Football Manager 2022: 4-3-1-2 – Third-man runs

I made an early decision to take a break from the Football Manager blogging scene, besides my guest blogging piece for FM Grasshopper where I took a deep dive into his trequartista using the available data to show just how well he had played. I’ve chosen not to diarise my save largely down to time commitments at work, so this way I could at least play when time allowed between a heavy workload.

Previous blogs I’ve written have typically focussed on looking at the save I was playing through from a data perspective too – using data analysis to back up scout reports and an overview of the player attributes to outline my reasonings for signing players. This was true of both my AC Milan save in FM20 and in my (much-missed from my perspective) Le Havre save in FM21.

Tactical writing

My work, and my over-ambition with the number of players I’ve loaded up into my save, has meant I’m only four and a half seasons into my save with Southampton in FM22. Curiously, despite my penchant for data, I’ve rarely used the data analysis information that’s available to managers in the game, and I’ve not created a single spreadsheet/extracted any of the data from the game itself (though I did for the write up for FM Grasshopper). So it should therefore be of no surprise for you to read that this blog is not about data (if you’ll excuse one pie chart), but a tactical write-up of the recent transition to a 4-3-1-2 that I have made with Southampton, and the third-man runs that this has enabled within the tactical setup.

I decided to transition to a two-striker system, away from the typical 4-3-3DM system I tend to favour for a couple of reasons. The European giants were placing bids on my players – Karim Adeyemi was picked up by Man UFC for an unrefusable £90m; Yusuf Demir was sold to PSG for £70m; Arthur Theate went to Arsenal for £65m; Benjamin Šeško left for Borussia Dortmund in a £54m deal; Kiril Despardov joined Serie A’s Atalanta for £38m, and Keane Lewis-Potter headed to Premier League rivals Leicester for £36m. Four of these were the main wide plays that I’d been playing as inside forwards/inverted wingers, so there was something of a necessity to make a switch. However, I was also conscious that I often felt that the lone striker was too isolated when opposition teams sat deep.

This led to me going for a 4312 system, with a ‘flat’ central midfield in terms of their starting positions in the tactical line-up. My original thought was to have Šeško as one of those forwards, but as Southampton, I’m not in a position to turn down big deals for my players when a Champions League club comes calling, so off he went.

Many before me have written about this already, but it’s important to think about a tactical set-up not in isolation of the roles but as part of a larger picture, a jigsaw. Pieces have to fit and work together. For a balanced tactic, and for overloads to be created without being completely wide open at the back, it’s necessary to find harmony between different tactical player roles. With a central midfield trio, there is always room for a runner, a playmaker, and a more defensively minded player. This is precisely the method I typically favour, regardless of whether they are in a line, or whether the player in the defensive hole is a playmaker, like a Pirlo, or a play-stopper, such as Fabinho.

As such, I have taken to using Ivan Ilić as a left-footed mezzalla on the left of the trio, with Monchu typically playing the deep-lying midfield role in the centre (swapping out with Nicolás Domínguez), and then a carrilero on the right-hand side, with Pobega often taking up this starting berth. The mezzalla is the runner, with the wing-back on his side set to support, joining the attack when it is pertinent to do so, but not at too greater risk. Conversely, the carrilero is the shuttler, acting as a defensive cover for Livramento bombing down the right-hand flank as a wing-back on attack, who is told via player instructions to stick to the touchline given his pace and crossing ability. This leaves my formation and player roles looking like this:

The front line trio consists of an attacking midfielder, who is just that – set to attack – with Schjelderup typically playing in this position, although I have just signed Alexi Mac Allister from Brighton to come in as a specialist attacking midfielder. The idea is that this player can drive into the space between the two forwards as they look to drag opposing defenders out of position via their movement either with or without the ball. Alternatively, he can drift into space toward either flank, in between defensive lines to over an overload, before making a forward run.

