2021/22 mid-season review: FC Viktoria Plzeň

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.

It took me quite some time to get on board of the unlikely Plzeň title bid, and I’m still fully not there yet. For what it’s worth, neither are Plzeň people themselves who keep repeating the Top 3 is the goal, anything else is a bonus.

And that’s where I have them, too.

Even though I stubbornly hold that Plzeň played better football last fall (when I caved in a little bit and ranked them 5th due to such poor results), it’s more about my style preference than it is about objective quality now. As you can see below, Plzeň are a great xG team as well; it’s just that they go about controlling play in a much different way compared to the “S” clubs.

Key numbers

11-1: Plzeň have played out an incredible total of 12 one-goal matches, and they won eleven of them. The only team to beat them at their own game was Hradec Králové (who otherwise have a balanced record of 4-4 in close calls). Just to give you an idea: Adrián Guľa’s Plzeň went 6-4 last season, with three evenly contested but ultimately lost matchups crammed inbetween Round 8 and Round 11 — exactly where the season started to really go off the rails for Guľa. Now, I’m not sure if this is truly Michal Bílek’s aim, specialty or whatever, but it’s borderline magic at this point. Plzeň were outshot by both Liberec and Karviná to close out autumn — an impossible task usually — and yet of course they squeezed out the very maximum out of a relative little. Over the last 5 rounds, Plzeň’s offence only ranks 10th per xG (ie. quality of chances created), but that’s less of a problem when the following is true…

16,09: Give Jindřich Staněk some work! He’s joint-first in clean sheets (7) yet third in prevented goals (total or per 90), which can only have one root cause — too much spare time. Indeed, Plzeň’s outfield players have so far asked their goalkeepers to buy them out to the tune of 16,09 expected conceded goals, an incredible 3,88-goal difference compared to 2nd Slavia. For reference, that’s nearly as big a gap there is between Slavia and 6th Ostrava (4,11 xCG). How does it manifest in real terms: for instance, Viktoria are the only team to have seen their goalkeeper go untested for the entire 90 minutes twice. Moreover, it was in back-to-back games vs Teplice and Jablonec with both opponents creating chances worth of a combined 1,73 expected goals. That, infallibly, points to another trend that may be prone to regression: Plzeň’s opposition has showcased the 2nd worst finishing — accumulating 20,43 expected goals purely shot type/position-wise, not considering quality/placement of finish.

11th: Plzeň are the sole Top 6 team to have both their flanks rank outside the Top 10 in xG either generated or allowed. That the left-hand sice grades out as the 3rd most leaky from positional attacks comes as a little surprise. The Hybš-Falta tandem always guaranteed a few wrinkles to their boss, while Milan Havel was always coming over to bolster the attack (also needed after wrapping up Round 6 with a measly total of 0,51 xGF generated with the uninspiring support of Matěj Hybš) rather than the defence. What comes as a much bigger surprise, however, is a supposedly toothless right-hand side — powered by the seemingly revitalized Radim Řezník who’s already broken his previous personal high in goals (3 in 2014/15). When you run through all his four goals, though, you’ll find that two of them actually arrived down the middle — by Řezník making the sort of underlapping invisible run that’s so hard to catch — and the other two were somewhat random tap-ins. With his assists, it’s more of the same: one was an interception setting up a Beauguel mid-range shot, while the remaining two were first-time set ups following a cross(field pass) from the left — his great hidden runs, once more, on display. Actually building up via Řezník? Mostly not an option, which shows on six zero-xGF performances and 0,2 xGF generated per game (11th league-wide).

MVP race

As ever, it may seem, Plzeň and Slovácko sit side-by-side at the bottom of the table when it comes to U-23 players usage and — more importantly — contribution. Plzeň youngsters have chipped in with the least goals (2), important points (2), expected points added (big flat zero) and F:Liga MotM awards (1) in the league, and only constitute 13,5% of all Plzeň MVP points (Slovácko are even worse at that last indicator, currently stuck on 8,3%).

