AC Le Havre 2020-21 Mid-Season Update

This mid-season update sees a review of the transfers that were made in the opening transfer window and how the season has progressed thus far at HAC Foot. There’s also a sneak peak at the youth intake.

Transfer Methodology & Practice

With a limited budget and no room in the wage budget, the available transfer funds were reallocated towards wage spending. A clear focus on transfer dealings was needed – no spare cash means next to no mistakes can afford to be made. As such, free transfers and loans would be the chosen methods of bringing players in and bids would be considered for players who were considered surplus to requirements.

As shown on the previous blog, HAC’s squad is a relatively young one, with players who have come up through their youth academy being given the chance to play first team football. The identified youth prospects that are in the wider squad don’t yet look ready for first team minutes. Only Meddah and Fofana have played any minutes this far, with Fofana seeing action in an opening day 3-1 defeat to Châteauroux. The youth prospects will be kept in the reserves to play together or given the chance out on loan to learn from first team action where possible.

With some hope that these players will be ready to represent HAC in the future, the best option is to bring in players on relatively short-term contracts, which have the added bonus of protecting the club if the recruitment were to fail. Accordingly, where possible, incoming players will be given a two year deal maximum. With gaps in terms of the level of experience in the side, older players are not automatically ruled out given the increased likelihood of these players being without a club.

Some additions have been made to the squad in line with the above restrictions that were self-imposed. Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa and Dorian Dervite were both added to the squad to provide a challenge to Mayembo and Ersoy. As the only two centre backs in the squad and with no youth prospects to promote in this position, depth was required. Neither player wanted eye watering contracts and appeared better than other options available after Simunovic turned the club down. Fans of Newcastle United, Roma or Lyon should recognise Yanga-Mbiwa’s name – sadly, he broke a leg during one of his first games for the club and is yet to regain his fitness. Dorian Dervite’s name may be familiar to Tottenham supporters as he came up through their youth team and earned caps for France’s youth teams. However, it’s likely that Bolton Wanderers fans will be more familiar the Frenchman. Dervite’s time thus far at HAC has proved to be less than successful as the centre half has made a number of mistakes and has found himself on the bench more often than in the starting eleven as a result. As stated earlier, mistakes cannot afford to be made with transfers so time will only tell how costly these ‘misses’ will be.

The best ‘hit’ signing in terms of output would have to go to Pité. Picked up on a free, the Portuguese player wanted £11k/week, which is more than any other HAC player. However, his qualities have shone through and are seemingly more than justifying this outlay. With six goals and four assists, he has been a big upgrade on any wide player already at the club. As his minutes played demonstrate, he’s already become one of the first names on the team sheet. A versatile player, he has been playing as an inside forward on the right wing, cutting in on his favoured left foot and appearing at the back post to finish crosses from the left. His conversion rate of 12% is pretty good, and bested only by two of the other forward players in the squad.

Yannis N’Gakoutou is the other permanent addition to the side, again being picked up on a free transfer. Whilst initially unfancied by the coaching staff, his attributes appear well suited to the wing back role on attack, at least if you ignore his lack of natural fitness. He’s so far contributed a number of useful crosses, taking advantage of the space in front of him created by Pité cutting inside and dragging the opposing defender with him.

Goals were seemingly impossible to come by for HAC in the early part of the season for striker Thiaré. With an xG of only 2.68 in 901 minutes and no goals scored, Simon Banza was brought in on loan from RC Lens after impressing off the bench with three goals in three substitute appearances. Banza has added more dynamism to the front line with more movement off the ball and has been instrumental to a change in fortunes at HAC since his arrival (more on this later). Within 487 Ligue 2 minutes, he’s already scored five goals, with an xG of 3.31 – 0.78 goals/90. His goal conversion rate of 30% is exceptional – scoring his goals from just fourteen shots. Fingers crossed Banza’s performance can be maintained over the rest of the season.

£215k was raised from player sales, the bulk of which came from Khalid Boutaïb (£95k – KV Oostende) Ayman Ben Mohamed (£76k – AC Ajaccio) and Abdelwahed Wahib (30k – Châteauroux). All of these players were adjudged to be surplus to requirements due to better players being available in their respective positions.

League Table – on the right track?

As you can see from the graphic below, it hasn’t always been plain sailing for HAC over the first half of the season. With intermittent form, a loss against Guingamp saw HAC slip to 12th in Ligue 2 – well off the target of play-offs.

The gap between the rolling number of goals for and against, both in terms of actual and xG/xGA, was narrowing quickly and so a tactical switch was implemented. Shifting away from the 4-2-3-1 to a slightly more considered 4-1-2-2-1/4-3-3 DM Wide saw a rise in the number of chances being created. With the ball being retained more easily, with wide and advanced players having the safe go to option to play back to the defensive midfielder to re-establish an attack, fewer balls were being forced and lost, leading to fewer turnovers and counter-attacks from opposition sides. If you take a look at the below graphic, the 4-2-3-1 was actually hurting the side, with opponents creating more clear cut chances per 90 than we were creating for ourselves. The bottom right part of the graphic shows the last five games under the 4-3-3 DM Wide – only one goal conceded in the last five games with an xG of just 2.55 – a significant improvement in both the quality and quantity of chances being created against us has improved our standing in Ligue 2 no end.

