Today, for our next trio of previews, we group together clubs situated north of Prague, down the E65 motorway. And you know what, we’ll take them as they go. First stop in real life as well as virtual one: Mladá Boleslav.
The 2020/21 season was a disaster for FK Mladá Boleslav, there’s no way around it. A mitigated one through the marked spring improvement, but still a disaster. I mean, the team wasn’t even safe from relegation before Round 30!
In terms of actual points, it’s actually been a fairly steady decline: 42 from 30 games in 2018/19, 40 from 30 games the following season, and now 39 from 34 games in 2020/21. The dip is there, but it’s not all that steep or sudden. It’s just that we grew accustomed to M. Boleslav fighting for Europe as part of those weird middle group qualification play-off trees, but at the end of the day, 7th and 10th-place finishes are not that much better than 11th, are they?
That said, high-profile signings of Milan Škoda and Marek Suchý make another mediocre season completely unacceptable. Suchý won a title in his last full season in the Czech top flight (2008/09), so did Škoda 10 years later, and the returning Jiří Skalák was leaving a 3rd-place M. Boleslav in 2016.
Surely their past success and other “intangibles” count for something here…
Looking back on 2020/21
What went (particularly) right
The spring Mladá Boleslav were legit great and fun. Spurred on by Ladra, Zmrhal, Dancák, Preisler and healthy Matějovský, the team earned 8 of their 10 victories in the second part of the season, taking Sparta for a 9-goal spin on the side. So impressive were they that in my last Patreon Newsletter installment, I wondered whether the spring FKMB weren’t actually elite. My own answer was “kinda”: they still couldn’t leaked, but as per 10-game rolling xGF, only Jablonec closed out the season with a more dominant attacking push. Thanks to the Karel Jarolím-inspired turnaround, Wyscout would have them finishing 7th by expected points, which is where they would’ve landed with their actual spring point total, as well, ahead of Pardubice or Ostrava.
What went (especially) wrong
The autumn chaos was too much to bear for a fan as well as a neutral spectator. With Jozef Weber around, it was genuinely hard to keep up for anyone; centre backs were played all over the pitch, fullbacks were getting stacked on each other, Marco Túlio was having a free blast in a holding midfield role (?!) etc. Only a little made sense about FKMB’s structure and setup, so it was no wonder they were allowing the most counters per autumn game, 2nd most passes per their own defensive action and just about creating more shots for opposition (through their own losses) rather than themselves.
Most valuable player
Jaromír Zmrhal gone. Michal Škoda gone. And so the mantle belongs to Tomáš Ladra. Not like he’s a bad placeholder, not at all; he just happens to sit 3rd in my arbitrary ranking. Just the sole fact he’s up there, despite only being around and healthy for 1 147 minutes in the M. Boleslav jersey, says a lot about his influence after all. Ladra’s average Deník Sport mark of a clean 6/10 leads the team ahead of Matějovský (5,9) and his EPA total of 2,98 just as narrowly edges that of Zmrhal (2,97) for a very fine 4th place on the team.
Again, it’s worth repeating Tomáš Ladra had been loaned out to Jablonec prior.
I don’t think anyone quite understands why. If the hope was to elevate his game to another level through a change of scenery, however, it has worked a treat.
Where Ladra was completing just 0,72 progressive runs per 90 minutes two years ago, he was now averaging nearly a double (1,34) despite playing more centrally. Where he averaged a mere 0,97 crosses completed in(to) the box in 2018/19, he was now at an elite rate of 1,49 at one point (finishing with a still great 1,34). By mid-April — chipping in with 5,26 non-penalty xG+xA — he stood behind 47,4% of FKMB’s xG across the 821 minutes he’d gotten to eat.
You get the picture.
While Provod often gets mentioned as the “most improved player” of 2020/21, Tomáš Ladra would be a fair shout as well. And he wasn’t too far — if at all — behind Provod, Stanciu, Dočkal et co. in any attacking respect:
Chip on the shoulder
When he was leaving for abroad, Jiří Skalák stood on the top of the world. In my first Newsletter soon after he re-signed with FKMB, I revisited 2015/16:
Skalák was a do-it all winger. Even despite missing one half of the season, he was still responsible for a whopping 17% of M. Boleslav’s entire non-penalty xG over the whole season, having accrued 4,81 expected assists in particular.
