The penultimate grouping is the tighest of them all, because we’ll be moving across a couple of hundred meters tops. That’s because we go to Vršovice, the Prague quarter a trio of top flight sides call their home. Sort of. And we politely begin with the guests from Pardubice…
That’s right, FK Pardubice are back in their Ďolíček asylum after a phenomenal first-year campaign when they had a genuine chance to jump over Plzeň and into the European slot up until the very end of the season. Their final spot (7th) was equally as unexpected before the kick-off as it seemed deserved, with Pardubice winning more games than 6th Liberec.
Does that mean the recent newcomers are striving for even more success?
Erm… not really?
At the curtain-rising press conference, boss Vladimír Pitter repeated a somewhat elementary, vague target: Pardubice want to play top flight football at their own stadium, as well, meaning they need to retain their top flight status for at least another season. So yeah, “not getting relegated” will do apparently, with the reconstructed arena due to be ready for spring 2023.
Looking back on 2020/21
What went (particularly) right
I had a lot of fun with this in my mid-season review, you may recall: Pardubice had actually earned more points at their temporary home than Bohemians at their genuine home (though with a game to spare), remaining unbeaten at Ďolíček for the whole autumn while hosting Slavia or Liberec — something Bohemians themselves have achieved only twice in their Czech history and not since 2001. That was a fun stat, and Pardubice generally remained a fun team throughout, looking to pass their way through to an open net, ideally, and completing the 5th most passes in/around the opponent’s penalty box. Their left-hand side, powered by Tomáš Čelůstka and Ewerton mostly, graded out as the 3rd most dangerous in the league per xG generated from positional attacks.
What went (especially) wrong
Pardubice made a peculiar habit out of losing a fair few games by a wide margin, while barely putting up a fight. You may recall coach Krejčí making two unforced changes inside the first half against Slavia (0:3 loss) and lamenting “the worst first half I’ve ever witnessed” in the role he’s held since 2014 at Mladá Boleslav (0:2 loss). That wasn’t even their worst loss to Boleslav in 2020/21, mind, with them getting smoked 1:4 previously to the tune of 3,88 expected goals against while missing much of their midfield.
Most valuable player
Go down seriously injured mid-March and still top the MVP chart? Welcome to the world of Marek Boháč, the forgotten dominant goalkeeper who truly squeezed all there was from the 21 full starts he got to work with; 7 clean sheets, 8 TotW shortlist appearances, and a stunning 4 MotM’s from Deník Sport.
Curiously, Emil Tischler ran Boháč down to the ground with 472,9 MVP points to the goalkeeper’s 474,9 — and I’m not sure how I feel about it. He seems to be universally loved, but 8 TotW nominations feel a tad overblown.
Finally, back to Boháč and his distance battle with Jiří Letáček who took over from him to… prevent more goals in less space (4,94 to 3,49), equal Boháč’s average Deník Sport mark (6,1) but only earn one TotW and one MotM call.
He was the best goalkeeper per my model, by the way, just so you know.
Chip on the shoulder
So, you only missed 96 minutes across the whole promotion campaign, hence quite naturally started off as the first-choice right back once in the top flight only to lose the spot by mid-December to your 2019/20 backup and never recover from it even when the said promoted backup got eventually injured.
Poor Jan Prosek, honestly — and that’s coming from someone who doesn’t rate him one bit. I’m not saying this development above is humiliating (even if getting jumped over by a right winger definitely adds more spice to it), but it does automatically place a sizeable chip on your shoulder; that’s undeniable.
Formerly of Slavia, Prosek is still in his peak (26), but he had been a career 2nd tier player, and he sure as hell looked like one throughout 2020/21:
(I swear you won’t ever see this empty a pizza chart again, but I had to…)
Inside the club’s off-season
Pardubice will feel especially sad for losing Ewerton who was supposed to return (in exchange for Ladislav Mužík), but then Karel Jarolím of M. Boleslav changed his mind at last-minute while… still getting Mužík anyway?
