2023/24 team preview: AC Sparta Praha

Tomas Danicek
18 min readJul 20


source: sparta.cz

Nine years of title drought? Enough, said AC Sparta Praha. Since the early 1980s when the club was still recovering from their shocking (and to date sole) 1975 relegation, the most successful Czech brand in history with 37 laurels to its name had topped out at three straight title-less campaigns. Just three. Of course, Sparta did provide their fans with something to celebrate over those largely miserable 9 years, but not even the 2020 domestic cup triumph (alone at that!) or the European year 2016 (first the famous run to Europa League quarter-final, then the dominant victory over Frank De Boer’s Inter Milan) could ever truly compensate for a title pure joy-wise. Now that the mental block is gone, Sparta are ready to retain the crown; something they — incredibly — haven’t achieved since 2001…

They used to be good at this stuff. Between 1984 and 2001, Sparta had pulled off eleven successful title defences (collecting 15 titles in total). This is their sixth league triumph since then — and their sixth attempt to repeat the feat. In every case bar one, the top dog turned runner-up; the 19-point drop between 2005-06 standing alone as a definite outlier (much like the 21-point drop between 1995-96… I’m told 5 and 6 are not part of this season!).

Of course, the similarities between this and last title-winning campaigns are clear to see. Back in 2013, Sparta were also aided by a surprisingly early UEFA exit at the hands of Scandinavians. They were also led by a soft-spoken coach (Vítězslav Lavička then, Brian Priske now) treating the mental side of the game as an important aspect, creating a bit of a safe bubble around the team. Both teams relied on crosses; both had an elite goalscorer rubbing fans of other clubs the wrong way (David Lafata, Jan Kuchta); and both found a formidable source of secondary non-penalty scoring (Josef Hušbauer, Tomáš Čvančara). This wasn’t always the case.

Of course, there are also huge differences, most notably the fact Lavička’s Sparta proceeded to win 10 of the first 11 and only suffered one league loss (at Teplice!) the rest of the way, whereas Priske’s Sparta had limped out of the gate to the tune of joint-record five draws in a row and absolutely required the 0:4 derby slap from Slavia to switch it up and truly wake up — in order to immediately beat two UEFA participants without conceding.

Still, it’s fun to see parallels and perhaps learn from history, isn’t it…

Looking back on 2022/23

What went (particularly) right

No, I’m not going to dwell on penalty decisions in this space, even though I do genuinely believe no one can readily discard the notion of Daniel Křetínský entering the refs’ dressing room and (albeit inadvertently) influencing the late-season decision-making in Sparta games. This sort of stuff typically does lead to a knock-on effect beyond one’s comprehension.

Far more importantly, Sparta were deserved title winners in more ways than one. Firstly, they were the best travelling team — earning 63,3% of xG and boasting the best offence (1,87 xGF) as well as defence (1,09 xGA). Slavia were not too far away on either of all particularly vital counts, with the sole exception of actual goal share — lagging 11,8% behind Sparta’s 70%.

Secondly, they were once again outright undefendable on attacking set pieces, bagging an astonishing 32% of their non-penalty goals that way. Is the average of 1,22 open-play goals per game kind of a drag for a title contender? Sure, absolutely, it could very well be — but not if you keep up some 60% likelihood of bagging a non-penalty set piece goal each time. The average (0,59 xGF per match) far exceeded that of Plzeň (ranked 2nd) and even further topped that of Slavia who were glad for something around 0,4.

Finally, the derby-inspired switch from 4-4-2 (or 4-2-3-1) to a three-at-the-back formation has obviously worked a treat for Sparta. It’s helped to elevate the individual games of the likes of Martin Vitík, Jan Kuchta and Lukáš Haraslín, leading to a stunning rise in average xGF (from 1,76 to 2,34) to go with more assurance at the back end, too (from 1,11 to 1,00).

What went (especially) wrong

Surely, banking on a largely unproven 22-year-old in the goal must’ve been a mistake! Oh, you say he’d put in six difference-making shifts in 2023 alone (three of them to open the calendar year) to truly get the ball rolling for them? A’ight then. Surely then, shoving your second best centre forward to the side and insering a slow Fin into a two-man central midfield must’ve tripped them over! Oh, you say Kaan Kairinen participated on 12 goals scored in his 13-ish starts, while Tomáš Čvančara earned himself a €11,5-million move? That’s silly. Good on them! You see, Priske made some gutsy moves, but despite a few teething problems, they almost never backfired.