Only two wingers bested him in that regard on a per game basis, and they both played for the then champions (Kovařík and Petržela whom Skalák trailed by 0,06 and 0,03 xA per 90 respectively — fractions). He was a fine crosser and a passer of the ball, too, a bit of a rarity in the Czech top flight at the time.
While I don’t remember Skalák wowing me on the ball too often as a dribbler, he was definitely a nuisance not afraid to get stuck in and enter tight areas, which shows in the fourth most set pieces won in danger areas of all wingers. Skalák curiously didn’t draw a single penalty, but he was fouled reasonably close to the penalty area 1,2 times per game, and so if we were to count those (in)direct free kicks earned for his team, Skalák’s xG contribution would certainly be higher.
Having left the Czech lands as a world-beater, Skalák definitely didn’t re-enter them as such — but as he was getting used more from the start (and from the right) in May, towards the end of the season, he was growing into it. Short on match fitness initially, Skalák wasn’t much of anything. Then he chipped in with a pair of assists against Olomouc and Bohemians — winning 4 dangerous set pieces in the last four rounds — to finally remind us of his charm.
That is where he ought to follow-up now, having featured in all 7 pre-season games, even taking a penalty, and overall looking ready for a new challenge.
Inside the club’s off-season
with much thanks to @StepanHurych for shining a light on FKMB’s pre-season
It’s still early, but it doesn’t appear as though any club will come even close to the shake-up Mladá Boleslav have undergone. And not just this summer; this whole past year, with one mini-turnover already occurring in winter. Zmrhal came and went, much like Malínský, Zahustel or Mazuch. FKMB had used four goalkeepers and a staggering 35 outfield players over the course of 2020/21, losing an unrivalled 7 of their 11 most used players over the year.
Especially the attacking department offers a funny/depressing sight:
If you’re counting with me, that’s 29 points subtracted from a team that scored 49 times last term. All added up, there’s only a dozen of 2020/21 goals left in the M. Boleslav dressing room (or 24,5% of the total), with the five remaining authors being Ladra, Matějovský and *gulp* Dominik Mašek, David Šimek and David Douděra of all people?! Doesn’t scream “sustainable”.
Then again, it’s not like they are not used to this kind of a thing in M. Boleslav. For 2020/21, they’d only retained 58,6% of top flight minutes, the 3rd lowest portion (40,2% now). Sure, you could say it was also the main reason why they opened the season so poorly, but hey… “practice makes perfect”, yknow!
I’m cheating a little bit here — with a loanee turned permanent signing. The popular choices would be Škoda and Suchý, but as it’s been some time since I followed them closely, I’m going to take a rain check on them. Instead, I’ll use this space to highlight attacking-minded left back Dominik Preisler.
He’s not universally popular — and my consultant would prefer the incoming David Jurásek starting over him — but the way he and Zmrhal transformed that left-hand side offensively can’t be overstated. Preisler finished the season with the 2nd most crosses completed in(to) these areas, delivering his 25 crosses in 3/4s of the time Douděra needed for his team-leading 26. Similarly, Preisler is responsible for cracking the opponent’s penalty area 34 times from open play, sitting 4th on FKMB behind Douděra, Matějovský and Ladra.
I agree there’s a heck of a room for improvement defensively — especially when engaging in duels — and a room for more safety when dealing with the ball deep down, too, but considering Preisler almost doubled his career top flight minute total over this half a season, I’d suggest this was still just a “start” in the grand scheme of things; and there’s a few very useful building blocks in place.
Gosh. Where to begin. Jiří Klíma is a baffling sell given his age, tenacity, versatility and top notch link-up play. The departures of Antonín Křapka and Jakub Klíma is already felt on a vastly limited flexibility of the backline. Dominik Plechatý now appears to be the only senior option with some experience on more than one position, which could prove to be a problem. Václav Drchal and Zmrhal almost single-handedly powered FKMB in the closing stages of 2020/21, but they were always just temporary helpers.
So, ultimately, I’m going to highlight Alexey Tataev who rather quietly went down seriously injured halfway through 2020/21, and then even more quietly left for… Russian 2nd tier? Gah, that feels like a waste, doesn’t it?
Anyway, Tataev was an anchor with little glaring holes in his game, and while we have no idea how Suchý/Plechatý pan out, we already do know Šimek is not the desired replacement by any stretch of imagination. To be fair to him, he did have a couple of stand-out performances, but… good lord, this is ugly:
New kid on the block
There’s never a shortage of youngsters vying for A-team action at Mladá Boleslav, but there were two outstanding absentees this pre-season with David Pech labouring through a long recovery process and a highly-touted Italian centre forward Alessandro Angelozzi loaned out to Ústí nad Labem.
