The new Fortuna:Liga season kicks-off in under a week while the new European season kicks-off in less than a hundred hours for three Czech representatives, so let’s start our preview series with those who have a sharp dress rehearsal lined-up. Going up next, one of two clubs who get their UEFA campaign underway on Thursday at 7pm: 1. FC Slovácko.
There was this strange narrative around Slovácko amidst their historic run, in media much like in informal conversations I had with people who know their Czech football. “Sure, it’s a nice story and all, but it’s like their last dance — they are old, don’t play an awfully intriguing brand of football and… who are they going to sell once they do finish in Top 5 anyway? THEY ARE TOO OLD.”
It’s this cynical view that fits right into the monetized world of modern football, sure, but I’m not having it. Asking “who are they going to sell for profit” is a fine way to counter in the case of Plzeň who clearly struggle financially, but not in the case of Slovácko who’ll roughly cover their yearly expenses on renting training/match grounds by a Conference League entry fee alone (150k euros), without having to win a single game or anything.
No, it doesn’t fly in the case of Slovácko who were on their way to eventually set club records for table position (4th compared to 5th in 2003/04), points earned per game (2 compared to 1,6 in 2003/04) or percentage of top flight matches won (55,9% compared to 46,7% in 2003/04). They are now getting to test themselves on the European stage for the first time since 2003 Intertoto Cup, for heaven’s sake!
And you know what? If you want to get factual and descriptive, don’t focus on age but rather the origin stories of these Slovácko footballers.
All of Nemrava, Kadlec, Reinberk, Daníček, Havlík, Sadílek and Kohút — ie. 7 of their 13 most used players — had spent at least two of their formative years (13-18) at the club and would be considered homegrown by most standards. Lukáš Sadílek was born in a small town just 10 kilometers away from Uherské Hradiště. Petr Reinberk grew up on the outskirts and just got extended as a club record holder in top flight apperances. Vlastimil Daníček and Marek Havlík, who both lag just a few starts behind him, hail from towns (Napajedla) and proper villages (Lubná) a mere 20-30 minutes of drive away from Slovácko’s home.
They might not be young, but they are a likeable collection of neighbourhood lads.
Looking back on 2020/21
What went (particularly) right
They closed out their historic season in style — by beating their local rivals Zlín 2:0 and getting their first ever league double over them (winning at home and away). One round earlier, they secured a first Top 4 finish for a club hailing from Zlínský kraj; you know the region that’s literally named after their arch rival’s base. They did that while boasting a Top 3 defence across the board in all kinds of advanced stats like penalty area entries allowed. And as if the first European experience proper (because Intertoto Cup was more of a summer friendly tournament) for men wasn’t enough, the women’s team soon followed up by nailing down their maiden Champions League appearance.
What went (especially) wrong
In March, the whole team went into a quarantine due to Covid-19 which, coupled with a ridiculous 7-game April schedule, resulted in visible exhaustion of most older regulars like Kalabiška, Reinberk, Kadlec or Daníček. At one point, Slovácko went 1-0-4 and many — including yours truly— started wondering whether coach Martin Svědík’s demanding physical style wasn’t going to cost a tired and suddenly poor side their much deserved European qualification. It didn’t after all, but the implosion of Plzeň and Liberec (and eventual recovery of Slovácko themselves) did quite some heavy-lifting there.
Most valuable player
Both before and after Michal Sadílek got called-up to 2020 Euro, I tweeted at various points that he wasn’t even the best Sadílek in the league, and I remain adamant he wasn’t the most suitable Sadílek for the national team’s purposes either. Lukáš Sadílek is not only a tremendously versatile attacking midfielder with no obvious flaw in his game, he was also wildly prolific — becoming the first Slovácko player to clear the 15-point bar (6+9) since Libor Došek did it in 2012/13 (13+3) — and the best non-winger/fullback crosser in the league for me. At his position, only Dočkal, Ševčík, Ladra, Stanciu and Čermák (in that order) were expected to provide more assists per game than him.
Curiously enough, Lukáš Sadílek was not among the 13 different Slovácko players Deník Sport blessed with their Man of the Match honours (that, by the way, did go to Slovácko in 23 of their 34 games!) despite being the team’s clutch performer in the crucial second part of the season, raking up a majority of all his Team of the Week shortlist nominations (4/7) beyond Round 20.
