AC Le Havre – 2023-24 Season Review

The previous post, released some time ago now thanks to the impact of workload in real life, hinted at the prospect of European football for Le Havre. In the very next season, so it came to pass – we qualified for the UEFA Europa Conference League. The clubs first foray into continental competition. With an actual goal difference of 18 and an expected goal difference (xG Diff) of 17.05, we performed broadly in line with where we were anticipated to have done according to the data. Marseille on the other hand were ridiculously lucky to have a goal difference of 29 given they should have had a goal difference of just 3.37 by taking xG-xGA – a massive over performance.

Whilst twelve draws weren’t ideal, we were comfortably ahead of 7th placed Stade Reims, who were even luckier to be placed just outside the qualification places with their xG differential. Equally, we weren’t close to LOSC Lille. What was most pleasing was the percentage of possession we averaged across the season – a Ligue 1 topping 60%. Our tactical style of patient build up, opting to work the ball into the box and play out from the back, saw us dominate the ball.

The 61 goals scored (by a Le Havre player – 62 including an own goal) came predominantly from our forward line – with Ali Akman leading the way, scoring 16 goals from an xG of 13.25 (including three penalty goals). Leon Bosnjak’s frankly statistic breaking 11 goals from an xG of 4.43 came from him either deputising for Akman or playing on either attacking flank. 46 of the 61 goals (or 75.41%) were scored from a player in one of the three forward positions – whilst the spread amongst them isn’t necessarily a bad thing, perhaps over-relying upon them might be and it’s something to review.

Nonetheless, it is nice to see the acquisitions that were made last year settle in – with Leon Bosnjak, Chema Núñez and Cüneyt Gür (a 19-year old Turkish U21 international who was signed for £6.75k (yes, you did read that right) from Bursaspor with just 6 months of his contract left in January 2024) all being signed within the previous twelve months. It’s hoped that Gür will develop sufficiently to replace Hannibal in the long-term one his on-going loan inevitably ended from Manchester United, and continues the club’s ties to Turkey.

Another one of the new names on the goalscorers list is that of Yasser Kchouk. A youth team product, he has made his break into the first team at the tender age of 17. The left winger can play anywhere down the flank, and has been selected to play for Switzerland U21s. His development has been somewhat rapid and his breakthrough into the first team wasn’t the one that was anticipated from prior youth intakes given a previous youth team prospect, Sébastien Briand.

In truth, Briand’s development has stalled badly. He simply hasn’t kicked on at all, as can be seen by his attribute analysis below. Key role attributes are denoted in the Oxford blue (darker), non-key role attributes are in the Cambridge blue (lighter).

This as disappointing as it is frustrating. Quite why this is the case is probably down to a number of factors.

First of all is ultimately probably down to me – I probably promoted him too quickly into the first team at just 16. He could have benefited from staying down in the youth team and training, just concentrating on honing his attributes rather than being with the senior side. This could have aided his confidence levels, boosting his morale and thus his training levels. By lifting him above perhaps where belonged by being over excited about a youth team player that could actually kick in into the side, as per part of the goal of this save, has perhaps set him back.

To try to overcome this, he was sent out on loan for the second half of the season at Ligue 2 side, Troyes. Yet this might be another cause of his lack of development. I didn’t check what position he was likely to be playing him, not in the loan agreement, but by agreeing a loan with a manager that didn’t play with a defensive midfielder in his preferred tactical set up. Consequently, he ended up playing as an attacking midfielder, something that he’s completely ill-suited to. His attributes naturally lend himself to being a ball-winning midfielder, so by playing him as an attacking midfielder, his attribute development is completely antagonist to what I would want him to have been working on.

The third reason – luck. Player development isn’t a given. We’ve all seen real life players make their debuts very early in their professional careers before slipping down the pecking order and eventually being released/sold after not achieving their suspected potential. That may well be what’s going on here – it’s simply unlucky that Sébastien Briand, the best youth prospect I’ve had in a save where I wanted to promote youth players is actually… rubbish. Well, not rubbish perhaps, he did turn out regularly for Troyes, but definitely not capable of the high potential ability he had. He is only 18 so perhaps it will finally click, but I doubt it somehow.

On the other hand, Yasser Kchouk has developed nicely. Looking like he wasn’t all that amazing upon first inspection, yes, the only five star prospect to come through in his ‘class’, but his technical attributes are not at all something to remark at. Therefore, he remained in the U19s. There, he racked up 60 appearances, with a very credible twenty goals (including six penalties) and an incredible thirty-two assists since his promotion as a youth candidate.

His technical, mental and physical improvement is clear to see, especially the latter. His teamwork and work rate are already exemplary for someone so young, but it’s his physical progression which to me shows that there’s more to come in his quest towards first team football.

He has received just a handful of minutes so far, coming on for either Chema Nuñez or Arnaud Nordin. To ensure his player pathway isn’t blocked, Nordin, the weaker of the two left wingers in the first team already, will need to be moved on. This may seem harsh given his help to push Le Havre this far, but this is the nasty part of club management – you have to be brutal to achieve. Hopefully Kchouk can continue to progress to make this decision and easy on in hindsight and not something to regret.

Transfers

Before the transfer window even opened, loan renewals for Hannibal and Dalle Mura were negotiated and agreed with their respective clubs, Manchester United and Fiorentina. They’d been mainstays in the first team throughout the previous season and were terrific value for money given their quality.

As with previous seasons, players had started to attract interest from bigger clubs. Given the financial situation, with the lack of significant funds being generated from prize money, no European football income (though that its to come), and no big TV deal, we have to sell to fund ourselves. This time it was Diogo Nascimento who was sold to AC Milan for £20.5m, including various installments and a 20% profit on next transfer fee. The 21-year-old wanted to leave, understandably, and we weren’t in a position to stand in his way. The fee isn’t unreasonable, especially when taking into consideration that this deal represents pure profit when it comes to our accounts (bar his wages/signing on fees/etc.), as he was signed on a free transfer from SL Benfica two seasons ago.

