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.
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.
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.