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.
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.