Who Are SK Slavia Prague: Scouting Arsenal’s Europa League Quarter-Final Opponent
Last time around, I invited the Olympiakos international fan forum to dissect and call out my piece about OSFP. It led to some much-enjoyed talk of tactics and made me want to give their podcast a listen to, as they went over tactics and other content that would have taken me months to dig up. Thank you for the games!
This time around though, I’m reluctant to take my time even beginning the analysis, because I really don’t think such a club has any place in international football.
Given the fact that there’s a global focus on racism, the fact that this still goes on shows just how far the “take a knee” movement has got us. Not far at all. And as Celtic and Rangers refuse to take the knee, after Glen Kamara faced racist remarks from a Slavia Prague player, you wonder how long it will take before the Czech league is as devoid of POC players as Russia was and is. When will Italy follow?
With that being said, let’s go.
Just who are Slavia Prague?
Slavia Prague are usually set up in a variant of a 4-5-1 formation. Newly bought Danish fullback Bah has pushed his way directly into the first team, giving Slavia Prague a pretty tall backline to overcome.
A fairly defensive side that enjoys breaking fast and playing the physical game.
And kicking out teams from Great Britain apparently.
Just like OSFP, the Czech league doesn’t upload statistics, which leaves me with tracking information solely from international games. Last time, though, it was sufficient to get an idea of how the Greek champions probably would play, so I’m hoping lightning strikes twice.
Out of the 10 Europa League games Slavia Prague has played this season, they’ve managed to hit as high as 70% possession and as low as 40%, averaging out around 52% possession over 10 games. Arsenal, in comparison, have averaged out around 57% possession in the same number of games. Given how Arsenal‘s campaign has seen us change our strategic way of playing, you’d assume Slavia Prague also has some strategic flexibility in their lineup, both being able to play a low block counter-attacking lineup as well as a high block possession-based lineup.
Picking two games from their campaign so far also confirms this:
Their first game of the international campaign saw them up against the Israeli side, Hapoel Be’er Sheva, in which Slavia Prague managed 775 touches, with 684 being in the mid- to final third (43 in the penalty area). In comparison, when Slavia Prague played the second leg against Leicester, they opted for a much more defensive strategy, completing 463 touches, with 300 being in the mid-to final third (7 in the penalty area).
Looking at Slavia Prague’s passing stats suggest they don’t like passing around their own defensive area, wanting to move the ball up the pitch with short and medium-length passing. They do this fairly successfully, averaging around 88% short pass completion and 85% medium pass completion, while only averaging 58% long pass completion. The reason why I suggest they don’t enjoy being in their own defensive third, is based on the average amount of touches and the progressive distance out of the total distance.
Out of the total of 5990 touches in 10 games, 1896 is in the defensive third, while the bulk (2852 touches) is in the mid-third. Looking at the total pass distance, being 75873 yards, 25374 yards has been towards the opposition’s goal.
To compare, Arsenal has had a total of 7195 touches in 10 games, 1853 has been in the defensive third, and out of the 101364 yards the ball has travelled for Arsenal, 28069 has been progressive. So with more than 25000 yards less than Arsenal, Slavia has progressed only 2722 yards less.
Going over the heatmap of 3 of their recent matches, it seems like the main people dictating the play are the fullbacks, having the bulk amount of touches on the pitch, usually receiving the ball in advanced positions. Interestingly enough, though, the fullbacks look to only cross a small amount, with the bulk of crosses coming from the central midfielders. Bah and Boril are averaging, respectively, 0.6 and 0.5 accurate crosses, while central midfielders Provod and Sevcik averages, respectively, 2.2 and 1.2 accurate crosses per 90 mins.
Looking further into this data, we see the main goal scorers, internationally, are Sima and Olayinka, both scoring the bulk of their goals with their heads.
In the league, Slavia follows the same footprint OSFP did, being 10 points clear of first place, averaging 3.4 goals per game – though, if you include international football, they manage 2.8 goals per game, while only conceding 0.6 goals. In all this means Slavia has managed to score 70 goals in 25 games while only shipping 15 goals in the league.
To compare, flying Manchester City has scored 66 goals, while conceding 21 goals, in 31 games.
Needless to say, Slavia are looking very impressive domestically.
Going a bit further into goals and goal-scoring, Slavia seems to have things covered when defending, averaging an xG against of 0.94 in total, though they seem to ship a goal when away from home, having an xG against of 1.04.
They also seem to be outperforming their xG, averaging a 1.9 xG for per game, though they seem to be happy to score regardless of where they play.
One thing that stands out, when comparing the stats of Slavia and Arsenal, is the average amount of shots per game, compared with the average possession.
On average, Arsenal tend to keep the ball for 50+% of the time, averaging 12.6 shots per game, in which 4.8 of them is on target. Compared, Slavia averages 24(!)% possession, but takes 13.58 shots per game, averaging 7.42 shots on target.
