2021/22 mid-season review: AC Sparta Praha
Welcome to a brand-new Fortuna:Liga series, reviewing each and every team’s 2021 autumn one by one, one day at a time, until the league finally gets back underway on February 5. This is not a particularly new thing or a format, mind — it’s mostly just this old Twitter thread moved into the Medium space, containing a couple of new categories without the strict word limit and some more polished graphics from Adam.
Preface for those eagerly awaiting another installment of Power Rankings and MVP race series: this will act as one installment as the clubs are sorted in the exact order they would be if this was Power Rankings, and we’ll delve into my MVP model as well. Only the All-stars will have to wait — those will come after Round 20 (ie. two thirds of the regular season), I reckon. So soon after restart.
There’s bound to be optimism when you beat your arch rival for the first time in forever, and so Sparta are prepping for the first real title challenge in… also forever.
Or so it feels at least.
A mere three points back off Slavia and sporting a four-game winning streak, Sparta now went into the break on a much higher note than a year ago when they won just three of their last 7 autumn games and fired coach Václav Kotal soon after restart. His successor Pavel Vrba, tellingly, just got extended rather.
70,4%: It’s hard to put in words quite how much of a help corner kicks have been to this side. That Sparta are responsible for 70,4% of all shots stemming from corner flags in their games — nearly an 8-percent margin over the second most dominant team (Plzeň with 62,8%) — is frankly absurd beyond belief. Curiously enough, they don’t rank atop the league leaderboard in either corner shots for or against, but the balance is simply phenomenal — exactly 2 finishes per 90 mins upfront, and just 0,84 of them allowed in front of their own goal. Slovácko are even sturdier at the back, but they are capitalizing on attacking set pieces far less often than they used to (10th on corner kicks). Hradec Králové, meanwhile, are an even greater weapon but hardly rock solid themselves (7th). To be fair, Sparta did get completely blanked on five occasions — which sounds like a lot—but they’ve also generated 3+ shots off corner kicks on seven other occasions — which sounds like a more emphatic statement still. One thing of note: all but one of those 7 matches arrived inside the first 10 rounds with an impressive Jakub Pešek mostly on duty. In Round 11, Bořek Dočkal returned to the starting line-up and the average instantly dropped. Maybe it’s time to move on from him in this respect, too.
6,92%: It may not be so obvious at first sight, with especially David Pavelka, Michal Sáček or even Filip Panák still squandering too many simple passes deep down, but Vrba’s Sparta are much more effective when building from the back than Kotal’s Sparta. Just like last year, Sparta once again play the least progressive passes within their own context (only opting for them 16,6% of the time), but their accuracy is up by a significant 4,9% and what’s most important — they don’t misplace nearly as many passes in danger areas as they did a year ago. Only 7,6% of all shots Sparta goalkeepers now face can be traced to bad distribution (the least in the league) within 20 seconds, down by nearly seven percent compared to the 2020 fall (16th). And it’s not just about the ratio: Sparta’s game average currently stands at 0,63 such ball losses, whereas they wrapped up 2020/21 with 1,26 — exactly the double.
0,33: Great teams are usually able to control the game flow down the middle when the pitch isn’t wide open and both teams are set; Sparta are, weirdly, not capable of that so far. They were a high-end team in this particular respect in 2020/21, ranking 4th in xG share (60,8%), but now they are right in the middle of the pack (8th with 51,3%) and that must be a concern — even if it’s partially compensated by an increased dominance on counter-attacks. This is, arguably, where Dočkal eating less than a half of all available minutes comes to play. He’s still the very best at spliting defence from a standstill, which is a good recipe for xG-rich chances, of course. Sparta, meanwhile, only produce 0,33 xGF from positional attacks per game (11th) without having a single top flank (left ranks 2nd, right 4th) — and that’s a big issue. Dočkal still completes a fine 1,38 smart passes per 90 (up from 1,2 last term); it’s just that he hasn’t even got nine full 90s under his belt when you put all his time together.
You know what’s funny? That Sparta fans were immediately up on their feet and in my mentions once I dared to suggest Florin Niţă is not the best goalkeeper in the league, yet they themselves have voted him their MotM on F:Liga website just once all autumn long? Surely, a supposed unanimous top custodian should garner more love from spectators or those who put together TotW shortlists (2x; eight goalkeepers have featured more often than Niţă). Like, I don’t know, a 5-time TotW nominee and 3-time MotM Aleš Mandous.
