After failing to deliver with West Ham United, Sébastien Haller is thriving with Ajax – where has his form come from?
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When West Ham United made Sébastien Haller their most expensive ever signing in July 2019, the red carpet was rolled out to welcome the exciting new €50m signing from Eintracht Frankfurt, who had just led the Bundesliga side to a famous DFB-Pokal win.
Yet just a season and a half later, the Hammers were quickly trying to smuggle the forward out of the back-door, looking all sheepish and embarrassed at a flash, big-money act that had failed to deliver on stage when the spotlight was really on. It’s not often that a club is willing to take a €25m loss on a player after such a relatively short period of time, yet West Ham couldn’t wait to see the back of the 27 year-old Ivorian.
His impact was limited, scoring just seven goals in his one full season in all competitions, despite starting the vast majority of his 35 appearances. It then quickly became clear that any hopes of a second season revival were in vain, despite a special goal of the season bicycle kick which gave a hint of what could have been.
How quickly can things change in football? In certain cases, as fast as another sweeping Ajax attack.
The Dutch Champions have been very impressive so far this season, domestically and in Europe. They top the Eredivisie, thanks in large part to a brilliant run of five straight wins where they scored 24 goals without conceding a single one themselves. Meanwhile, they have been making fans dream of repeating that terrific Champions League run in 2019, with Erik ten Hag’s side top of their group at midpoint, with three wins from three. In all competitions they have scored a remarkable 48 goals in 14 games at time of writing.
And the player who has scored over a quarter of them? Sébastien Haller…
With 13 goals and 5 assists at time of writing, the Ivory Coast striker is delivering some of the most prolific numbers in European football right now.
These include scoring four in a rout over Sporting Lisbon, which made him only the second player after a certain Marco van Basten to score that number in his first game in the Champions League. He’s also the tournament’s current leading goalscorer. Since making his Eredivisie debut, Haller has racked up 26 goals and 12 assists in 37 appearances. This form has seen him gain international recognition with Ivory Coast, with whom he already has three goals in six appearances. He heads the domestic leaderboard for attempts on goal and shots on target and is naturally right up there for leading goalscorer.
So – where has this sudden upshot in form come from?
Of all the positions on the football field, strikers are probably the weirdest. They are naturally the most confident – an assurance that is needed in such a pressurised role where so much of the success of a side rests on your shoulders. However, at the same time, we often see these previously preening top-level goal-scorers completely devoid of confidence, on barren runs of form where they give the impression of either having never seen a goal before or that the mere sight of one has brought back a form of post-traumatic stress. You can drop Haller’s English experiment into this unwanted bucket, along with the likes of Fernando Torres at Chelsea and Alexis Sánchez at Manchester United.
Yet a bit like putting on a brand new pair of socks, some things just feel right. And Haller’s move to Ajax seems to fit perfectly. It has gone so well that there have even been rumours of him being lined up to replace wonder-boy Erling Haaland if the Norwegian leaves Borussia Dortmund next summer. He is playing regularly and looks full of that previously devoid confidence. It is worth pointing out that after suffering a groin injury just after project restart in the summer of 2020, Haller only started 7 of 21 games for West Ham and of those was brought off in 3. Yet with Ajax it looks like a classic case of the right player, at the right club, at the right time. If there is pain among West Ham supporters, it is completely understandable.
As a natural finisher who is not the most technically skillful forward nor one with the most pace, Haller evidently thrives if an attacking structure is built with him at its epicenter. And he has certainly been the calm, clinical eye within the Ajax attacking storm. Whether tactically set-up in a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 formation, Haller is the focal point – attacks either end with him or heavily involve him. Rather than just sticking Haller up front on his own and chucking balls to him or lumping crosses in his general direction, like was the case at West Ham, now he is in a system with creativity all around him, feeding him with the chances that he evidently has the talent to take. In England, he looked like a useful part that no one knew where to actually use. In Amsterdam, he has fitted right in as an important cog in the Ajax machine.
Finally, it naturally helps that those attacking players around him are in fine form. The club captain, Dusan Tadic, has been a revelation since he joined the club over three years ago. This season he already has nine assists in the league playing off the left wing, more than any other player, and has created the most chances in the division too. The summer capture of Steven Berghuis from rivals Feyenoord has also clearly paid off. The Dutch international has been flying in his new home playing in a number 10 role with just under a goal or an assist every game. Then there is the youngster Anthony, whose form playing off the right has earned a call up to the Brazil squad. A recent 5-0 thrashing of nearest rivals PSV Eindhoven perfectly demonstrated how in-sync this quartet are, with all finding the back of the net. It’s not surprising Haller has been a beneficiary of such creativity.
It always feels good to see a footballer find his or her feet again. After a turgid period in England, this could well be the time that Sébastien Haller truly demonstrates just how good he really is.