Defensive performance against Spain went against coach Pavel Vrba's usual style
17 June ~ Disappointment at conceding a late goal against Spain has given way to a more positive mood in the Czech Republic, with everything still to play for against Croatia today. Having taken an atypically defensive approach against Spain, coach Pavel Vrba has promised to return to his trademark attacking style for the remaining group games. Sparta Prague midfielder Borek Dockal, the Czechs’ leading scorer in qualification, is expected to return to the starting line-up.
A loss to Spain was widely expected and while the manner of the defeat was slightly sickening, it always seemed likely that the tournament’s real business would begin today for Vrba’s squad. The target remains at least four points: the most popular qualification scenario among Czech pundits sees them get a draw today and beat Turkey in their final group game.
Given the gulf in quality between the two squads, the Spain game presented Vrba with an unpleasant dilemma: play your usual, open game and risk humiliation or attempt to shore up a leaky defence and shut up shop. The latter option, described by journalist Josef Bouska as “nine defenders plus Rosicky”, was clearly the least-worst option.
It always seemed unlikely that a team which, under Vrba, had kept a clean sheet only once in 20 games – in a friendly against Malta last month – would be able to frustrate the European champions for 90 minutes, and in the end they didn’t. But they did come agonisingly close. Petr Cech’s heroic goalkeeping prompted journalist Pavel Janega to rename the team “The Cech Republic” in a half-time tweet. (In a statistic that gives a pretty accurate impression of the game, Cech completed more passes than any other Czech player.)
Vrba’s smartest move was turning a selection dilemma to his advantage. Young right-back Pavel Kaderabek has been preferred to the more experienced Theo Gebre Selassie in recent months but Gebre Selassie is still one of the Czech squad’s biggest talents. The solution (for the Spain game, at least) was to play Gebre Selassie on the right side of midfield, where he’s occasionally played for club side Werder Bremen, increasing the Czechs’ protection down the wing where Spain are most dangerous.
Vrba’s decision to recall Roman Hubnik was also smart. Overlooked in qualification but picked ahead of the increasingly error-prone Michal Kadlec, the 32-year-old central defender turned in a powerful performance, and even came close to scoring (at both ends).
At home, there was inevitable disappointment but also appreciation of the Czech team’s work ethic and general agreement that the “zaparkovat autobus” approach was the only realistic option. Promoting a reader poll, the daily newspaper Sport gathered quotes from various coaches and pundits, including Vrba’s predecessor Michal Bilek, who appeared to suggest that the Czechs had got their tactics wrong.
Beyond the headlines, however, the debate is more nuanced and there’s broad agreement that playing on the counter-attack was the only credible strategy. The only disagreement was over whether the Czechs could have been more adventurous up-front, with Diego Simeone’s Atlético Madrid side suggested as a possible role model.
The biggest plus is the form of Tomas Rosicky, who looked remarkably fresh against Spain despite only playing 19 minutes for Arsenal all last season. A bit-part player at the Emirates, Rosicky remains hugely important to the Czech national team, whose performances are noticeably better when he’s fit. If he stays clear of injury and the Czechs defend as well as they did against Spain, qualification remains a possibility. Sam Beckwith