Le Havre’s list of alumni makes for impressive reading. World Cup winners, league champions, Ballon d’Or candidates and more have passed through the French club’s academy over the years, with top stars ranging from Paul Pogba and Riyad Mahrez, to Dimitri Payet and Steve Mandanda calling Les Ciel et Marine home in their formative years.
Despite the club spending most of its existence in Ligue 2, Le Havre’s academy is known across Europe as one of the most prestigious in France. They don’t have the same riches as Paris Saint-Germain or titles as Marseille or Lyon, but their methods have worked in youth development for more than four decades.
Leading the academy is Michael Bunel, who has worked at Le Havre since 2005, being in charge of its various youth teams and is now technical director. Previously an English teacher in France, he was always interested in teaching and coaching football, and combined those two passions when he joined the club.
Since then, he has coached many age groups, as well as Le Havre’s women’s side, and he knows the philosophy inside out.
“We think that in order to become a top player, you have to be smart,” Bunel explains. “Our philosophy is mainly based around developing the capacity of the player to be smart. When you look at the top players, they have this capacity to analyse what goes on around them and to make the right call, regardless of system, coach or style of play.”
Bunel says there are various qualities a young player must possess in order to play for the club – and they’re not restricted to simply what they can do with a ball. Throughout his chat with The Set Pieces, Bunel regularly uses the word ‘smartness’, which he believes is related to the decisions a player makes when they have the ball: what they’re going to do with it, how they’re going to progress the play, how they analyse situations and what choices they make. He wants players to combine smartness with their technical qualities.
“The first quality you must have to play at Le Havre is to have good technique,” Bunel says. “You cannot play at the highest level if you can’t control the ball or make a pass. From this, we will work on developing the smartness as well as the physical and mental qualities of a player.
“It’s quite hard to develop mental qualities because you have to train a player’s character. When I say mental qualities, I mean a player’s focus, being able to develop commitment for the team, to not be selfish, as well as technical qualities.”
“We have fundamentals for each position: attacking, defending, defensive and attacking transitions and we try to give them some cues about situations when they are on the field and help them make the right choice.
“Then there’s the physical part. You have to have the physical qualities to play at the highest level because when you look at that level, it’s impossible to not run, impossible to not jump and be a part of duels. A smart player will be able to identify their own strengths and weaknesses. We identify the qualities of our players and we try to reinforce those strengths.”
Players need top coaches and top coaches build footballers not only on the pitch, but off it as well. At an age where players are easily influenced, Bunel says it’s important that a Le Havre coach can develop great footballers and even better human beings, focusing on their life as a whole rather than just their playing career.
In addition to that, there are expectations on coaches – they have to be able to identify where players can get better.
“You can be a top player, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be a top coach,” he argues. “Especially when you coach young players, you must be able to convey your message to the players. You are a teacher of football. You must be able to organise sessions according to the game and what you expect from the team. You need to identify what players need in order to grow.”
In recent decades, Le Havre have brought in players from various areas of France. Some close, some far away.
Playmaker Payet, for example, moved from the island of Réunion, near Madagascar on the Indian ocean. On the contrary, former France international Vikash Dhorasoo was born and raised near to Le Havre. Bunel says the club recruits players based on several specifics: their playing quality, how close they are to the city, how mature the footballer is and more.
He uses Mahrez as an example. The Algerian joined the club aged 17 and lived about three hours away from their base, but his maturity meant he was a good fit for them and he would be accepting of a footballer’s life at that age.
“Firstly, we have a regional scouting process,” Bunel says. “We rarely go beyond two hours, which is Normandy and, maximum, Paris. In our academy, we have a dorm where we can house players from July to June. We are lucky because Paris is a good place to recruit.
“We rarely go beyond two hours because it’s important for the child to keep this link with their family. You can be a good coach, but you can never be a substitute to the parent. Two hours is a good compromise for the child to focus on football, education and relationship with their family.
“Additionally, we start recruiting at the age of 13. We think 13 is the right age for players to start a life far from their families. From the age of 6 to 12, we usually have local players – those that come from the city. The furthest one is about 30 kilometres away from us. At 13, we start looking for players that are about two hours away.
“We have nine boys living at the academy at the moment. We don’t want to have more because we think having more kids means that we need more people to look after them. We want to have quality around them. From the age of 16 to 19, we have mostly local players and sometimes some recruited players a bit further, who are more accepting of this life.”
Education is also a crucial factor. Around Europe, there are requirements set for an aspiring footballer’s education. If a player is training, they must also be given the access to the right education – coaches and football clubs can’t leave that just to the player’s family. According to data from February 2021, at any given time there are 10,000 to 12,000 boys in football’s youth development system and from all the children who play in academies at the age of nine, fewer than 0.5% will make it professional at any level of the game.
At several top academies around Europe, there are rules set that if a child doesn’t perform well at school, they don’t get time on the pitch and such strictness ensures that children keep their feet on the ground. Bunel says Le Havre are just as adamant on the academic side of things.
“In France, a pro academy means studying and training,” he explains. “We have partnerships with schools which guarantee the capacity to train as well as guaranteeing that the child will be looked after by the schooling department at the academy. We have daily contact with the teachers, learning about their progress.
“The boys, when they are 14 or 15, they go to school from 8am to 3.30pm, after which they have training session from 4pm to 6 pm and then they’re asked to do their homework just before dinner. After dinner, they’ve got an hour free for their own activities. For older ones, there are often two sessions a day. For instance, on Tuesdays they’re in school from 8 til 10 and then a session from 10:30 to 12 pm, then they go back to school before having another training session at the end of the afternoon from 4 til 6. Everything is organised accordingly.”
Like with most clubs around Europe, technology is essential to Le Havre too. In Germany, clubs invest heavily to give access to young children and help them understand the game better. More clubs are doing the same in the Netherlands. It’s no different at Le Havre.
“Video is a top tool to analyse, to show the player what happens, what he did or should’ve done,” Bunel tells TSP. “It helps find solutions. It’s good to have them reflect. We have individual and team sequences. In individual sequences, the players often analyse themselves and we have discussions. In team sequences, we have more meetings with the team.
“We mix the videos with data we get from the GPS. We also use archaic methods, such as giving a mark. The boys can analyse themselves and every Monday, we have a 15-minute meeting with each player and they tell us what they think went right or wrong. Sometimes, we use video to deepen the discussion. We don’t have the money to have a lot of technology, but we are able to find the right balance between what we need and what we have, and the most important is for us to be efficient.”
Le Havre’s youngsters are often Europe’s most sought-after, something that become a problem for modern academies, according to Bunel.
Pogba, for example, left for Manchester United at 16. He knows that it’s part of a player’s progression but believes youngsters should consider staying at their youth clubs for longer.
“I’m proud of Pogba – he’s won the World Cup,” Bunel beams. “I would say he made the right choice. But, recruiting a player at the age of 16 is complicated for the child and our academy. We aren’t like PSG or Marseille and our club is organised in a way where it permits young kids from the age of 17 to play in the first team.
“We have many academy players in the first team. When they get this experience in the first team, I understand if they want to play for a Manchester United or a Liverpool. Their careers are short and they want to win big things. We had other players who arrived at the age of 14, then move to bigger French clubs, then move on to other top European clubs. This is the evolution of the progression of a footballer.”
Bunel says the goal for the club is to reach and stay in Ligue 1 and while that’s no easy task, he retains pride in the work he’s done at Le Havre to be part of one of Europe’s top academies despite having comparatively modest resources.
At a time where French football is in a complicated position, Le Havre continue to maintain their standards, and are always striving to produce the next Pogba, Payet or Mahrez.