For the past two years, I have published a list of players that I consider to be some of the best and most exciting youngsters that the Czech Republic has to offer. Twelve months after publication, I have cast an eye over their development and reviewed their fortunes. Admittedly, this is by no means a novel concept, but it is one that has served this blog and countless other websites well.
The 2015 group had a mixed bag. Ales Mateju soared, rising through the ranks first at Pribram and then at Viktoria Plzen, others suffered serious injuries and would spend more time getting treatment that playing football. And then there was Daniel Holzer, who had an absolutely abject year.
This year, the ‘rules’ regarding eligibility have changed. As long as they are playing in the Czech Republic and can be classed as a young ‘un*, then they are up for nomination.
So, without further ado, here is the new and improved Jedenact (The 11) for 2016.
Club: Mlada Boleslav (on loan from Sparta Prague)
Jiri Skalak’s form has seen him move to Brighton, Ondrej Zahustel has made the move to Letna after becoming the player we all knew he could be, and the resurgence of Milan Baros and Lukas Magera has seen the veteran pair be mentioned – in hushed tones – that they could do a job in France this summer.
While the aforementioned four have all been exceptional, Ales Cermak has flown under the radar somewhat.
The midfielder first rose to a degree of prominence last season, when he was on loan at Hradec Kralove. The first six months of his tenure at the Vsesportovni Stadion were not anything to write home about, but the second half of stint certainly was. With Votroci struggling, Cermak began to stand out and recorded three goals and three assists in twelve games.
With no place for him at Letna, he was loaned out once more, with Mlada Boleslav the destination. At the Adidas Arena, he has come on in leaps and bounds. Used as a winger, attacking midfielder and as a more conventional central midfielder, Cermak has been incredibly consistent – whatever the job given to him, he’s done it well and rarely put a foot wrong.
He has also made a belated step up to the Czech Under-21s. After two years in the international wilderness, his versatility and composure have seen him become an important part of Vitezslav Lavicka’s rebuilt side.
Matej Chalus! But he’s only played two games at senior level – and one of those was as a 90th minute substitute! Are you mad?
However, let me explain: He’s at Pribram, he’s been a standout in their UEFA Youth League campaign and he’s a regular youth international, representing his country ten times at Under-17 and 5 times at Under-18 last year. After his full Synot Liga debut against Sigma Olomouc, he was singled out by Roman Bednar and by his coach Pavel Tobias for his performance. “Chaly was great, but I knew the say before the match that he’d be good,” the former West Brom forward said.
Let’s make this clear: I am not expecting Chalus to be a first-team regular next week or even next month. What I am expecting is progression. Tomas Zapatocny and Radek Dosoudil are the wrong side of thirty and come the summer, Chalus could – perhaps should – be a first-choice centre-back in the Synot Liga at the age of eighteen.
Marek Havlik ticks all the boxes. He is a regular youth international and has started every game for Slovacko this season. But rewind twelve months and you could say the exact same thing – so why now?
Well, the main reason is that he is now free of his former teammate Michal Travnik. This is not to say that the now Jablonec midfielder was a suffocating presence in Uherske Hradiste, but it is clear – statistically alt least – that Havlik has come on by leaps and bounds since Travnik headed north. He is more confident in front of goal, his pass completion percentages have improved, he is covering more ground than last season and he is pinching the ball away from the opposition as if he were a younger and slighter Czech version of Ngolo Kante.
Okay, so that last remark was very hyperbolic, but Havlik has become a much better player over the past couple of months.
Club: Bohemians 1905
With Bohemians leading Viktoria Plzen by three goals to two, Roman Pivarnik gave Michal Hubinek his debut. It lasted less than a minute.
The next time Hubinek appeared in a Klokani shirt was four months later in the northern town of Teplice. There, he managed to squeeze in nine minutes before the referee, Pavel Kralovec, blew for full-time. Two weeks later, in Uherske Hradiste, he was brought on with twenty-five minutes to go. In the following fixture, against Slovan Liberec, he was named in the starting eleven. And that is where he has remained.
In many ways, Michal Hubinek is very similar to Tomas Soucek. He isn’t particularly flashy and his role within Roman Pivarnik’s 4-4-2 is a cautious one: play the simple ball, close down the opposition and if you do go forward, don’t you dare get caught out of position if possession is lost. But unlike Soucek, Hubinek is more an atypical box-to-box midfielder, albeit one with slightly diminished attacking responsibility.
In his eight starting appearances for Bohemians 1905 this season, the twenty-one-year-old has cut a composed figure in the centre of midfield: He’s made the right pass, held his position well and starved opponents space in behind Bohemians’ midfield line. This is all well and good, though it is admittedly not outstanding. You could say that he is a functional player in a functional squad – and I’m sure that there is some truth to that presumption – but when he has been given the chance to roam against lesser opposition, he has done so to good effect. He scored his first goal in senior football against Brno and cut open Banik Ostrava on a regular basis, managing to record a Mesut Ozil-style assist in the process.
Club: Jablonec (on loan from CSKA Moscow)
Much like his compatriot Dmitri Efremov, it is hard to picture Vyacheslav Karavaev playing his football in the Czech Republic next year.
After an impressive debut season in the country with Dukla Prague, the Russian right-back was courted by a number of clubs when his loan deal came to an end. With plenty of offers on the table and CSKA Moscow willing to loan him for a second season, he signed for Jablonec where he has continued to impress, despite Pelta’s Galacticos being something of a damp squib this term.
As capable driving forwards as he is when defending, the twenty-year-old has addressed a minor weakness of his game this season and added goals to his already extensive repertoire. And given that he’s been deployed on both flanks and has recently been used as a winger in winter trainer, he’s shown that he’s versatile too.