In the end, you’ve got to do some nit-picking to make a case for Sparta not deserving the title. Deriving only 46,3% of all xGF from positional attacking is never a good look for your build-up — and it’s the lowest portion posted league-wide. Sparta did indeed struggle to build from the back, especially when it comes to feeding the wide channels where they only recorded 5th (left) and 7th (right) highest average of xGF; especially poor mark for a title challenger. Other than that, Sparta had some reserves in counter-pressing.

Most valuable player (still on board)

per my MVP model reflecting traditional stats: Jan Kuchta (4th in F:LIGA)
per my positional models reflecting advanced stats: Lukáš Haraslín (W)
per Statsbomb’s On-Ball Value (OBV) metric: Tomáš Wiesner

Since I’m well aware most of you are here craving a Ladislav Krejčí pizza chart, I’m going to give it to you, but first hear me out: achieving the status of a club icon is not the same as achieving league-wide greatness. Krejčí has already cleared the first checkpoint as a title-winning captain (or so I’d argue), but he remains rather far removed from clearing the second one.

Ladislav Krejčí is, obviously, a formidable force upfront. He was the third most dangerous centre back per combined non-penalty xG+xA (almost exclusively the former), a Top 5 creator (mostly via secondary contributions), and a decent half-space feeder. However, he’s still not a smart defender, making a fair amount of shocking decisions at the back.

As the foremost distributor, I find him to be especially vulnerable to getting blindsided while taking too much time on the ball waiting for a passing lane to open up. I counted seven such blunders in the build-up, far too steep a number. This lack of peripheral vision/awareness, also demonstrated by the below-par rate of controlled clearances, severely limits his upside.

Now, I’m not here to underplay Krejčí’s role in the title hunt. It may have been “just” penalties, but plenty of them late ones, and that’s one special discipline. Through that, he’s injected the whole team with composure, providing it with quiet guidance on top of some very loud one otherwise, acting as this football mirror of Panthers’ Matthew Tkachuk on a play-off heater. Loved or loathed, Krejčí will forever be the symbol of this title run.

Sparta’s Most Valuable Player he was not, though, I’m sorry for that.

See explanatory notes on each metric here.

Now that’s off my chest, I’m sure there’s little suspense for my actual MVP. While I had briefly considered Asger Sørensen, too, Lukáš Haraslín was arguably the single most important factor in Sparta’s turnaround. You might recall he wasn’t part of the early-season struggles, mostly really participating on Sparta’s long unbeaten streak reaching a fine 21 games. On the first try, his pair of assists helped to silence revolting Pardubice; on the fourth try, he posted 1+1 to slash Slovácko. On the fifth try, he knocked out České Budějovice with a sole goal of the last autumn game. Had it not been for him, Sparta would’ve hardly reacted to the Slavia debacle as positively.

And off he went. Haraslín participated on at least one goal scored in the first four spring matches, as well, soon proceeding to put together another strong period of play (six games bearing his goal contribution within R23-29). Inbetween, while not famous for his defensive game, Haraslín actually made for a spectacular ball recovery machine up high (leading all regular wingers with 2,55 recoveries in final third per 90) to go with his predictably unrivalled foul-drawing ability. His decision-making in the box = spot on.

See explanatory notes on each metric here.

Chip on the shoulder

who’s got something to particularly prove — either to himself, fans or the coach

Martin Minchev has built a peculiar reputation among Sparta fans themselves. Some would sell him for any minor profit; others wouldn’t get fooled for anything. Nicknamed “Bulgarian Prince”, he’s famous for easily destroying Pardubice (and grabbing his balls in celebration, I suppose) only to generate no real output the very next game — and maybe two more. Sometimes it’s genuinely hard to tell whether the mass excitement over whichever good little thing he does is actually real or just plain ironic.

Nevertheless, Minchev is not a useless footballer and has improved over the year. There is strength in duels, quick first three steps to utilize always. There is the drive and willingness to cause damage inside the penalty area that’s led him to performing a significant 24 successful actions in the box (including the third highest rate of high-danger shots) across 12,73 starts.

Čvančara leaving a big hole to fill now feels like a real pivotal moment for Minchev’s Sparta career. He either runs away with it and never looks back, or he’ll ultimately be seen as — at least — a mild failure relative to his initial pricetag-related hype. For what it’s worth, I’ve fancied him far more on the left than on the right, and it’s hard to see any favourable development in that direction, so it’s pretty much either right wing or bust for Minchev.

See explanatory notes on each metric here.

