As part of its build-up to the European Championships in Poland and Ukraine, Slavic Football Union is running a series of tactical previews on the eastern European sides taking part in the tournament. In this addition, we take a look at the Czech Republic…
Only Petr Cech and Jarslav Plasil remain from the Czech side that last experienced football at the European Championships – a painful late late defeat at the hands of Turkey in 2008. Although that tournament was now four years ago, the loss of senior squad members Zdenek Grygera, Tomas Ujfalusi, David Rozehnal, Marek Jankulovski, Tomas Galasek, Jan Koller and David Jarolim represents a chasm of quality and wherewithal that has needed replacing. A disastrous 2010 World Cup qualifying campaign only acted to highlight the scale of the task at hand, but the Czech’s grew into qualifying for 2012 and were worthy and comprehensive victors over Montenegro in November’s play-off.
Michal Bilek has experienced a rough ride since his appointment in 2009. Whilst he would attribute the use of more than fifty players and various tactical systems to the transitional state of the squad, it took until the second half of the qualifying campaign for him to fully identify a successful modus operandi.
Despite being a successful player who won 35 caps (32 for Czechslovakia and 3 for the Czech Republic) for his country, Bilek’s appointment as national coach was met with widespread scepticism. A thin coaching CV, which featured seven jobs in eight years, was largely undistinguished, and he was accused of being overly conservative due to him having generally experienced posting with smaller, less equipped teams. Many also suspected that his close friendship with Ivan Hasek, the then chairman of the Czech Football Association (FAČR), as being the primary reason for his appointment.
A 3-0 friendly defeat against Norway back in August was described as the one of the worst performances since the formation of the national side in 1994 and Bilek had to withstand many people demanding that he resign. Things have improved since, but with his contract due to expire after the tournament, long-term prospects remain in the balance.
The current side undoubtedly lack the same individual quality of the sides of 1996, 2004 and 2008, but they have ripened at a good time, finding cohesion and spirit as the qualifying campaign came to a close. Bilek started qualifying with a 4-4-2, but it was perhaps the resilience of the Czech’s performance against world champions Spain with a 4-2-3-1 that persuaded him to shift to the latter for the remainder of the campaign – the Czechs eventually losing that game 2-1, having led for 40 minutes.
The back four is likely to be made up of forward-minded full-backs Theodor Gebre Selassie and Michal Kadlec, with experienced pair Tomas Sivok and Roman Hubnik in the centre. Tomáš Hübschman is a capable screen in front of the backline, who can also sweep across behind Gebre Selassie’s forward forays. Alongside him, Petr Jiráček is a busy and proactive presence, who will often look to support play in the final third. In front of them is Tomas Rosicky, undoubtedly the team’s most important component. Bilek gives his star man the licence to roam, whether it be dropping to receive possession, pushing up to support the front man, or drifting wide for combinations. His form will be vital to the team’s chances.
Out wide, Bilek tends to opt for the tenacious Jan Rezek, who is at home on either wing, but less conservative than Jaroslav Plasil on the right. Rezek’s tasks tend to involve determined harrying of defenders when out of possession and direct, powerfully running with it. His doggedness should not, however, be mistaken for a player compensating for a lack of finesse.
Plasil is a measured head, whose versatility means he could also play at the back of the midfield if required. He will tuck in against better opponents, leaving Rezek to support the lone striker. That figure is likely to be Milan Baroš who, despite his excellent record of 40 goals in 87 caps for his country, has struggled for form in the last year and appears to be pace by the day. However, with Tomáš Necid only recently back from a long-term injury and Tomáš Pekhart yet to convince, the Galatasaray striker is still probable to get the nod.
Options elsewhere include the compact Václav Pilař, who can play anywhere across the attacking midfield line, but is most likely to be found cutting in off the left side onto his stronger right foot. Pilař’s teammates at Viktoria Plzeň, Daniel Kolář and Milan Petržela also offer feasible alternatives in midfield. In defence, Bilek has the option of David Limbersky at left back, should he choose to move Michal Kadlec into the centre in place of the often cumbersome Hubnik.