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 all Czech representatives bar two, so let’s start our preview series with those who have a sharp dress rehearsal lined-up. First up, the club that’s first up in UEFA calendar as well: Sparta Prague, playing in Vienna tomorrow.
That a club is going into the new season refreshed, “starting from scratch” and all that jazz, has become an empty cliché — feeling emptier than ever in these harsh, demanding Covid-19 times — but it’s true in every sense of the word for Sparta. Gone is the old logo, in comes a brand new identity including a gladiator of a mascot; gone is Nike after 27 years of collaboration, with Adidas returning as a kit manufacturer; and gone is the noted deadwood that became a symbol of Sparta’s underachievements lately (Trávník, Hanousek, Lischka).
Sure, Rosický et co. announcing a title challenge is a familiar sight — funny or arrogant to some, given their repeated failure to actually win it or even seriously contend for it — but you can hardly deny it feels differently now.
Looking back on 2020/21
What went (particularly) right
The jump out of the gate was refreshing for a Sparta fan. They hadn’t rattled off 6 straight victories to open a top flight campaign since 2011 (also finishing as runners-up then) with the attacking duo of Hložek-Juliš combining for 10 non-penalty points in the first 5 rounds, again replicating what Kweuke-Vacek — and no one since them — did for the club at the start of 2011/12. Then, when the going got a little tough, the Sparta board finally pulled the trigger on Václav Kotal and went the ambitious route with Pavel Vrba. The strikeforce immediately roared to 21 goals in first 6 under Vrba, waking up a somewhat lethargic fanbase and once again giving it a hope of a genuine title challenge.
What went (especially) wrong
Speaking of a genuine title challenge… it didn’t turn out to be one after all. The April derby was supposed to provide the push from Sparta even if the gap already seemed too wide. Sparta fans still felt an especially great chance with the matchup sandwiched between two Europa League legs with Arsenal for the arch rivals. Yet, a disappointing 0:2 loss occurred, with a cup semifinal thrashing (0:3) following less than a month later, and so the familiar darkness and depression set back in with Slavia now owning a longest ever unbeaten run in the Prague derby history instead of Sparta (14 games and counting).
Most valuable player
Not even 4-5 months on the sidelines could stop Adam Hložek, the most dominant Czech teenager since forever. Five man of the match honours from Deník Sport as well as their average mark of 6,9/10 lead the team, with the second best rated player being Tomáš Wiesner on 6/10. Quite a comfortable separation for the 9-time Team of the Week nominee (joint team record) who directly or indirectly — through scoring, assisting, getting fouled for a penalty or landing his hand in the build-up — contributed to an incredible 27 goals out of the 53 he was on the pitch for (ie. 50,9%). With him around, Sparta would on average celebrate a goal every 28,5 minutes; with him on the bench or out injured, Sparta would on average drag on 53,5 minutes without scoring.
Chip on the shoulder
Only one Sparta player picked up more 2020/21 “important points” (involvement in goals securing a lead or equalizing) than Hložek, and that was David Moberg Karlsson with twelve (compared to Hložek’s 11). Yet, it’s the same Moberg Karlsson who’s now quite clearly a mere reserve behind Wiesner — one of the best Sparta players in the spring and in pre-season.
Entering his own contract year, therefore, Moberg Karlsson will have a lot to prove not only to his ferocious critics who point — and won’t ever cease pointing — to his frankly non-existent defensive contribution (he’s second worst among regular wingers in balls recovered in final third and successful loose ball duels, suggesting a rather staggering inactivity/inefficiency off the ball), but also to his fans who may still want to see him add a bit more cutting edge to his game. There’s a lot of unnecessary touches and unpulled triggers in DMK’s shtick which — coupled with a mediocre number of accurate crosses towards the six-yard box and a below average rate in cross-field passes — simply makes him a much less useful tool than he could, I believe, still be.
Inside the club’s off-season
with much thanks to @spartanske, @VencaJares, @martin2121h, @jehlida and @interhofer for guiding me through the motions of Sparta’s pre-season; all input providing invaluable fan perspective has been edited for clarity and style
Only Pardubice, M. Boleslav and Teplice gave more 2020/21 top flight minutes to under-23 players, and Sparta hold the considerable advantage of still having nearly all of those young pieces on their books (only fringe players Plechatý and O. Novotný have since been loaned out), so that’s a good start.