Most valuable player: Jean-David Beauguel

At the start of the winter training camp, Bílek “couldn’t imagine” opening the spring without his top scorer, and it’s easy to see why. It’s not just his goals, it’s mostly when he gets them — only his 8th goal of the season wasn’t putting Plzeň ahead or on par with the opponent, driving his overall value up a considerable notch, of course. As a striker, you’re relied upon to decide games, and JDB has done exactly that, with 3 of his goals standing as match-winners.

But it’s not just about goals either. Beauguel is a valuable asset on defensive set pieces (winning 7 of 9 aerial duels in the centre of his own box) and does consistently well in bringing others in play, too. Only Tomáš Poznar (17) and Daniel Vašulín (13) have registered more chance-creating actions than Beauguel (12) from among out-and-out centre forwards, with exactly half of them being those clever little facilitating passes deeper down the pitch.

Wild card: Jan Sýkora

He only debuted in Round 6 yet still managed to catch up brilliantly in just about every respect: points (7; five off Beauguel), TotW nominations (5; two off Beauguel) and chance-creating actions (14; seven off Bucha overall, but leading the team with primary, hence final contributions to chances — 13).

That’s all the more impressive considering his lack of playing time prior to coming back home and the fact he had to play parts of 4 his starts at left back. I’ve arguably liked him most driving through the middle, but as long as Aleš Čermák stays healthy in 2022, we likely won’t see much of him in that role.

Other notable players

a brief rundown of players who caught my eye for right or wrong reasons

The one I was too high on: Pavel Šulc

Oh dear, do I have to go through this exercise again?

I had boldly predicted Šulc “will score at least twice as often as he’ll assist” in my season preview, and while that prediction is still on the table, it is the case through sheer inability of him to produced any points whatsoever. Again.

Sure, it’s bad luck (in part), as I’ve counted 8 his primary chance-creating actions leading to nothing and two indirect contributions to goals that further soften the blow (of a mere two actual points), but the finishing part remains a concern — 23 shot attempts, 3,2 xG… manifesting into 1 goal — and considering his general rashness on the ball, it’s starting to look more like a permanent trait of his than something temporary he’ll fix with experience.

The one I was too low on: Luděk Pernica

In my season preview, I complained about having to see Pernica on his off side (left centre back) too often both lately and in the upcoming future, but despite really blossoming in his two starts as a RCB early on (one assist, one second assist, four accurate through passes compared to 0-1-0 at LCB), he hasn’t really let anyone down in his secondary role. Quite the opposite, while Pernica could’ve been feasibly blamed for one conceded goal vs Slovácko, he hasn’t been implicated in any since partnering up with starting RCB Hejda.

Previously known for switching off every now and then, Pernica has been a rock for Plzeň. And it’s perhaps not a coincidence he missed two of the games Viktoria struggled the most with build-up in (Karviná 2:0 win, Hradec 0:1 loss), since Pernica remains a wonderful, expansive passer regardless of role.

The one that got away (from most radars): Dominik Janošek

I’m famously high on the 23-year-old — people’s choice of a scapegoat for the poor U-21 Euro campaign, it appeared — and he’s warranted much more praise in limited playing time this season than what he’s actually gotten.

A remarkable four goals can be traced to his set piece delivery (2x) or open play pass (2x) without him getting credited on official scoresheets, which makes it six different games this holding midfielder contributed to a goal in. On top of that, six more chances went more or less through him — rarely seen dominance from a player deemed worthy of just 641 mins of playing time.

Thus far, Janošek has been treated as a luxury player by Plzeň, and I’m sick of it. Sell him, let the right club make him the centerpiece of its midfield (a regista of sorts) and watch him torch the league. There’s only a few players I’d vouch for as passionately as I would for Janošek — if it’s a stylistic fit, that is.

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