Chip on the shoulder
Most casual spectators have readily written him off, I imagine, but Rigino Cicilia is no Pieter Langedijk or Pepe Mena who both quit on Czech football prematurely due to its obsession with “duels”— no, Cicilia is sticking around, aiming for a (much) bigger role in the wake of Jan Kliment’s departure. And it sounds like he may have the upper hand on summer arrival Ondřej Šašinka, in fact, following an inspired pre-season and some improved 2020/21 performances down the stretch. Cicilia isn’t too dissimilar to Kliment; he also isn’t lazy to press opponents, doesn’t shy away from an incoming challenge on the ball and appears to be a fine passer who can create an opening for others.
Sure, the most prolific foreigners like Mahmutović, Kweuke, Liuni or Kerić started off hot, but some other — still passable in the long-run — did not. You may remember a somewhat slow start Benjamin Tetteh made at Slovácko only to emerge as an 11-goal striker at Sparta within two years. Haris Harba would turn a pair of strikes across 2 328 minutes into a very respectable 13 in about as big a sample size year-over-year. Wilfried Bony virtually had an identical 3-goal record in his first full year at Sparta only to add nineteen more in the next 1,5 seasons. Sure, the ages differ greatly in the last instance, but however old he looks, Cicilia is actually still only 26 — at the height of his peak right now.
Inside the club’s off-season
Conditioning has been key for Slovácko this summer more than any other summer. Some players admit it took them about two months to fully recover from Covid due to the congested schedule that followed their quarantine, which blows your mind and tells you how seriously Covid needs to be taken.
To their credit, Slovácko didn’t leave anything to chance: the club has freshly invested into the cutting-edge technology of Catapult, as a result not seeing any player go down injured seriously as part of pre-season preparation.
Historically, Slovácko have been resistant to high squad turnover, and that has remained true going into 2021/22 despite real threats of a rare shake-up. It looked like Havlík and Sadílek could be on the move (in the end, somewhat lamentably, the club only got offers from Baník Ostrava) and it appeared to be a sure thing Kliment and Stanislav Hofmann were on the way out as free agents. The former indeed left with 10 goals and 2 assists in the bag, but Hofmann — unflattered by an offer from Thailand — performed a stunning U-turn. That means over 90% of 2020/21 minute allocation have stayed put.
In a cheeky tribute to Arsène Wenger, Hofmann’s extension — much like an Arsenal player’s return from a serious injury — now feels like a new signing. Hofmann has quietly been an above average centre back for a few consecutive seasons and such defenders, keen on playing for Slovácko, don’t come easy.
According to a chart below, Hofmann has been steadily declining from the very top, hitting a new (recent) low last season, but as a fresh 31 years old, he’s only now truly aging out of the centre back’s peak, so a relatively weaker 20/21 season may just prove to be a Covid-induced blip on a steady trajectory.
A new starting goalkeeper was the priority number 1 for Svědík et co., and they got one in Filip Nguyen. A mere fact the manager came out way ahead of the season kick-off to confirm Nguyen will stand between the sticks come Round 1 provided a notable contrast to the last season when no one was really sure. Including the goalkeepers themselves, plausibly, who then spent the whole year botching simple passes and prompting Svědík into repeated public criticism. Altogether, Pavol Bajza and Vít Nemrava could’ve been — by my own count — blamed for at least 4 goals conceded with the coaching staff dropping their designated starter at three separate points of the season. That the season as a whole proved to be a huge success nonetheless is a little miracle.
Now, pronouncing Nguyen an automatic triumph would be foolish.
He was, after all, one of the worst shot stoppers in the league in 2019/20. But the most recent season brought a lowkey bounce back from him, especially in terms of reliability — the one ingredient Svědík was sorely missing from his goalkeepers. Where Trmal held onto every cross even under immense pressure, Nemrava looked nervous whenever he left the goal-line. Nguyen probably won’t do either — in fact, he was the only goalkeeper with 900+ minutes under his belt not to engage in a single aerial duel last term — but he’s fairly likely to instill a similar sort of confidence in the side as Trmal did.
As seen above, Nguyen was among the league’s cream of the crop when it came to ball losses leading to shot, misplaced passes inside own half and soft goals conceded (none; again as the only goalkeeper in the league). Nemrava was around league average in these respects while Bajza was, erm, drowning:
Should Nguyen replicate this — and, optimally, return to his stellar shot stopping numbers of 2018/19 — he’ll be a definite coup for Slovácko. And if that proves to be the case, Liberec fans will live through an awkward déjà-vu. In 2003, Slovan sold 26-year-old striker Jan Nezmar to 1. FC Synot to see him score against them — club he’d won a league title with — in two months. Now, a 29-year-old keeper on the national team bubble moves to Uherské Hradiště, too, marking another such move of a star player to a presumed “smaller club”.