Sparta have also retained players responsible for over 85% of all 2020/21 top flight minutes, which comfortably places them in the league’s Top 5. Of the 11 most frequently used Sparta players, only one is gone and it’s the best-case-scenario one in Matěj Hanousek (credited with 9th most mins, yup, really).
The key retention, of course, bears the name of Dávid Hancko who grades out as the league’s very best centre back in my model for the second straight year. This sort of consistency is extremely rare for any position, and Hancko deserves a ton of credit for achieving it despite going back and forth between the pitch and the treatment room for most of those two years at Sparta. This, however, is also what makes the expensive splash especially risky: you don’t know for how big a portion of the season you’re getting him (16,1 and 17,9 full starts respectively are not nearly enough + don’t constitute a big enough sample to properly judge him either), and with Sparta’s defence mostly looking a shambles over the two seasons, it’s legitimate to ask how much exactly can one elite defender move the needle for them in the big picture.
Hancko was, again, spared the dress rehearsal with Dynamo Moscow. Officially only as a precaution, but I suppose we’ve heard that before.
That said, Hancko looks an elite piece you normally do look to build around:
And his importance only gets underlined within the larger Sparta context. Should they stay healthy, Panák and Štetina will alleviate that pressure, but for now, from what we know for sure: Hancko’s value in build-up and attacking third goes through the roof compared to other 2020/21 regulars.
There’s bound to be a transition period ahead of him, but Casper Højer Nielsen has all the makings of a significant upgrade on Hanousek. A steady point producer for AGF (9+ points in all three seasons in Aarhus), he was a centre piece of coach David Nielsen’s wing-heavy approach which manifested in him finishing the season as the 3rd best rated AGF player by the local newspaper Århus Stiftstidende. Here’s what Dennis Bjerre Christensen from the same news outlet had to say about Casper the person, the starring player:
Casper is a class act as a person.
A really nice guy who likes to talk to everybody, very down to earth. And in training he is a leader; he was after other players if he didn’t think the intnensity in training was high enough. (As a result), he definitely was a fan favorite. The fans loved him for his toughness and no-nonsense approach. At his last game, they couldn’t stop singing his name and even gave him a present (a fan hoodie).
He is the son of former FC Copenhagen legend Lars Højer Nielsen. His father was famous for his kicking (technique). He could score free kicks from all over the field, and Casper has a great left leg as well. He was taking corners. He did it with pace and power. AGF had not scored much from corners until this season when they got a new coach with direct responsibility for it. (Editor’s note: I counted 17 shot assists coming directly from corner kicks, vast majority of them being inswingers from the right; AGF finished the league season with 2nd most head shots.) Casper took most of AGF’s direct free kicks and was very good at it, as well.
Casper is a classic “English” full back. He is very strong in tackling, stamina and positioning. And as mentioned he has a golden left leg. His weakness is maybe his speed (he is not slow though) and ball-playing abilities when going to the next level.
Sparta fans have gotten a taste of all of the above, too, but really only a taste.
Højer chipped in with intriguing set piece delivery. It appears as though he’ll rotate on set piece duty with Dočkal. Curiously though, the most interesting thing re. Højer is the one match he didn’t take part in, or more specifically the reason why he didn’t — exhaustion. According to the club and the player himself, Højer had never experienced such tough conditioning before, and so he was rested against Líšeň. The previous experience with DMK and Vindheim who both got injured soon after arriving from Sweden must’ve served as a cautionary tale here.
His powerful, long-range shots could turn out to be a valuable asset in games where the opposition team parks the bus, as he seemed to strive to score in every game. Sparta had lacked a mid/long-range shooter since the departure of Kanga. Højer seems like he could score a few screamers throughout the season.
I’m not going to recount the whole summer soap opera regarding his move to Slavia, fake signature by actual signature. I’m not even going to tell you he’s a rat, because I’m honestly not sure who — if anyone — was telling the truth in the whole scenario. But what I am going to tell you: Sparta will miss Srđan Plavšić dearly; specifically the unshackled version of his seen under Vrba who finally gave him the freedom to gravitate towards the centre of the pitch and didn’t just ask him to cross from the by-line mindlessly like his predecessors.