This adjustment might look defensive, taking a player out of the attacking central strata, but it actually added to the attacking fluidity of the team because there was now more space ahead of them to run into and meant that the opposition defenders now had to mark players that were running at them rather than those trying to find pockets of space. Given that many teams were sitting catenaccio-type approach against HAC, space within this area was at a premium. This also helps to explain why Thiaré has such a low xG, the players around him were struggling to progress the ball through to him to take advantage of his elite speed and put him through on goal. The under performance against xG is also explained in the below radar graphic demonstrating our performance against the Ligue 2 average. Clearly we’re above average (in a good way), which of course is explained through our league position. Our xG/Game to Goals/Goals drop off is a concern though.

Indeed, using the in-game graphics, our analysts have us down as being shot happy but wasteful, which is curious given our tactical instruction to work the ball into the box. Perhaps our players grow frustrated by the defensive low block in front of them and then shoot front distance. Yet when we do score, it’s from within the box, with just two exceptions (see the bottom right of the graphic). You can also see how important the right hand side and central parts of the pitch are to our build up with the frequency of assists from these areas (see top left of the graphic).

As part of the move to 4-1-2-2-3/4-3-3 DM Wide, some player roles were also changed, with the deep-lying playmaker who previous sat on the right side of central midfield switching to an attacking playmaker on attack, and the advanced forward changing to a pressing forward to reduce the gap between attack and midfield. This helped to avoid the forward becoming isolated in the build-up play, linking up a little more with those around him, as well as pressing opposition defenders to stop them lumping long balls for their attackers to run onto over our high defensive line.

Whether playing 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 DM Wide, we haven’t faced many shots per game, but have seen opposition forwards score at a rate of just shy of 14 shots per 100 taken. This may not sound bad, but that’s the second worst in Ligue 2. The fact that we don’t face many shots is therefore a blessing. Our mantra of keeping hold of the ball in possession is clearly a necessity to reducing the frequency of shots faced. Through balls and set pieces account for 63% of the goals conceded – fingers crossed the changes made to the tactic help minimise the regularity of both, with an extra player in the defensive midfield pivot.

Despite this, the gap between the xG and the actual number of goals scored is somewhat of a concern. Hopefully, as players adjust to this tweak to the system and adapt to their new roles, the frequency of goals will rise and the under performance against the xG will disappear.

You would also think that having seen fortunes seemingly improve following the change in tactic that the expected points (xPts) would be broadly in line with actual points, and to a degree, you’d be right. Mikel Arteta would be relatively pleased. Yet according to some calculations taking from here, using both xG and xGA then looking at the difference between the two across each game, there is still some improvement to be had from this HAC side. The change in tactic does appear to have steadied things from the precipice that they were headed down following the defeat to Guingamp, but the side are still light around three points from where xPts has them at the half way point in the season. Only an over-performance against both xG and xGA will see that gap disappear. With both on the ‘wrong side’ thus far on a cumulative basis, this does not look likely to be eradicated any time soon.

Indeed if we take things a step further and look at cumulative G-xG and GA-xGA then we see a chronic under-performance in terms of goals scored against what the metrics tell us that HAC should have scored. Around six goals more should have been scored. Additionally, the team has conceded two extra goals than they ought to have done given the probabilities. A swing of eight goals over a nineteen game period could have had a dramatic impact upon HAC’s fortunes over the season so far. If they are to reach their goals of teaching the play-offs, it’s likely that they will need to rectify their relative waywardness in front of goal and look to be more clinical.

Youth intake – first glance

Looks promising given that this is rather the point of the save. Let’s hope it’s as good when it comes to March.

The next blog post will focus on the above youth intake.


Football Manager 2021 – AC Le Havre

For Football Manager 2021, I’ve decided upon AC Le Havre. Given the addition of xG to the Football Manager series, this save and indeed this blog was going to continue the focus on team and player metrics as per the approach I adopted for FM20. However, as FM Stag has documented in FM Slack, metrics appear to be very much broken to the point of being rendered useless when comparing against players against leagues without human managers. Even within human manager leagues, data is wrong with tackles attempted and key tackles not being registered across any games whatsoever.

I will likely still use some metrics to compare across the league that I manage in, largely relying upon the player radars that are in game, but beyond that it’s going to be impossible to use metrics for recruitment purposes. This does rather makes you wonder what the point is for recruitment analysts in the game if SI can’t get the metrics to be simulated properly.

Why AC Le Havre?

My reasoning for choosing AC Le Havre was because of their famed youth academy. There are a number of high profile past academy graduates that have come through and out of Le Havre – including but not limited to Paul Pogba, Lassana Diarra, Dimitri Payet, and current Manchester City pairing Riyad Mahrez and Benjamin Mendy. Throughout FM20, I did not see any youth graduates come through that were even close to ever pushing for first team football despite playing for over a combined ten seasons at both AC Milan and Liverpool. My hope is that by taking over at Le Havre, their patience towards demands for promotion to Ligue 1 and their youth academy should enable me to develop youth prospects from their youth academy.