The two strikers in this system are designed to stretch defenders both vertically and laterally. The left-sided striker is an advanced forward, who looks to move into channels – this is filled by the frankly magnificent Lorenzo Lucca, a genuine man mountain. The right-sided striker is a deep-lying forward on attack (Sebastiano Esposito) looks to drop into space between the defensive and midfield lines of the opponents, trying to bring a defender out with him, but failing that, to turn and offer a pass either behind the lines to the onrushing attacking midfielder, mezzalla, or the advanced forward who is playing more on the shoulder of the defenders, or out wide to Livramento who can then whip in a cross to the aforementioned teammates. This is the art of what I look to establish within build-up play, and a hypothetical example is shown below:

Here, the ball starts with the carrielo, who has drifted out wide as the right-wing back has bombed on ahead of him. This is something that the carrielo is designed to do, although at times they too can be quite vertical/progressive in their runs depending upon the play at the time. The carrielo plays the pass into the deep-lying forward who has his back to goal and can immediately lay off the pass to the attacking midfielder, who, in turn, can then play a pass behind the lines of the opponents for the advanced forward to run on to meet to have a one-on-one against the goalkeeper if not tracked by his marker.

If you look more closely at the hypothetical example, you can see how this tactical style has its advantages in the build-up. The carrielo has an option to play a pass in behind the opposition left winger to his right-back teammate who could also hit the advanced forward with an immediate pass as the opposition left-back is too tied up with supporting the left-sided centre back with the deep-lying forward who has drifted towards the left-flank to open up the passing lane for the attacking midfielder. There is also the option to go back to the deep-lying midfielder who is in space and unmarked, who could spread the ball out to the left where there is a potential overload on the opposing right-back. All these approaches could be used to unpick what, on the face of it, could have been seen as a good defensive set-up from the opposition. Yet the carrielo most likely could not have played a successful pass into the advanced forward because in all likelihood it would have either been over hit and collected by the goalkeeper or intercepted by a defender who had time to adjust their body position given the distance that the ball has to travel.

Whilst Southampton score a number of goals from this tactic, including quite a few from set-pieces thanks to the height and strength of Lucca, what I have chosen to isolate within this approach though is the third-man run. The art of a player running off the ball into space, but found after an interchange of passes between two (or more) players. The above hypothetical example would technically be a fourth-man run, but it still is seen as a third-man run. The deep-lying forward cannot make the pass behind the defensive line as it is blocked by the defender behind him. However, the attacking midfielder can – one swift touch of leather on leather (or whatever boots and balls are made of these days) unlocks the central defence through a quick exchange of passes and an off-the-ball movement of a third player not involved in the initial set of passes.

This type of movement has been seen time and time again within my save since switching to the 4312.

As you can see from the below graphic, through balls have been the predominant method of assists for the team over the last forty games. Some fifty-five goals have been scored as a result of this method of assist, with a further forty coming in crosses.

This highlights how often penetrative runs have been found by our players. Not all of these fifty-five assists will have been from third-man runs, but a good number have. To achieve this, the players collectively need a combination of good anticipation, off-the-ball movement, vision, passing, technique, and ideally some player traits, such as ‘arrives late in the box’, ‘gets into opposition area’ and ‘tries killer balls often’.

The below examples are both taken from the same game in the Carabao Cup Semi-Final Second Leg against Everton (in an 8-2 victory).

Starting with the less obvious third-man run, partly because on first inspection it looks like a hopeful long ball from midfield, we see a goal kick from Pickford, which is played down by Nehuén Pérez to Schjelderup who has dropped in to support the midfield.

He plays a quick pass to Pobega, who almost without any thought, hits a first touch pass over the top of the Everton defence who pushed out too far. This is because Ilić has already set off on a run in the space between the right-sided centre back and the right back.

Ilić has timed his run perfectly to spring their offside trap, leaving him with a one-on-one against Pickford, which he duly slots home.

Ilić’s movement off the ball is a third-man run. Schjelderup has his back to the Everton goal after receiving the pass from Nehuén Pérez, and so he could not have played the ball through to Ilić. However, Pobega did have that line of view, vision and ability to play the ball through for the assist to the goal. Several things had to come together for this goal to occur, not just the timing and accuracy of the pass and the off-the-ball run. Everton’s defence had to have pushed up too far too fast, and Pickford had to be slow off his line. Pérez also had to have the composure to knock the ball down to a teammate rather than give away possession.