This left us with a hole to fill in the mezzala slot in our midfield triumvirate. Our scouts had already identified a possible replacement – two in fact. The first is Belgian U20 international, Jef Depoorter. Signed from Mouscron for £7.25m, including installments a clause which pays out £500k if he plays five internationals for Belgium, the player comes with as much hype as he does promise. Despite his tender age of 19, he’s already made forty-one first team appearances in Eerste klasse B, contributing nineteen goal involvements and eight player of the matches. Being naturally left footed, he should fit in nicely into the mezzala role. His player trait of tries long-range passes should help to spread play and help start quick counter attacks, and with a degree of accuracy given his already top-level vision, technique, decisions and passing. His finishing is also a stand-out attribute. He has a real eye for goal and can offer a rotation option up front should we need him to. The only sticking point with him is that in his contract negotiations he demanded to be played in his preferred role of deep-lying playmaker in central midfield. Given that this isn’t a role we adopt in our system, he’s going to have to put up with being played out of position and hopefully come around to the idea of starting regularly in a higher league system than he was previously playing in.

The second option was Sifiso Zwane, a 6-times capped South African international despite being only 18-years old. Signed for his release fee of £825k, I’m sure you’ll agree that he looks to be something of a long-term bargain. Already well rounded when it comes to attributes for someone so young. He possess similar play-making abilities to Depoorter, and has that much sought after ‘wonderkid’ media description before even signing for us. He’s not naturally left footed, and his concentration is a little concerning, but he looks to be a star in the making given his technical abilities on the ball. This meant that I’ve brought in two replacements for one player and still have over £12m remaining. As a Club, this is how we have to operate to strengthen and improve depth.

With that in mind, Daouda Badiane was signed as youth prospect. Coming in for just £140,000 from Generation Foot, he’s been capped nine times by Sengal U20s, contributing one goal. At 6’6″, he should be a great threat, not just in defending set pieces but also in attack too. He’ll go out on loan to maximise his playing time, but I am excited about his potential.

Tilen Ribic falls into a similar category – a player signed for the future who isn’t likely to achieve first team minutes from the get-go and will go out on loan. Signed from Young Boys in Switzerland, he’s been capped seven times and scored two goals for the Swiss U21s. He has good player traits for a false nine, though I’m unconvinced by the shoots from distance given his relatively poor finishing, but there’s time to improve that. At £5m, he’s not cheap, but he should represent another good investment for the future if he can develop, hopefully a loan will help him to achieve that.

Camilo Moreno was signed on a pre-contract agreement. Yet to sign a professional contract with Independiente Santa Fe, the three times capped Colombian U20 international 18-year-old looks to have further potential to tap into. His passing, technique and teamwork should make him into a good deep lying forward or false nine. The £1.3m compensation fee will hopefully prove to be a shrewd investment. Unlike Ribic, Moreno will stay around the first team and pick up minutes in cup games and off the bench to replace Ali Akman.

Two other loanees arrived in the form of Albian Hajdari and Augusto Rocha. Hajdari was someone that I had been scouting for some time, and his existing club Juventus were keen to continue loaning him out for first team experience. It was his loan spell at Nice, where he played 15 games and scored one goal, that proved that he could hold his own at Ligue 1 level as a centre back. When his loan ended at Nice following the finish of the 2023-24 season, I approached Juventus with a loan offer of my own. Within that loan offer included an optional future fee of £4m. With only two years left on his current contract, and therefore just one year left at the conclusion of the loan should it go through, I was relatively confident that Juventus would accept such an offer. Along with a loan fee – they did. If he performs well, and we have sufficient budget, it’s likely that we’ll activate the option to buy. Augsto Rocha was signed as a rotational option at left back from FC Porto. Yet another 18-year-old, he’s not as developed as I’d have liked for a rotational option, but there was a paucity of available options within our price range and wage budget. Possibly a little better in defense then he is in attack, he should hopefully be a reasonable back up once he adjusts to life on the North West coast of France.

The name that probably catches the eye the most is Jens Petter Hauge. Unhappy at lack of playing time at AC Milan midway through the 2024-25 season, the Norwegian international was transfer listed for £6.25m with just a few months left on his contract. Rather than try to sign him on a pre-contract agreement, I took the decision to bring him in early. The attacking winger offers quality on both flanks. I will need to ensure that he doesn’t block the player development pathway for Kchouk, Naturally an inverted winger on the left, he will also slot in on the right when Saranic isn’t available as Boulaye Dia has failed to consistently step up to Ligue 1 level. To add a player of his reputation really shows how quickly we’ve come in from our initial promotion our of Ligue 2 and I hope that he can add to our chances in Ligue 1 and in Europe. He has demanded that we play him as an inverted winger on the left as part of his contractual negotiations, but as with Depoorter, I’m hoping that playing frequently and in a successful team will help him realise who holds the power in this side.

Other additions – Stefan Petrus, Emeric Schultz are punts on youth players who may/may not make it, but will go out on loan to see if they develop. Schultz was also signed on the basis of a requirement from the board to sign players from the lower leagues in France in order to develop them. Our scouts liked him – I’m not so sure. At £500k, I’ve almost certainly overpaid.

With the £20.5m recouped from Nascimento and £3m from other sales, including Nordin who left for Guingamp for £1.2m, saw a net transfer spend of -£4.5m, i.e. another profit in the transfer window(s). This resulted in an amortisation charge of just over £6.8m for these transfers (not including previous transfers).


The next blog will review our first foray into European football, along with the regular season review.