Additionally, watch out for Nguyen in Europe especially. Early on last season, he blanked FCSB and APOEL on the way to the group stages only to pull off a third straight clean sheet against a very motivated Gent side (who were expected to score 1,48 goals on him that day)! Slovácko will need this sort of magic if they are to overcome Plovdiv and (potentially) Copenhagen.
This is almost a nomination by design since the barely used Filip Kubala and Jakub Rezek are the only other departed A-teamers, but Jan Kliment would beat just about anyone else to the mantle. A genuine force to be reckoned with anytime he took the ball, Kliment drove Svědík crazy at times with his cute backheels and overcomplicated solutions, but more often than not, he would do the same to opposing defenders instead. He was virtually inseparable from the ball, hugging it tightly and drawing strategic fouls on a regular basis. He’d make it too much about himself once, but then you’d see him do this twice:
Exerpt from Patreon Newsletter #2 published on February 17:
Simply put: Martin Svědík loves his team to counter-press, be proactive without the ball, and the stat sheet demonstrates that in no uncertain terms. When you look at most recoveries via ground duel per 90 mins for each position, the likes of Havlík, Sadílek (CM), Navrátil (LW), Kadlec (CB), Reinberk (RB), Kalabiška (LB) or Kohút (AM) headline each individual list; a testament to active pressing being seen as a collective effort at Slovácko where absolutely everyone chips in.
But nobody does it quite as selflessly as Jan Kliment. In the first 6 rounds (where Kliment featured for a combined 101 mins), Slovácko had recovered an average of 10,66 balls in the final third. In the following 12 rounds with Kliment as a starting line-up staple, they’ve recovered an average of 13,92 balls up high — in areas from which they can attack into an open, unset defence straight away.
Now, I did mention Kliment isn’t actually the one winning the ball most of the time, but that doesn’t tell the whole story.
For one, Kliment often harasses a defender to the point he squanders possession for someone else to take advantage of it for Slovácko. The tall striker often joins in with a teammate to press more urgently, and frequently doubles down to quite literally squeeze the ball out of an opponent; he just doesn’t get the credit for it.
Secondly, Kliment is responsible for many ball recoveries through aerial duels, which he mostly does around the half-line (though seven of them came in the final third) and through these accurate knock-downs contributes to build-up, as well. Again, it’s a bit of a selfless, thankless act, but it’s another one of those that make Slovácko tick the way they do.
Seeing this, then, it kind of makes sense Slovácko chose to bring Šašinka on board whose selfless sacrifice went criminally underappreciated at the recent U-21 Euro. He too can hold-up the ball deep down, distribute it, absorb a foul. But the true Kliment’s heir apparent was actually on Slovácko’s books all along; that would be Václav Jurečka, another pressing machine with a top notch link-up play whose 2020/21 breakout went maddeningly unclapped — rewarded by a sole official Team of the Week nomination, somehow anyhow.
Yet if you look below, Jurečka actually topped Kliment in quite a few aspects:
New kid on the block
At 22, he’s not a kid anymore, but in the Slovácko context, Marko Merdović surely qualifies. Two players born in 2003 — Martin Kudela and Filip Vecheta — are highly rated internally and played larger roles this pre-season than many had envisaged for them at this point of their young careers, but those splashes only have a temporary feeling. Their time will come (much) later.
The fresh Montenegrin reinforcement, meanwhile, shouldn’t take too much time to make an impact. Standing at 1,90m as a left back — winning an impressive 72,5% of aerial duels and being more of a finisher than a provider for Rudar in 2020/21 — he could be the younger version of the extremely rare “Kalabiška prototype” who’s got experience playing a left centre back, as well.
They have a soft spot for a Balkan player at Uherské Hradiště. Veliče Šumulikoski oversaw this particular transfer in his current role of the sporting director, after all, while Eldar Civić — another left back — remains a fan favourite among the Slovácko faithful. Together with Ilija Nestorovski, these three give you a combined 244 top flight starts for 1. FC Synot/Slovácko, and once Merdović catches up with his fitness especially, he’ll obviously look to pile on. The fullback already makes for an imposing presence in practice, I’m told, not pulling any tackles and closely resembling Civić personality-wise.