Take a look at those two images again in more detail and you’ll notice some other subtleties that make this goal possible. With two strikes up front, both of Everton’s central defenders have no option but to go man for man. Both are touch tight when the ball is played through to Ilić, but this in itself causes them a problem. None of the Everton players have seen Ilić’s run off the ball, at least not until it’s too late, and the deep-lying forward has made it impossible for the left-sided centre back to track back because of his movement towards the midfield, drawing him out of position.

The second example also involves Schjelderup, but this time as the goalscorer. Pascal Struijk (23) has won a loose ball and played it into Tommy Doyle (substituted on for Ilić), who lays off a pass to Tyrell Malacia, the left wing-back. Malacia then whips in a deep pass/cross to the on-rushing Schjelderup, who is running through the open gap that is the Everton centre backs who aren’t marking any of the three forward players for Southampton.

Lucca is in effect looking to cheat the Everton defence here by standing in what is just an off-side position, but this may have served to distract the Everton defence, and they have ignored Schjelderup. He bursts through on goal and duly scores by shooting past Pickford. The Everton defending is in general lacklustre, to be polite, with no real pressing, no marking and too much space in which to play the pass and to run into.

Just to prove that it’s not just Everton’s defence that were, in part, exploited by this player movement, here’s Tommy Doyle scoring against Watford courtesy of a third-man run. The play has developed to the point where Pobega has just delivered a pass infield to Monchu. Here you can see the roles of the respective players – Pobega, as the carrielo drifting out wide, dragging the Watford midfielder with him, and Monchu offering himself as the playmaker. Monchu plays the ball forward to substitute attacking midfielder (and stand-in deep-lying forward) Martín Satriano who then plays the ball into the box to meet Doyle’s run through the open gap after the Watford right-back has switched off.

The play requires further inspection again – both of Watford’s central defenders are preoccupied with the two strikers, Esposito (9) and Lucca (19). Doyle is alive enough, despite this being the 87th minute, to make the run into the box past the wide midfielder who doesn’t track him. Monchu is also right to hold back on playing the pass into the box himself – Doyle isn’t yet in a position to receive the pass, so the ball would have been turned over – despite his player traits of ‘tries killer balls often’ and ‘tries long-range passes’. The space that Doyle has is a direct result of the fact that we have dragged Watford towards the ball. Both of their centre backs have been pulled across the field beyond their goalposts, creating the space for Doyle to run into. Space has been created by the distraction of the positioning of the ball itself, and by our strikers coming towards the ball.

For everything a reason

Goals are typically made from a congruence of moments, rarely from individual moments of genius. The number of players who are beyond systems is few and far between these days as coaches have improved their tactical understanding and coaching of these approaches to players. Things are no different in the examples above.

It’s important at this point to dig deeper into the underlying fundamentals behind goals being made by a facet of different inputs. Listening to the excellent “The Football Manager Show” podcast by Iain Macintosh, specifically the episode here on team cohesion where Iain discusses with Russell Hammant how team cohesion plays an important part in players understanding with regards to where their teammates are on the pitch and the runs they’re likely to be making. In order to boost team cohesion and thus maximise performances, within the training schedule, after each game I place both a recovery session, to allow the players to reduce their fatigue and injury risk, and also a match review. This match review sees the players get together and go over the previous day’s game with the backroom staff so that they can see what went well and what could be improved upon. This also has the effect of boosting team cohesion amongst the playing staff, presumably because they’re better able to predict/learn what runs/passes/shapes to utilise both with and without the ball after watching the tape back with analysts.

Equally, before a game, I will make sure that there is a session on match tactics, one for the pre-set match preview and, if it’s a home game and we don’t have the travel issue, then I’ll also schedule attacking movement into the program. Whilst the match preview has no impact on team cohesion, it does boost tactical familiarity. The other two blocks on the other hand give a lift to team cohesion. As such, the team understand their roles and they understand how to perform together as a team. Providing I’ve set them up in a sensible fashion that is relatively balanced across attack and defence, along with a high-quality coaching team and world-class facilities, I’ve maxed out the input I can have towards the players being cognitively able to interpret what is expected of them when they go out to play.

During a week in which there is only one game, which are few and far between given the number of “Englische woches” that occur with European and domestic cup football, I also try to place attacking and defensive shadow play sessions so that players understand their roles, responsibilities and how to move around to provide options for the player on the ball or to close down/mark a player in the defensive phase of the game. These both have a slightly positive impact on team cohesion.

