AC Le Havre 2021-22 Mid-Season Update

HAC Foot Steps

Having been promoted to Ligue 1 ahead of schedule, and having spent only around £4m in improving the squad, the bookmakers had us in the bottom five of the league after we made our additions to the squad. The Board and the players weren’t holding out too much hope when it came to avoiding the drop either, with the expectations largely to fight bravely against relegation. Understandable when our wage expenditure was a Ligue 1 low of £9.63m (see later graphic for more on this).

Being overpowered by our fellow competitors in the Ligue 1 labour market is all well and good, but with an encouraging pre-season behind us, spirits are high. If we can remain tactically solid, then we stand half-a-chance against some of our opponents.

Tactical analysis

The defensive set-up is the most obvious place to start in analysing how HAC Foot are going to go about trying to survive in Ligue 1.

A traditional back five, sees a sweeper ‘keeper with clear guidance to distributor the ball out to those directly in front of him in order to maintain possession, with our aim for purposeful and considered build up. With a more aggressive left wing back and a right back playing as a full back on support provides width in attack but also tactical solidity out of possession because of the instinct of the right back to return back to his defensive position as possession is lost.

Since none of the options at centre back are especially gifted with the ball at their feet, they’re told to play it simple when passing. If they can reduce the risk of turning the ball over to the opposition, they cut the likelihood of the opponent being able to score should they win the possession with only a solitary defender or two between them and the goal. José Mourinho riled against possession statistics after defeat to Liverpool, “It is a little bit like the efficiency of players and sometimes you say: ‘The stats say Player B had 92% of efficiency in his passing.’ But the stats don’t say that player only made passes of two metres, they don’t say that the player was a centre-back who only passed to the other centre-back”. Whilst he has a point, I am still more comfortable with a centre back who can repeatedly make that pass, potentially away from the press, than one who is like a panicked chicken with a fox bearing down on him. This approach has seen us average 57% possession in our games up to the half way point – second only to PSG.

To provide some defensive rigidity, a defensive midfielder operates as a single pivot. However, the role varies depending upon those entrusted with their name in the playing eleven. If either of the HAC Foot stalwarts, Lekhal or Fontaine play, then they act as a deep lying playmaker, looking to recycle possession and keep the ball moving as we methodically look to pick our way through an opponent’s defence. Should we pick youth team graduate, Sébastien Briand, then he plays in his more natural role of a ball-winning midfielder, acting as a combatant, utilising his bravery, teamwork and aggression.

The remaining central midfielders are more set in their roles, a mezalla on the left and an advanced playmaker on the right. The latter has been rotated between another youth graduate, Abdelli, and loanee Hannibal, whilst Scott Fraser has been assigned the mezalla role he was signed for. When on song, Hannibal can take a game by the scruff of the neck and dictate play, looking head and shoulders over anyone else on the pitch. He is only young, but if he can improve his consistency, Manchester United could have a world beater on their books.

Down the left flank, on loan Nordin plays as a winger, utilising his pace and dribbling ability to stretch opposition defences. Dia has taken well to the inside forward role on the right, cutting inside with regularity, either to meet a cross or with the ball at his feet driving at the defence.

This leaves lone front man, Ali Akman, playing almost as a hybrid false nine. His desire to push the boundaries with offside sees him more advanced than a typical false nine, but he will still often drop back into the hole between the defence and midfield of the other side to link up play with, Hannibal, Nordin or Dia. Constantly busy, his off the ball movement and anticipation has aided our style of play.

So far, by and large, it’s a system that it seems is working.

Half-season break results

As you can see from the results and our current League position, things have been going much better than anyone outside and even inside the Club would have initially expected. With the defeats, all but three (Angers, Dijon & Lens) were anticipated and of those, all of those losses were away. Further still, bar the Monaco loss, in none of the matches were we trounced. Not even away against PSG – though admittedly we were playing for the 0-0 and hardly registered a shot, never mind one on target. We were undefeated at home until Lille turned up in November, something I don’t think anyone could have dreamed about.

It’s worth revisiting the start of this review post at this point. Our wage expenditure is just £9.63m for the entire squad, yet we find ourselves 8th.

Having a strong start to the opening fixtures certainly helped bring a feeling of belonging in the top tier of French football. The new signings were clicking well. Hannibal had a goal contribution of five – or one every 198.8 minutes if you prefer; Ali Akman was performing well in the false nine role, with seven goals from fifteen appearances, and Boulaye Dia had also made fast start to life a HAC Foot, with a goal contribution of eleven (six goals and five assists) – registering a goal or an assist every 110 minutes.