As you can see from the above screenshot, the youth facilities are listed as ‘great’, as is the training facilities. This should, with a lot of luck, see high quality youth prospects being generated through our youth recruitment. Fingers crossed they will be prospects that will find themselves in the first team in coming years.

AC Le Havre start the game with some youth prospects in their youth squad with Daylam Meddah, Josué Casimir, Ylan Gomes and Abdoullah Ba. Back-up goalkeeper Yahia Fofana also looks to be a player with reasonable potential. Their training will be bespoke, rather than left to the AI and their progress monitored throughout the season. Ba and Meddah are shown for your own viewing.

Squad analysis

Taking data from on the minutes played by AC Le Havre players during the Ligue 2 2019-20 season, we also see that AC Le Havre aren’t afraid to play youth players, with a number of them playing more than 50% of the minutes available over the course of the league season. It’s noticeable how few ‘prime’ age players played considerable minutes for the team – this is likely because these types of players are either fully developed and asking for wages above a level that AC Le Havre can afford, or because they have been replaced by younger options that the club could develop. The latter definitely appears to be the case at Le Havre, with the former being more difficult to prove.

The issue in taking on this team? Only three of the six youth prospects remain. In truth, the club only owned four of the players that played more than 50% of the available minutes. Both Éric Ebimbe and Tino Kadewere have returned to their parent clubs following loans. The bigger problem is the departure of players like Pape Gueye, who left on a free transfer to Olympique Marseille. In fact, AC Le Havre recouped exactly zero euros from transfer fees in the off-season. Of course, this is entirely unsurprising given the financial impact of the pandemic, but this is also something to take into consideration given AC Le Havre’s business model evolves around developing younger players and selling them on to fund the running of club. Without the incoming transfer fees; no prize money on offer in Ligue 2; only £2.5m being generated in sponsorship money by the club and French football in a financial crisis following the collapse of the MediaPro TV deal, finances are going to tight in the extreme. Therefore, development of the youth prospects is going to be crucial if the club is going to make any money going forwards. Equally, any incomings are likely to do so on free transfer only – the club isn’t in a position to be spending money on transfer fees.

Note that the club also released players who did to play many minutes – this shows a ruthlessness to the club and an inability in the current situation to carry any excess wage. Ayman Ben Mohamed looks to have failed in terms of the number of minutes played – as such, his ability will be reviewed upon taking over. With regards to Victor Lekhal, he had a long-term injury, which explains his lack of minutes. The other problem that crops up from the above graphic – Tino Kadawere scored 20 goals over last season, with Jamal Thiaré scoring 8 goals from a not dissimilar number of minutes. Time will tell if Thiaré can up his scoring efforts.

Staff Recruitment

Under the previous managerial incumbent, Paul Le Guen, Le Havre have sought to utilise markets beyond France to bring players in at a transfer fee below the levels expected from teams in Ligue 1 and Ligue 2. Using Le Guen’s contacts from his time in Turkey, two Turkish players have previously been brought into Le Havre – Umut Meraş and Ertugrul Ersoy. Given the link, Yilmaz Burul was recruited to help fill the gaps in the recruitment team, which were considerable given AC Le Havre start with only a Chief Scout. It helps that Burul has some excellent scouting attributes, although he is a more than little blinkered to Turkey, so he won’t significantly increase our world knowledge when it comes to player knowledge. Hopefully his fantastic adaptability rating will help him to adjust to other countries when assigned scouting assignments by Chief Scout, Bernard Pascual.

To supplement Burul’s appointment, a Director of Football, Jean-Michel Vandamme was brought in. Formerly at Lille, his experience at a top Ligue 1 club should help the club to progress. Jeannot, Brisson and N’Kongue have also signed contracts as scouts to expand the recruitment team, alongside two recruitment analysts.

Decisions with regards to recruitment cannot be taken lightly given the lack of funds to spend on players, so it’s important that mistakes are minimised. Data on player personality, past injuries and naturally their player ability will all be gathered and analysed when potential incomings are reviewed.

Tactical set-up

With regards to tactical set up, a 4-2-3-1 will be the formation of choosing, with a focus on dominating possession. With the aim of breaking teams down slowly, distribution from the goalkeeper assigned to be given to the defenders to build up the attack. Shorter passing will be adopted, instructions to dribble less and playing at a low tempo are all designed to maintain control of the ball and limit the frequency of opposition attacks. The players will hold shape if the ball is won back, but counter-press when the ball is lost, with a more urgent approach towards pressing intensity. The team is well-balanced when it comes to right and left-footed, which means that even in central midfield, left-footed Basque can play on the left hand-side of the midfield slot. Player recruitment will be required to provide more options for this shape, but as explained earlier, these will need to be constrained to free transfers only.

The next update will come at the half-way point to the season – with a focus on player trading and progress of the team with regards to results and expected points.