HAC Foot – Safe Haven in Ligue 1
The winter break saw HAC Foot in 8th place and it is there that we finished in our first campaign in Ligue 1. Quite some effort for a team expecting to be relegated back from whence we came.
The second half of the season actually went better than our first. Picking up nine wins and four draws saw us achieve four more points we did before the Winter break. Notable performances included a 3-0 victory at home to Lyon, 1-0 win against Nice and a 3-3 draw versus Monaco where we raced into a 3-0 lead only to see Monaco rage back against us.
The results enabled us to finish just outside the European places – perhaps as well given the lack of depth we have in our squad. This is evidenced by the fact that eight players played in excess of 75% of the possible minutes in the league – six of which were new additions to the team. It’s great that the players we signed had the natural fitness and stamina to last the season. However, this will be taken into consideration when looking to utilise the £6.78m we’ve been allocated in transfer spending and nearly £100k p/w in wages.
Gibaud’s, Gorgelin’s and Club captain Fontaine’s contracts are all expiring and they will not be signed to new deals. This may be a little harsh on Fontaine who has been with HAC Foot throughout his career. When delving into his data for the 2021-22 season, his first ever in Ligue 1, it looks even more ruthless. Fontaine, despite playing as a deep-lying playmaker in the defensive midfield strata, produced some elite level metrics, delivering key passes, being efficient with his use of the ball and managed a goal involvement 0.41 per 90, almost a goal or an assist every other game. It is worth noting that this sample size isn’t huge with only 14.62 90s played, but he did play in a good number of the games in the second half of the season alongside our improvement in results.
However, at 33, his physical attributes are starting to wane. Whilst Ligue 1 isn’t the most physical of leagues, a two-year deal did not seem like a good use of the clubs finances, would block the player pathway of Briand, and could open wage budget for other recruits too to fill the gap between Fontaine and Briand, besides just Lekhal.
For Gorgelin, whose performances saw us keep eleven clean sheets – the decision could have also have been said to be heartless. Again, the contract that he was demanding was not acceptable to the Club in terms of how he was valued. That might seem strange given the number of clean sheets and the fact that we conceded just 42 goals as a club. However, as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote in ‘A Scandal in Bohemia‘, “It is a capital mistake to theorise before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts”. So let’s take a much closer look at the data.
Further investigation into our metrics demonstrates a clear down turn in form in keeping out goals over the second half of the season compared to those the data tells us we should have conceded (GA-xGA). We conceded nearly four goals more than we ought to have done according to xG – not awful, but perhaps there’s room for an upgrade in this area. This would so easily be overlooked given the improvement in results from the pre-Winter break.
If we take a deeper dive still into the data, you’ll notice that over the course of the season the 10-game rolling average goals, xG, goals against and xGA drifted together. Once we are beyond the “noise” of the first ten games, we see that bar one small spell, there never was much gap between all statistical measures, both actual and theoretical. In other words, we were performing roughly as expected over a rolling ten game period and we were perhaps a little lucky to be ultimately as high as 8th. Therefore, if we can upgrade in the goalkeeping position, this could see us improve further still, should we bring the goals conceded back towards xGA and xGA remains low next season.
To an extent, this is backed up on the cumulative xPts data too. We broadly achieved the number of points we should have done, with us dropping only two points using the cumulative differences between G-xG and GA-xGA. Accordingly to the data, we statistically could have picked up two additional points to those we achieved.
Therefore, it could be said that although 8th place was something beyond our wildest dreams before first fixture kicked off, this is an indication that we actually underperformed in our first season in Ligue 1. This comes despite the bookmakers having us odds on to be in the bottom two and relegated. Definitely some to ponder on when deciding the balance of the squad over the Summer transfer window.
Stand out player
Before we progress onto the Summer dealings, it is worth highlighting the speed at which Ali Akman became an integral part of the squad. Eighteen goals on an xG tally of fifteen, and an xG per shot of 0.25, meaning one in every four of his shots would likely result in a goal. The latter statistic was the best in Ligue 1, and for a 20-year old that is seriously impressive. Especially so given he was playing as a withdrawn striker in the false nine role. His actual xG tally was fifth best of all strikers, behind Ligue 1 top goal scorer Harry Kane, and Akman ranked second by shot to goal conversion. So despite playing in a far deeper positions than any of his peers would likely been playing in, Akman looks to have made a fantastic start to his time on the French coast. If he can improve his interlinking to set up his teammates to up his assists, his time be at HAC Foot might be limited as bigger clubs start to take notice.
