After a season of absolute domination with Turkey, Russian manager Vladimir Latunov decided it was time for a new challenge in his mission to surge his way across the Soviet football world. To do so, he ripped up his Galatasaray contract and headed for Hungary with Honvéd.
Who are Honvéd?
Budapest Honvéd Football Club is based in the Hungarian capital Budapest. The club enjoyed its finest period during the 1950s, when it became the team of the Hungarian Army. That side included legendary Ferenc Puskás, alongside great players like József Bozsik and Sándor Kocsis, who formed the strong Hungarian side that became known as the Mighty Magyars.
The club plays at the 7,440 capacity Bozsik Arena, which was built way back in 1938. It won its most recent and 14th Hungarian title in 2017, but only narrowly avoided relegation from the top tier last season. It has good facilities and average youth recruitment, which is a decent start, and the board expect the manager to develop young players, play entertaining football, and finish in mid-table. So this represents a whole new challenge after three years of walking to league titles.
The Hungarian league has far less intense selection rules than Turkey, requiring no more than five non-EU players in the starting 11. But strangely, it considers African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States nations as being EU nations! So, Latunov swiftly sent his admittedly terrible scouts out to Africa and the Caribbean.
Honved are predicted to finish eighth out of 12 teams by the media and have a 33-1 odds to win the league. But last season they finished 10th on 33 points from 33 games, just four clear of relegation. They finsihed the campaign in abysmal form with no win in the last eight games and just two wins from 22 games in 2024. Ferencváros are the favourites for the Hungarian title, followed by Fehárvár and Puskás Akademia, who won their first-ever title last season.
Meet the Honvéd squad
The most exciting player in the Honvéd squad is 19-year-old academy product attacking midfielder Szabolcs Sima, who’s listed as Romanian but also has Hungarian nationality. Also key will be another Romanian Andrei Honceriu, who’s on loan for a second season from Romanian side FCSB. Another is midfielder Daniel Gazdag, who came through the club’s academy in 2013 and is still there.
A solid defensive options include Ghanaian centre-back/holding midfielder Abraham Frimpong and another academy product in Botond Bárath, who’s made 279 appearances for the club. While ones to keep an eye out for are 17-year-old striker János Sallai, who’s already scored 14 in 21 for the second team, 20-year-old centre-back István Pekár, and 16-year-old goalkeeper Károly Májer, who’s the best prospect at the club.
Latunov did a bit of wheeling and dealing to bring in a host of free transfers while his scouts assessed the riches of Africa and the Caribbean. He added a potentially exciting Brazilian striker in 19-year-old Sandro Luiz and some much needed midfield reinforcement from a former club in Zaglebie’s Dawid Pakulski and another Brazilian in the brilliantly named Bruce Alves Borges. Then another exciting strike option arrived in Slovak 18-year-old Adam Baran. Another player arrived as what was expected to be a backup goalkeeper in 20-year-old Irishman Conor Fleming, who it turned out was the best keeper at the club!
Latunov noticed a lack of wingers and that the team’s strength was very much through the middle of the park, so he ripped up his previous tactics and went with a 4-4-2 Diamond. And here’s how he’s looking at lining the side up, with the classic big man and small man combo of 6’4″ Honceriu and 5’9″ Sandro Luiz up front.
First taste of Hungarian football
Latunov’s first game in Hungary was at home to local rivals Újpest. The first half wasn’t worth mentioning, other than the fact that Honvéd had eight shots to two, but things certainly livened up after the break. The first goal of the Latunov era was one to remember as a nice move ended up with Algerian right-back Mohamed Mezghrani, who laid the ball in to Frimpong at the base of the diamond to smash a 30-yard screamer. That gave the lads confidence and two crosses led to goals for the strikeforce of Honceriu and Luiz, who was rightly delighted with his debut goal.
The first away game was at Debrecen, who finished eighth last season, and Honvéd dominated the first half again and made it count as Sima drilled home a screamer. They continued to dominate and Luiz made it two in two with an injury time goal. What a start, but these two games were against two of the teams expected to sit in mid-table.
The winning start continued with a 1-0 success at home to Kisvarda, who were tipped to finish fifth so a much better side, which was sealed with a brilliant team goal finished off by Sandro Luiz again. And the striker was at it again, scoring in the 44th minute at Mezokovesd, before his strike partner smashed home a 25-yard piledriver two minutes after the break. Four matches, four wins and three clean sheets in Hungary!