This gave the recruitment team the confidence in their talent spotting abilities, with so many of the Summer transfers having seen substantial first team action and doing well. Six of those signed in the Summer had been involved in at least 80% of potential minutes thus far.

Window shopping

Their talents were to be put into action again in the January window. Prior to the closing of the Summer transfer window, Ertuğrul Ersoy demanded to leave because he felt that there was too much competition for places at centre back, presumably threatened by Vaclav Jemelka’s arrival and starting berth. He left for Kasımpaşa for £925k. Without the necessary time to replace him, the decision was made to wait until January and spend the first few months of the season identifying a series of potential candidates within the allotted wage and transfer budget. The situation was exacerbated further still when Yanga-Mbiwa was unsettled by his lack of first team action after his physical attributes taking a downturn after his lengthy last off in the previous season. He asked to be sold – with his contract expiring at the end of the season, an offer of £205k from Auxerre was gladly accepted.

Since the Board were keen to sign and develop youngsters, a number of scouts were given the remit of finding central defenders who were at most 23 years old, not paid in excess of £12k/week and valued at no more than £2m. Below are the profiles that made the final shortlist:

Elias Mesonero: Pros – Top-ranked by averaged percentiles across defensive metrics for those of whom the club had knowledge and who were interested in signing for the club, considered a leader, driven in pursuit of goals, high level of determination, anticipates situations well, likely to be a good fit with the squad, fluent French speaker, 4 U21 caps. Cons – none.


Emin Bayram: Pros – Impressive jumping reach, balanced/normal personality, fairly consistent performer, good in the air, 9 U21 caps. Cons – needs to work on first touch, won’t fit in easily to any social group, would need to learn French and Galatasaray aren’t willing to listen to any offers, whilst he wins a lot of tackles and interceptions, his tackle success rate is <80% and a good deal lower than other potential signings.


Dimitris Nikolaou: Pros – No problems adapting to another country, very brave, balanced/normal personality, enjoys big matches, fairly consistent performer, good in the air, 1 senior cap (20 U21 caps). Cons – high agent fee, poor first touch, won’t fit in easily to social group, would need to learn French, appears to give the ball away too frequently judging by passing efficiency.


Kamil Piątkowski: Pros – Strong player, fairly determined attitude, good stamina, 17 U21 caps. Cons – peripheral figure in social group, would need to learn French, looks pretty solid statistically but falls outside our transfer budget with Raków demanding his minimum release fee be paid up front for permission to speak with him.


Jan Sobociński: Pros – Model citizen, adaptable to living in new country, enjoys big matches, good in the air, good at marking, 12 U21 caps for Poland. Cons – demonstrates a lack of composure, has a competitive streak, would need to learn French and likely a peripheral figure in social group, makes almost as many fouls as he does tackles – likely to be booked frequently and be suspended/cost the team goals from free kicks when matched with his competitive streak.


As you can see, detailed player profiled were put together for each potential signing. Everything from their personality, recurring injuries, likely wage demands to details on their existing contract were assessed, beyond simply their player data – both attributes and metrics.

The stand out from the above and primary target was Elias Mesonero. Mesonero’s metrics shone – with the highest average percentile across all the key defensive statistics considered of not just the shortlisted players but of all players aged 23 or less with 250+ minutes. Other things that were looked upon favourably when evaluating Mesonero was that he had the second best average rating in the Swiss Challenge League and led the league for blocks, indicating his eye for reading the development of play. A bid was tabled, structuring the deal over three seasons to alleviate any cash flow concerns that were brewing, with Grasshoppers Zurich for £1.1m. rising to £1.4m. He joined after agreeing a contract over four and a half year for £5,750/week.

The second part of the process was to agree never to face a situation where a first team squad member was to leave and not have an identified target – either a youth team player to promote or a new player to come in from outside the club. This led to the establishment of a shortlist of players who were added to the ‘back up squad’ list. Players added to this list were deemed of sufficient quality to at least match the existing first eleven, or could have the potential to do so in the very near future. Scouts who were not assigned the duty of finding a replacement centre back were asked to monitor Central and Eastern Europe, as well as Scandinavia and Africa for information gathering with a broad net. Anyone who was highly thought of would then be monitored by the Director of Football, Jean-Michel Vandamme. His overview would help to determine whether or not they were the kind of player HAC Foot would possibly look to potentially sign.