Meanwhile, academy graduates like Lukáš Mašek, Vojtěch Stránský and Michael Hönig have all taken part but were outshone by the incoming Daniel Fila. His release clause cost the club €500k — a steep price to pay for a largely unproven talent — so he’d better be good come this fall. A tall striker with a decent turn and change of pace, Fila was noticeably more effective coming off the bench for Brno which might be his role behind Škoda over here, too.
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.
- Mladá Boleslav enjoyed some limited success in a makeshift 3-at-the-back formation, but with its 2/3s gone now (Ja. Klíma and Řezník) and the CB depth thinned out, don’t expect that to be a viable option in 2021/22. Instead, a 4-4-2 — sometimes written as a 4-4-1-1 — will be the go-to system, deploying a target man upfront supported by a second striker.
- I’ve got to admit I forgot Ewerton isn’t owned by Pardubice at about 6 different points of 2020/21, and truth be told, Karel Jarolím still really doesn’t know who he’s got in the Brazilian as he was held to just 125 pre-season minutes due to a lingering injury. Another newcomer Mužík ditto;
- I guess the centre back position looks OK on paper, but I frankly wouldn’t bet on it gelling together in reality. Suchý will serve as a starting RCB for the first time since his Basel days, Karafiát has looked more comfortable (and as more of a contributor) in midfield recently and Plechatý didn’t exactly do his pedigree any favours when called upon at Sparta last term. All in all, I only rank this CB crop 11th league-wide behind that of Č. Budějovice or Karviná — somewhat controversially, I imagine, but oh well;
- I’d hate the idea of Douděra being the only right back by trade (who doesn’t defend) on my depth chart, and I’m surprised it wasn’t addressed.
Statistical/tactical trend to follow
Fixate your eyes on Samuel Dancák and let everything else fall in place.
No, seriously, the guy’s positional awareness is second to none on this team, and should he drop out injured/suspended, this team is screwed in more ways than one. Above all, he provides it with a sense of balance off the ball and promptness on it which showed on the big turnaround FKMB achieved in terms of both generating xGF (improving from 12th to 2nd in the league with him) and preventing xGA (improving from 13th to 3rd) from counter-attacks.
The 24 high turnovers forced by Dancák were key in setting up attacks into unset defences, and his decision-making on the ball was key in finishing them off.
In the end, only Jablonec cracked the Top 5 with both their spring counter-attacking xGF (3rd) and xGA (1st) besides M. Boleslav. Not even Slavia did.
FKMB’s Dancák-supported counter-attacking — which includes attacks off counter-pressing, too, mind — looked even more impressive when you get into detail. They finished off about half of their attempted counter-attacks with a shot (47,9%), something only Sparta bettered in the spring, and their xGF value per attempted counter reads 0,091(again only trailing Sparta) — the equivalent of a very decent shot from inside the box, empirically speaking.
Roster battle to follow
I feel like we are being unfair to Jan Šeda. He’s erratic at times, but automatically lumping him in a bundle with washed up veterans like Grigar and Drobný doesn’t do him justice. He’s still comfortably above average in the big picture, and make no mistake: his return to goal did improve M. Boleslav.
That said, Šeda is far from sure to open the season as a starter, and there’s only one reason for it: the impressive pre-season of Pavel Halouska. He was formally signed from Brno last minute, but that was long in the making as both goalkeepers had split the time “halfsies” — 330 minutes each. Not deemed good enough to start for Zbrojovka last summer, Halouska is now determined to push his veteran rival to the very edge and finally earn his second shot at the top flight (after three years), having prevented over 7 goals by expected goals conceded in the second tier for relegation-bound Blansko.
The prediction: Mladá Boleslav won’t sit above Hradec Králové at Christmas
The rationale: This is, effectively, to predict another slow start due to a high squad turnover. I don’t know how good the promoted side will be, but I do feel FKMB won’t do nearly as well as many predict them to. When Denis kicked off the traditional Twitter prediction game, multiple people put down Mladá Boleslav as a “surprise package”. Elsewhere, I saw them being tipped as a potential Top 4-6 team, while Hradec were an automatic relegation favourite.
That’s way too optimistic, way too high for me. Off they limb in my books…