Today, we are neatly groupping together clubs situated north of Prague, down the E65 motorway. And as you know by now, we’re taking them as they go. The northernmost stop in real life as well as virtual one: Liberec.
It’s not often that a Czech club’s signing announcement goes viral worldwide, yet that’s exactly what FC Slovan Liberec achieved with their Fresh Prince parody starring Theo Gebre Selassie AKA “TGS” AKA The Greatest Slovaňák.
And boy were they needed after the disappointing end to the 2020/21 season with no push for European cups whatsoever, and a general apathy surrounding the club from top to bottom — but mostly the top, really. Sporting director Zdeněk Koukal last lent a quote to the official website in June 2019, while most wish his direct boss Libor Kleibl wouldn’t ever speak for a change.
The result is a roster not many people — including some of the faithful — seem to trust to do well as it’s visibly devoid of experience and, frankly, ambition. One consultant of mine even mentioned a worry of relegation; an unthinkable prospect not too long ago…
Looking back on 2020/21
What went (particularly) right
Results-wise, nothing. At least domestically. The European tour was actually a big success all considering — three preliminary rounds expertly navigated, then a double over KAA Gent in the Europa League group stages. Slovan hardly could’ve done any better with their roster, and this is arguably the only thing that ultimately saved coach Hoftych’s ass. Performance-wise, there’s always the solid defence. Liberec weren’t particularly vulnerable from any side of the pitch (per xG conceded from positional attacks, their weakest link was the left flank which still ranked 4th league-wide!) and only Slavia wrapped up the season with a better non-penalty xG against. Liberec were expected to concede 0,83 goals per game; a big step up from the 1,08 xGA their arch rivals from Jablonec ended up boasting.
What went (especially) wrong
The (in)famous “hoftychball” never quite clicked offensively. Their furiously direct style didn’t manifest in any counter-attacking beast (as many as six teams generated more xG from counters per game) and their best channel for positional attacks — right flank — still only fell 8th in the league-wide pecking order. There was a month-long period stretching from March to April that saw Liberec go 331 consecutive minutes without celebrating a goal, and since March 12 — more than two months ahead of the finishing line — even Příbram (3) and Brno (2) had won as many or more games than Liberec (2). Loud “oof”.
Most valuable player
He left. Three of them did, in fact. Jhon Mosquera led the team leaderboard quite comfortably, and now he belongs to Plzeň. Jakub Pešek followed in 2nd place… only to follow up at Sparta. Michal Sadílek wrapped up his loan at 3rd. No other team had me reaching for a surviving MVP outside of the actual Top 3, yet here we are, with Imad Rondić’s still-respectable return of 13 (in)direct goal contributions — nine of them serving go-ahead or tying goals — emerging at the top (of the rest) of the pile.
A 5-time TotW nominee and Slovan’s leader in expected points added (6,45) really isn’t a bad choice, but there are two peculiar things on his appearance here:
- Less interestingly, five Liberec players including Tijani, Kacharaba and Hromada closed out the season with better average marks from Deník Sport;
- More interestingly, while he was an undeniable breakout star in his own team’s context — objectively becoming much more than a walking red card he had appeared to be previously — Rondić was anything but in a wider field:
Were 80 percent of the regularly starting strikers actually better, which is what the above-mentioned “overall percentile” suggests? Erm, not necessarily, but I would argue there’s some value in this deflating finding, even for a Slovan fan. Above all, you can take solace in the fact that Rondić “only” needs to perfect his shooting skills to immediately blow past a few forwards, as that appears to be a very significant drag on his overall percentile. Same with discipline, but we knew that; and no one’s changing his hot-headed nature.
Chip on the shoulder
Heck, it must be Imad Rondić following the previous section, doesn’t it? Knowing him, he probably wants to lowkey punch me in the face now.
But no, let’s go to someone who didn’t resemble a breakout star even from a casual distance. It’s not like we haven’t been collectively waiting for his breakthrough; it’s just that he might’ve already peaked in his teens, and this is it for Matěj Chaluš.
By “it” I mean he’s forever a ~20 percentile centre back with no outstanding attribute.
Yikes. Is he still young enough to add some layers to his vastly limited game? Despite hanging around for ages, Chaluš will be 23 for a majority of 2021/22, so he absolutely is young enough in absolute terms. Centre halves tend to blossom later than most other footballers, after all sometimes peaking as late as 29-30.
But you’ve got to feel Chaluš has been given enough of a runway — and cut enough of slack. I don’t think anyone’s not giving up on Chaluš in case he doesn’t have at least a mediocre year. He’s run out of time and, frankly, patience.