With the aforementioned contracts expiring, deals needed to be done to replace these players and to deepen the player pool in terms of quality.
Before the transfer window opened, a deal was done to make Arnaud Nordin’s stay a permanent one, with him happy to stay on at HAC Foot after his deal with Saint-Étienne expired. Saint-Étienne coincidently were relegated. He signed a 3-year deal on a basic salary of £9,250/week with various bonuses and clauses attached. His hard work as part of the forward line to press and win the ball back with his tackles and interceptions (T&I/90) and the willingness shown to take on his opposite number with a dribble saw him create seven assists. These metrics are easily good enough for a Ligue 1 player, so to acquire him for no transfer fee is a big bonus.
Also prior to the transfer window re-opening, Manchester United were approached to extend Hannibal’s loan. Whilst he didn’t see much over 50% of the possible minutes, his importance to the system was growing, despite his inconsistencies in performances. Both the club and player accepted the offer, so Hannibal stays in his home country for another year and on a lower wage contribution to boot. It’s not hard to see why I was so keen either given his metrics. In the first year of his loan spell, he was elite at goal involvement and key passes per game when on form. Whilst his passing success rate is low, as an attacking playmaker, this is not that much of an issue if he is creating chances and assists for his team mates. He was second in the list of key passes played by either defensive or central midfielders with more than 1,000 minutes played in Ligue 1 – he will be welcomed with open arms upon his return from holiday.
It was adjudged that Yahia Fofana did not have the required skills and attributes to step up to the No. 1 jersey, and as such, scouts had been focussed on finding a new goalkeeper. Scouts had for a long time been keeping tabs on Spaniard Juan Soriano. He’d spent the 2020/21 season on loan at Malaga from his parent club, Sevilla. Over that season he kept seven clean sheets from 41 starts, conceding 50 goals, with four player of the match awards. However, over the 2021/22 season, he had returned to Sevilla and found himself a third wheel behind Tomas Vaclik and Yassine Bounou, who shared the goalkeeping duties. With the picture clear that he wasn’t going to receive first team action at Sevilla, when we approached the once U21-capped 24-year old with a contract and promise of being the first-choice goalkeeper, he didn’t hesitate in signing a three-year deal on £6,500/week. Although a tad eccentric for my liking (15), he is excellent at one-on-ones (16), has a high level of concentration, reflexes and agility (all 15),
To replace Fontaine, we looked for an experienced player to offer a mentality of leadership and positive attitude, alongside a considerable number of minutes in Ligue 1. Defensive midfielder Abdoulaye Touré became available on a free signing after being released by Nantes. He took some convincing to join, with negotiations being protracted over a number of weeks after the player initially turned us down on two occasions, but we eventually managed to come to an agreement with the Frenchman signing a 3-year deal on £17,000/week, making him our highest paid player. At 28-years of age, he has made 175 appearances in Ligue 1 and has a fairly determined mentality with strong attributes for determination, teamwork and work rate.
Mathieu Cafaro had also been impressing domestic scouts in the Stade de Reims team. Following his transfer listing, we saw an opportunity to sign a quality young French player who could rotate with Hannibal and had the versatility to play in a number of other roles if required. A fee of an initial £2.6m, climbing to £3.2m, was agreed with Stade de Reims, with Cafaro signing a deal worth £13,000/week. If we can flip the player for a profit, this could prove a shrewd deal.
With Umut Meraş not receiving many minutes because of his consistently poor performances, another back up to Carole was required. Carole’s age of 31 meant that the Club were in a position to sign a young player with Carole passing on his experience to him on the training pitch. Guilherme Montóia was available to be able to discuss a pre-contract as S.L. Benfica had neglected to renew his contract. A considerable number of top clubs were after his signing – yet because we were in a position to offer a clear pathway for him to be a key first team player within the next two years Montóia looked favourably upon our contact offer. He did seek a reassurance that we were going to be an established Ligue 1 side over the next few years, but having achieved 8th in our first year, we felt confident we could match that promise.
Scott Fraser’s first season at the club was less than successful. It became apparent that he did not play well alongside Hannibal. Both players weren’t significant contributors to defensive actions (tackles and interceptions), and Hannibal outperformed Fraser when it came to goals and assists over the season. Whether this was due to a language barrier, the jump from League One’s MK Dons being too great or finding himself playing in a slower, a less direct and slower playing style than he was used to, it’s hard to determine, but it was clear that a replacement option was required.