Things got much more difficult at title contenders Fehérvár, the Hungarian champions in 2021 and 2023, who inflicted Vlatunov’s first defeat in Hungarian football with a narrow 2-1 win. Then reigning champions Puskás Akadémia, who are also the league’s biggest spenders at £2.5 million in transfers, followed in a televised game at Bozsik Arena. Honvéd opened the scoring with a brilliant flowing team move that ended up with Honceriu sliding Sandro Luiz in, but a poor game offered little until Puskás equalised with six minutes remaining.
Next up was 23-time Hungarian champions and fellow Budapest side MTK, a tally that’s only bettered by Ferencváros’ 32. Honvéd got off to a flyer as Mezghrani hit a deliciouos long-ranger and Honceriu doubled the tally inside eight minutes and went into the break 3-0 up as Pakulski curled in his first for the club.
Tactical gamble pays off
Bottom side Nyíregyháza had lost seven out of seven as Honvéd made the trip there, and it showed as the visitors dominated the game. Sandro Luiz had a goal disallowed early on, before Mezhgrani made the breakthrough after half an hour. Sandro Luiz missed a host of chances but eventually got his goal just after the hour and Honceriu sealed a 3-0 win four minutes later.
Latunov reached his 200th game in management with a tough test, away to Hungary’s most successful club, Ferencváros. The visitors held them out for 60 minutes but two quickfire goals gave Ferencváros a deserved 2-0 win. Another goalless game followed in a 0-0 with Diosygor, who didn’t even muster a single shot but Honvéd just couldn’t finish any of their 13. A little injury crisis then left Latunov with one fit central midfielder, including holding midfielder Frimpong sidelined for five months with a hip injury, and the Hungarian honeymoon was well and truly with consecutive dire 1-0 defeats.
Given the lack of goals, Latunov ripped up his narrow tactic and switched to an attacking 4-4-2, which also allowed him to draft 17-year-old Sallai, who’d been developing nicely in training, into the team. And the new formation had exactly the desired effect as the two strikers Honceriu and Sandro Luiz scored from crosses by the two wingers Sima and Sallai, before Sandro Luiz doubled his tally with a lovely pass from another exciting 17-year-old, midfielder Károly Papp. And the media claimed “Latunov’s tactical gamble paid off.”
The switch kind of continued to work in a home game against Debrecen, who somehow allowed 5ft 7in Sima to head home from a corner. But three goals between the 82nd and 84th minutes saw the teams share the points in a 2-2 draw. Sima’s form has seen him attract interest from Porto, Milan and Napoli, whose boss Sean Dyche was spotted scouting him star in a 5-1 thrashing of a Division III side in the cup.
The winger thrived under the pressure with a wonderful solo goal to open the scoring at home to Mekovosed. The visitors dominated the rest of the half, but Sallai slid Honceriu in to double the lead and seal a 2-0 win five minutes after the break. However, keeper Fleming was the main man with 11 saves and an 8.4 rating.
A first trip to the champions Puská Akadémia was the final game of 2024 and the last before a one-month winter break. And Honvéd went into it in style with a brilliant 2-0 win sealed by a brace from the in-form Sandro Luiz. That was despite Puskás racking up 21 shots, of which just seven were on target.
Honvéd went into the winter break in third in the Hungarian Division I on 30 points at the half-way mark of 16 games in a 33-game season. And that sees them just three points behind last season’s tally of 33 with 17 games remaining! They’ve scored 26 and have the best defensive record of just 10 goals conceded.
Sandro Luiz is the joint-second top scorer with 10 goals, only bettered by MTK’s Zsombor Bakos. Having signed on a free transfer, the 19-year-old Brazilian has 15 goals in 19 games in all competitions. While 21-year-old Honceriu has scored 11 in 18 despite only having 7 finishing! Fleming has the league’s most clean sheets of nine, Pakulski has the second-most assists with five, and Honceriu has the second-best averaging rating of 7.44 and the joint-highest player of the match awards with three.
Join us next time as Vladimir Latunov leads his Honvéd side out of the cold Hungarian winter towards the end of his fifth campaign as a manager.