Looking ahead to 2021/22
Below is the team’s current depth chart with a maximum of 4 alternatives for one position. All depth charts are up to date as of July 18 and obviously subject to change since the transfer window is far from closed at the moment. Players highlighted in red are longterm absentees (due to return in months rather than weeks), while players in italics are not confirmed but very likely arrivals. Those likely to depart will be highlighted in the text below, as will some other depth options. To add a little flavour to the depth chart, I’ve intuitively ranked various positions/areas of the pitch — goal, right flank, left flank, central defence, central midfield, forward positions (incl. attacking midfielders) — league-wide from 1 to 15, which is what the different shading (from blue to red) demonstrates.
A couple of notes on the depth chart for you to potentially consider:
- It’s no news coach Svědík values positional flexibility, especially among defencemen. Therefore, expect Patrik Šimko to once again travel across the whole backline, Daníček to step in for a suspended Hofmann if needed, Jaromír Srubek to deputize at CDM and CB, Kalabiška and Michal Tomič to get deployed further up after starting nominally as fullbacks etc.;
- It’s also for this standard variability that it’s hard to confirm whether Svědík was actually testing out a 3-at-the-back formation in pre-season (no game was televised as far as I know), or it was just a case of someone being played out of position. But given the natural attacking instincts of both Kalabiška and Merdović (and Divíšek to an extent) on the left-hand side and Tomič on the right, it’d make sense to station them further up;
- Due to the limit of 4 alternatives per position, Jurečka doesn’t feature on either wing, but he’s an option there, as well — like he was in 2020/21;
- I believe Daniel Holzer is an underrated addition (though I myself err on the side of caution and only rank Slovácko’s left-hand side 12th), but I find it weird the board did nothing at all to bolster the opposite flank, as well. Tomič could be this year’s breakout star, but with Navrátil taking a step back last term, Reinberk taking a couple of them offensively, and Petržela one year older and carrying a knock throughout pre-season, why wouldn’t you inject some fresh blood? Could Libor Pernica be it? You’d think we would’ve seen at least something from a 21-year-old prospect if he’s up for it. Something’s got to give; as for xG generated from positional attacks, 2020/21 Slovácko had the 2nd weakest right flank behind only Příbram!
Statistical/tactical trend to follow
In Michal Kadlec and Stanislav Hofmann, Slovácko have one of the most experienced centre back tandems which shows in their clever movement, specifically with the aim of playing opponents offside. In 2020/21, Slovácko boasted the second most effective offside trap in the league, on average catching their adversaries in illegal positions 3,21 times per game. That’s a significant step up from 2,06 in 2019/20 when they sat noticeably deeper.
Roster battle to follow
As I said, I’m pretty high on Holzer. I’m simply just not ready to put all my eggs in his basket yet, because as far as I can tell, he might as well be cursed at this point.
Since the start of 2019/20, Holzer has accumulated 3,22 expected assists only to be credited with a big fat zero of actual assists. That’s not just bad luck; that’s a freaking unbelievable anomaly. In 2018/19 alone, after all, he turned 6,63 expected assists in 6 real assists, which sounds about right and fair. In case the xA value itself means nothing to you, then be sure to know that behind those 3,22 expected assists, you’d find 31 individual shot assists that amounted to… nothing. Empirically speaking, a shot of 0,15+ xG value qualifies as a very good goalscoring chance to the naked eye, and Holzer has notched at least 0,15 xA on eight separate occasions over the past two seasons.
You get the gist; he’s long overdue, and coupled with a positive pre-season showing as well as point return, I have Holzer down for at least 5 helpers.
That’d come in handy for Slovácko, because Navrátil and Petržela didn’t exactly pocket Holzer in 2020/21, however miserable season he endured…
The prediction: Slovácko will have to do with 3 penalties tops
The rationale: I’m not sure how aware the general public was of this, but Slovácko leaned ultra-heavily on all kinds of set pieces in 2020/21. In fact, the share of positional attacks in Slovácko’s seasonal sum xG (41,1%) was the lowest in the league, assigning a tremendous value to counter-attacks and dead ball situations. Sadílek’s corners from both sides were a crucial source, but so were the penalties — of which the team got a league-leading fourteen.
Good for them, because now they’ll mostly have to do without them.
Look, it makes sense: Kliment is gone, and with him 3 penalty kicks awarded. Hofmann has stuck around, but there’s no way he’s wrestled down for 3 more penalties surely. One of them — like in 2019/20 — maybe, but not a whole trio!
Besides, my estimate of a maximum three penalty kicks given to Slovácko isn’t just made out of thin air. That’s the exact 2019/20 total and one more penalty kick opportunity compared to both 2017/18 and 2016/17.
This is roughly where Slovácko belong, I’m sorry.