Surely he’ll be fighting for a place in CSKA’s starting eleven next season. Surely?
Club: Slovan Liberec
Does a nineteen-year-old midfielder with just three senior appearances to his name deserve to be on this list at the expense of, say, Antonin Barak or Dmitri Efremov?
Objectively, the answer is no.
But sometimes, you get a little feeling that a player is special and your gut instinct overrules whatever it is that your head is telling you.
With Zdenek Folprecht and a handful of other central midfielders absent in the run-up to Liberec’s tie with Sparta Prague towards the end of November, Jindrich Trpisovsky did not give fringe players such as Soune Soungole or Karel Knejzlik the chance to impose themselves on first-team affairs; he handed the opportunity to Machuca, who not even kicked a ball in anger for the senior side yet. And what a debut he had; he looked like he had been taking the fight to Sparta for years.
I am not sure what to expect of Machuca this year. He is certainly sure to benefit from the departure of club captain David Pavelka, but time will tell to what degree. Will he step up and fill the rather gaping hole in the centre of Liberec’s midfield or is he destined to spend time as an understudy to Folprecht and new signing Radim Breite?
However, if his debut is anything to go by, I’m tipping him to have a big year.
Club: Slavia Prague
One of many to walk through the gates of Eden this transfer window, Jaroslav Mihalik is on this list solely because of the name he has made south of the border.
Just twenty-one, Mihalik has already made over one-hundred senior appearances and is an established international at youth level, turning out for Slovakia’s U17s, U19s and U21s. So far this season, the winger – who I’ve been told is capable of playing on both the right and left flank -has featured eighteen times for Zilina, scoring six and setting up four (according to Transfermarkt.)
Will the switch to Slavia be the right one?
Club: Viktoria Plzen
From the substitutes’ bench at Pribram to Viktoria Plzen’s starting full-back, Ales Mateju enjoyed an exceptional 2015. The only question is whether or not he will be able to sustain his rapid progression through the Synot Liga’s ranks.
With Frantisek Rajtoral somewhere back to his usual form and Radin Reznik nearing full fitness after a year out, the young pretender has two full internationals looking to usurp him from the team.
In the short-term, Mateju has a battle on his hands. But medium-to-long-term? That right-back slot should be his and his alone.
Club: Bohemians 1905 (on loan from Sparta Prague)
To be blunt, Patrik Schick was going nowhere at Sparta Prague. That is not a criticism of his ability, Sparta’s youth system or the philosophy of Zdenek Scasny, but it is just the stark reality of being in the shadow of David Lafata (and for a time, Vaclav Kadlec).
So, his loan move to Bohemians 1905 this past summer was welcomed. Prior to his move across the capital, the gangly centre-forward had played just thirty-nine minutes of top-flight football in two seasons. Now, he is a regular starter who is providing both goals and assists for club and country on a consistent basis.
Yes, there are flaws. He isn’t as imposing as somebody with his height should be and his conversion rate is pretty poor all things considered, but week after week he has shown a willingness to put himself about, cause defenders problems and have a shot at goal whenever the opportunity arises.
He has the raw tools and talent required, he just needs the opportunity to grow and learn. After that, who knows.
Club: Slavia Prague
Prior to the start of this season, Tomas Soucek had not played a minute of competitive football for Slavia Prague. Fifteen games later, he has arguably become the team’s most important player.While other names at the club have stolen the headlines, Soucek has quietly gone about his business.
Rarely superfluous with the ball, the twenty-year-old does the dirty work in the middle-of-the-park that allows his more creative teammates to make the bombarding forward runs and Hollywood passes. He ranks fifth in the league in terms of physical battles won, is tenth overall for making interceptions, has collected six yellow cards in fifteen games (fourth highest in the country), and is the most likely Slavia player to throw himself into a tackle.
It would be wrong, however, to typecast him as a one-dimensional, thug of a midfielder that would appeal to the likes of Tony Pulis and company. Since becoming a Synot Liga regular he has scored three goals for club and country and is statistically in the upper echelon of performers when it comes to pass completion percentages. He can run, tackle, pass and score. What’s not to love?
Club: Mlada Boleslav
As mentioned in my 2015 report, Takacs fell out of favour at Teplice last year and would end the year on loan with second division high-flyers Banik Sokolov. By all accounts, his spell at Sokolov was nothing short of outstanding. Ultimately, this decision would have its consequences: The Czech U21 international called for a permanent move away from Na Stinadlech. Mlada Boleslav heard and duly answered.
Capable of playing as a defensive midfielder and as a centre-back, Takacs looks set for a very interesting 2016. He is more than capable to play at this level, but what was the reason for his shift from first-team regular to a bit-part player to outcast? Can this be explained by successive changes in management and tactical styles or is there something else that we don’t know about?
- Antonin Barak (Slavia Prague)
- Originally made the list, but dropped off after his move to Slavia. Talented, but first-team football could be an issue.
- Eldar Civic (Slovacko)
- Has all the stats to figure prominently, but I cannot recall ever seeing him play despite the Bosnian making fifteen appearances this season.
- Dmitri Efremov (Slovan Liberec, on loan from CSKA Moscow)
- At times amazing, at times invisible. When he switches it on, though, he is unplayable.
- Jiri Januska (Pribram)
- Pribram’s next midfield star.
- Lukas Julis (Sparta Prague)
- There’s the small problem of David Lafata. Playing time will be hard to come by.
*Young ‘un = Born on or after 01.01.1994.
- Posted by Chris Boothroyd
- On 7th February 2016