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 last, the other of two clubs who get their UEFA campaign underway on Thursday at 7pm: Viktoria Plzeň.
It was supposed to be a great summer celebrating the 110 years FC Viktoria Plzeň has been around for. Postage stamps commemorating all the great moments in the club’s history have been issued, a limited edition of Gambrinus beer cans with stills capturing those same great moments has been commissioned, an exhibition has been erected in front of the stadium.
Instead of care-free revisionism, however, it’s rather been a summer full of concern about what’s going to come in the future.
In March, longtime president Tomáš Paclík quit due to health and family reasons, leaving his 11-year partner Adolf Šádek — who simply hasn’t got the money — fully in charge. Less than two months later, an impatient Šádek pulled the plug on the Adrián Guľa tenure, further tying his hands by having to compensate his whole staff. Following the season’s end, David Limberský and Tomáš Hořava — two great symbols of the golden Champions League era of 2011-13 — called it a career.
Now it’s caution over ambition at Viktoria, and you can sense it from the way their fans talk as well as from the club’s dealings. Sure enough, all the signings Plzeň have made lately were either free agents, or second tier players costing a bag of peanuts. This is hardly the year Plzeň return to the top…
Looking back on 2020/21
What went (particularly) right
As long as you ignore the actual results, most of the underlying numbers were just fine. Guľa had instilled an immaculate structure high up the pitch, on and off the ball, recovering the most balls in the final third via positioning and exploiting half-spaces or orchestrating overlaps in transition in a largely unseen, exemplary way for the Czech context. By xG generated from positional attacks, Plzeň wrapped up the season with a Top 2 right channel, left channel and central channel. Their non-penalty set pieces were the 3rd most dangerous. No one progressed the ball more effectively via passing, and no one completed more crosses/passes in(to) the penalty area than Plzeň. Even with the initial Bílek-induced dip, Viktoria closed out the season with the very best xGF from the last 5 games — despite Sparta scoring 19 times.
What went (especially) wrong
But they finished 5th. And that’s, you know, pretty bad. Especially since the club hadn’t fallen out of the Top 2 since landing just outside of it in 2011/12. Now there was a 16-point gap. At one stage, Plzeň went goalless for 325 straight league minutes, narrowly beating their last awful run from the spring 2009 when they finished 8th. For much of the season, their attacking players looked mentally shattered, misfiring badly from good positions, while their defensive players looked unconcentrated and confused. “The more veteran you are the worse you get” seemed to be the mantra, with Brabec, Hruška and Limberský collectively at fault for twelve conceded goals by my own count.
Most valuable player
This was an extremely tight race. In my model, Adriel D’Avila Ba Loua ultimately edged Jean-David Beauguel by a mere 2,4 MVP points, which basically means something like a 0,1 swing in Deník Sport’s average marks would be enough to swap the two French-speakers. Beauguel was powered by an unrivalled 7,49 expected points added (from 12 goals), while Ba Loua — a 10-time TotW nominee — had at least an indirect hand in 15 goals scored.
This is what made it so baffling to many that Ba Loua was the one — of all people — to get immediately benched by the incoming manager Michal Bílek. Since the start of March through that fateful Příbram 3:3 draw, Ba Loua had contributed with 5,14 expected goals+assists, making up nearly 1/3 of the entire Plzeň xG accumulated over that 9-game sample (despite seeing 77% of available playing time). Across the whole 2020/21, it wasn’t any worse:
Ba Loua ended up receiving only 79 more mins under Bílek, so go figure.
I’d say the Ivorian is now coming into the season with a sizeable chip on the shoulder, too, but… is he coming into the season at all? Some sources say he was told by Viktoria to find a new employer for “being lazy in/late to training”; other sources say he simply gave up and forced the club’s hand. But the fallout is clear: despite spending the whole pre-season at Plzeň (not really seeing much playing time in friendlies), Ba Loua is looking elsewhere. As far as I know, he registered concrete offers from Poland and vague interest from France, but nothing has quite transpired thus far. Ba Loua + Viktoria Plzeň don’t appear to be a match, though; not at these crossroads anyway.
Chip on the shoulder
You and I thought he’s all but done —a locker presence at best, before his current contract finally runs out next year — but as per the latest development, he is not. With Staněk out injured for at least the first couple of competitive 2021/22 games, Plzeň have signed an impressive trialist Marián Tvrdoň but are expected to go back to Aleš Hruška as a temporary starter.
That seems like an awful idea, not least because of how his last start went — effectively costing Adrián Guľa his job through one howler (and one soft goal). Even across the whole season, Hruška was quite simply overwhelmed.
And overwhelmingly taken over by Staněk, as you can see at first glance here:
Hruška has consistently been an excellent distributor, but he’s only that now.
Inside the club’s off-season
with much thanks to @19ws92, @JakubLebloch, @ZdenekFrana, @MartinNov5 and @rozlivek99 for guiding me through the motions of Plzeň’s pre-season; all of their input has been edited for clarity and style
The Limberský retirement is the only considerable blow, and while the legs (and mind, seemingly) had gone, it’s fair to wonder whether the 37-year-old veteran couldn’t feasibly add a 17th (!) top flight campaign in the Plzeň jersey to his CV. He still stretched the field horizontally and moved the ball upfield vertically like no other fullback, while his defensive numbers didn’t plummet either; he made more possession-adjusted interceptions than in previous three seasons, in fact, still proving to be a stud in loose ball duels (3rd best success rate) and an above average fullback in any defensive duels (11th).