Through the stats my impression of Slavia is the following:
- A team ready to be tactically flexible, but tend to shy away from having the majority of possession
- Defensively solid, though tend to slip a goal on the road
- Wingers drag infield, Fullbacks carry it into the final third, midfielders tasked to overlap wide and cross
- Generally creates good shooting opportunities.
- Will hit teams on the counter.
Slavia in action
Everything can become very statistic wise, so let’s break the mundane with some action. This is going to be an analysis of the last international match Slavia played, in an attempt to understand on pitch movement better:
Rangers 0 – 2 Slavia
Formation and movement patterns
Slavia sit in a 4-2-3-1 formation with their usual winger Olayinka up top, wing swapping with their boy-wonder Sima. In attack they tend to move their wingers central, allowing their fullbacks to stay wide, while the central midfield offers an option to underlap into the half-spaces or make an early balloon cross into towards the far post.
In defence, they move in a mid-block where they overload central areas. They tend to man-mark the central playmaker while zonal mark the attackers, trying to shift them wide.
If the mid-block is penetrated, Slavia retreat into a low block, setting a 6 man line on the edge of the 18-yard box, trying to force the play wide or crowd the box.
Wingers tend to drop back and defend, though their main goal is to win the ball further up the pitch.
Another thing that’s very clear from watching just over 30 minutes of Slavia playing is that they have no quarrels about going into tackles or following through. Rangers midfield began releasing the ball very early as the match went on, a sign that they are not happy about the physicality of the Slavia defence.
When attacking, Slavia will try to get the ball up the field as quickly as possible. From the back, they will try to hit the fullbacks, who position themselves very high up. From there, the wingers try to move the opposition narrow, to allow an overload consisting of the fullback and a central midfielder, attempting to cross the ball towards the far post.
In this type of attack, the full-backs stay the widest play, offering an option to cross from the backline if needed, though usually they look to cross it early, before the 18-yard box.
Slavia attack with 4 central players in the box. Usually having the forward and a winger in the box, while the central midfielders offer a late run or a third man run.
In transition, the fullbacks’ buildup is usually undergone to hit it directly towards the winger, who then offers the wide run instead.
How to defend against Slavia Prague
Using the midfielders as a crossing station might cause Arsenal some problems, given the general aerial presence of our fullbacks. Furthermore, our midfield isn’t the most streamlined athletes. As I’m writing this 2 days after we got handed a defeat against Liverpool that set our fanbase into an existential crisis, it’s very clear we have to win the midfield battle very early, in an attempt to move the play even wider, and hopefully snuff out wide crosses instead.
While there’s an importance in defending against crosses, Arsenal would do much better at snuffing out the danger higher up the pitch, as Slavia can be coaxed into dropping their midfielders very low if the backline is under pressure.
This type of high pressure is something Arteta has looked to perfect, though it has had various degrees of effect, in some cases very reliant on midfielders actually tracking their man deeper than what they would like to.
How to hit Slavia Prague:
While I’m a firm believer that players that like to play rough, should be matched in ferociousness rather than trying to draw the foul, I also understand we don’t have that type of players at Arsenal, and maybe should look at moving through the midfield quickly, using one-touch passing to beat the mid-block press.
As Arsenal enter the final third, they should be able to utilize Slavia’s conservative backline to lay on the pressure in central areas. Players like Pepe, Ødegaard, Smith Rowe and Lacazette should all be able to create space in that area, and attempt to either hit it from beyond far or find runners in behind.
Slavia will want to keep their option available for counter-attacks, and staying inside the final thirds, trying to recycle the ball, might force wingers and midfielders to come deep, giving them more miles to run.
How Arsenal Should Line Up
As the Liverpool game still sits rather fresh on my memory, I’m tempted to name every up and coming Arsenal player, but I digress. In my line of work, making mistakes is something you have to be able to deal with on a regular basis. And getting it wrong is an opportunity for reflection and a reminder of where you are on your way to your goal.
That being said, I’d want to use my best midfield pairing for this game, not because I believe Slavia’s midfield is so great they’ll be able to compete with the likes of Ceballos or Mo, but because the mentality of the team looks a lot more stoic when Xhaka and Partey are playing together.
This is also a chance for Aubameyang to run at defences, as Slavia tend to keep their central defenders pretty deep. Pepe and Willian are chosen because of their ability to cut inside. And lastly, I’m giving Gabriel a rest, following an abysmal display, pairing Holding with Mari for the upcoming game.
The Liverpool defeat stings more than it should. Maybe because we managed to “win” a draw against West Ham United. Maybe because Liverpool was having a bad season. But the most important part is bouncing back. Keeping our run going in the Europa League, looking for that precious Champions League spot at the end of the road.
Let’s hope we can kick this one for racism and abuse as well.