Inside the club’s off-season
This is who clinched 3 points at Gent in Europa League: Nguyen — Koscelník, Kacharaba, Jugas, Mikula — Pešek, Beran, Mara, Sadílek, Mosquera — Yusuf.
With Martin Koscelník and Kamso Mara having one leg out of the door, there’s a real possibility only Jan Mikula will have kept his spot in the Slovan dressing room beyond July after starting on that famous December night.
That’s absolutely insane even by Liberec’s low retention standards.
Say we are generous and keep Jan Matoušek on board (whose prolonged loan deal still hasn’t gotten sorted as we speak); that still leaves you with just 56,5% of all 2020/21 top flight minutes kept on the books over the summer.
Say we are ruthless and take away all of Koscelník, Mara and Matoušek (who’d then be swapped for Kacharaba); you immediately drop all the way down to 40,5% — just 0,3 percentage points above the infamous M. Boleslav.
Considering who came to replace them (mostly unproven players + TGS), Liberec may easily be screwed if they sit on their hands much longer. All midfielders and wingers who went to Austria for the final part of the pre-season would put together a mere 321 top flight starts (an average of 35,6 per player), with no one topping Matoušek’s 19 in the Liberec jersey alone…
I have no tool for translating Bundesliga exploits to the Czech context, especially without (possibly) knowing where the said player slots in, but there’s no way a Havelka or a Mészáros beats out Theo Gebre Selassie.
The legend of 2011/12 is returning having spent roughly 92% of 2020/21 playing time at right (wing)back, yet that’s almost certainly not where he’ll open the season. Gebre Selassie has been tested extensively at right centre back as well as in central midfield next to an advanced partner, and it was in that latter position where he excelled most and might be particularly needed due to Sadílek, Karafiát and (likely) Mara all disappearing from the roster.
At 34, Gebre Selassie is neither a spring chicken nor a washed up veteran.
Compared to other fullbacks in Top 5 leagues, he was still an all-round decent defensive contributor even on a relegation-bound Werder side, grading out as above average in some attacking metrics like goal-creating actions and xG, too.
Koscelník would be a huge one, Pešek was a huge one, but my model’s runaway MVP Jhon Mosquera takes this — having already appeared as Plzeň’s biggest addition, too, so congratulations on a rare double-qualifier!
There’s not much left to say, so I’ll let a pizza chart do all the talking for once:
New kid on the block
This whole season will, you’d think, make for one massive vote of confidence for wildly unproven youngsters. As things stand, there’s literally no other way.
Jan Šulc (b. 1998), who can actually draw on experience of training under Jindřich Trpišovský, was supposed to be the biggest contributor from among homegrown players but he got injured towards the end of the pre-season and might be out till the end of the calendar year. That’s heartbreaking, because who the hell wouldn’t be excited for “Malina with a high school diploma” — a charmingly funny comparison to Tomáš Malínský from @Nadse_Slova?
“A short, dynamic winger” would come in handy for Hoftych, but there’s another one to lean on at the opposite flank: Marek Bína (b. 2000) has honed his technical skills on hard futsal courts and proved capable of covering the entire right-hand side in pre-season friendlies, even scoring against Ústí nad Labem and Žižkov. Adama Diamé (b. 2000), who looked distraught following a premature end to his sole and ill-advised top flight cameo vs Mladá Boleslav, has also instilled some rare confidence in Slovan fans with a couple of points.
Who’s got the fanbase arguably most excited, however, is a largely unknown prospect, Justin Kranthove. Should Gebre Selassie move to midfield/right back, the former Leicester City academy product appears to be a front-runner for that left centre back slot where no one really ever fancies Chaluš anyway.
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.
- There’s no good reason for Liberec to go into the season with Jan Mikula and two unproven players at LB, but that appears to be the case at the moment. Gembický would ideally be used higher up the pitch, while I had never heard of Heppner before this summer. Especially with Till Schumacher yet to be snapped up, it’s lamentable Slovan have stood pat, while it’s rumoured Hoftych is enarmoured with Denis Granečný instead;
- At its current state, I have Slovan’s CB and CM depth both ranked 12th, and no re-shuffling of presently available players is going to change my mind. If it’s true that football games are decided in the middle of the park, Liberec are in for a spin. Then again, “hoftychball” doesn’t really need a central midfield, so that’s not a significant drag. Central defence though…
- There’s a large school of thought among Slovan fans that Chaluš needs a strong partner, a leader, to be a serviceable CB — and the Jugas experience seems to confirm it to a certain degree. There’s also an equally large school of thought preaching he should be played exclusively on the right side of the CB tandem. *glances at the depth chart* Oh no. Don’t you fucking dare!