Diogo Nascimento was identified as the player to come in and take Fraser’s place in the starting eleven. Available on a pre-contract agreement after running down his contract with S.L. Benfica, much like Montóia, the young Portuguese starlet was similarly wanted by a host of top European sides from most of the Big Five leagues. We moved quickly to secure his signature on a five year deal. The left footed midfielder will hopefully adapt to life quickly in Le Havre so he does not have the same fate as Fraser. The Scot will be offered out on loan to try to drum up some transfer interest with the aim of recouping a transfer profit from the sale.
If Fraser was a failure, then Boulaye Dia couldn’t have been anything more different. Dia had a fantastic campaign – his superb metrics show how important he made himself to our HAC Foot side. His twenty four goal involvements saw him in the top 90% of all wide attacking players with more than 1,000 minutes. His attacking nature saw him drive at defences, and have a better shot to goal conversion rate than players like Mbappe and Neymar. Yet when Dia wasn’t available, the drop off to players like Pité was notable. Therefore, a second option to add depth to the playing squad was required.
Scouts had spotted Ivan Šaranić playing in the UEFA-21 qualifiers, alongside fellow Croatian Tomislav Duvnjak and came back raving about both. Šaranić possesses the attributes that mark him out as an ideal initial back-up to Dia, but he was keen to impress upon us that if he was to move to France at such a young age, then he would want to do so with a fellow Croat to help him settle. Duvnjak, who was playing alongside Šaranić at GNK Dinamo Zagreb also looked like someone that we could sign to develop and then sell on, hitting the Club vision of signing players under-23 who we could flip for a profit. A bid was then tabled for him to, and whilst Duvnjak had his own reservations, his wages demands were reasonable. Both players signed for a combined £5.3m split across four years payments, rising to £7.2m after various criteria are met, largely player performance-related.
In analysing the performances of our three main centre backs, whilst Mesonero is showing the possible ability to make the step up, with the Swiss defender making the most interceptions per nine across all central defenders, Jemelka and Mayembo look to have struggled. Their tackles per ninety and tackle success rates are very poor, with Mayembo’s seeing him in the bottom five percent. I haven’t included heading data within the below player data profiles, largely because it’s not possible to discern between an attacking heading attempt and a defensive effort, but all of the HAC Foot defenders struggled to win the ball in the air. With only three defenders as an option, more depth was required, but if we could improve the quality of defenders then this would be beneficial too, especially with the metrics making it clear that Mayembo has been ground to be lacking at this level.
Scouting reports had highlighted the availability of David Costas who had not accepted contract offers with Celta Vigo. Costas likely won’t necessarily improve us in the air at only 6’0″ tall, but he will add to our ball-playing ability as he is a natural passer. Given our desire to play passing, controlled football, this should allow us to build up from the back. To add greater depth in the left centre back position, Christian Dalle Mura was signed on loan from Fiorentina as a squad option, with the intention that he goes in behind Jemelka to rotate in and out of the squad when the fixture list piles up, with nine games inside January alone after the Winter World Cup.
With these new additions to the squad, we’ve hopefully achieved our objectives in the transfer market to both strengthen and deepen the team to help prepare for the fixture madness of January and February to catch up from the games that have been moved from November and December. This was despite having only been issued a transfer budget of £6.78m – spreading payments out over four years with the use of installments helped us meet our objectives. With an overall spend in the region of £8m with regards to transfer fees, with further in add-ons if certain targets are met, were should find ourselves better resourced to avoid the so-called difficult second season.
As to how we’ve progressed against the Club objectives of signing under-23 players to sell on and from domestic lower leagues, well five out of eleven players were under the imposed age bracket. Where we missed the prescribed goals was not signing anyone from Ligue 2 or below bar technically Nordin from Saint Étienne. It’s not for the lack of player search, there just wasn’t the talent there, or if there was in the relegated teams, they wanted wages well above what we could reasonably offer with our wage structure. We’d already stretched that with some of the above signings. Hopefully this won’t be too much of an issue for the Board. To address the problem head on, two scouts were immediately assigned to Ligue 2, National leagues and the junior age group leagues for a better overview.
The next post in the series will go onto look at the 2022-23 campaign, as well as highlight some youth prospects starting to emerge from the academy, skipping the usual half season analysis. I hope you’ll return for that post. Until then, au revoir et bonne santé.