Download link and wider reading

If you are interested in this tactic, one that has scored forty goals in six games in the UEFA Europa League, and wish to download it, you can find it here on Steam. If you have any questions, feel free to contact me on Twitter at @afmoldtimer.

If you want to read further into this area, I can thoroughly recommend this piece from Coaches Voices.

Advertisement

AC Le Havre – 2026-27 Season Review

After a tremendous season in Europe last year with lifting the Europa League, albeit with one to forget in Ligue 1, I was keen to continue the 4-2-3-1 formation. As a team, we are full of more skilled, technical players with pace and stamina to play a pressing style of football that we simply didn’t possess when we first achieved promotion. With this in mind, the squad needed some alterations to it.

Player Trading & Amortisation

These were largely funded by the sale of relative youngster Erik Willems to Bayern Munich. After buying Willems for a paltry £11,750, his remaining book value was just shy of £4,500. With a negotiated, structured offer on the table of £25m for a player yet to make his senior debut for us, and with Willems wishing to go to the Bundesliga giants, it was a relatively easy decision to pocket nearly all of this cash (at least in accounting terms). Utilising the funds, along with top ups from other player sales on a smaller scale will help pay player wages of those still at the club and those of the new recruits, alongside the annual amortisation of their transfer fees/agent fees, etc. made relative financial sense given the lack of significant lucrative sponsorship, gate receipts or TV money from Ligue 1. We still have to be realistic that we are a selling club at this point – just look at Sevilla in real life – in the same way, we sell to have success.

Other sanctioned deals were for notable players, Godswill Ekpolo and Boulaye Dia. Both players had been stalwarts over the transition into Ligue 1, making themselves first choice on the right flank in their respective positions in the years we were establishing ourselves as a Ligue 1 outfit. However, last year both went out on loan, unsatisfied at the lack of first team opportunities as we had improved in depth and injuries had taken their toll upon them and their physical abilities. A ~£5.8m profit improvement on the sale of these two players is a good return, especially after the quality of service that they had supplied to the club over that time.

Juan Cruz, as mentioned in the previous review, was someone who was signed for free last year with the sole intention of flipping him for a profit. After a season largely out on loan at Montpellier, where he barely played, he was picked up by Guingamp. With the initial transfer costing nothing, we book a £1.5m in profit, with a £2.2m profit improvement after adding back in his remaining wage payments. Of course this overlooks his loyalty fee and agent fees, but these were less than £1.5m, therefore boosting our profit and loss account.

The three remaining sales were youth team/B team players who did not play a single minute of first team football and never look destined to do so.

To book a profit of over £31m on these players is fantastic, even if most of it comes from the sale of Willems. If we can try to stick to one big sale per year, this should help balance the requirement to bring in cash whilst maintaining league and European success, assuming players still wish to stay of course. Champions League football this season should help with that, especially given we go straight into the group stages. In facing high quality opposition, we’ll need strong squad harmony and chemistry within the team to pull us through tough games. Therefore, taking into account those players that racked up first team minutes over the 2027-28, to have a squad churn of less than 1%, or more accurately 5.47% taking into account those that went out on loan in the forthcoming season, means we’ve clearly met that objective.

Much in the same way that Juan Cruz was signed to be sold, Mihael Zaper signed a pre-contract agreement from Inter. The talented midfielder had been short of match time in Milan, and was willing to come to the North West of France to try to kick-start his career again as a squad player. I’m unconvinced that he has sufficient quality to make it past Depoorter and Zwane in midfield, so he will be loaned out to assess his abilities further, and if I’m proved right that he doesn’t have the playmaking and defensive abilities, I’ll look to sell him on.

Thato Manuel on the other hand was signed for the intention of loaning him but with every chance that he could be in with a real shot at first team action in the future. The promising playmaker signed from Orlando Pirates, the same South African side that Sifiso Zwane came through at. Thato will go back on loan there to develop his game further before reassessing his player pathway, with further a loan to a European side likely, just at what level will depend upon his growth.