Whilst the Club laid out their desire for young signings, older players weren’t ruled out of being shortlisted, but they had to come in under budget and be a clear and obvious improvement in the current player in possession of the shirt. It was also agreed that the shortlist was to be reviews on a six monthly basis, prior to the opening of both transfer windows so that those deemed not to be of a good fit for HAC Foot would be delisted and new additions brought on following recommendations from the scouting reports.


The next blog post will be the end of 2021-22 season. Will HAC Foot’s season continue on the right path and will Mesonero settle in to life on the French coast? Time will tell.

AC Le Havre 2020-21 – La joie de vivre

Ligue 2 – Fais toujours de ton mieux même si personne ne regarde

After the change in formation to the 433DM Wide, rolling goals against, i.e. average goals conceded over a rolling period of 10 games, plummeted to well below 0.5 goals per game. In part, it was this up-tick in the number of clean sheets which went a long way towards HAC Foot’s rise in the table from a low of 12th to the summit of Ligue 2. It is there that we stayed for a total of eight game weeks, winning Ligue 2.

It’s true that the increased frequency of goals scored meant that we were winning games relatively comfortably, but it’s clean sheets that helped deliver the wins too. In truth, as you can see from the comparison between the rolling G v xG, we considerably overachieved against the number of goals that we should have scored. This overperformance isn’t particularly concerning now. After all, promotion to Ligue 1 when we were only meant to finish 5th is fantastic. HAC Foot’s Board duly offering me a new contract, which I gratefully accept, even putting in a relegation clause that lowers my salary should we be relegated, to ensure the financial security of the club.

The most pleasing aspect of the below radar is oddly probably the pass completion. Setting the team up to retain control of the ball so that we could facilitate chance creation has yielded winning results, off the back of a high shot frequency and positive gap between xG and xGA.

On a game-by-game basis, the difference between cumulative G-xG rose to the extent that the goals we were scored at the back end of the season overcame the deficit that had been created at the half-way stage. This big upswing over and above goals we were expected to score evidentially helped our rise in fortunes. When you combine this with keeping GA under control, then this highlights the secret to success for the side.

The self-calculated xPts rose to over four points above what we should otherwise expected to have achieved. The in-game analysts agreed that we overperformed but their xPts still had us top (72.1 xPts – +4). We were truly the best team in Ligue 2 and deserved winners of the title.

Squad analysis

Taking a look at the squad profile using the number of minutes played gives the chance to review progress in utilising the club’s academy prospects.

The opportunity to blood more home grown youngsters increased as the season went on and rotation options were needed. The change in formation suited one in particular – Himad Abdelli. He became the first choice in the advanced playmaker role on the right hand side of the central midfield pairing. He was on the pitch for a total of 1,621 minutes, and contributed six goals and five assists. Given that HAC Foot have a history of naming youth academy graduates in their captaincy roles, with Fontaine currently the captain and Lekhal the vice-captain, perhaps Abdelli is future captain material?

Planning for Ligue 1

Promotion secured, and news of an £11.53m share of TV revenue from Ligue 1 to come our way over the course of the next season, the Board made a £3m transfer budget available.

With numerous first team contracts expiring on players who weren’t going to make the grade at the higher level (shaded light blue in the above graphic), this was an opportunity to free up the wage budget. This included players like Bonnet who had had his testimonial at the start of the season after 12 years of service. The alleviated expenditure on wages could then be reallocated towards new recruits to come in who would improve the quality and possibly depth of the squad. With Ba and Meddah seeing some minutes as indicated above, but far from ready for Ligue 1 football, they too were placed on the loan list. After assessing the situation with the squad and discussing about the future and the quality of the squad, it was clear recruitment was needed.

Under Chief Scout, Bernard Pascual, the recruitment team have been out looking for possible player acquisition targets and these missions yielded some recommendations that were favourably looked upon.

Four deals had already been agreed prior to the transfer window opening and before it became clear that we were to be promoted – those shaded in purple. Two of the three signings were from Africa, in particular Côte d’Ivoire – Jean N’Guessan and Ibrahima Ouattara – both prospects signed for their release fees of £275k each from RC Abidjan. Both will be added to the development list with the newly hired Loan Manager tasked to find them appropriate playing time at another club to aid their development. The third deal was one that was probably actioned too soon. Matthieu Saunier was signed to provide depth at centre back but does not look good enough to be back up at a Ligue 1 side. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. The remaining deals were going to have to be both shrewd and more considered.

The other pre-agreed deals that comes under that category was for Lionel Carole, who joined from Strasbourg. He came in to provide competition in the left back role for Meraş, who was largely unimpressive following an injury hit year. The 30-year old French former youth international signed a two-year deal after his contract expired. A well-rounded player with no real weakness to his technical, mental or physical attributes, Carole adds experience to the youth that’s already been added to the side.

