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The story of MŠK Žilina: A club back from the COVID-19 brink

Can a club made up of entirely academy players and U23 stars compete at senior level? This is the story of MŠK Žilina and how a pandemic began an experiment.

Just over a year ago, the future of MŠK Žilina hung in the balance.

The Slovakian outfit teetered on a dangerous precipice.

In the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic the club had been forced into liquidation. Zilina had to release almost the entirety of their first team squad.

The move left them with a makeshift team from the academy and reserves.

For many clubs, this would have signalled the end and precipitated a steep decline. However, for MŠK Žilina it merely presented an opportunity to rise from the ashes and herald a new metamorphosis.

A historic club

Nicknamed the Yellows Greens and the Šošoni, MŠK Žilina have a proud history dating back to over 110 years. They were founded back in 1908.

Situated on the edge of Slovakia near the border with Poland and the Czech Republic, the city of Zilina is picturesque. It throngs with nature and is blotted by mountains like the Mala Fatra, Súľov and Javornik.

Zilina’s name derives from the Slavic word žila which means ‘a river vein’ and is unsurprisingly also at the confluence of three major river straits.

The club’s stadium Štadión pod Dubňom translates to the ‘Stadium under Dubeň Hill’ in English and is wedged just underneath the scenic emerald green mountain.

In the 21st century the stadium has laid hosts to some giants of European football including Chelsea, Athletic Bilbao, Marseille, Ajax and Aston Villa with Zilina qualifying to the 2008/09 Europa League and the 2010/11 Champions League group-stages.

The turn of the century also heralded MŠK Žilina’s first league title win in the Fortuna Liga. The club have gone onto rack-up six more since, also finishing as runners up five times.

Some players of international renown who made their first professional steps in football at MŠK Žilina include the likes of Milan Skriniar, Martin Dubravka, David Hancko and Peter Pekarik, as well as László Bénes and Robert Bozenik.

The fall

‘The club wants to take care, as long as possible, of the employees and players of the club who have the lowest income. Under pressure, it is very difficult to meet the set goals, not only on the football field, but also in everyday life. The liquidation process can alleviate the variety of pressures under which we will have to work in the near future.’

Declared the club’s owner Jozef Antošík in April 2020. Zilina subsequently released 17 first team players who were reluctant to accept the proposed 80% wage reduction.

The announcement came as a shock in Slovakia. After all this was a team who had made the highest revenue in the Fortuna Liga according to Deloitte Football Money League for the 2018 financial year via Spectator.

However, in reality, Zilina’s owner, Antošík simply reacted fast and prudently to a developing situation. A situation which casted doubt over the future of many European football clubs.

Zilina’s financial stability depended on player sales. The club raked in almost £20 million in the past five years from selling players (Transfermarkt figures). Most of those fees had been paid in instalments which meant Zilina had only received one tenth of Robert Bozenik’s big money transfer from Feyenoord back in the summer of 2019.

A fresh new injection of cash in the summer of 2020 for some of Zilina’s best assets seemed unlikely. Which forced the club to act.

Fortunately, MŠK Žilina had already built stable pillars to lean on that made the next step less daunting.

A strong base

In the last decade prior to Covid-19, MŠK Žilina laid strong infrastructural and academy foundations.

Speaking to Sport.SK in the aftermath of his decision, Antošík declared his utmost desire to preserve Zilina’s youth philosophy.

‘Our youth structure is an absolute priority. This will not change the circumstances. The club has a quality infrastructure. Qualified coaches have a substitute job. We need to survive in emergency mode for as long as necessary. I see the future in continuing to educate young people.’

Antošík is a wealthy businessman who first sold paper before venturing into the food industry. Since his arrival, Zilina have built up an extensive and robust academy strategy. It involves spotting and luring the best talents to the club from the region and all over the world.

“Scouts, coaches and managers of the MSK Aacademy, which also includes the “B” team, have an excellent overview of young talents throughout Slovakia.”

MŠK Žilina Sporting Director, Karol Feranec, MY Zilina

“Our academy is attractive for the players themselves, because in addition to a quality training with excellent coaches (including former representatives of the Slovak Republic), as well as a smooth transition to senior football, they also have additional services (eg rehabilitation, meals) and study,” Karol Feranec explained.

The club also have close ties with five lower league teams in Slovakia where they regularly spot talent.

As well as a strong core and extensive scouting around Slovakia. MŠK Žilina are ahead of the curve scouting the Eastern European region. The club’s current academy graduates include players from Poland, Armenia and Macedonia.

MŠK Žilina’s scouting also stretches world-wide, even as far as Africa. The club have established their very own satellite club in Ghana, called MSK Zilina Africa FC.

Zilina Africa FC ply their trade in the lower divisions of Ghana, but regularly supply talent to Ghana’s youth international teams.

