One to watch: Daler Kuzyaev – In a team known for its shrewd, lower-profile transfers, the former Zenit St. Petersburg man’s arrival stands out as something of a coup for sporting director Mathieu Bodmer.
The 30-year-old has played in the Champions League and turned out for the Russia national team at the World Cup and in the Euros, and is now playing abroad for the first time in his career. The five-time Russian Premier League winner is a versatile box-to-box midfielder who can also play on the right-hand side, and will bring balance to a starting eleven that’s seen a near-complete overhaul. His ability to contribute up and down the pitch and his experience will be crucial for the promoted side, who are returning to Ligue 1 after a 14-year absence.
Signing to watch: Loïc Négo: The former Nantes youth product was part of the France U19 team that won the Euros back in 2010, alongside the likes of Alexandre Lacazette and Antoine Griezmann. He then went on to play in Hungary for a decade, becoming a senior international with the central European country and even facing his country of birth at the Euros in 2021.
The right-back is now back in France, having been preferred to Djibril Sidibé in Le Havre’s shortlist of targets – and it’s clear to see why. Négo is an all-action full-back with an eye for goal – an ideal profile for the likely five-man backline that manager Luka Elsner will opt for this season. Having already impressed against Les Bleus on the international stage, the 32-year-old will be keen to make his mark back home, in what will be his first campaign in the French top flight.
Squad analysis: Beyond the team’s threadbare attack and solid defence, Le Havre’s midfield set-up will be one to keep an eye on. The team lost its talisman in Algerian international Victor Lekhal, who left for Qatar during the transfer window, while another starter in Amir Richardson has returned to Reims after a successful loan spell. Expectations will be high for summer signings Rassoul Ndiaye, formerly of Sochaux, as well as Russian international Daler Kuzyaev, who will likely form the main midfield pairing.
Strengths: Le Havre’s defence was key to their second division title win, conceding a record low of 19 goals all season. Over the summer, the centre-back pairing consisting of captain Arouna Sangante and Gautier Lloris were joined by former Troyes man Yoann Salmier, with all three set to start for the Normans this year.
Weaknesses: Last season, the Ligue 2 champions scored fewer goals than all but one of the eight teams below them, and have not scored in their last three pre-season friendlies. Last year’s joint-top scorer in Lekhal left for Qatar during the summer transfer window. Barring a breakout season from prospects Antoine Joujou or Josué Casimir, the team will ostensibly struggle for goals this season – not least given they will have to concede a larger share of possession to top-flight opponents.
Verdict: Much like Toulouse a year before them, the Normans won the Ligue 2 title with a distinctive, data-led approach to player recruitment, headed by Bodmer, who arrived only a year ago. Whether they can replicate the success their southern counterparts enjoyed on their return to the top flight remains to be seen, but they do appear well-equipped enough to avoid being dragged into a relegation battle. The management has made the absolute most of what is ostensibly the league’s tightest budget, although a considerable turnover in personnel in the space of a year could penalise them.