2021/22 team preview: FK Jablonec

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 second stop in real life as well as virtual one: Jablonec nad Nisou.

Honestly? I don’t know how to feel about Jablonec. I don’t know what to make of their retro-looking kits with a massive red sponsor logo in a sea of green. Do I like them or do I hate them? And how do I feel about their squad for once staying intact? Are they for real now, or what? Life certainties = gone. Ouch.

In fact, I can’t even decide whether to actually consider them a surprise package of 2020/21 (like some neutral spectators pointed out and I couldn’t disagree), or just see them as an all-round decent team that remained fairly consistent throughout.

I just don’t fucking know about FK Jablonec, OKAY?!

Looking back on 2020/21

What went (particularly) right

Only in 2014/15, the share of victories as part of the overall Jablonec record ended up being higher (63,3%) than last season (61,8%). At one point, Rada’s outfit rattled off a remarkable eight wins in 9 games. Following a brief winless interlude, Jablonec were then back on it with an 11-game unbeaten streak for a change —coming oh-so-close to equalling the club record (14 games in 2010/11). As they were chasing a first Top 2 finish in over a decade, Jablonec last posted a negative xG performance as far back as in Round 23. That was the derby win against Liberec, famously sealing their first league double over the arch rivals since 2014/15 — back when they were still Baumit.

What went (especially) wrong

Bits and pieces, really. Apart from that one standalone blip at Příbram which finally made Jablonec forget about jumping over Sparta (and plenty of conspiracy-loving people cry about match-fixing), the disappointing results always came in bunches for 2020/21 Jablonec. Above all, there were the 3 losses in 4 both soon after the season’s start and soon after the winter restart. Generally, though, the big stain on the Jablonec season was… the goddamn pitch, I guess? Everybody got mad about the grass every week, and then they got mad when somebody told them Jablonec can do fuck all about it mid-spring. It was just easier to be mad. Mostly because there was nothing else to criticize. *suddenly recalls that their PR officer actually had to come out after the Příbram loss to ensure everybody they did indeed try to win while hitting the post and squandering 6 good chances* Yeah, well… forget it then.

Most valuable player

The 10-month period when he didn’t score even once feels long gone now. Martin Doležal was right in the thick of the battle for the Golden Boot, and that was simply down to his uber-strong finish. An incredible nine goals since April 20 were also what powered him through and ahead of Ivan Schranz who missed a decent chunk of the latest stages due to an injury. Doležal was a right menace, meanwhile, earning a TotW nomination for his Round 27, 28, 29, 31 and 34 exploits, while claiming Deník Sport’s MotM honours a team-leading 5 times.

What’s interesting is that even though Schranz scored less goals (13 to 14), he brought much more value to his team per CSfotbal’s expected points added model, with 10 of his strikes coming in tight situations compared to Doležal’s 6.

Then again, Doležal is particularly valuable for his ability to knock down balls for his teammates in a Giroud-esque fashion, which manifests in his 4 assists but also elite underlying numbers covering actions in the box and creativity:

Chip on the shoulder

Perenially on the verge of a breakout, Miloš Kratochvíl will feel a stronger urge than ever to carry this team. If both Schranz and Jovović don’t return, then that’s a great deal of Doležal’s support gone. If the club doesn’t eventually swoop in, he’ll be the only proven central attacking midfielder around. There’s a lot of riding and pressure on Miloš Kratochvíl, potentially.

He set his career high of 5 points last term, but it’s still just 5 points. Similarly, he set his career high in minutes played last term, but it’s still just in the sixteen hundreds (1 645) like in 2017/18 at Brno and 2019/20 at Jablonec.

Can he stay fit? And more importantly: can he sharpen his knives and be a bit more than this elegant dancer with the ball who does great things to aid the build-up but doesn’t quite set up his teammates or shoot himself well/often enough (a measly 43,5 and 28,3 percentile in xA and xG per 90 respectively)?

Inside the club’s off-season

with much thanks to @OFanouska and @Martineznek3 for guiding me through the motions of Jablonec’s pre-season; all input has been edited for clarity and style

Squad turnover

For the purpose of this exercise, Vladimir Jovović (whose future is still up in the air as we speak) has been well and truly released, so his 7 points come off the board together with the 28 points Ivan Schranz (13), Robert Hrubý (7), Tomáš Ladra (5), Jakub Podaný (2) and Jan Chramosta (1) had combined for. That works out to 38,9% of all 20/21 points lost, but — since Hrubý and Ladra were these very efficient point-per-game players — only 19,1% of all minutes.

This creates a peculiar environment in which, compared to 2020/21, Jablonec are actually retaining less points (64,3% then) but much more mins (69,5%), courtesy of both Plechatý and Jugas being significant defensive subtractions.