Inside the club’s off-season

with much thanks to @odbrzdeno, @vitastudlar, @martin2121h, @SlowboyTheBeard, @kridelnikv, @acsfratello, @TomasUrbanek_ and @interhofer for guiding me through the motions of Sparta’s pre-season

Squad turnover

Tomáš Čvančara alone is the difference between Sparta retaining almost all 2022/23 goals (94,6%) and only barely reaching three quarters (78,4%), which actually constitutes a bigger dent in Sparta’s goalscoring power than what Hložek’s departure meant last summer (71,4% instead of 84,3%).

Other than that, Sparta are fine, retaining the 5th most minutes and not losing any other outfield player worth of more than 700 mins of playing time. At least for now; James Gomez could signal an upcoming Martin Vitík goodbye (6th most used), Haraslín feels like he’s perennially got one foot out of the door (11th) and Adam Karabec (18th) could still leave amid reports, too, despite spending most of the pre-season on the sidelines.

These three, on top of Matěj Kovář and Čvančara, would already see Sparta plummet down to 11th place league-wide, retaining just over 70% of 2022/23 action. Then again, that’s just the catastrophic scenario really.

Biggest upgrade

There was a point last season — or a prolonged period, rather — when Haraslín looked genuinely and utterly knackered from all the team-carrying on his back. That alone made signing a similarly built backup one of Sparta’s priorities for this summer, duly met by Veljko Birmančević.

Luckily for me, guys with a more polished scouting eye have already profiled the incoming Serb over at Sparťanské noviny, so if you understand Czech, please kindly head over there. If not, here’s an English abstract for you provided by @kridelnikv while I nip out for my third coffee of the day…

The arrival of Birmančević, who comes on loan with an option to buy, can prove crucial in that he provides a back-up option to Haraslín (non-existent during the spring) but can also fill in on the right side of the attacking trio, or even below the striker at a no. 10 position. He has experience with operating along the bylines, too, meaning he can replicate Haraslín’s interchanges with Zelený and is much better at combining in danger areas than Haraslín.

The last point also helps his potential cooperation with the Slovak, who is more of a ball-carrying type but likes to perform one-twos to create space for himself. Birmančević was there to facilitate them and might also be at the end of various attacking moves with his affection for a cutback shot. Overall, the Serb shall lead Sparta to become faster on the move, as he often does what first comes to his mind. He is also quite weak physically which is probably the biggest question mark regarding his success over here.

The club needs to have such an exclamation point in mind and focus more on utilizing combinations around the centre of the pitch instead of crosses (ever-present throughout spring). Birmančević may help Priske to make his team’s play less predictable, while he also (because of the hight “operating” costs of his loan alone) needs to — and probably will be able to — contribute to plenty of goals.

*takes a long sip from his coffee mug* Cheers, Vojta, I’ve really enjoyed that.

While we’re here, though, let’s take a brief stop at Michal Ševčík, who isn’t quite expected to represent an upgrade on anyone, but isn’t to be underestimated either. If Birmančević acts on his guts, Ševčík makes for a similarly prompt decision-maker, often needing only a split second to send even the notoriously slow Řezníček through with a long-distance split pass.

See explanatory notes on each metric here.

That said, Ševčík is most probably a longterm project for Priske who didn’t find space for him in either of his two distinct XIs for the tune-up match. He confirmed there was no health issue to consider; just his preference.

Biggest downgrade

There are two good candidates as of now. Čvančara will be dearly missed point production-wise, but in terms of underlying numbers, it very much depends on how you see him. I ran him through both W and CF models, with him grading out as a suspiciously below-par winger and a fittingly elite centre forward. In reality, he’s probably somewhere between the two percentile values, but I must say his CF pizza chart is enticingly balanced.

See explanatory notes on each metric here.

At the same time, I do believe Sparta are well-positioned to absorb this loss, though — even without Victor Olatunji making the RWF role his (unfamiliar) own like Čvančara did. As we got to know above, Birmančević is capable of operating on the right, too (and might have an inside track), while there’s still Jakub Pešek (inspiring since his return from a long lay-off), Ševčík, Kryštof Daněk, Tomáš Wiesner (still think he’s a better winger than anything else) and Adam Karabec, of course, who’s now a full-time inside forward. After the pizza chart flattered him last summer, there’s nothing of the sort to report this year, with the 20-year-old talent posting some concerning underlying numbers in terms of prime offensive output:

See explanatory notes on each metric here.