Zilina have benefitted from the partnership too.

Some of the club’s current first team players were brought over from Africa FC including Benson Anang and Baba Hamza.

Meanwhile the club also have Nigerian representatives in Taofiq Jibril and Tenton Yenne.

The diverse squad exemplifies MŠK Žilina’s advanced scouting methods – a trademark not exclusive in the nation.

Slovakian side, AS Trecin, a partner club of Ajax, are also another excellent example of global scouting having brought the likes of Aston Villa’s Wesley, Gent’s Osman Bukari, Bordeaux’s Samuel Kalu and Nantes’ Moses Simon to the European continent. As well as bringing through the likes of Martin Skrtel and Stanislav Lobotka.

Since 2016, MŠK Žilina have sold an impressive ten players to club’s in Europe’s top five leagues or clubs competing in elite European competitions like the Champions League and the Europa League. An average of two per every summer transfer window.

On the precipice

By the time Covid-19 and liquidation came about, MŠK Žilina had already integrated a few of their academy players into the first team. In fact, Zilina’s current squad made almost 250 first team appearances before Covid.

However, the bulk of those appearances came as substitutes, and only two players in the squad had made more than 30 appearances for the first team.

Much of Zilina’s re-shaped core was made-up of players from the B team.

The Slovakian media were not sure what to expect as Zilina embarked on their journey to the unknown. For some there was trepidation. For others there was cautious optimism.

Undoubtedly, no one expected the smooth transition which was to come.

Especially when one considers the fact that, Zilina’s B team were only good enough for 4th place in the II Liga – Slovakia’s second tier.

Despite this, MŠK Žilina currently find themselves vying for a spot in Europe next season with an outside chance for the league title.

A remarkable achievement for a squad made up of entirely U23 players.

Innovative style

Much of the credit should go Pavol Stano’s way.

The former Zilina B assistant manager was promoted as head-coach of the first team back in January 2020.

A bit of a livewire centre-back in his heyday, known for tough no-nonsense defending, as well as a knack for scoring goals, Pavol Stano has implemented a free-flowing attacking style at MŠK Žilina which allows his young players to flourish and play without pressure.

Zilina rank in 2nd place for goal scored in the Slovakian Fortuna Liga and many of the club’s young players are already knocking on double figures like Polish forward, Dawid Kurminowski, Slovakian winger, David Duris, and Armenian attacker, Vahan Bichakhchyan.

For goals conceded, the picture is slightly different. The club are currently joint 7th out of 12 teams in the Fortuna Liga. Stano’s side have already shipped 39 goals in 25 games.

A stat surprising for a team managed by a former defender, however, not so much for the team’s profile. A young team like MŠK Žilina is expected to make mistakes at the back.

Especially in an attacking 4-3-3 formation where Stano encourages his full-backs to roam forward which can leave his centre-backs and defensive midfielder vulnerable at the back.

Pavol Stano’s advantage at MŠK Žilina was that he had already been embedded into the club’s system. He had worked with many of his younger players in the past for the club’s reserve team.

And so he already knew how to play to their strengths. Meanwhile for the players they got a manager they could trust and confide in.

Together Stano and his team made the perfect concoction. A combination which will likely see the club’s revenues increase by a ten fold again in future transfer windows.

FTF selected three players who could be on the move this summer:

Ján Bernát

Jan Bernat was one of those few players in the current MŠK Žilina squad who had already established his presence in the first team.

Prior to Covid-19, Bernat had made 17 appearances, scored 7 and registered an assist in the Fortuna Liga.

Securing their star talent’s services was a vital part of ensuring MSK Zilina’s survival last April.

Bernat has featured as an integral part of Stano’s rebuild project with the team built around him in the summer months.

The 20 year old’s output has dwindled a little bit this season. He only has 5 goals and 5 assists in 25 games. However, this could be due to the fact that the youngster is expected to put in more defensive work this season.

Despite this, Bernat has still been impressive going forward in terms of creating chances. He is currently the joint second for smart passes per 90 in the Fortuna Liga with 2.27, and has the best accuracy for smart passes for anyone who attempts at least 2 per 90 with a 43.75% success rate.

An excellent dribbler, who averages 4.05 passes per 90, Bernat makes the most progressive runs per 90 for MŠK Žilina this season with 2.27.

(Bernat stats via Wyscout.)

The 20 year old is still extremely young and there is definitely a lot more to come from him.

What is impressive is under Stano, Bernat is starting to become more of an all round midfielder. His defensive output has improved this season. His defensive success rate is up by almost 10% from 50.2% last season to 59.8% this season with only 0.6 decrease in defensive duel rate per 90. Meanwhile his interceptions are up from 2.75 to 4.01 per 90.