Biggest addition

You wouldn’t notice him much in the second part of the season due to health issues, but Michal Surzyn was actually the flavour of the week at one point in 2020/21. A marauding fullback who’s not afraid to push high up and finish off an attack, he stood out for Pardubice eg. in the harsh 0:2 loss to Sparta.

As demonstrated by largely unimpressive results across the board below, Surzyn is still honing his craft, but for a maiden top flight campaign, he showed promise, and makes for a smart addition from a club that desperately needed cover at both fullback positions (Surzyn split his time 900 x 1016 mins between the left and right at Pardubice, so he won’t have trouble shifting).

Greatest subtraction

Jablonec will definitely miss Schranz and his pressing (3rd most balls recovered in final third among strikers), pace and power, but we’ll deal with him as part of the Slavia preview, so I’ll dedicate this space to Vladimir Jovović instead — again, a subtraction that may not turn out to be one.

Jovović is a peculiar case that’s made me and my friend Jakub Lebloch wonder: how would he actually fair in a different environment? He’s clearly got a unique platform at Jablonec, but even when not burdened with too much (defensive) responsibility, he very obviously drives Rada crazy at times with his moody (non)efforts and somewhat carefree approach to stuff.

When he’s at it, however, Jovović can take over games like barely any other attacking player in the league. When he drifts inside from the left, he’s got this ability to break the lines with the ball at his feet almost seamlessly. In my model, he grades out as the 2nd most complex winger after Plavšić, and he’s effectively a Plavšić lite in every possible respect. Most smart passes completed? 1. Plavšić, 2. Jovović. Most accelerations with the ball? 1. Plavšić, 2. Jovović. Most successful offensive duels in final third? 1. Plavšić, 2. Jovović.

The only stark difference? Jovović just plain refuses to cross as only 16,7% wingers completed less crosses towards the centre of the box. He’s more of a romantic creator through the middle without that “desperate gear” to him.

Nevertheless, Václav Pilař would still need that magical drink from Asterix and Obelix to adequately replace Jovović, I’m afraid. And he’s not bad himself!

New kid on the block

There were three stand-out names travelling to the Czech national team’s own base camp in Italy: Vojtěch Werani (b. 2004), Michal Kinčl (b. 2000) and Torfiq Ali-Abubakar (b. 2001). The latter could soon become a first black footballer to ever get a taste at Jablonec; an interesting contrast to the neighbouring Liberec and their rich experience with Baffour, Oscar or Mara. Sadly, Michal Černák (b. 2003) couldn’t be there due to a lengthy injury lay-off.

Vying for a bigger A-team role, meanwhile, is Tomáš Čvančara (b. 2000). He’s not exactly new at Jablonec, but he’s still eligible for this U-21 batch and with a lot to prove. Should Čvančara stick around, he’d better start scoring, as he was up there (or down there?) with the most misfiring strikers in 2020/21. For now, a sole goal in over 1 000 top flight minutes shouldn’t bother the lanky forward too much because he moves well; just snatches at chances a bit.

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.

  • Sunday — our internal deadline for depth charts — was also the Decision Day for David Houska. Judging by the lack of signature announcement, it appears as though he’s not coming to Jablonec, which is bad news not for his own quality (I don’t rate Houska all that highly) but rather for the general sorry state of Jablonec’s central midfield. Just look at what Rada was fielding in pre-season friendlies up until the dress rehearsal when he opted for the only trio that makes sense (Považanec-Kratochvíl-Kubista): Smejkal, Vaníček, Pilař and Haitl all got a run-around in central midfield, which is not optimal to put it very mildly. Someone’s got to come in surely;
  • I think four centre backs are not an ideal depth either, especially since Štěpánek has lately played at right back if anywhere, and this is how the three other choices stack up relative to the rest of the league:
  • This only makes me wonder whether the left centre back isn’t the role ultimately envisaged for an ageing Tomáš Hübschman. He last played a full game at LCB in November 2017, but there’s a gaping hole behind Zelený now (Kubista is more of a RCB), so maybe — just maybe it’ll come to it;
  • Surzyn may feature far more on the left than on the right in 2021/22, which could be a good omen as he curiously offered a much greater threat per xG+xA down the left than on his natural side as a rightie (0,09 xG+xA per 90 mins on the right vs 0,21 on the left — but mind the sample size);
  • Due to the superior organizational depth on the right wing, Tomáš Malínský appears to be thought of as more of a Vladimir Jovović replacement on the left. That’s a bit of an outside-the-box solution to the dilemma, but not necessarily a bad one. Malínský the left winger has looked to take on players more often and enjoyed greater success in ball progression via carrying than on the right, which I… wouldn’t have guessed;
  • Speaking of Jovović, his situaton is still not clear. He practiced with Jablonec even beyond June 30 when his contract ran out, all the while negotiating with the club about a possible extension, but then he didn’t board the bus to Gitschberg Jochtal, so most took it as a bad sign;
  • As mentioned in the Sparta preview, Jablonec are still looking to bring on a centre forward, possibly someone who can complement Doležal in a 4-4-1-1. Čvančara won’t ever be it and Rada doesn’t seem to hold him in too high a regard, and Vaníček hasn’t yet gotten a sniff in Schranz’s former role. I believe Drchal would be perfect, and Jablonec are reported to be looking to both Prague “S” clubs for the reinforcement, so maybe…