When you look at the alternatives left at the club, it’s easy to understand why Limberský angered a decent portion of the Plzeň faithful by calling it quits. (Though the decision was likely mutual, made in light of his high salary.)
Other than him — and perhaps Ondrášek (replaced by returning loanee Chorý) — Viktoria have yet to lose a big contributor, though. Kovařík only managed 677 minutes; Hořava and Alvir combined for less than a half of his total.
That being said, both the continental and domestic season openers could prove rough to navigate for Michal Bílek. All of Milan Havel, Lukáš Kalvach and Staněk are most certainly not taking the field, costing Bílek the 1st, 3rd and 8th most used 2020/21 players to go along with Limberský (7th) and Ondrášek (12th). Jakub Brabec (2nd) could still be on the way out, I’m told.
And then there’s some lingering fitness issues: Pavel Šulc has made a full recovery, it seems, but still missed valuable two weeks early on in pre-season due to a knee injury. Aleš Čermák didn’t get a single minute under his belt in Austria vs either Sepsi, Ufa or Tula (just like Ba Loua), while Luděk Pernica and Tomáš Chorý didn’t even travel to the last training camp in the first place.
He did it again. Much like he left Bohemians through the backdoor in 2019, Jhon Mosquera has now decided to abandon Liberec following a short stint. Like… Slovan literally got to know about his signature from media, it appears.
The early returns for Plzeň sound promising, especially stylistically. Where Guľa’s Viktoria got cute and sophisticated in the final phase, Bílek wants his team to cut to the chase quickly — less mechanical and more off-the-cuff stuff— which inevitably involves more hopeful crossing. That’s where you come to the right man if you sign Mosquera, one of the best volume crossers around.
The emphasis on “volume” isn’t there by accident; in 2020/21, Mosquera sat inside the Top 5 alongside Ba Loua, Kayamba and Kovařík when it came to crosses per 90 mins (6,22). Mosquera is a different type of a crosser, however, directing much less of his deliveries towards the six-yard box. It’s not like he wouldn’t be effective in feeding those true danger areas (only Plavšić and his current teammate Ba Loua completed more crosses towards centre of the box than him), it’s just that he brings a certain degree of variety to the table.
You see, Mosquera is a volume everything. He looks to take on defenders (too) often, he looks to draw fouls (too) blatantly, he engages in plenty of defensive duels for a winger, too. In a way, Mosquera is going to be a bit of a Robin to Plzeň’s Batman — a more straightforward type, running deep into the attacking third instead of crossing/creating from the edge of it — sometimes putting in a pullback of a cross to mix it up (used 15,6% of the time, but still).
We dealt with Limberský above, so let’s talk a little about Zdeněk Ondrášek here. The end of his short-lived Plzeň stint was a bit of a pain; he looked desperately short of confidence, in the end short of supply/initiative too.
But he wasn’t ever actively hurting the team, in fact —somewhat counter-intuitively, I’d say— grading out as the better striker in my model than his rival Jean-David Beauguel (71,4 vs 62,9 in overall percentile). How come?
Well, let’s glance at the comparison table below and pick it apart…
- Despite engaging in more aerial duels, for example, Ondrášek just never seems to elbow an opponent and generally foul, which is a massive stain on Beauguel’s resume. JDB can be a bit of a reckless tank and doesn’t compensate enough with fouls drawn, whereas Ondrášek has a sterling foul differential (only lagging behind Radek Voltr of Příbram in 2020/21);
- Again, this feels a bit counter-intuitive, but when presented with a big chance, Ondrášek didn’t actually fail Plzeň all that much, missing a mere three. Beauguel, on the other hand, squandered thirteen high-danger shots in a similar sample size. Not like it’s purely his fault — Čtvrtečka and Dostál denied him with incredible point-blank saves twice, Hanuš and Mandous once — but JDB was by far the biggest piece of a misfiring collective;
- Despite being a more effective deep operator, Beauguel was actually caught offside significantly more often. Ondrášek ranks 5th, JDB 26th.
New kid on the block
Plzeň fans have long raved about the potential of Josef Koželuh (b. 2002) who has gotten an extended pre-reason run with the A-team but is still likely to follow in the footsteps of Šimon Gabriel and go on a loan first (hopefully not to another dysfunctional club like Gabriel before him). It might be a good call, too, as Koželuh “looks great defensively, but lacks confidence going forward and struggles in tight spaces” per @JakubLebloch. A practice field may not be a sufficient arena for him to work on these things, and I can immediately think of a club that’s in need of a RB and could aid his development offensively. Shame that Slavia now seem to be Pardubice’s go-to “parent club” instead.
Who’s not too young (turns 25 in late October) but at least sticking around for sure, however, is a successful trialist Modou N’Diaye, formerly of Táborsko.