While Jakub Pešek is about as good a replacement as they come in the Czech context, there’s a reason why some Sparta fans felt underwhelmed by this solution: peak Plavšić transcends Czech football — and I’m guessing we’ll soon be seeing his 20-point version under the guidance of Trpišovský — while Pešek likely does not. That said, he’s not just a “counter-attacking winger” some label him as, either. Pešek is capable of unlocking a set defence, too, as he was the most effective Liberec player in most late-game goal-chasing sequences.
A couple of things to note above:
- Plavšić ended up eating less minutes than most of us arguably remember, which skews his numbers a great deal. It’d be reasonable to believe he wouldn’t be such a smart pass or penalty area entry monster if you stretched his workload to as many 90-minute shifts as Pešek’d put in;
- My favourite Plavšić bit is how big a magnet on fouls he generally was, getting fouled on a ridiculous 55 occasions— exactly five times as often as DMK who’s got about 200 more minutes under his belt. Curiously, though, 7 of 11 fouls drawn by DMK occurred in the final third, whereas for Plavšić it’s a significantly smaller portion of 16 dangerous set pieces earned;
- Plavšić’s 6 points amount to 0,47 actual points per 90 and roughly correspond with the 0,43 points he was expected to deliver per 90; Pešek’s 12 points amount to a nearly identical 0,48 actual points per 90 which however represent a considerable overperformance on his part (0,36 xP).
New kid on the block
Sparta’s roster looks more competitive and stronger than a year ago, but there’s one common concern among fans: the right-back position. While Vindheim looked fitter than ever in pre-season per @spartanske, he doesn’t fill anyone with too much confidence, and other senior options like Sáček and Wiesner appear to be way more convincing further up the pitch (CM/RW).
Enter Adam Gabriel, son of former Sparta defender and Czech international Petr, who took the pre-season by storm and might be closer to cracking the starting line-up than his twin brother Šimon at Plzeň who’s more of a household name among Czech top flight prospects at this point.
Per @martin2121h, the 20-year-old “showed some real promise defensively as well as going forward, looking very lively and providing a couple of assists”, and @spartanske adds some important context as to why that might’ve turned out to be the case: “At pre-season fitness tests at UK FTVS, he performed the best of the whole group, all the while talking to everyone around the treadmill. :)”
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:
- No position/area was ranked worse than 3rd in the league by yours truly, with right-hand side (in quality at RB) and central midfield (in quantity) appearing to be the only relative — and really just mild — weaknesses;
- My sources tell me Jablonec are looking to add a Sparta/Slavia striker, and Petr Rada is particularly enarmoured by Matěj Pulkrab (while considering Václav Drchal too), so take his inclusion here with a pinch of salt. Both clubs may wait it all out, however, since Jablonec could feel enticed to try Vaníček upfront and Sparta currently don’t have Lukáš Juliš fully available due to lingering fitness issues. Hard to call who’s now backing up Hložek would be the bottom line here, I guess;
- Fortelný doesn’t feature in the depth chart as Teplice — his predominant 2020/21 home — are still hopeful of bringing him back on board;
- Sparta’s B-team will play in the second tier this season, which opens up an avenue for some players to get much-needed, decent quality match practice. Expect Vitík (suddenly a 5th CB choice if all are healthy; odd), Minchev and Souček in particular to spend a few week-ends with the reserves, though the CM depth is kind of thin and in need of the latter;
- Karabec and Dočkal have been tried out against weaker opposition side-by-side, so they could be an option against relegation candidates, too.
- Would these three below provide enough of an offensive punch in tougher games (Europe/Slavia)? It may not excite or anything, but it could work.