Statistical/tactical trend to follow

This is a pure numbers game, but a fun one: it turns out, you see, that Jablonec always get close to a Top 2 finish only to take a two-year break later.

In 2014/15, one victory separated them from the runners-up, and… *boom* a shocking 23-point dip all the way to the 7th ensued, followed by an 8th place.

In 2017/18, Jablonec roared back with a 56-point campaign, again sitting just behind the runners-up, this time the other Prague “S”, and… *boom* a slight drop on paper (to a couple of 4th places) but a dramatic one in reality followed — going from a 3-point deficit on Top 2 straight to a 21-point one (albeit in more games). Then in 2019/20, those 21 points turned into 25.

Now you have another Jablonec side that pushed Sparta to the very edge, so can they break out of the trend? One’s got to feel they could, because those teams were being systematically picked apart (Pernica, Zelený and later Masopust, Hanousek for 2018/19; Kopic, Novák for 2015/16 and then Tecl, Mingazow and Greguš the following season) which doesn’t feel comparable impact-wise to this summer, however instrumental Schranz and Jovović were.

As for tactics, Petr Rada doesn’t really coach them, but his players-oriented approach continues to bear fruit on the top level. A fourth consecutive Top 4 finish is a testament to his motivation skills and his ability to bring the best out of any set of players, regardless of circumstances. As a result, Jablonec are — above all — a ruthless, opportunistic side with the second deadliest counters in 2020/21 who simply take their chances; boasting a Top 6 offence for the fourth season running while falling in a near-perfect line with their expected goalscoring output (without overperforming it wildly like most top teams do).

Roster battle to follow

I’m not sure if this success story was pronounced enough in 2020/21, so I’ll say it out loud: Dominik Pleštil — lured by Bodø/Glimt late in the season — was genuinely, legitimately great in a fairly small sample of 13,99 full starts.

His stat sheet, as seen below in comparison with Vaníček, is lit by turquoise:

What I want to highlight here, however, is how wrong I seemingly was.

I had thought Pleštil is a fairly simple player to get a read on — a direct winger who carries the ball on long distance, beats his man for fun, and is a little too selfless in front of the goal, often looking for a teammate who’s not necessarily in a better position to shoot — but there’s more to him apparently.

For one, his xG numbers are actually not bad at all, so clearly he was shooting a fair amount. For two, I didn’t expect him ending up with a negative foul differential while mostly seeing him draw interesting set pieces on a regular basis. And finally, I seem to remember him entering the penalty area way more often than to be ranked 28th in the pool of 43 wingers, too.

But this section isn’t just about Pleštil; this is about Vaníček, as well, who’s yet another Bohemians player leaving under somewhat suspicious circumstances. After a largely positive autumn, he mostly played a bit part in the spring, and now appears to be a slight upgrade on Pleštil in some areas while looking like a significant downgrade in any area concerning, erm, final third influence…?

A player of Vaníček’s bite/drive definitely needs to provide more cutting edge.

Bold prediction

The prediction: Jaroslav Zelený will earn a national team call-up in 2021/22

The rationale: There was a considerable if somewhat shy momentum building for Zelený when everyone sort of started realizing that literally every Czech centre back is either injured or seriously out of form ahead of Euros.

Back then, Zelený was likely an afterthought in the mind of Šilhavý — to my knowledge never even cracking the reserve lists prior to the last camp — but now I can sense an opportunity. An injured Ondřej Čelůstka will hardly see any action before the September break, Václav Jemelka had missed most of the pre-season, too, and Patrizio Stronati is settling down in Hungary, so if Zelený hits the ground running in Europe and domestically, he could be in.

I’m not sure if the NT is ready for his expansive presence (it’s not), but going purely by hierarchy, there’s a chance he’ll be the 2nd-3rd best fully healthy LCB in the country at some point in 2021/22; weirder things have happened.

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