Most valuable player: Adam Hložek
To be fair to Niţă, he’s had to contest my model’s undisputed league MVP on most nights, and that’s not a simple predicament to navigate, naturally.
Oh boy, if only I had a penny for every “Hložek is stagnating at Sparta, needs to move on ASAP” take on Twitter… I’d buy everyone a magnifying glass.
Because if anything, Hložek has taken an extra step towards stardom this past fall, growing into a more complex, creative influence in the final third. He’s generally more focused on squeezing goals from his teammates now, which should be the point of criticism (if you had to!) as he sometimes gets too selfless, too cute. But it’s delivered barely any knock on his numbers. In total, he’s still had a hand in twenty Sparta goals (5+10 and five more indirect goal contributions), helping to create a further 24 chances that went begging; a spectacular business card even for a prodigy kid and a 11-time TotW nominee.
Wild card: Jakub Pešek
The high-profile summer signing is something of a bully, with only four of his 12 points coming with the scoreline even, but it could be argued Pešek was actually the more consistent of the two Sparta world-beaters upfront.
Carrying a higher average mark from Deník Sport (6,6) than anyone else in the league not named Nicolae Stanciu (6,7), Pešek has hit the ground running and who knows what would’ve happened had he not gotten injured. Would Sparta endure an 8-goal swing between their triumph over Teplice (4:2) and the next round’s distater vs Slovácko (0:4)? Most likely not. Would they go quiet at Rangers (0:2), throwing away a great chance at Europa League knock-out stages? Yeah, maybe not. Pešek has this energy, appetite that’s by all means infectious, and he could be the driver of a potential title hunt, too.
Other notable players
a brief rundown of players who caught my eye for right or wrong reasons
The one I was too high on: Adam Karabec
We are not nearly at the point where we talk about Karabec potentially running out of time to fulfill his potential, not even close (heck, he’s still a teenager!), but his limited role in 2021/22 is nonetheless disappointing — because it’s also largely deserved. The 18-year-old kind of struggles to take over games, hasn’t made any position his own (deployed as a left central midfielder, no. 10 or right inside forward of sorts) and instead makes Sparta fans quarrel over him potentially being better off loaned out — in and of itself a sign of a relative shortcoming given that, well, Hložek never needed one.
It’s OK for Karabec to not be a generational talent, though. And it’s definitely OK for him to continue produce 2,45 chance-creating actions per 90 down the line — rapid pace that puts him just behind Dočkal (2,64). As with many teenagers, the trouble is consistency and the key for his club is patience. Case in point: his one-goal, three-chance creation performance against Liberec followed by an anonymous showing vs Karviná the next round. But that was his first back-to-back full starts since August (!), and back then Karabec coped fine, contributing to 5 chances across the Bohemians and Hradec stands.
Maybe just give him a longer look in and watch what he can do once trusted.
The one I was too low on: Matěj Pulkrab
I didn’t make much of his chances to crack the starting XI going into the season — with a loan to Jablonec looking like a certain thing at one point — yet here we are, talking about a 4-time MotM of Deník Sport (joint-second most honours after Mojmír Chytil with 5) who’s fetched Sparta 4,38 expected points per CSfotbal’s model — more than anyone not named Hložek on team.
Fans will always have a sweet spot for Pulkrab because he wears his heart on his sleeve and never puts in less than 100% effort, but he’s above all a centre forward with fantastic insticts — the true poacher type we don’t often produce. All of his 14 shots arrived from inside the box, and only two of them carried an xG value of less than 0,1 (the least was 0,07 which is still a good chance). At the same time, he’s put just two of his efforts off target, with two others hitting the post — one setting up Hložek’s winner in the process.
The one that got away (from most radars): Michal Sáček
Look, I’m aware how annoying I am by banging on about this perennially underappreciated fella, but I swear there’s no better candidate on the Sparta team otherwise full of spotlight. Tomáš Wiesner would be a good shout simply because plenty of Sparta fans readily hate his offensive contribution for its lack of a decent cross, but Kuba Lebloch has done the job for me already.
Sáček has cooled off towards the end of the autumn after generating some richly deserved early-season national team buzz, but it’s still worth pointing out quite how much the one assist doesn’t do him justice. Sparta don’t score five more goals if it wasn’t for Sáček, including three against Hradec Králové and the eventual match-winner against Pardubice. The midfielder has been up for TotW seven times already, so it’s not like he’s gone completely unnoticed, but I’m not sure he’s appreciated enough for a 14-time chance creator.
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