The Portuguese central midfielder, Ronaldo Camará was someone I had tried to sign prior to his joining Juventus. Having kept tabs on him whilst at The Old Lady, I’d notice his contact was being run down and with no sign of a new deal in the offing, I leapt at the chance of signing him on a free. Initially, he was not willing to talk to even discuss a contract but as the end of June came closer, he was eventually willing to negotiate and arrive at a deal that sees the 23-year old sign a 5-year contract worth over £6m. Offering versatility in the central midfield areas, his ability on the ball, as well as his runs into the box should add depth and attacking prowess.

It’s likely that Camará won’t find himself first choice in the attacking central midfield slot though as Matías Lema’s arrival from Racing Club in Argentina will see him taking the starting spot. The diminutive Argentine has a strong eye for a pass and likes to run into the box late, unnerving unwitting defenders as he bursts into incoming crosses or one-twos with the striker. Signed for his minimum release fee of £7m, he comes in on a five-year deal to take up one of the four foreign player registrations. Our scouts had been raving about the former national U19, so to bring the wonderkid in for a relative bargain can be taken a sign of the boost in reputation that the Europa League victory has granted us.

A further player on my shortlist whom I’d been tracking for a while with my scouts, Reidar Lervig was also running his contract down at FC Midtjylland. The Faroese wonderkid already has nineteen caps for his country and looks to be a very versatile defender. A little raw in his aggression and bravery, rather than his natural centre back, he’ll be another option to Giulian Biancone at right fullback in the wing back role replacing the outgoing Ekpolo (though Marc Juardo was also signed on loan in January after an injury to Biancone from Manchester United). His fantastic pace should help to stretch defences whilst Saranic is cutting inside taking the opponents left-back with him. His stamina should mark him out as someone who can run up and down the flank throughout the ninety minutes. He was able to be signed for a cut price deal as he had informed the Danish side that he was unwilling to sign a new deal, landing him on the transfer market and attracting the likes of Inter and Dortmund. To pick him up for only £975,000 ahead of these European giants who failed to press the trigger is a testament to our scouts in Scandinavia being on the ball in identifying him as a standout talent.

The final transfer during the Summer window was that of Emiliano Suárez. His transfer was also one that I deliberated on the longest out of all the deals. This was partly due to loyalty over Ali Akman and Lucas Gomes, with the latter impressing over the second half of the season, in particular during the drubbing of Napoli in the sensational victory in the Europa League Final. The other reason was because it would leave me with no wiggle room in the transfer budget, taking up everything that was left due to Boca’s reluctance to accept anything less than his minimum fee release clause – some £6.75m. Now this on the face of it would seem a small price to pay for someone of his clear talent but it would leave the squad unbalanced, lacking a true back up to Saranic on the inside right. Hauge was demanding to play on the left side, Núñez had made the left wing role his and fellow left side youngster Kchouk had no familiarity in this position. It’s true Suárez has some experience in the wide right position but not as an inside forward and this would require a tactical switch which could unpick the tactical blueprint that has seen us progress in Europe, if not yet in the league. Nonetheless something inside me was going to regret not signing him – and boy that gut feeling was right…

After all player trading was complete, this is how our contract lengths, amortisation, wage bill, remaining book value/wage costs look:

Season Review

Come the end of the season, Suárez was second only to Hajdari in terms of minutes played over the season, causing a significant reduction in the number of minutes for Ali Akman. Akman, for his dues, recognised the superior abilities of Suárez and was happy to step down to bring a squad player, without any upset at all – a sign of a true professional. I again prioritised minutes for younger players with the aim of developing these players, but also largely because this crop that gave been meticulously recruited for my system are what fit best at Le Havre.

Domestic season

Their hard work and endeavours paid off in Ligue 1 with the squad achieving the highest ever finish in French top flight football for the club, along with a record points haul. Still some 16 points shy of PSG, we were conformably inside Champions League qualification proper rather than relying upon our European form to access continental football once more. Our goals scored soared to 90, 32 came from Suárez. As you can see from the graphic below – he was well worth the £6.75m. To be in the top 5% of non-penalty goals, xG, shots and shots on target per 90, as well as the top 10% for key passes per 90 as a forward and successful dribbles per game. He converted our 55% possessions into shots thanks to the creativity of the likes of Depoorter, Zwane, Saranic, Huage and Núñez. With his shots, 19% of them went in – putting him in the top 20% of strikers with more than 1,000 minutes in Ligue 1.