Statistical/tactical trend to follow
It’s Pavel Vrba, so you know what to expect — a fluid 4-2-3-1. Perhaps too fluid, in fact. There were worrying signs popping up in 2020/21 already; under Kotal, Sparta definitely grew too stale in offence but remained vaguely solid at the back all the way to his sacking, whereas under Vrba — to put it simply — the floodgates got wide open at both ends of the pitch. In even simpler terms, this development is what chased the increasingly erratic teenager Martin Vitík out of the starting line-up, as Sparta conceded 2+ goals twice as often (8) as they kept a clean sheet (4) in seventeen games under the incoming manager. While morphing into a counter-attacking machine, often threatening soon after recovering the ball, Sparta also started allowing too many chances through their own chaotic organization upon losing possession.
This trend has followed Sparta into the pre-season, as well. Dynamo Moscow were allowed to go on a 1-on-1 with the goalkeeper about four times in the dress rehearsal, with Sparta wrapping up the tougher part of the pre-season with a 4:5 goal difference in the last two friendlies. These sort of leakages may not go away easily, either, as it’s got a lot to do with the way Sparta set up in possession and the way they tend to build from the back. According to @jehlida, “Sparta must find a way to balance the high risk and potentially high reward style of playing from the back using the centre backs or a DM dropping lower. Sparta want to play long diagonal balls to the flanks where both the wingers and the fullbacks can unleash their pace and punish the defence.”
Roster battle to follow
It wouldn’t fix the above-mentioned issues, but it would possibly go a long way in securing Sparta at the back if Vrba was at least sure who to deploy at centre back and where exactly. Since Ondřej Čelůstka returned from 2020 Euro with a knock that held him off all pre-season matches (but may not rule him out from the first Rapid leg), some shuffling was inevitable. Ladislav Krejčí II would drop down to start the game vs Dynamo Moscow in central defence, while Filip Panák would occasionally switch between RCB and LCB. Only Lukáš Štetina is a nailed-on option on the right, and he may remain one even upon Čelůstka’s return since his own best performances came on the left.
Panák is a wild card in this scenario, as Sparta fans are en masse finally falling in love with the now-healthy centre back a long 2,5 years after his arrival from Silesia. Summer preparation generally means next to nothing, but when you’re coming off such a lengthy injury lay-off, it’s obviously a great news that it looks like you haven’t missed a beat. Panák was sharp in movement, calculated on and off the ball, and brought a sense of calmness into the oft-panicking backline which is why some mark him down as the best Sparta centre back of the pre-season. Again, that alone means little, but…
As it happens, I have advanced data crunched for all regularly starting centre backs in 2018/19 — Panák’s only season where he qualified with his CB sample (I’m sure most of you will remember he actually started off as a fairly advanced CM) — and my model had only Ostrava’s Stronati and Opava’s Svozil as two CBs with more complex, positive influence than Karviná’s Panák. Mind the sample size here (I only had 998 mins to work with), but aerial prowess in his own penalty area, appetite for blocking shots as well as ball-carrying on long distance, discipline in defensive third… that was all there at an elite level with a 22/23-year-old Panák. So don’t you sleep on him.
The prediction: Florin Niță won’t finish the season as a starting goalkeeper
The rationale: Look, I’m not going to say extending Niță was a mistake; that would be some awful revisionism on my part as I publicly thought a bridge deal (towards younger talents like Bačkovský, Čtvrtečka or Vorel) was smart at the time. But it kind of looks like it with the benefit of the hindsight.
While Dominik Holec was catching fire on loan at Raków Częstochowa, ultimately winning the Polish domestic cup and preventing the 2nd most league goals per 90 mins in terms of expected goals conceded (0,37), Niță’s season went lowkey downhill following the April two-year extension.
I’m sure Sparta fans are still unanimously fond of the Romanian goalkeeper who basically spent the whole December-January period standing on his head so much so it felt like the Sparta board was peer pressured into extending him. But the harsh reality remains: he spoilt his own season big time late on.
Before April 6, he would underperform his individual xGC on a mere three occasions out of 16, actually outperforming it an incredible 11 times. Since the extension, he would only put in three more above-average shifts in 10 tries and concede five more saveable goals (compared to two beforehand).
His pizza chart ultimately ended up looking rather awful, while his 2020/21 as a whole pales in comparison with 2019/20 to a pretty staggering degree:
Now, is a 10-game sample too small to get genuinely concerned? Yes. But should it necessarily stop me from basing a bold prediction upon it? Obviously not!