2021/22 mid-season review: SK Slavia 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 wasn’t much suspense about who’s going to top my mid-season Power Rankings, I suppose, but there was at least some suspense — which is a change. Now, with two of the three players my model considered their most valuable gone, it could actually turn out to be a genuine race for the title.
Nevertheless, Slavia remain the best team in the Czech top flight. It may no longer be by a country mile, but it’s still true. Unless your uncle who watches “Dohráno” every other week tells you otherwise. Then he’s right, of course.
3: Last winter, I marvelled over Slavia registering just one negative xG performance, with their second worst one still ranking 90th league-wide. This year, it’s different at first sight — three negative ones, the second worst one ranking 126th — but it’s not really; Slavia had to play five extra games before 2021 Christmas. No wonder Slavia still have the best offence and defence per xG, posting an above average xGF and xGA sixteen and 17 times respectively. Their attacking fleet dominates regardless of venue — registering nearly identical number of deep completed passes/crosses on the road and at home (16,3/16,1 per game) — while their defensive line is actually stingier away from Eden. If Sparta earn by far the most shots following corners, Slavia are the deadlier Prague “S” club on attacking set pieces per xGF generated off of them. Nine different clubs of the 15 faced have been outshot by Slavia by 8+ attempts (only Sparta can say the same, with no one else even coming close). There’s just so little you could point to and exclaim “HA, REGRESSED!”…
0,89: In fact, there’s one area in which Slavia have managed to take a notable step forward even though it seemed like they must’ve peaked in 2020/21. Jindřich Trpišovský has always paid great attention to detail, placing huge emphasis on structure and teamwork in a sense that there’s always someone covering your ass in case of a fuck-up, thus perfecting the art of problem-solving. Jakub Dobiáš talked about this being pretty much the recipe for their success extensively on a podcast recently (listen to it from roughly 4:15 here), and numbers back this claim up rather emphatically. For a third year running, Slavia lead the pack in PPDA — cutting their already impressive number even further this year — and while this metric was designed specifically to calculate challenge/pressing intensity in the final 60% of the pitch, it greatly influences what happens inside the lower 30% of the pitch from Slavia’s perspective, too. By the end of 2020/21, the champions allowed 2,18 counter-attacks per 90 mins (and 0,59 finished off ones); now they’ve sliced it down to 0,89, facing five shot attempts stemming from counter-attacks all autumn long (average of 0,26). In terms of xGA allowed, Slavia ranked 3rd last term, being expected to concede a total of 2,56 goals off of counters; now they rank 1st, of course, on pace to be expected to concede a total of 1,23 goals across 34 games (played last season). That’s exactly the little details that make Slavia the top dog here.
1,26: Not too often is a goalkeeper dropped as the number 1 despite sporting a positive xCG-CG balance. Ondřej Kolář has prevented 1,26 goals per Wyscout model across his objectively underwhelming seven starts this season, showcasing general limits of the model. Firstly, Wyscout obviously can’t gauge the mental side of things — and that’s been a huge factor, with Aleš Mandous serving way more as a confidence injection this year. Secondly, it also doesn’t factor in something like the level of goalkeeper’s “effort” — a subjective (which is why) but nonetheless important aspect of one’s performance. Take his last start vs České Budějovice as a case in point: Kolář conceded from two situations absolutely begging for more effort from him, but that doesn’t show on the xCG value, does it, because they were — in essence — pretty well-placed shots, too. Kolář was ultimately set back with -0,81 xCG-CG performance, which is still poor but not quite as poor as it looked in real-time — arguably his weakest showing yet. That’s why it’s important to use xG and other related metrics over a larger sample and not on a game-by-game basis, so at least some of these drawbacks even themselves out. Otherwise, xG can make you look like a fool. For instance, I could argue Kolář was made a weird scapegoat for the 7th best xG performance of the season league-wide (suggesting a very unlucky 2:2 draw), when it was — in fact — a perfectly justifiable last straw.
Most important goals (23), most different scorers of them (13), least errors leading to a goal (just 1; Kolář getting robbed of the ball by Teplice’s David Ledecký — the rest of his hiccups I did not deem as “major” mistakes in my notes), a total of 75 TotW shortlist apperances (Sparta are second with 65)…
You can see at first glance why Slavia are still widely considered to have the most balanced roster out there, though that balance also shows on distribution of their stars on the league’s MVP leaderboard. Nicolae Stanciu headlines it at 3rd, but both Alexander Bah and Jan Kuchta check in outside the Top 10 (12th/13th) with Mandous and Oscar Dorley following in the 20s.