Champions League

Being a first seed for the Group Stage was a big boost for us given our relatively new status in European football, with our coefficient score yet to rise significantly on average across the last five years. A hammering of Olympiacos in the first round, before a draw in a tricky away fixture to Slavia Praha in the cauldron that is the Sinobo Stadium. Two expected defeats to Chelsea saw us needing results in the reverse fixtures in our remaining two games. That was exactly what we achieved – battering the Greek outfit in their own yard before seeing off Slavia Praha for the last round.

Here’s how the table finished:

To be rewarded, if that’s what you can call it, with a tie against Manchester United I was fully expecting our European adventure to come to an end. Yet to win the first leg at home 2-1, and then go to Old Trafford and win there too was beyond my wildest dreams. Our former loanee player Hannibal looking on from the stands after not even being named on the bench for either game. At least it was nice for him to see his former teammates, if not be able to swap shirts with them.

The draw for the Quarters wasn’t kind to us either, but then this is now the last eight of the teams that are supposedly the elite of Europe. A creditable 1-1 draw at home, after 6’5″ central defender Badiane leapt at the front post to head home from a Saranic corner. To concede the away goal was disappointing and I assumed would lead to floodgates opening with a Liverpool side boasting Camavinga, Ansu Faiti, Musiala, Van Dijk, Bellingham, Salah and Hakimi among notable others. Instead, we came out flying, almost as you would have expected Liverpool to do. Mosór scored from a corner before Suárez put the tie out of in their reach with just over twenty minutes gone. Anfield was stunned into silence with one of the competition favourites bowing out to a relative European minnow. We’d lost 2-0 to them in the Super Cup, so to knock the defending champions out was remarkable.

When it comes to European giants, facing Real Madrid in the semis is about as big as it gets. This didn’t stop Saranic – he ran show in the home leg. He was as clinical as he was dominating. Taking the tie by the scruff of the neck from beginning to end, he made a mockery of his opposite number throughout the night under the lights of Stade Oceane. The second leg was a tense affair but the two away goals saw us safe, with our key players Cavaleiro and Suárez – the latters seventh in all Champions League games.

So to the Final and our opponents –  Chelsea. The very same team that topped our respective group and beat us comfortably in both match days when we faced off. They’d cantered through the league, as you can see from the demolishing they dished out on a pretty regular bases:

After a first leg defeat to PSG, they came roaring back at the Bridge to overhaul their deficit proving that PSG were yet to overcome their hoodoo in the competition. Holding onto a draw away at Barcelona in the last eight following Havertz’s dismissal was as impressive as Adeyemi’s hat-trick was against them in the return fixture. With Dortmund in the semis, it had to be former BVB-man Sancho to stick the knife in to seal their fate, and that of Chelsea’s return to the Champions League Final.

The Final itself was a hard-fought game, with both sides creating chances, but of limited quality. The high frequency of chances went to Chelsea, and it was Mount’s finish in the second half that ended the wildest dreams of Le Havre fans and players alike. Despite throwing everything that we had at Lampard’s Chelsea well-drilled defence, we were unable to find enough creativity to make anything clear cut enough for Suárez or any of the other attackers to pounce on for an equaliser to force extra time.

A defeat to a Premier League side at any stage of a Champions League competition is nothing to be disgraced over given the sheer inequality between the two national leagues and our respective wage bills, but to beat two sides and then the might of Los Blancos is an incredible feat and one I suspect we might find hard to match going forward without an unsustainable amount of investment into the playing squad. This pretty much sums up what I told the players in the end of season meeting shortly after the defeat – we’ll look to achieve Champions League qualification through the league and try to achieve first round knock outs in the Champions League, which happily they concurred with.

With a number of players wanted across the squad, no doubt partly due to our overachievement in three successive European club competitions, detailed planning with need to be put into place. This, along with careful assessment of the scouting already performed and reviewing those players out on loan, will help form the backbone of any recruitment or internal promotion which needs to be enacted in the Summer transfer window. With the need to still sell one big star to fund the club and find liquidity to reinvest into players, we won’t be in a position to turn down offers for at at minimum one of those players that have taken us this far.


