Another Europa League fixture on a Thursday night, another trip to Bulgaria for Jose Mourinho and his team. Since the last visit to the Balkan country on 17th September, Spurs had their ups and downs both domestically as well as on the European stage and another challenge for them is on the horizon. This time they are facing the 9-time in-a-row Bulgarian champions Ludogorets Razgrad, which just like Lokomotiv Plovdiv, are a relatively unknown team for most European football fans. In today’s article, we are going to take you through Ludogorets’ history, analyse the Bulgarian team, as well as single out some key players.
If we can summarise their history in the shortest way possible, Ludogorets is the Bulgarian version of Paris-Saint Germain. Even though on their badge is written the year 1945, the club was actually founded on 18th June 2001. During the first decade of their existence ‘The Eagles’, as nicknamed, were an amateur team wandering in the 3rd tier of Bulgarian football before the arrival of a new owner. The story of Kiril Domuschiev taking over the club sounds like a Hollywood film – he recalls, way back in 2013, how it all started:
‘Usually I’m not curious [to listen to other people’s conversation] but this time I showed curiosity and maybe that was my mistake… A colleague of mine was talking on the phone and I was surprised to hear him explaining something about football. At the end of the day, it turned out my colleague was giving away money from his salary for an amateur club in our neighbourhood called Ludogorets. The team was close to declarсing bankruptcy, so I decided to help because of the strong connection in our local community. This happened in 2009 when I had a successful factory with more than a thousand workers, so it wasn’t a problem for me to donate approximately 50 000 leva (= €25 000). A year later, the same colleague reached me out to donate once again because Ludogorets just got in the 3rd after previously being relegated to the 4th. In the following year he again asked for help but this time he wanted more money because the team got promoted to the 2nd best league in the country. This was the time when I said to myself: ‘Why don’t I take over the club?’. After a couple of days, I went to a match of Ludogorets for the first time and I saw the enthusiasm of the players and the local fans, which made me invest more in the players, staff, stadium, etc.’
And the rest, as people say, is history – Ludogorets won the last 9 Bulgarian top-flight championships and they seem unbeatable as most rival fans claim that the first place in the league is already ‘reserved’ by them. What’s more, ‘The Eagles’ managed to impress on the European stage with some memorable games. An in-depth story about the road to success of Ludogorets could be found on our website.
Ludogorets are no exception to most attacking sides and they use the 4-2-3-1 formation. Their centre back partnership usually consists of slow footballers despite them bringing new faces and this could be described as one of their weaknesses. Most of the times, Ludogorets use aggressive fullbacks to put pressure on the opponent as they don’t hesitate to join the attack (the most active one is the left). In the midfield we can see on most of the occasions one deep and creative playmaker who has defensive duties as well as one pure defensive midfielder who connects the midfield and defence. The attack is a little bit complicated topic as Ludogorets have a variety of players who can change positions and operate in different areas of the pitch. If we can describe all of them in one word it would be creativity – most of them have flair and good dribbling skills which can trick the opponent. The attackers are fluid, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if the initial right winger plays up top for 60 minutes or so.
One of the biggest weaknesses of Ludogorets is when they have to deal with opponents who are pressing them high up the pitch. The previous manager of the club, Pavel Vrba, tried to guess what’s the problem after a disastrous performance against the Danish side FC Midtjylland is:
‘In the first half, we were unable to control the midfield. Our opponent was pressing very well, and this is something which we aren’t used to as there isn’t a team in Bulgaria which applies the same pressure. We were losing the ball in key areas of the pitch. You can always play as much as your opponent allows you. We have never faced such pressure [by a team] in the domestic league.’
Losing control in the midfield area is a problem for almost every team but especially Ludogorets, as the catalysts of their attacks are situated there. Neutralizing them could lead to them being obliged to defend.
Last but not least, it should be pointed out that Ludogorets are vulnerable when it comes down to set-pieces – most of their players are short (excluding the new defenders) and experience problems when facing corner and/or free kicks. What’s more, their main goalkeeper – Plamen Iliev, might have good reflexes but his height is a big problem (1.80 cm; 5’9 ft).
Nedyalkov is the attacking left back we mentioned earlier. The Bulgarian is decent defensively but possesses a main threat when going forwards. If his team can’t get control over the midfield area, most of the attacks go through Anton. His most notable attributes are dribbling and passing skills as well as high levels of stamina.
The man in form for Ludogorets. Initially brought as a third-choice striker behind Higinio Marín and Claudiu Keșerü, now he is an essential part of ‘The Eagles’ attack. During his first 10 games in Ludogorets’ colours, the Dutch attacker scored 6 goals, 4 of which in the Europa League. His main traits are strength, speed, very good positioning and instinct in front of the goal.
Even though he won’t be fully fit to play in the whole match, Despodov still remains one of the star players in the squad. The versatile winger is exceptionally good with the ball at his feet and could cause damage when left in a 1vs1 scenario. His agility and off-the-ball movement are good but what really stands out in his game are his long shots efforts which sometimes end in succession.
Ludogorets are not currently in their prime years - some of their influential figures are aging and a big part of them even left the club, so they are currently in a period of transition and establishing new team leaders. Nevertheless, Tottenham should be careful not to take anything for granted as they almost did against Lokomotiv Plovdiv.