The curious case of Sebastien Haller

In this piece of ‘The Opinion,’ I look closer at a player who I enjoyed seeing develop in the Bundesliga but has found the transition to English football very difficult. When West Ham United broke their transfer record to sign Frenchman Sebastien Haller in July 2019 from Eintracht Frankfurt, they thought they were getting a leading marksman to replace the outgoing Marko Arnautovic. However, six months in and Haller has cut a frustrated figure and is now considered an expensive failure with some Hammers supporters. Can he turn his form around? Is he solely to blame for the club’s struggles? Are West Ham getting the best out of him? I share my thoughts on ‘The Curious Case of Sebastien Haller.’

Another defeat on Wednesday night to a rampant Liverpool FC side has left West Ham United looking over the periphery on the bottom three. Only a better goal difference is keeping them above AFC Bournemouth and Watford at the moment. The high expectations of challenging for a European place this season have turned into a distant memory.

As ever with a struggling side, a scapegoat is often attempted to be found. Usually, it is the manager and West Ham have already tried that, having dispensed with the likeable Manual Pellegrini just after Christmas. However, one win from five games and a dismal FA Cup exit at home to Championship club West Bromwich Albion and former boss Slaven Bilic suggests new appointment David Moyes is finding it just as tough to finetune his squad.

One player West Ham supporters were expecting a lot from was Sebastien Haller. Six goals from 22 games might make him top scorer but it isn’t what anyone was hoping for. How much time can Moyes give Haller to be the man to score the goals they need to stay up?

A deserved reputation

Now 25, Haller has impressed and also quietly gone about his business in the past four years. After failing to make the grade at Auxerre, the Frenchman has produced the goods in the goalscoring department in both the Eredivisie in Holland and the Bundesliga in Germany. First came 30 goals in 65 league appearances for Utrecht, which included being voted as the club’s player of the season in 2015.

His goalscoring abilities impressed ex-Premier League forward Fredi Bobic. Bobic is sporting director at Eintracht Frankfurt and he managed to tempt Utrecht to sell Haller to them in May 2017. Signing a four-year deal, there was immediate success. Haller was part of the Eintracht Frankfurt squad that won the DfB-Pokal in 2018, scoring four goals on their run to the final. He also scored a stunning acrobatic goal in the dying stages of a match against VfB Stuttgart which Bundesliga fans voted around the world as the Goal of the Year for 2017.

Even better was to come for Haller in his second season with the Eagles. 15 goals and nine assists in the league was a combined figure only beaten last term by Bayern Munich’s goal machine Robert Lewandowski. He also scored five times on the club’s memorable run to the UEFA Europa League semi-finals.

So, when West Ham offered Frankfurt £45 million – a club-record fee for the east Londoners in the summer, it seemed like bold but good business.

So, what has gone wrong for Haller at The London Stadium?

Tactically not used correctly

We’ve seen from many clubs nowadays in the Premier League, they prefer to play with just one out-and-out forward, supported by two flying wingers. Out of the elite clubs, only Arsenal seem to go with a pure strikeforce of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette.

The problem is, this is a system that Haller has never found comfortable to play in throughout his career. He can play it but you aren’t going to get the best out of the player. At Frankfurt, he was part of a fearsome trio, alongside Ante Rebić and Luka Jovic.

However, they often linked up in a different way. Jovic often played through the middle together with Haller. Both are natural goalscoring forwards, with the former often playing a bit behind the latter, as he has the ability to come deep to get the ball. This also meant Rebić could play in a free role, either as an attacking no.10 or out wide. Backed up by Filip Kostic who has a knack of supplying dangerous crosses, this meant Eintracht Frankfurt were always full of goals last season.

Against Fortuna Düsseldorf last season, Die Adler won 7-1 at The Commerzbank-Arena. Jovic stole the show with five goals but Haller supplied the other two goals and grabbed two assists too. It was more of a cameo role but his unselfishness ensured Jovic had the night of his career so far.

West Ham though have limited options in-attack. Andy Carroll was released in the summer, Javier Hernandez, Lucas Perez and Arnautovic all sold. It has put a lot of pressure on Haller with no real competition and no regular attack partner. For West Ham to turn a blind eye to this problem in the January transfer window is really surprising. I’ve seen enough games on TV this season involving West Ham where I feel frustrated for Haller because he is often fighting a losing battle. He isn’t getting the service or the help when creating attacks. The way West Ham are tactically setup is not correct for his style of gameplay.

It makes you question the scouting department at West Ham. If they were serious about only signing one forward but not adjusting their tactical style to suit his needs, why did they decide to pay the money they did to Eintracht Frankfurt?

Will Moyes stick with him?

Haller started well enough with two goals in an August win at Watford whilst there was a spectacular acrobatic goal in a New Years’ Day rout of Bournemouth. However, those are pretty much the only high points in a frustrating first six months on these shores for the striker.

Moyes is starting to get frustrated himself. He recently admitted he wanted more out of Haller, saying: “I’m needing one of the forwards to step up to that plate. We need Seb to come to the party and give us something because we need to score goals. And we’ve not done that enough in the last couple of games.”

The only goals they’ve scored since the Bournemouth victory were a set-piece against Everton, scored by Issa Diop and a Mark Noble spot-kick in a heavy defeat last midweek to Leicester City. However, it isn’t all down to Haller. Felipe Anderson, Manuel Lanzini and Andriy Yarmolenko have all had their injuries but none of them have shown any proven consistency when fit in the goalscoring department.

Moyes’ only other option could be to give Albian Ajeti a run in the side. Ajeti though does not have a proven track record when it comes to scoring goals. Is he the answer in replacing or partnering Haller? I have my severe doubts.

It is easy to blame the problems of a struggling team on one player or an underperforming group of stars. No-one can deny that Sebastien Haller hasn’t been able to justify his hefty price tag since arriving in London last summer. However, I have a great degree of sympathy with him. I really don’t think he is being used correctly. Yes, he could do more to adapt to West Ham’s style but sometimes, the club should show more faith in tweaking systems – especially when it is for your club-record signing.

Whatever the solution, West Ham need to find the answer and very quickly. They look like a team in real trouble and real danger. Relegation to the Championship for the club with such a huge stadium would be a disaster. However, the way things are looking at the moment, Hammers’ supporters might be looking at London derbies next season against Queens Park Rangers and Millwall rather than Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur if they don’t find a positive solution soon.

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