When Tomas Soucek was sent off in injury time against Fulham last weekend, West Ham United manager David Moyes and the club’s fans were baffled by the decision – but they would also have been seriously concerned about the consequences of it.
The red card was swiftly rescinded, meaning no three-game ban for the 25-year-old Czech Republic midfielder, who has been a revelation since joining the Hammers in January 2020 in a loan deal that was made permanent in the summer for £19.1m.
Since the start of December, Soucek has scored seven league goals. His eight in total this season is the best (excluding penalties) of any midfielder in the league, better even than Manchester United’s Bruno Fernandes.
He has become one of the key players – perhaps the key player – in a transformation that has taken West Ham to sixth in the Premier League and the realistic prospect of Champions League qualification. He has become a fans’ favourite, working well alongside Declan Rice, and brings defensive solidity, aggression and a potent attacking presence.
Bayern Munich are reportedly tracking his progress, but not so long ago he was unwanted and found himself training between blocks of flats.
‘It wasn’t like he was overlooked – he just wasn’t good enough’
Six years ago, when Soucek was 19 and at a pivotal point in his bid to become a professional footballer, hardly anyone believed in him.
He had trials in the Czech Republic’s second tier in January 2015, but two clubs – Vlasim and Frydek-Mistek – did not want to sign him. Soucek, who was still Slavia Prague’s player, was then taken on loan by Viktoria Zizkov, largely because he was available for free.
Zizkov had financial problems and had to improvise with their squad. They tried to get players from bigger clubs on loan but failed and then Slavia offered them Soucek, who had been in their academy since he was 10.
When Zizkov’s staff saw him in training they were not convinced.
“It wasn’t like he was overlooked by people – he just wasn’t good enough,” David Cermak, a journalist for Czech newspaper MF Dnes, tells BBC Sport.
Zizkov’s coach, Jindrich Trpisovsky, did not like him, but the club’s general manager Ivan Hornik intervened.
“He said: ‘Guys, he will come just for a loan and that’s for free.’ So, Soucek stayed at Zizkov and worked the hardest of all,” adds Cermak.
Soucek was tall and when coaches watched him, they considered him to be slow. He played as a defensive midfielder, but his passing was not the best. In Slavia’s academy, they tried to turn him into a centre-back, but the player has spoken of how he resisted any attempt to change his position. He has always admired Cesc Fabregas and Yaya Toure and saw himself as a central midfielder, too.
|Midfield player||Appearances||Goals (excluding penalties)|
|Tomas Soucek (West Ham)||23||8|
|Ilkay Gundogan (Manchester City)||17||8|
|Bruno Fernandes (Manchester United)||23||7|
|James Ward-Prowse (Southampton)||22||5|
|James Rodriguez (Everton)||15||5|
Life with Zizkov was tough. They did not have enough money to pay for the maintenance of the pitch at their home stadium, so Trpisovsky decided to stage training sessions in a nearby park, located between apartment blocks.
Players could be seen running in the long grass, while locals took their dogs for a walk just a few metres away. They were learning tactical formations among the trees. “When the coach told us to do a forward roll, we didn’t want to. We never knew what we would fall into,” Soucek said in a 2019 interview.
He played 14 games in the second division and returned to Slavia in the summer of 2015. Slavia were coached by Dusan Uhrin Jr and had big problems. “Those were different times,” Uhrin remembers. “I came into the club and the previous season they finished 11th and were without money.
“Tomas was lucky in that. We decided to bring all young players from loans back to Slavia because we had no money to buy new players.”
Uhrin decided to put Soucek into the starting line-up in the first round of matches against Viktoria Plzen, the champions. “I wasn’t really convinced. I was worried about whether he could cope with it, but he began to score, even if he played as a defensive midfielder.”
Under Uhrin, Soucek scored seven goals in 29 league games.
Uhrin remembers a training session when one Slavia player tackled Soucek and injured him “pretty badly”. “We all got very nervous,” he recalls. “In that moment, I realised he was irreplaceable for us. I thought: ‘What are we going to do now without him?’
“After a couple of months, I was talking with his agent and said that he might be good for the Bundesliga. He had that kind of movement, solidity and courage. The agent told me I was crazy.”
Uhrin understood he had a special player, even if he was also sceptical at the start.
“He didn’t have good passing. Also, it didn’t look very good when he was running. That might have been the reason why coaches didn’t want him,” he says.
“But he was great in improving himself and working hard in training. He progressed really quickly, took responsibility and remained a great boy. You had to get used to watching him because at first glance he looked slow.”
Uhrin describes Soucek as a quiet and shy boy who was a football fanatic and undertook extra training sessions. By working hard, a midfielder who never stood out in the academy suddenly became Slavia’s key player.
“He really looked weird on the pitch,” adds journalist Cermak. “He had an atypical body shape – looked quite clumsy – but then he did some surprise moves.
“I never knew what to think about him. Then he scored a hat-trick against Banik Ostrava and that caught my attention, as he played as a defensive midfielder. Gradually, it was clear he was not a defensive midfielder at all.”
‘He has a computer in his head’
In September 2015, CEFC China Energy Company bought Slavia and the club returned to the summit of the Czech league. Uhrin was sacked in August 2016 and Soucek left for another loan, at top-flight side Slovan Liberec. There, he met Trpisovsky again. A few months later they were both at Slavia – and Trpisovsky built his team around Soucek.
In their first season, Slavia ended second behind Plzen and were then champions a year later, with Soucek scoring 13 goals in 34 games.
Trpisovsky loved Soucek. He has described his protege as having “a computer in his head” and, under his guidance, Soucek became a regular in the national team. Slavia progressed to the Champions League group stage last season, where they had hard-fought battles with Barcelona, Inter Milan and Borussia Dortmund.
In the space of two weeks, Soucek led the the Czech Republic to a crucial 2-1 victory against England in a Euro 2020 qualifier – a result which ended the Three Lions’ unbeaten record in qualifying stretching back 10 years – and was then one of the best players on the pitch as Slavia were unlucky to lose 2-1 against Barcelona.
Soucek had shown he had no problem facing some of Europe’s best midfielders. “Trpisovsky knew well that Soucek was exceptional even by European standards,” Cermak says. “He tried to convince Slavia’s bosses not to sell him for a low fee. Even West Ham’s offer was too small, according to him.”
The Hammers did get their man though, making him the most expensive player in the history of the Czech league.
In his first year at West Ham, Soucek reached 10 Premier League goals in only 33 appearances. Other Czech greats – all of them forwards or attacking midfielders – needed more games to reach that total: Tomas Rosicky 45, Patrik Berger 48 and Vladimir Smicer 107. Smicer, who played for Liverpool, has compared Soucek’s style to Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira.
Soucek has proved himself a versatile player, able to run relentlessly – his 12.2km covered on average per game is the highest in the league, along with Brighton’s Pascal Gross – defend, cover space, and start and finish attacks. And it is that attacking prowess that has really caught the eye.
Only three players – Everton’s Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Mohamed Salah of Liverpool and Manchester United’s Fernandes – have won their team more points with their goals in 2020-21.
“He’s a wee bit old-fashioned in many ways, but his attitude and commitment to the team is second to none,” Hammers boss Moyes has said.
Uhrin would not be surprised if reported interest from clubs competing in Europe materialises. “He is constantly improving, so why not? Who scores eight goals from his position? I wouldn’t expect a transfer to Bayern, but rather a team in England.”
Big challenges lie ahead over the next few months. Can he inspire West Ham to a European place? And will he do damage to England when the teams meet in the group stages of this summer’s European Championship? They have been warned.