The silver lining is that while all of Michal Hlavatý, Ewerton, and Michal Surzyn definitely do feel like significant losses, their end product wasn’t particularly shiny (with Surzyn — the fullback — actually topping both attacking midfielders with his 6 points to four and three respectively), meaning Pardubice are, as of now, retaining 3/4s of their 2020/21 points.
As for playing time, they still own a healthy 81,5% of it after they were the cream of the (rigid) crop following their promotion, keeping a league-leading 86,7% of their minute allocation on the books year-over-year last time out.
Biggest addition & subtraction
For once, I join the two sections because theoretically speaking, they do come together. Michal Hlavatý was a big loss, but a Slavia loanee with a similar playing profile in Michal Beran should — theoretically speaking — do well to replace him. Whether he actually will is another matter altogether, and @karl__karlsson isn’t necessarily convinced.
Karel’s great beef with Beran — just like mine — concerns his peculiar tendency to disappear for long stretches and not influence the game nearly enough in the final phase, closer to the goal.
You see, Beran just always performs fine in the first half, and that’s it. I can’t compare him to Hlavatý because of the frustratingly limited sample size (coming 4 minutes short of my arbitrary cut-off), but over his whole top flight career of 1 414 mins, the eye test seems to be proven right somewhat by data. His execution of through balls goes down following the break (85,7% accuracy changes to 40%!) just like his ability to get the ball into the final third or penalty box drops significantly (65,9% / 76,9% accuracy turning into 54,3% / 61,9%). I don’t know, is this a fitness matter or something else?
Secondly, my problem with Beran is that he still doesn’t know when to dwell on the ball and when to pass it over quickly. Personally, I fancy him more in the latter role of an intuitive distributor who doesn’t necessarily play those final passes that turn into assists, but I’m not sure that’s what fans want, too.
To sum up, you are losing Hlavatý while knowing for sure that what you’d already had in the stock isn’t there to step into his shoes (though I do believe Solil is due for a breakout and advanced data don’t do him full justice), and Beran seems further back the development road at this point than Hlavatý.
New kid on the block
Jiří Sláma went back to Olomouc for much of this year’s pre-season only to return last-minute on another loan after failing to crack Václav Jílek’s plans — now with a Surzyn-esque option to buy which Pardubice demanded.
Sláma is 22 and, crucially, very versatile, potentially helping to cover the entire left-hand side. Together with the incoming Júnior Ramos (23), signed for 3 years, they are not exactly kids, but could be in line for big roles. The Brazilian looks good in predictable areas like technique and distribution skills, but needs to work on his tactics and condition — again, as you’d likely expect.
The real kid on the block would be Lukáš Červ whom I had down as a potential captain material when seeing him for Slavia in UEFA Youth League. Červ was an organizer, vocal leader and a capable penalty taker (something that may come in handy, too, with three different executors missing for Pardubice in 2020/21) both in youth football and in 2nd tier last season, so he was naturally due for a step up and looked largely ready in pre-season.
Looking at Jeřábek’s 2020/21 pizza chart, it’s rather suspiciously perfect, and I lean towards not expecting the same sterling returns from a 37-year-old who’s used to playing on the very edge both emotionally and stylistically.
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.
- At a press conference formally concluding the pre-season, sporting director Vít Zavřel admitted the club is still looking to add two players, but doesn’t want to rush things — waiting if some (top) clubs start shedding the depth later, possibly in reaction to UEFA competitions playoffs. That I fully support as well as the positions targeted — “a defender capable of stepping into various roles” (especially the left-sided is needed), and “a striker” (especially one who would combine the traits of Černý and Huf);
- Only Slavia know why they loaned out their top goalkeeping prospect to a club with such a great one-two punch in goal. And if there’s a clause mandating a certain number of starts for Markovič, then only Pardubice know why they chose to go for it despite already having such a great one-two punch in goal. I can’t quite see the scenario where this doesn’t become awkward one way or another, honestly, with Boháč set to return sometime in August-September; maybe October the latest. What’s your plan then?