That’s what happens when 21 of your players go up for TotW and sixteen end up actually cracking it. The quality doesn’t concentrate at one place, one spot, which may also be why Slavia could do just fine without 2/3 of their Top 3.
Most valuable player: Nicolae Stanciu
I’m not going to make this a referendum about how good a player Stanciu is. He stands tall as one of the best foreigners to ever grace the Czech fields; end of. That’s the only statement you need ahead of his imminent, semi-confirmed departure to China. No ‘but’s and ‘maybe’s — it’s not even a discussion for me.
This season, Stanciu has quietly cemented his above-mentioned status, reaching far beyond goals and assists. His nine points place him a slightly underwhelming 12th on the league’s leaderboard, but his 16 goal contributions (counting second and third assists, too) already put him joint-3rd with teammate Kuchta, just behind Sparta’s Pešek (17) and Hložek (20).
That’s more like it.
Together with last season, Stanciu has been nominated for Team of the Week a combined 27 times, covering a whopping 59% of all league rounds he’s been involved in since the start of 2020/21 (a total of 46). Whatever positive bias the league may have towards him, this is some fantastic consistency however you slice it. No one — including the noted darling Hložek — has been marked higher by Deník Sport, either (6,7 on average), so yeah… a phenomenon.
Wild card: Alexander Bah
It looks like he’s staying for now, getting nudged into the unofficial “best foreigner in the league” slot by the departing Stanciu. A worthy placeholder, Bah is an explosive runner and a decent crosser whose 9 goal contributions only lag behind Kalabiška (11) among all fullbacks. What’s kind of weird, and stopping Bah from being an undisputed best right back in the league per my model, is that he’s only been shortlisted for TotW six times. Then again, that’s the same amount of nominations as Reinberk has accumulated (6) and more than Mejdr has (5), so I suppose there’s no great injustice happening. Besides, Bah has earned 3 of those calls from Round 14 on, so he was just heating up.
Other notable players
a brief rundown of players who caught my eye for right or wrong reasons
The one I was too high on: Srđan Plavšić
No, this won’t be your usual witch hunt.
I acknowledge Plavšić hasn’t had it easy by any stretch of imagination — going back and forth between the treatment room and the pitch all autumn long.
On two high-profile occasions, he was coming off the bench to provide a spark in almost impossible circumstances — first against a leading Sparta, then against a booming Baník; both in man advantage at that point. Then he was trying too hard, making some odd choices on the ball, looking largely lost.
But, I mean… he’s only accrued 312 minutes of playing time, started a mere three games (withdrawn before the half-time in his first start since August) and has yet to complete an entire game even once. That’s plain ridiculous.
So I’m cutting Plavšić some slack for now — and so should you — but the leash will be much shorter in the spring for the now-makeshift left back (?!).
The one I was too low on: Aiham Ousou
Ousou was an unknown to all of us when coming over from the Swedish 2nd tier, but I was personally lower on him than most even some games into his stint. I notably criticized his erratic behaviour preceding the infamous red card against Sparta, for example, with him already hyped in some circles by that point. I just wasn’t going to jump the gun, but now I can say he’s a real deal.
At this stage, Ousou looks much more comfortable, eager to bring an expansive passing game to the table in place of Ondřej Kúdela, drawing a fantastic long-range pass to indirectly set up a goal in the last autumn round. That was a nice complement to his 2 MotM honours dished out by Deník Sport in other recent rounds (16 and 17) — a testament to his upward trajectory.
The one that got away (from most radars): Ondřej Lingr
He doesn’t dictate tempo and control play, even if he’s slated to fill the no. 10 role. He doesn’t have the passing range or a final pass usually associated with a central midfielder starting in a flat midfield trio — another of his uses (in Europe).
Yet he’s so vital to this Slavia team, especially now with Stanciu all but gone.
Lingr is a diligent fighter who does all those little things that often go unnoticed. But as someone who re-watches every game for the purpose of tracking chance-creating actions, I can tell you they are there. Lingr has contributed to more missed chances than Olayinka or Kuchta (11), and while he’s yet to register an official assist, his crucial role in the build-up manifests in his five other goal contributions — one-twos, through passes, you name it.
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