Ultimately, the biggest downgrade goes to Matěj Kovář where Sparta decidedly aren’t ready to compensate for his loss internally. As you’re probably aware by now, I’m not as big a fan of his distribution skills as most seem to be — I’d like to see him spread the ball more, and generally for his build-up to be more consequential, to jump on the bandwagon — but I am as big a fan of his aerial dominance and reflexes as they come. Besides, I know how Priske hates an unsure goalkeeper when coming off the line, and Vojtěch Vorel — current no. 1 by default — might be even shakier than Holec. Oh yeah, that’d be the title-winning goalkeeper Dominik Holec, btw. :)

See explanatory notes on each metric here.

New kid on the block

There was some considerable early buzz generated by Amath Cissé, who’s not the youngest anymore (b. 2001) but was born in the same year and country — and has much the same technical/tactical limits while delivering the goods (#goalz) in bunches — as a certain Abdallah Sima, so there you go.

There’s also considerable buzz forming around The Big Three of the Future AKA Daniel Rus, Vojtěch Hranoš and Roman Mokrovics AKA possibly top 5-10 talents of their 2006 class; the latter two sourced from Moravia/Silesia. They arrive exactly 10 years after a pretty decent 1996 class headlined by the high-profile likes of Patrik Schick, Jindřich Staněk and Michal Sáček.

As for the actual pick, I’ll go to Ondřej Kukučka; representative of a particularly strong Baník Ostrava batch, for a change (the notorious class of 2004). He’s been introduced to me as a “younger version of Sørensen” by @odbrzdeno — the mature, steady presence offering, calm under the pressure kind of a centre back — a high praise for someone still in his teens. Kukučka was already B-team’s mainstay in the second tier last term, so appears to be primed for promotion, and he’s indeed looked readier than his peer Patrik Vydra (who had already been promoted during 2022/23).

Much like @acsfratello, I didn’t like Vydra’s (kinda forced) aggressiveness when stepping out of the line, often leading to dangerous set pieces. Kukučka is, meanwhile, a feasible candidate for the middle centre back even at his tender age, charting long passes with “Panák-esque ease”.

On that note, I won’t pass up on any excuse to post Panák’s pizza, apologies.

See explanatory notes on each metric here.

See, we totally need more of Panák’s trademark elegance in our lives.

Go on then, kid!

Looking ahead to 2023/24

Below is the team’s current(ish) depth chart with a maximum of 4 alternatives for one position. The depth chart is up to date as of July 13 and obviously subject to change since the transfer window is far from closed at the moment. Players highlighted in red are longterm absentees rather far from making a comeback, while players in italics are all-but-confirmed arrivals. Those likely to depart will be highlighted in the text below, as will some other depth options or changes occurring since the deadline. To add a little flavour, I’ve intuitively rated various positions/areas of the pitch — goal, right flank, left flank, central defence, central midfield, forward positions (incl. attacking midfielders) — on a simple scale consisting of 5 tiers, which is what the different shading (blue to red) represents.

Need left to be addressed

Here we go again. Of course the fans are not convinced by right wing back personnel, and I’m not here to make this many enemies, so bold it goes.

However, as you’re perhaps already suspecting, I’m not quite on board. Jan Mejdr was always a poor fit for the targeted assymetry (tucked in creators on the right, more straightforward, down the line contributors on the left), and he arguably remains one despite spending the pre-season on fire.

Tomáš Wiesner, meanwhile, wasn’t an ideal right back material, but he very much is the perfect right wing back material, I’m afraid. I appreciate — and understand — fans suffer from severe PTSD anytime there’s a cross heading towards his post where he’s routinely absent(minded), but otherwise…

I mean, if you’re looking at a fullback who’s a renowned cutback aficionado on top of being the most prolific chance-goal creator (in a pool that features David Jurásek no less) who gains you the attacking penalty area at the fourth highest open-play rate… and you still complain and complain and complain… then maybe it’s you who has a problem, not Wiesner. Soz not soz.

(Otherwise, of course, fixing the goaltending is the biggest need right now.)