The youngster could be an excellent pick-up for prospective teams in the summer window. One Zilina will be hoping could help inject vital financial stability.

Jakub Kiwior

Kiwior is another player who already had an established presence in the first team before Covid. He arrived from Anderlecht’s youth teams back in January 2019.

An excellent reader of the game, commanding in the air, and a proper modern day centre-back who is comfortable on the ball, he has established himself as a linchpin of Pavol Stano’s side.

Kiwior has won an impressive 71.35% of his defensive duels which is the 7th best in the Fortuna Liga. He is the only player born after 2000 to be in the top ten.

He also ranks in the top five for aerial duels won for defenders who attempt at least 4 aerial duels per 90 with a 68.42% success rate.

(Kiwior stats via Wyscout)

What’s even more alluring about the Polish U21 international is his ball-playing ability. He ranks 3rd for progressive passes made per 90 in the league with 13.26. His defensive partner, Adam Kopas, makes the second most progressive passes per 90 with 14.21.

That gives you an idea of how important instigating attacks from the back is to Stano’s system. The experience of playing in such an offensively focused team has prepared Kiwior well for the next step.

A left-footed ball playing centre-back is always a rare property in the European transfer market. The fact that Kiwior can also fill-in at left-back makes him an even more enticing prospect.

The Pole has definitely proved he could be ready for the next-step.

Vahan Bichakhchyan

A direct and diminutive playmaker, Armenian Vahan Bichakhchyan has been one of the break-out stars of the Slovakian Fortuna Liga this season.

Much of the reason for Jan Bernat’s output decreasing this season has been due Bichakhchyan playing in the more advanced role of the midfield three this season.

Bichakhchyan came to Zilina in 2018, after posting impressive numbers back home in the top tier of Amernian football for Shirak Gyumri. Prior to the Covid pandemic he was predominantly used in Zilina’s B team.

A pacey traditional number ten who can also be deployed on the wing, the Armenian always plays with his head-up and is excellent at finding pockets of space in the opposition’s final third to create shooting opportunities for himself.

(Bichakhchyan’s stats via Wyscout)

Blessed with excellent shooting technique, Bichakhchyan can hit the ball with pace from long range.

He averages the most shots taken per 90 in the league with 3.92 and has already found the back of the net 9 times. His xG is only 4.97 which will give you an idea of the range and the amount of difficult shots he takes on.

Most of the time when he is in the final third, Bichakhchyan will look to create a shooting opportunity. However, he can also create. Behind Jan Bernat’s 1.7 per 90 through balls, Bichakhchyan makes the second most through balls per 90 for Zilina, with 1.63 which also ranks him in the top ten in the Fortuna Liga. With 40% he also has the best accuracy rate of any player who averages at least 1.5 through passes per 90.

Physically he still needs to bulk up a little bit, as he can be knocked off the ball a bit too easily at times. His defensive composure can always improve too. Currently he averages 2.2 fouls per 90.

But overall, Bichakhchyan is another prospect who could bring in some serious funds for Zilina in the summer.

Other notable players to keep an eye out on include:

• 21 year old Matus Rusnak, a skilful and smart wide player who can also play as a wing-back.
• 22 year old Branislav Sluka, a very good left-back who ranks at 2nd for key-passes made per 90 in the Fortuna Liga.
• 20 year old right-back Benson Anang who is already a full Ghanaian senior international.
• 22 year old winger David Duris who has 8 goals and 7 assists in 26 appearances this season.
• And last but not least 22 year old Polish forward Dawid Kurminowski who has 14 goals and 5 assists in 27 appearances this season.

The future

There were nine players in Slovakia’s most recent U21 squad from MŠK Žilina.

Meanwhile 7 players in Slovakia’s most recent senior national team came from MŠK Žilina’s academy.

The club’s influence on the Slovakian national team is profound. Their success has built them an esteemed reputation in the region.

The club’s business of player sales will likely continue this summer. Their risky move last year, could have backfired, but instead it has built an even more exciting team.

While Pavol Stano is at the helm, bringing through youth will become a perpetual cycle. In Stano, the club have a coach who will allow his team to flourish and give the club’s youngsters the freedom to express themselves.

Securing a European spot this season would be a major achievement for MŠK Žilina. Especially considering how proud the club is of their previous appearances in Europe.

(It would also heal the wounds of the disappointment of being knocked out last year in the Europa League qualifiers.)

With the UEFA Europa Conference League, the possibility of playing in a European competition again in 21/22 is still on the cards.

Remarkably, a year later, the club is potentially in a better place than it had been prior to Covid-19.

Its model and innovative academy structure as well as the club’s bold youth integration strategy, should be an example to follow for other European sides.

In times of uncertainty, it has allowed MŠK Žilina to bloom anew

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