The “kid” aspect here is less about the age and more about how out of nowhere this arrival came. One of my consultants, @ZdenekFrana, openly admits he initially felt taking on 3 central midfielders on trial seemed a tad excessive (as it’s never been the position of need), but now he’s fully on board:
Kalvach is a different type of a player —he reads the game well, but isn’t that great in duels. N’Diaye, on the other hand, quite enjoys them and looks very fit. Additionally, he’s left-footed (Editor’s note: Čermák remains the only other leftie in central midfield) and can spray passes on long distance, too. I already have him above Dominik Janošek in the holding midfielder pecking order.
And others join in:
N’Diaye is superb, an agressive holding midfielder, a marathon runner. Weaker in playing through balls and such, but already top notch defensively and hopefully capable of improving offensively with time. @JakubLebloch
Stylistically, he resembles (Ibrahim) Traoré in his Zlín days, but he doesn’t appear to be too confident on the ball as of yet. Kalvach’s absence may not be as damning now as it would’ve been a year ago, though. @19ws92
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.
- This pre-season period was still very much a getting-to-know-everybody exercise for Bílek, which is why (along with the numerous injuries) we saw Joel Kayamba at right back, Matěj Hybš as a centre back, Ondřej Pachlopník on the left wing, Mosquera shifted to the right and… you know what, simply shove all of those RWs to the left, then do the same the other way round, and you won’t get it wrong. Anyone can play anywhere;
- Hybš is likely opening the season at right back, yup. There’s a word out there that Havel’s injury is rather serious, which creates the opening. Řezník remains a big black hole offensively, only passing as an adequate defender, and Koželuh likely won’t be trusted this early in his senior career, so there you go. Šimon Falta at left back is a makeshift but tried out option — and Mosquera could possibly drop deeper, too, should the situation require it;
- The financial situation means Plzeň are not bringing anyone in, but some more departures are likely. Hlavatý provides a welcome quick touch combination element in CM, so he’s definitely sticking around, but Gabriel may not (once more) as a 5th-choice centre back. Then again, Filip Kaša didn’t enjoy a good pre-season while Gabriel did, and the latter is more of a “Bílek type” I’m guessing. Could the adventurous Kaša be packing then?
- The CDM depth is interesting. For now, Kalvach is out, and the battle is wide open. N’Diaye is the only traditional holding midfielder, yet could still end up being a longshot — backing up Miroslav Káčer. If I was in charge, though, I’d do my best to maximize this uniquely lopsided skillset:
- Speaking of maximizing one’s potential, I have an uneasy feeling that won’t happen with Pachlopník either. He’s a low risk/high reward signing (loan with option to buy), but his pre-season felt somewhat underwhelming to many observers, and it appears as though he could spend the whole year languishing and plugging holes all over the pitch only to return to Brno barely enriched. It’d be a pity, considering:
Statistical/tactical trend to follow
Those worried/hopeful Bílek would go back to 3–5–2 for at least a portion of pre-season sighed/felt relieved because he didn’t do that at all. Instead, Bílek has seemed to fully embrace Guľa’s 4-3-3, though naturally a more cautious version of it, leading to a heavy reliance on set piece goals and more awkward record in creating open play chances. Off the ball, Plzeň often line up in a more of a 4-4-2 shape and definitely look more solid at the back. @rozlivek99 notes that while Guľa played a risky brand of transitional football that was creating plenty of 1v1 situations for the less mobile Plzeň defenders, now it’s the welcomed opposite; Viktoria sit in a deeper block, don’t get outnumbered.
As for statistical trends, I invite you to pick one of these two:
- Plzeň bagged 39 goals at home but only 21 on the road in 2020/21, recording the biggest gulf between home/away exploits by far. Their travelling record trumped those of Karviná, Č. Budějovice or Brno by a mere 2-3 goals which definitely needs to improve should Plzeň aim higher;
- The expected tightening at the back will be particularly interesting to follow through the optics of A) success rate of penalty area entries attempted from open play, B) percentage of positional attacks finished with a shot. Plzeň recorded the 3rd worst rate in both respects last term!
Roster battle to follow
The central midfield is packed by (very) good footballers, but I’m even more intrigued by the CB battle for one particular reason: as you can see below, Pernica and Hejda appear to have pretty similar profiles which, on paper, complement that of Brabec fairly well. Yet with Kaša around, Pernica is more of a LCB option — which is where he (mostly) ended up playing for Brno, too, despite enjoying his most excellent years as an expansive RCB at Jablonec.
Playing Pernica on his off side seems to limit his skillset a bit, and I’m not a fan. Even though he’s arguably slightly underrated (as is Hejda) nonetheless:
The prediction: Pavel Šulc will score at least twice as often as he’ll assist
The rationale: The youngster’s point production in 2020/21 didn’t make a single ounce of sense to me. He’s by no means an accomplished passer — if anything suffering from tunnel vision at times — and instead attacks the box looking to finish, yet his assist total (4) was a double of his goal total (2).
That will no longer be the case. Not on my watch. This pizza chart over here deserves #goalz and we are going to be seeing plenty of them in 2021/22!