A deal was struck with Manchester United to bring in 18-year old French midfielder, Hannibal. The French U20 player will slot straight into the advanced playmaker role as an upgrade on Abdelli, with ratings of 15 for a lot important attributes. Paying only £5k of his wages seems like a bargain for a player of his talents. His technical attributes make him stand out from the rest of the squad – his ambitious mentality and consistency should hopefully provide him with the drive to succeed at HAC Foot.

With Romain Basque the main option in the mezzala role, Scott Fraser was brought in on another free transfer to step into the starting eleven. Being post-Brexit, Fraser counts as a non-EU player (something that’s quite that’s difficult to achieve when you look at the list of countries that are treated as EU citizens by the French). The left-footed Scot offers flexibility in playing positions given his versatility, but it’s hoped he will form a good relationship with Hannibal and either Lekhal or Fontaine in behind. Whilst not blessed with acceleration, his willingness to try high risk/reward passes and penchant for arriving late into the opponents box mark him out as a good fit for a mezzala.

Ali Akman is another teenager brought in to strengthen the first team. As previously stated, the Club is seeking to exploit transfer markets where there are ‘wrinkles’, and Turkish scout, Burul, highlighted Ali. Goals from the front man during the previous season were hard earned, and even when they did come, they came from on-loan striker Simon Banza (whose loan was renegotiated for another year as a precaution, after some initial reflectance from his parent club). Therefore, a player with not only a higher ceiling but also an improved ability in front of goal was sought. Signing on a free transfer, after being not agreeing a contract renewal with Buraspor, 19-year old Ali has the ability to play as a false nine, which could be a pivotal change in HAC’s approach play, enabling Ali to drop into space in front of the opposition back line whilst the two attacking wide players push on beyond him. Despite his young age, he looks a talent destined for bigger things than here at HAC Foot.

Speaking of wide players, new recruits were added here too. On the left, Arnaud Nordin was signed on season-long loan from Saint Étienne to provide competition for Pité who may be moved across to cater for the other attacking acquisition – more on him soon. Nordin is relatively quick and a good dribbler and although he will start out in the winger role, he will look to cut inside towards goal. Given the switch to a false nine, this should increase the threat upon goal beyond the traditional wide man. His fear of big matches is a concern, but overall consistency and relatively low cost of only £6k/week mean that he will be a valuable acquisition for the team.

The other attacking player signed is none other than Boulaye Dia. Signed from Reims for a bargain fee of just £900k, Dia hits the club’s ambition to sign players under the age of 23. Heavily backed to do well in real life, Dia looks like a good player in the making. Rather than playing up front through the middle, he will be trained to play as a right-sided inside forward. His pace, strength and finishing ability should enable him to score goals at this level.

At right back, improving the quality of options was more important. With transfer fees limited as previously stated, the search turned to more unfancied markets, in this case, Scandinavia. BK Häcken’s Nigerian defender, Godswill Ekpolo had caught the eye of scouts with his solid defending ability, work rate and physicality. The most expensive deal done over the summer window, Ekpolo arrived on a 5-year deal for £1.5m, rising to £1.7m after appearances, broken up in a series of payments over the next four years.

A left-footed centre back was missing from the first team squad and a player search using attributes for a central defender. One of the players who cropped up within budget was 26-year old Vaclav Jemelka. A naturally fit and physically strong player, with good positional sense and tackling, the Czechian was signed for £975k, rising to £1.2m, from SK Sigma Olomouc. He is somewhat limited with regards to his mental attributes, fingers crossed he won’t be exposed too often due to his poor decision-making and anticipation of what is going on around him.

After a busy transfer window with no fewer than eight additions to the first team, and more to the wider squad/HAC 2s, the squad looked like this as the season began.

Using some relatively basic accounting principles, using amortisation to divide the cost of the transfer over the duration of the contract, the total basic expenditure, before player agent fees, loyalty bonuses and player performance/appearance bonuses, all of the players brought in cost in the region of £4.6m for the first (or only) year of their contract. Less than £5m spent on, hopefully, improving the team for Ligue 1. Thanks to spreading the payments over several years, this still left some funds in the transfer budget of the original £3m for the January window, should we need it. Think on this when PSG have signed Harry Kane.


The next blog will review the half-way point of the Ligue 1 2021-22 season – time will only tell if HAC Foot have managed to get themselves in through the door of the top league in France.