- There’s a large school of thought… gah, scratch it. Simply no Liberec fan I know wishes for Milan Knobloch to continue as a starter, and it’s fairly easy to see why. He can’t sweep, he can’t kick, and he flaps at easy shots. In fact, the more difficult save there is to make, the bigger there is a chance Knobloch actually pulls it off. He excels in 1v1/penalty situations and only three regular goalkeepers made more high-danger saves per 90, but he was also below average in soft goals conceded, letting an alarming 5 shots from outside the box fly past him. Olivier Vliegen isn’t without a chance.
- Karol Mészáros is an intriguing add, but he spent the whole pre-season out injured;
- Kamso Mara is this deep in the depth chart not because he had a lowkey poor 2020/21 (see below for details on how exactly), but mostly because he more than hinted about his inevitable departure. Having only returned from “international duty” (official club reasoning) on July 7 — only, erm, 27 days after the last Guinea friendly — Mara immediately vented on Instagram about his #23 being taken by Theo Gebre Selassie (despite the change being communicated beforehand privately, apparently). Then again, I can’t really see any club interested in someone who seemingly gave zero shits about competitive football for much of 2020/21.
- As for Koscelník, he doesn’t appear to be actively pushing for a transfer, but seeing Vindheim against Rapid today, Sparta could return for him after all. I have him at right midfield in the depth chart, purely because Fukala needs to be developed further (and eventually sold for a bucketload of money) — for the good of Slovan Liberec but also the Czech U-21. He’s laid a strong defensive foundation, now just to add more offensive punch:
Statistical/tactical trend to follow
In 2020/21, it appeared as though it did occur to Pavel Hoftych that a 4-4-2 formation is, in theory, a perfect concept for his favourite brand of football — making the central midfield a complete black hole and attack directly through both channels after absorbing serious pressure from the opponent. But it also appeared as though Hoftych never knew how to properly realize the concept.
The coach flirted with the system last term, but with mixed results; only scoring 0,6 goals per 90 mins of its usage while conceding closer to one goal per 90. This summer, to kick-off the pre-season, Hoftych opted for 4-4-2 against all of Žižkov, Dukla and Ústí nad Labem in late June, only to later return to his familiar 4-4-1-1 (sometimes written as a traditional 4-2-3-1).
Would he, or would he not, actually commit to 4-4-2 this season? It feels like a uniquely promising opportunity with so little CM depth at his disposal, but the trouble lies in the tandem upfront. Rabušic has never really clicked with Rondić, but there’s a hope Ondřej Novotný could be a Pulkrab-esque poacher Rondić needs. A rumoured return of Yusuf could facilitate the switch, as well.
Roster battle to follow
Should Hoftych eventually deploy something of a 4-2-3-1 instead, an intriguing roster battle for that cherished no. 10 spot will definitely ensue.
Jan Matoušek was always a mismatch on the right wing — with the only functioning 2020/21 trick up his sleeve being taking the ball closer to the goal (which should be the bare minimum for a guy with his talent, really):
Matoušek was already given a chance in that second striker role towards the end of the last season, and he improved ever so slightly. He’s still far from recapturing the 2019 form for Jablonec, and the ultra-direct style of Hoftych doesn’t suit his style in my view (which makes it only more baffling that he’s never looked for a different employer), but I refuse to tag him a definite bust.
Who could be the wild card of this three-fold race (Faško another candidate) is Jakub Nečas. He was an automatic substitute for the departing Pešek in 2020/21 and could be due for a come-of-age campaign now. According to @Nadse_Slova, no. 10 is where he’s looked his best thus far at Slovan.
The prediction: Liberec will set the new winless record in August
The rationale: This prediction may feel especially bold for how time-specific it is, but in reality, it’s not even that bold by my standards. It simply means Liberec will have to wait for their first 2021/22 victory till Round 6 at least.
You won’t find me indulging in record runs split into two seasons that often, but this is an exception to the rule I’m willing to make: Slovan closed out 2020/21 with five unsatisfactory results on the trot, and now they’ll follow up, eventually overcoming the joint records from 1997 (that’s right, another “split record”) and 2014/15 when they went winless for 9 straight games.
In 2014/15 — you might remember — they came awfully close to their first ever relegation, finishing 12th only eight points above the drop. Now it could be similar, but that’s for another bold prediction I’m not willing to make yet. :)