tall as the 7th most valuable player in the league. Eight important points, a total of 15 goal contributions, 20 more chances facilitated. Across the whole season, he’s only dropped below the average 5 mark from Deník Sport three times. A stud.

Does it hold up analytics-wise? A golden hattrick of the cream of the crop.

The public sphere snub: Michal Kadlec (1. FC Slovácko)

You may as well opt for Tomáš Holeš who’s got his MVP points split between CDM and CB roles, but Kadlec is a worthy shout as well. Despite not registering a single point and fouling for a penalty once, Kadlec has been a noted favourite of voting spectators (four-time member of the final team of the week) and provided a reasonably steady, glaring mistake-free presence.

The analytics darling: Michal Leibl (FC Hradec Králové)

I bet you’d never guess the Hradec Králové mainstay is the one regularly starting centre back with the most successful penalty area entries from open play. It makes sense that he’d have some appetite for attacking since he’s a former left back, but in the top flight, his duty was almost exclusively carried out on the outside of the back three, and I have a feeling he’s remained a bit of a secret weapon till the very end, undergoing a surprising amount of dribbles at the top of the penalty box and delivering some pinpoint deep crosses. There’s more carrying Leibl all the way up to the 82,8 percentile, though, as he’s also an avid shot blocker and adept feeder of those sweet half-spaces.

The bounce-back: David Lischka (FC Baník Ostrava)

We all wondered how he would do after he was essentially put in the freezer for 2020/21, and while I’d personally push back on his lofty 96,6 percentile placement (giving Baník an unlikely league-leading tandem — also a stretch), there’s something to be said about Lischka only dropping below the league average in two of the 17 metrics I feed into my model as part of a complex dataset. Lischka started the season off as the unlikely goalscorer and flashy, but a bit too risky a passer from the back only to cool off a little towards the end — and that was actually a good thing, especially next to Jakub Pokorný.

The drop-out: Taras Kacharaba (SK Slavia Praha)

Some of this is on leaving Liberec and losing a ton of the previously present opportunity to do some last-ditch defending (he was now the least frequent blocker out there, for example), but some of it is pure regression on his part. Kacharaba didn’t do well enough in duels, didn’t help out nearly enough with his forward passing, and perhaps most staggeringly: a former set piece force to be reckoned with at Liberec was suddenly muted to the point of no worry whatsoever. He rose to just 6 shots all season long and couldn’t muster more than a half of an expected goal with both his shots and shot assists combined.

Left back

The public sphere pick: Milan Havel (FC Viktoria Plzeň)

For pretty much the entirety of the season, it had been Jiří Fleišman of Baník Ostrava in this spot, and he ultimately missed out on it by less than 10 MVP points. Three consecutive TotW nominations for the Plzeň left back to close out the season pretty much made this whole turnaround happen single-handedly; not even Fleišman’s 9 chance-creating actions across the championship group alone (a pretty great achievement) could counter. In the end, it was the opposing worlds clashing, though: while Havel had to wait for the first of his 10 TotW shortlist appearances till Round 15 (!), Fleišman had picked up a majority of his total of 9 nominations (5) through Round 10.

Does it hold up analytics-wise? Not really. He’d be a middle-of-the-road pick.

The public sphere snub: Jan Kalabiška (1. FC Slovácko)

It wasn’t just a two-man race for the crown at left back, as the Slovácko stud was also in the 800s, lagging a mere 38 MVP points behind Havel. A noted favourite of those who compose the TotW shortlists, Kalabiška has showed up fourteen times on it, finishing on par with Marek Matějovský in joint-third place. And that’s with the veteran dropping out of Svědík’s favour for a run of few spring games, effectively not collecting any MVP points between rounds 20-27 when he picked up one assist and contributed to a sole chance created.

The analytics darling: Róbert Matejov (FC Fastav Zlín)

He only grades out as an above average fullback, but I feel most people give him far less credit than what even his 60 percentile suggests. Matejov has been shelved with an injury a bit too often but he could make for a sneaky good pick-up by Brno. The experienced Slovak boasts valuable passing range, being especially adept at stetching the pitch horizontally as well as vertically, and is very willing to take the ball up the field and accelerate the build-up.

The breakout: David Jurásek (SK Slavia Praha / FK Mladá Boleslav)

Not even close. The first-year F:Liga player has taken the shiny stage by storm, immediately raising his hand as the very best left back in business. He’s a bit of a marvel in that he lands in the 90+ percentile for all regular fullbacks in the following, hardly correlating categories: possession-adjusted interceptions, accelerations with the ball, offensive duels won in final third and successful penalty area entries from open play. A deadly combination. No fullback has cracked the opposing box as often as him (2,36 times per game)!

The drop-out: Jan Mikula (FC Slovan Liberec)

I tweaked my model a bit to see fullbacks with more modern lens, so to speak, and that has decidedly not played in Mikula’s favour. He’s what he is — a defensively responsible fullback with very little attacking upside — only this time around, his defensive acumen fails to compensate accordingly for what’s lacking higher up the pitch. Additionally, Mikula has endured a significant dip in areas he’d previously excelled in — loose ball duels or possession-adjusted interception — and went from 79,6 to a lousy 17,8 percentile as a result.

Pause. For the sake of your own sanity, I’ll cut one superlong article into two rather long-ish articles which gives me the pleasure of producing a cliff-hanger of sorts: not only are we leaving the midfield and attack for Saturday (most probably) but it won’t be until then that I reveal the inaugural Analytics XI, too!

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