To find out how the 2027-28 season went, you’ll need to check back for the next post coming soon. Until then, adieu.

AC Le Havre – 2024-25 Season Review

The 2024-25 season was a very successful one, relatively speaking. After achieving European football through league finish last season, we managed the same feat again with the latest campaign, improving our finish from 6th to 4th – as a result going through to the Europa League in 2025-26. With only PSG attaining more possession than us, we again dominated the ball against our opponents, though we did score notably fewer goals than our fellow European qualifying teams. Yet we pretty matched out expected goal difference – evidence that our formation does a good job in looking after the ball, but perhaps isn’t that cutting edge. Given our advance up the Ligue 1 table, perhaps a change in tactic might be required to have more thrust to goal scoring to hopefully match our dominance with the ball.

Once again we gave our younger players considerable minutes, with the majority achieving well over 50% of potential minutes. This analysis also helps to identify players who aren’t playing sufficient minutes and are likely surplus to requirements. Boulaye Dia falls into that category and will be earmarked for a move away from the club. Giulian Biancone has also usurped Godswill Ekpolo in the right back role, so consideration will go into whether he is the right man to be a back up. It’s worth noting that Jens Petter Hauge only joined the club in the January window, so as such, actually played a considerable number of minutes in relation to how many he was eligible for.

New central midfield signings, Depoorter, Zwane and Cüneyt Gür all played a good number of minutes without any of them standing out. The mainstay in the central midfield was on loan Hannibal (signified by the purple dot). This was to be his last season at Le Havre as Manchester United had decided that he was now suitably developed for a place in their squad and would not renew his loan agreement. His time at Le Havre has been instrumental to our achievements in not only retaining our status as a Ligue 1 club following our promotion from Ligue 2, but also to then progress up the league and into Europe. His chance creation has been exemplary – as pointed out in a previous blog with a player focus on him – but I feel it’s worth highlighting just how good Hannibal has been for us. Whilst his goal contributions have waned, his assists have been club-leading for us. Never falling below 0.30 goal contributions per 90 in his four seasons with us, he’s provided numerous open play chances for Ali Akman, our main striker, and our other forwards, and also from set piece situations.

In terms of goal scoring contribution across the entirety of the season (and not just Ligue 1), we relied heavily upon both Ali Akman and Ivan Saranic. The two contributed 37% (helpfully 37) of all goals, on a combined xG of 29.48. Ariel Mosór, our Polish right-sided centre back, signed for £6m from Legia last season but crucially (read stupidly) after the closing of the registration window, was the next highest – showing that our set pieces routines, in particular corners, worked well. This pleased the board as they’d mandated this a club focus. In total, seventeen goals were scored from set pieces (eight from corners and nine from free kicks).

Europa Conference League Review

Achieving European football well ahead of the expectations of the Club leadership, gave us a good chance to see where we were at. As it turned out, we were a lot further ahead than I had thought we were with our development.

Winning our group against relatively weaker opponents (Slovenia’s Maribor and Serbia’s Čukarički) and Bundesliga side Köln, resulted in us achieving a bye in the first round knockout as those sides who finished third in the Europa League and second in their Europa Conference League played off against one another. Two further victories over Czechia’s Slavia Praha and North Macedonia’s KF Shkëndija followed – with us brushing them both aside with reasonable ease, so much so in the case of KF Shkëndija that we were able to fully rotate our side for the second leg after a 5-0 victory in the first match.

It was the semi final result against Everton that really shocked me. A 2-0 win at home was surprising, but to then go to Goodison Park and win 2-1 away from home was a fantastic feeling. Ali Akman was the star of the tie with three goals across the two games and eight in the competition as a whole. Achieving a final in our first outing is brilliant and something I really wanted to win to make our mark on Europe.

Our opponents were to be Dutch side AZ Alkmaar. AZ had qualified for the Europa League proper, but a third place finish in their Group saw them drop into the Europa League Conference. Their path to the final was represented by a demolition of Parma, close ties against FC Midtjylland and Rapid Wien, before a semi final victory against our Group opponents Köln.