- As I wrote in Plzeň preview: bring in Koželuh on loan to give yourself a viable option of pushing Cadu higher up without compromising the RB position with Prosek. However good Cadu looked at fullback in the spring, he’s still no natural there and Kostka looked a better fit at left wing to me;
Statistical/tactical trend to follow
It’s become a big fat cliché, but there’s some element of truth to it: no one will be underestimating Pardubice in their second year, and while far from losing their charm, the fact 14 of these clubs will face them for the 3rd and 4th time instead of 1st and 2nd is bound to cause some sort of a difference in approach.
Sooner or later, therefore, Jiří Krejčí might be enticed to add a new weapon or two. And to suggest there’s no space for it would be foolish; I mean, the club literally replaced Hlavatý with a midfielder who plays and looks the same.
One area to focus on: attacking set pieces. Pardubice were even worse at defending them, conceding the 2nd highest xGA from non-penalty set pieces, but we are talking weapons here. To be fair, a part of the problem is that Pardubice weren’t getting enough of corner kick opportunities in the first place (3,97 per game compared to 6,29 for their opponents) but they didn’t do nearly enough on delivery either. A change will now occur organically — with the departed Ewerton and Surzyn as frequent right-footed takers — but the question is whether the step will be made in a positive direction or not.
Another thing: where are the crosses coming from? Combination on the ground has been Krejčí’s mantra all along (2nd least completed crosses in/to the box), and kudos for that, but with Surzyn gone and Tischler/Kostka on the wings, that option is about as good as gone even with Huf lurking upfront.
Again, variability is key sometimes — more so following your freshman year — and with the 2nd least counter-attacks led (and 15th most dangerous counters by xG generated per game) on top, you’re vastly limiting your ways.
Roster battle to follow
For the entirety of the autumn, that centre back pairing was unshakeable — and largely unshook by the occasion neither of the centre halves had experienced in any reasonable bunch. Toml had played a total of 180 top flight minutes before 2020/21 and none in four whole years; Šejvl had accrued no top level experience whatsoever. Then they combined for one game missed all autumn long (Šejvl on November 7) and coped just fine, leading Pardubice to a respectable 12th best non-penalty xGA at Christmas.
Following the winter break, however, Šejvl added only 8 more full starts whilst Plzeň loanee-turned-Pardubice player Filip Čihák mostly impressed in his place, helping the newcomers to an even better spring NPxGA (9th).
So what now?
It appears as though Čihák has regained his starter’s spot over the pre-season (Šejvl again closed out the season next to the ever-present Toml), but for how long? I’d say “forever, ideally”, since you can see below for yourself that Šejvl doesn’t have a single stand-out feature whereas Čihák appears to have three…
The prediction: Pardubice will finish at least 15 points above the drop
The rationale: It’s become an automatic thing. “Sophomore seasons are brutal” is about as common a phrase as it an unproven one, and I’m here to say NO, STOP IT. I’m sure Pardubice won’t finish as high as 7th again, but come on, that doesn’t mean we need to overcompensate by putting them down as relegation candidates (which I’ve seen way too many people genuinely do).
You know when was the last time a recently promoted side went down in their sophomore year? Č. Budějovice escaped comfortably, by 12 points, last term. Opava and Příbram were saved by, erm, Covid the year before. Olomouc and Ostrava finished 9th and 5th respectively in 2018/19; Zlín shot all the way up to the 6th two years before that. Karviná were immensely lucky in 2017/18 not to go down, but hey, they’re still around to this day, so what curse exactly?
To answer my original question: you’d have to turn the clock back an insane 11 years to find a 2nd-year downer, and that was the infamous FK Bohemians Praha fiasco (officially a 1-point season following the 15-point deduction). Then again, they sat a mere 5 points above the drop in their freshman year; Pardubice boasted double the points total Brno — first relegated side — did.
So yeah, finishing 5 wins above the relegation zone? Totally navigable for a legitimately decent side like Pardubice. And a spare 15 points would walk you into the 10th place just ahead of Bohemians, so it’s not like I’m going overboard either.