NK Celje had only won a single top-flight Slovenian title in their 101-year history. In March 2020, they were 3rd in the ten-team PrvaLiga, before the coronavirus pandemic brought football to a standstill around the world. When the league restarted three months later, Celje went from strength to strength, quickly leapfrogging Aluminij into second, before overtaking Olimpia after winning their penultimate game. It set up a top of the table clash to win the league on the final day, and after going ahead twice, a 2-2 draw secured an incredible league title for the plucky underdogs, and at the heart of their defence was a 20-year-old centre-back, responsible for 14 clean sheets. His name was Žan Zaletel.
Zaletel – now 21 – has been compared to Fabio Cannavaro by the Slovenian press due to the similarities in their play style and appearance (Zaletel also has a shaved head, similar to the Italian towards the end of his career). However, when asked about this, the Dortmund fan said his role model is Sergio Ramos, and although he’s yet to make a dent in the Spaniards red card tally, there is an element of rashness in this game, having given away penalties at U21 level against England and Germany.
“It’s certainly a great honour for me. To be fair, I didn’t expect to be chosen because there were really resounding names next to me in the selection. I was surprised, but of course also happy.”Zaletel, on being admitted into NK Celje’s ALl-Time Greatest XI
Celje aren’t an established power in Slovenia as their shock title win suggests, and it wasn’t a surprise to see several of their highest performing players move abroad last summer. Croatian under-21 Dario Vizinger moved to Austrian Bundesliga side Wolfsberger, and Mitja Lotric made the switch to Würzbergur Kickers in 2. Bundesliga. This gives us a good indication of the level of the Slovenian top flight, and also where Zaletel’s career may lead to if he is to leave in the near future, with Croatia, Serbia and Turkey also common destinations for Slovenian players. Zaletel admitted it was tempting to potentially leave Slovenia, but no concrete offers came in for him.
Zaletel is a relatively limited centre-back, more focused on maintaining a clean sheet than progressing attacks, a job that tends to be left to the full-backs and Celje’s midfield. He tends to be the covering centre-back in a back four, constantly assessing the game around him, adjusting his positioning to man mark the most advanced opposing player. Zaletel tends to occupy the right centre-back position when partnered with Dušan Stojinović in defence, with Stojinović more likely to press, although they will both happily sit quite deep. Zaletel is one of Celje’s biggest threats in the air and rarely shies away from an aerial duel.
In this first example, Zaletel is chasing back as Koper bear down on Celje’s goal. He’s slightly behind the man on the ball for Koper whose shot rebounds off the bar. Zaletel is able to react fastest and in his own box under the pressure of another forward, he doesn’t panic and instead of attempting to clear the ball with his head where he would have to generate much of the pace himself, he calmly heads the ball back to the ‘keeper, relieving the pressure his side were under.
In this next example, Celje give the ball away in their own third, and immediately Zaletel (in the top picture, on the edge of the box, wearing white) is looking for Maribor’s forward. As the player on the ball approaches Celje’s box, he’s constantly scanning his surroundings, making slight adjustments to his body position all the time, and then when the ball looks like its going to be drilled across the box, he takes up a stance that allows him to react to whatever cross is delivered. The ball evades him, and he ends up being quite flat-footed when the ball ricochets in a dangerous area.
Here is an example of how Zaletel’s capabilities still need some work and highlight Celje’s lack of confidence in their defending this season. The ball is advancing down the left with the Olimpia player in a lot of space. Zaletel has taken up a position that allows him to man mark their most central striker, but is too conservative in his positioning, choosing to try and block the goal and occupy the man. When Olimpia’s winger beats Celje’s left-back, Zaletel fails to get touch tight to the forward, so when the ball is played into his feet, he’s unable to make a challenge and ‘keeper is beaten at his near post.
Zaletel is able to contribute in both areas with his aerial presence. He’s not the tallest player, but has a good leap and anticipates the flight of a cross or long ball well. In the example above, the ball is whipped in from a free kick, and Zaletel manages to avoid being caught underneath the flight of the ball, wins the duel in the air with the Mura defender, and powers the header past the ‘keeper. Many of the goals Celje have conceded this season have been played into the box at ground level, as Zaletel is able to deal with many of the crosses his side face.
This final example highlights some of Zaletel defensive naivety, with Tabor Sezena able to dominate a game against the current champions. Tabor’s attackers double up on Zaletel (in the opening picture Zaletel is in blue and yellow, and has two players in white closest to him) when they realise a long, straight ball is about to be played over the top. While the ball is in the air Zaletel holds his ground not reacting quickly to the flight of the pass, and not checking to see if the attackers have run in behind. By the time he realises the ball is sailing over his head, he turns and tries an audacious clearance with an outstretched foot but misses it. He’s let off the hook after the attacker fails to convert the chance, but a lack of communication between the defence contributed to how this scenario unfolded.
Zaletel clearly still has to develop certain key aspects of his game before he can make the step up to a stronger league, but with the right coaching he could become a mainstay in Slovenia’s senior side in the future. Former Chelsea and Birmingham midfielder Jiří Jarošík is now in charge of Celje, and it isn’t yet known how effective he’ll be in developing young talent given this is his first senior, top-flight management role. However, keeping Celje in the Slovenian top flight will be his main priority, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see Zaletel look for opportunities elsewhere, despite the love he has for a club that have already exceeded his expectations in his short time with them.
And finally on Slovenia…
“In any group we would land, we would have one, if not two, really good national teams. We already knew before the draw that it would not be easy in any group. We hope for a good result to surprise and continue the championship in May, in the second phase.”Zaletel on Slovenia’s Under-21 european Championship group
Slovenia go into their group against Spain, Italy and the Czech Republic as firm outsiders, and the news that no fans will be admitted into stadiums for the competition takes away much of the home advantage the hosts would have been hoping for. Slovenia’s warm-up games for this tournament haven’t yielded particularly exciting games (six of their last eight matches have ended in draws), but avoiding defeat to France, England, Portugal, Germany and Russia is encouraging.
Zaletel and club teammate Stojinovic will need to create an inpenetrable partnership in defence to build performances on, with Žan Rogelj and Aljaž Ploj flanking them on either side. The majority of the squad still play in Slovenia, but a central midfield partnerships of exports Dejan Petrovič (Rapid Vienna) and Adam Gnezda Čerin (on loan at Rijeka) could provide the spark needed to compete with some of the best young players in Europe. No player scored more than twice during Slovenia’s warm-up games, but Head Coach Milenko Ačimovič will be hoping that the transition from friendlies to competitive action will increase his side’s intensity enough to cause a few upsets.