The 2022-33 season saw us fall into an initial slump, with poor results against our opponents in the opening fixtures, seeing four defeats in the first seven games and only two wins. This form saw us sat in 15th. Only after around nine games did we find our rhythm. Reducing the number of goals conceded by minimising the quality of chances presented to the opposition helped significantly, and as confidence and morale improved, so too did our goal scoring. Working on our defensive set up in training, as well as dropping Václav Jemelka after doing some metric analysis into our performances in favour of Dalle Mura, on loan from Fiorentina, helped to solidify our back line, dramatically bringing down our xGA.
This is reflected in our eventual finish of 6th, one place outside of European qualification (due to the winner of the Coupe de France), and in the amount of points we gained above that of those that my self-calculated model said we should have attained come the end of the season. The dip in form after the crazy run of fixtures following the Winter World Cup is mostly due to the need to rotate our small squad (more on this later). A strong finish to the last third of games saw our league position soar.
If we look at the cumulative net points (points minus expected points using xG differentials), then we were largely outperforming the number of points we should have had, with a big dip after the 4-1 battering at the hands of Lille. Earning three more points by the end of the campaign than we were predicted to using xG differentials helped us to overachieve by way of our expected league position finish.
I alluded to the heavy rotation that we had to adopt due to the fixture congestion thanks to the Winter World Cup. This can be plainly seen in our squad profile – taking minutes played and player ages. In trying to protect our plethora of young players against burn out, only goalkeeper and captain Juan Soriano played more than 80% of potential minutes in Ligue 1 (in fact he played every minute). With the minutes shared out, you’d think that the development of player attributes would have been evenly shared, but because of the number of midweek games and a near month long holiday in December, player development largely stagnated because they weren’t on the training field as often as they would have been during a normal season.
This leads me onto a player I want to hone in on and almost pay homage to as a result of his performances.
Player Focus – Hannibal
Hannibal Mejbri, known simply as Hannibal, has been on loan with us at Le Havre for the last two seasons. Over that time he’s made 58 appearances and 27 goal contributions, one every 160.22 minutes, or roughly 0.56 per 90. He has therefore understandably come to make the 8 position his own on the right-hand side of midfield.
Despite his young age, he already has an eye for a pass, with fantastic vision and technical ability. His underlying technique, flair and first touch enable him to make defence splitting passes for players running through on goal.
This is reflected in his third place finish in the Ligue 1 Meilleurs Passeurs for 2022-23, after racking up ten assists, behind Neymar (20) and Marseille’s Maxime Lopez (12).
His attributes naturally lend themselves to playing as an advanced playmaker, and to an extent, the team has somewhat been moulded around him in this role.
With a false nine ahead of him (Ali Akman), a winger on the left to flank (typically either Nordin or Pité), an inside forward cutting in from his right flank (either Dia or Šaranić) and a mezalla acting as another 8 to his left (normally Nascimento), he’s not short of passing options. Combine this with the right sided full back going forward on a supporting duty, and he has a gamut of choices.
With the adopted tactic set to play at a slow tempo with shorter passing, this does act as something of a constraint on his creative abilities. However, it does mean that the team can build possession together to look for an opening rather than have to continually press in exhaustive fashion when the ball has been lost in an effort to recycle possession. Equally, if the ball is turned over, because the team have progressed up the field together, it is then easier to enact a meaningful press by blocking multiple passing lanes rather than a solo press.
This helps to hide Hannibal’s main weakness – he’s a poor defender. He can shirk his defensive responsibilities, with 2.96 defensive actions per 90 (tackles and interceptions adjusted for possession) over the last season, a metric which puts him in the bottom 24th percentile for Ligue 1 central midfielders. This is part of the reasoning for opting to play a defensive midfielder in behind him and the other 8, as Nascimento is similarly uninspired by having to defend (with 1.82 defensive actions per 90 – in the bottom 2%).
With this cover, Hannibal is able to play the creative role, and was amongst the league leaders in all manner of passes (attempted, completed, key and assists per 90), dribbles and in being fouled (leading to the potential for attacking free kicks, which he himself takes). His pass completion is poor, but I think in part this is because he takes set pieces, but also because he’s looking for the through ball which will often be cut out by opposition defenders.
The below shot you can see Hannibal’s ability to deliver a cross to pin point perfection. Following an interchange with right back, Godswill Ekpolo, which created separation for Hannibal away from the opposition defender. Hannibal then swung in a cross, picking out Pité who has eluded his marker at the far post for an easy finish. This is only made easy because of the quality of the delivery itself from Hannibal.
It’s at this point that I wanted to delve into Hannibal’s fantastic passing ability and vision further, but sadly I’ve come across (yet) another bug in the game with a divergence between recorded assists outside the ME to what is shown inside the ME when going back to old fixtures, so instances in some matches are wrong, including passing maps, times of goals, goal scorers, assist makers… I’m hoping it was the update that threw this all out, but who knows.
After receiving the prize money for our league finish, I immediately request that the board reinvest the proceeds into the recruitment of youth prospects, and improve our training facilities for both the senior and youth sides. This should aid player development amongst the senior side who have stagnated as previously mentioned thanks to the lack of time on the training ground. Fingers crossed it will also help develop our own youth players as this is a key part of the club focus and as you can see by the squad profile, I’ve not done a great job of bringing any through, instead favouring external recruits.