Some random notes on the depth chart:

  • James Gomez is naturally missing from the depth chart as a very recent addition, and he may be a bit like Dimitrije Kamenović in that he starts with the reserves in the hope of earning the promotion down the road. That’s because he’s apparently still a raw (but very powerful, strong) 21-year-old kid with a rough season in the Danish top tier behind him.
  • Matěj Ryneš is here to stay, and that’s genuinely lovely to hear. I’ve banged the “closest thing we have to Jurásek” drum along with an even bolder “they need to go to 2024 Euro together as our two left wingbacks” drum forever now, so I won’t bug you any longer, I just wanted to use this space to tell you Sparta fans are fully with me after an inspired pre-season, leading Tomáš Rosický to refuse to even pick up phone calls in the first place. Ryneš is an equally good candidate for LWB and LW to me. (For his beautiful pizza chart, please refer to my Hradec preview.)
  • While Jakub Pešek has taken the wingback role — right or left — in his stride and could make it his own eventually, Kryštof Daněk has also featured in an unfamiliar position (no. 8) which may easily suit him. If there’s one area where he’s progressed dramatically under Priske, it’s his tactical and positional discipline, highlighted by some tremendous backtracking and balls won very deep inside his own half. You can see those qualities reflected in his winger pizza chart, as well. That, along with his refined dribbling, makes him a tad belated upgrade on Sáček.
See explanatory notes on each metric here.
  • There was a whole iSkaut episode dedicated to Jaroslav Zelený, a peculiar choice at first glance, but fully deserved one at second. Two things I particularly like about him: 1) he’s a very distinguished crosser who barely ever rushes into a delivery (antithesis to Mejdr), thus seeing only two of his 39 attempted crosses blocked within a few steps; 2) he has a fantastic feel for combination play, which makes for a deadly tandem with his elite progression skill via runs with the ball (6th).
  • I’m well aware I owe you an Olatunji pizza chart, so stop shouting at me, thank you very much! For some insight on him, see my Liberec preview.
See explanatory notes on each metric here.
  • Finally, credit to Priske for striking a great CM partnership in Kairinen and Lukáš Sadílek. It’s never easy when you’re fielding a largely abandoned double pivot, but with the sensational satellite that is Sadílek, you can afford to sacrifice legs for some more brains in Kairinen. In the end, Sadílek delivered the 5th best average percentile in the “deep defending & reliability” bracket and the 2nd best in “added value upfront”, while Kairinen chipped in with the very best “added value upfront” and sharper “cutting edge & vision” (11th) supported by a fairly strong positional sense (not many progressive passes allowed to go past him) and aerial contribution (best success rate in his own half).

Roster battle to follow

It’s hard to believe given that he had played an absolutely instrumental role in the title hunt, but my consultants report Priske has been far from satisfied with Jan Kuchta since he’s been purchased permanently, even calling him out publicly in the sense that he can’t go on living from the past. The past in this case making for quite a complex pizza chart, btw:

See explanatory notes on each metric here.

Whilst Kuchta appears to be struggling fitness-wise, meanwhile, Václav Sejk has hit the ground running back home following the short U-21 Euro, and might actually have the edge right now after starting the dress rehearsal. This, of course, isn’t unreasonable as he likes to offer the same kind of a (positive) annoying presence Kuchta typically brings to the table.

Season forecast

The projection is based on team quality assessed by Elo rating system. The system optimally weighs past results, taking strength of schedule and home field advantage into consideration. Just like last year, the model is additionally fed by my personal assessment of off season changes, for better or worse, to account for what the model can’t capture. MOL Cup is also simulated. The probability of qualifying for UEFA competitions takes both the league and the cup into account. For a more technical explanation of how the model works, kindly head here.

The 27% likelihood of a successful title defence doesn’t look promising, I suppose, but people should know this was forecast with Čvančara (and Vitík) still on board. Should the latter’s absence from pre-season action translate into a dreaded departure, further weaking Sparta’s ability to build from the back, you’re potentially looking at a third-best team with only a 10% shot at the repeated glory in Jakub’s model’s (adjusted) eyes. Damn.

That said, the model is definitely starting to warm up to Sparta as a bonafide contender, lifting its title projection from last year’s 16%.

Bold prediction

The track record: 1/2. Kuchta didn’t only score against his old clubs

The prediction: Asger Sørensen delivers one more Priske birthday gift

The rationale: Last season, I burned myself badly, predicting Kuchta will only be able to score against his former employers… so naturally, I go back to goal-based bold prediction this year — settling for one goal only this time.

The thing is, that goal must come on a very specific date. While surely not many of you noticed, Asger Sørensen bagged possibly the most important goal of his career (the 2:1 go-ahead goal in the last Prague S derby of the season) on the eve of his favourite compatriot’s birthday. So nice of him.

Next May, he’ll be there for Brian Priske once more.

That’s how much of a good guy he is — and a bloody good player, too:

See explanatory notes on each metric here.

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Tomas Danicek

One independent Czech writer’s views on Czech football. Simple as that really. Also to be found on Twitter @czechfooty.