Europa Conference League Final Line Ups

Match Analysis

Setting up in a 4-2-3-1, AZ were plainly set to play very wide by Arne Slot after watching some initial attacking play. Their full backs, with Beukers likely playing as a complete wing back on the right, spread wide and rapidly once they’d won back possession of the ball. This left their central defenders with a lot of space to cover should a swift turnover occur with a Le Havre counterattack. We were already set to press them high up the field, so recognising their weakness in the centre of the pitch, I added a further instruction to the team to play through the centre. The below graphic shows with AZ’s average positioning with the ball. Our pressing helps to explain why they’re so deep when in possession of the ball – but also note the advanced position of Beukers, this will be integral to the first real action below and also the space for us to exploit with a quick counter.

After I adjusted our team instructions to focus play down the middle it worked a treat. The long kick from AZ’s Owusu-Oduro fell straight to Dvunjak who, untroubled by any opponent, has time to lay it off to Hannibal. He in turn spots Zwane, our Mezzala in space not being pressed by the deeper AZ central midfield players who haven’t advanced up the pitch. When they do come into press Zwane, Ali Akman in the false nine role drops back into this space and drags his defender with him. Chema Núñez runs into the huge gap between the right back, Beukers, who has initially advanced too far up the pitch and the other centre back, Van den Berg. All through the play from the moment we win the ball back to the first touch of Chema Núñez, the ball barely travels outside the width of the centre circle and we have a one-on-one which is finished emphatically.

We had to wait until the second half for our next goal. This time the goal came from an initial build up from our own half. We win the ball back and then look to spring an attack, spreading the play across to the right hand side. By the time it reaches Biancone on the flank, he lays it across to Hannibal who uses some of his flair to beat his man, playing it into Ali Akman who holds off his run into the six-yard area, with AZ’s defenders concentrating on the run of Saranic. With Chema Núñez occupying the mind of Beukers, Zwane finds himself unmarked and he finishes with aplomb into the bottom corner.

Our second goal seemed to free AZ’s shackles. They took the game by the scruff of the neck from their kick off following the Zwane strike. Their first response was in the 64th minute. We lost concentration following an AZ thrown in and it culminates in our offside trap being sprung by a Koopmeiners through ball over the top to Yusuf Barasi, who calmly finished past the on-rushing Sorano – 3-1. Biancone had been to distracted by the offside Karlsson, giving Barasi the perfect opportunity to rush past Mosór who was overloaded with Barasi and Taabouni to look after because Dvunjak had been dragged over towards the ball rather than sitting on Taabouni.

It only takes another minute for AZ to find the equalising goal. We switch off yet again from another throw in, with the AZ players running rings around our defenders, leading to Fedde de Jong popping a cross up for Taabouni to nod in. A poor couple of minutes have cost us a game that we had a stranglehold on and the players’ morale drops markedly. I try to encourage them, but to no avail…

We try to reassert our dominance on the ball and remove team instructions to time waste now that AZ are level. Yet this just leads to AZ exploiting us on the 85th minute as our players tire from our pressing. After yet another thrown in from AZ down their right flank, play eventually develops down their left flank. Saranic lets Esajas run past him and with Biancone and Dvunjak confused as to who is picking him up, as Reijnders off the ball run has them confused, neither of them pick up the run nor the player on the ball. Mosór was unlucky not to cut the pass out with his attempted sliding interception, but this just leads to Yusuf Barasi being free to slot home at the second attempt after Soriano blocks his first effort. Hearts sink and we look to go ‘very attacking’ but the game plays out with AZ sitting deep and keeping out any of our efforts.

You might think I would be disappointed by the result, and I was, but I was equally as pleased because we had made it this far – proud in fact. We shouldn’t be this far ahead of our plan and our overall play is generally encouraging – we are playing good football, if not full bore attacking chance creation on steroids. Quite how much we will miss Hannibal and his creativity, we will have to wait and see next season, but we have now earned the revenues from European football to help us solidify our finances and have some funds to reinvest. If we continue to be cautious with our spending on player transfers and wages, then Le Havre should at least have a strong platform to build upon going forwards. This should then help us progress our tactic and shape in the fullness of time once we have better players amongst our ranks to properly fulfil them.


As a break from the norm, I’ll be looking at player acquisitions and sales in the next blog, along with the usual amortisation in the season review for 2025-26. I hope you return for that soon.