AC Le Havre – 2022-23: Sailing out to a European waters?

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.

Club update

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.

AC Le Havre – 2021-22 Season Review

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.

Transfer planning

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.

AC Le Havre 2021-22 Mid-Season Update

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.

Tactical analysis

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.

Window shopping

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.

AC Le Havre 2020-21 – La joie de vivre

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.

Squad analysis

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.