Four things Hearts fans should know about Rafal Grzelak

Last week, Hearts agreed to sign free agent Rafal Grzelak on a two-year-deal. Here, Craig Fowler gives some insight into the Polish arrival.

Rafal Grzelak, right, with youngster Rory Currie in Hearts training. Picture: SNS
Rafal Grzelak, right, with youngster Rory Currie in Hearts training. Picture: SNS

He’s a strong boy

Watching Rafal Grzelak play, you wouldn’t immediately think ‘left-back’. The first thing that stands out is his size. He’s 6ft 1in and carries a broad muscular frame. It’s the body typical of a centre-half rather than a full-back.

There is very little comparison to be made between the player and Hearts previous three starting left-backs. Juwon Oshaniwa, Faycal Rherras and Lennard Sowah were all undersized, quick, agile players. They would try to use their pace to stop opponents getting behind them. Grzelak is more of a wall. He looks to get his body between opposing wingers and their desired direction.

Seeing as none of the previous three left-backs panned out in the manner Hearts would have hoped, perhaps going in a completely different direction is exactly what the club needs - assuming they want to use him at the position, as he can also play in midfield or at centre-back.

He’s fond of a yellow card

Grzelak was joint-first for yellow cards received in the Ekstaklasa in the 2016/17 season. It’s easy to see why when you look at the advanced statistics. He’s not a very strong tackler, as illustrated by his 18.42 per cent success rate, which is pretty poor. However, he does seem to recognise this weakness, making few tackles in total per 90 minutes for a predominantly defensive player.

Instead of sliding in, Grzelak prefers to read the game and stop the opposition without going to ground. He was 29th of all players in Poland’s 16 team top flight last season for interceptions made, and engaged in the third most defensive duels of any player in the league, which would suggest good anticipation, positioning and a keen sense for danger.

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He’s good on the ball

Though he’s not the quickest, and doesn’t have the body shape you’d normally associate with an elusive player, Grzelak is quite an effective dribbler when he gets further forward.

The former Korona Kielce defender ranked sixth among full-backs in the 2016-17 Ekstraklasa with a 75 per cent dribbling success rate. The fact that he attempted more dribbles, by a significant margin, than every other player in the top six makes the statistic all the more impressive.

Despite his size and lack of agility, he’s able to move around opponents with deceptively quick feet and skill. He’ll often draw the defender in, execute a bit misdirection, and then use his size to block off the attempted recovery once he’s got past his man.

In advanced areas his crossing is respectable as well. A 34.78 per cent success rate ranked him 12th among all Ekstraklasa full-backs in the 2016/17 season.

He’s versatile

As previously mentioned, Grzelak can operate in three different positions. Last season he played predominately at left-back (43 per cent of the time), while also filling in at defensive midfield (35 per cent) and occasionally at centre-back (18 per cent).

With his body size, composure on the football and the ease in which he could start attacks, it’s not too difficult to imagine Ian Cathro using the Pole as the left-sided centre-back in a defensive three. Hearts already have Christophe Berra, Aaron Hughes and John Souttar at the position, but with Souttar still recovering from injury and Hughes turning 38 during the season, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to have a bit more depth.

As a midfielder, he’s got enough technical ability to get by in a deeper role. He probably lacks the dynamism to be an effective box-to-box type, but his strength and stamina should ensure he’s a dependable battler in front of the defence.