The problem of this long term strategy was that it left us without much immediate cash with which to extend contracts of key staff, and a tiny budget to initially spend on transfers. As a result, early incomings on the playing staff were nil – we simply didn’t have the funds to bring anyone in. This was fine, as I felt that bar left back, with Carole departing following the expiry of his contact, I had two players of adequate or good quality in every position.
This though, didn’t solve the issue with staff. I was unable to negotiate contact extensions with a number of staff because their weekly wage expectations had risen following the club’s success on the field. Yet this wasn’t matched with the wages I was in a position to offer them. As such, a number left and were replaced with unemployed coaches, analysts, physios and scouts who were willing to join for lower compensation for their gainful employment.
My thoughts regarding squad depth held until I had an offer for Guilherme Montóia from Arsenal. I knew as soon as Arsenal bid for him that I was not going to be in a position to reasonably stand in his way. Whilst the Club is just about washing its face when it comes to finances, player sales were going to be required to pay for the growth and development of the Club as a whole. The initial £7m bid was negotiated up to £12.25m, including £5m in £1m payments staggered over semi-annual payments for the next three years, which should help with our cash flow. The big bonus though was the fact that Arsenal were happy to loan Montóia straight back to us to continue his development. Montóia could remain first choice whilst his eventual successor bedded in.
Looking into the finances of this deal in more depth, because we can book the proceeds of the sale of Montóia straight away, i.e. record the receipt of funds immediately and not when actual payment is received. This results in us making an instant paper profit of the £12.25m that Arsenal agreed to pay because Montóia was signed on a free transfer – his book value to us was nil, so the transfer fee represents pure profit.
The other transfer that I couldn’t possibly refuse was that of Brahima Ouattara. Juventus were negotiated up to an offer of £11.5m, including three guaranteed payments of £1.33m over the next three years to further bolster future cash inflows. The Ivory Coast international made twenty three appearances but never really shone in the mezalla role. Given the depth we have in central midfield, I was more than happy to let Ouattara go to Turin and try to break through into i Bianconeri’s first team.
The fee we had paid RC Abidjan for Ouattara was a meagre £275k and he had signed on a four-year deal. Given that there were still two-years left on his contract, this meant that the booked profit on this transfer amounted to a whopping £11,362,000 (whopping relative to our club size at least).
In booking this £23,612,500 profit, this provided the Club with funds to reinvest back into the transfer market where we could find more ‘wrinkles’.
With Carole leaving, I went searching for a left back. After much deliberation, largely because no one was as good at the soon-to-be outgoing Montóia, we brought in Jonathan Augustinsson from Djurgården in Sweden for £1.4m, rising to £1.8m after 50 league appearances. His appearances for Sweden and his relatively older age compared to those around him in the squad I’ve assembled at Le Havre (note the number youngsters in the earlier squad graphic above), should add experience to the side. His personality of a model professional certainly made my mind up when deliberating over his transfer – hopefully he can climb up the player hierarchy to become a team leader so that he’ll make a perfect mentor for any defender in the side.
We also looked to invest into a back up for Ali Akman and brought in Leon Bosnjak, a young Croat from NK Varaždin, for his £2.6m release fee. Looking at his attributes, he looks well developed for an 18-year old. Whilst his finishing is below what I’d normally look for, I realise I can’t have everything at this level, especially not for an initial back up player. His composure and off the ball movement, along with his excellent with rate and flair should mean that the can bamboozle defenders to increase the quality of chances he creates for himself/find himself free in pockets of space to be find by the likes of Hannibal.
Chema Núñez signed on a free transfer from Albacete to improve the quality of our attacking output down the left hand flank. The pacey Spaniard likes to dribble down the left flank, yet also moves into channels, so should confuse the opponents he finds himself up against when coupled with his flair, technique and dribbling ability. His vision and passing is also excellent, with his trait of playing one-twos and killer balls, he should offer a fantastic threat going forward.
Dual national, Giulian Biancone came into to offer a challenge to Godswill Ekpolo. Ekpolo will remain the first-choice, but at £750k following his transfer-listing at Monaco, this looked a good deal for the former French U21. He’s attacking in his nature as a full back, looking to bomb on down the right flank, so will help to add width given the inside forward that is played ahead of him. His decisions, technique and composure could be better, but there won’t be many, if any, better players at this price in his position.
Just prior to the start of the season, Juan Soriano picked up an injury which meant that he was set to miss the opening three games of the forthcoming season. With only the under-developed Yahia Fofana as a back-up option, I brought in Alfred Gomis from Rennes as a reserve goalkeeper. This is quite some come down for the player chosen by his previous club Rennes to replace Edouardo Mendy after the latter signed for Chelsea. The 6’5″ Senegalese international joined for just £1m, after his transfer listing. Having played just four games in 2021-22 and zero in the 2022-23 season, Gomis was more than happy to cut the cord from Rennes and be the second choice behind Soriano when he returned to fitness.
Hannibal and Della Mura both had their loans renewed, so will be with us for the 2023-24 season. All deals saw us spend £5,750,000 in total on first team players, with a further £1,855,550 spent on U19 potential prospects. This was in part trying to becalm the directors who were ‘devastated’ at my inability to purchase players from lower leagues in France, develop them to the first team before selling them on for a profit. In total, five such players were brought in but they will not be expected to feature in the first-team and anyone older than 18 will be loan listed to encourage their development.
Will this addition of depth to the squad help our onward march to European places? Find out in the next blog post.