A striker who is tall is supposed to have heading as the only strength in his play. There are multiple proofs of that in today’s football world and in the times gone by. New West Ham United signing Sebastien Haller is someone who defies that logic.
This past season, it appeared to the outside world that Eintracht Frankfurt were all about Luka Jovic. The now Real Madrid striker undoubtedly is a real talent who has every sort of goal up his sleeve. But this took the spotlight off Haller, someone who worked just as hard and probably did just as well as the Serbian.
In the list of the top ten goalscorers from this past season, Haller was tenth with 15 goals on his plate (only two less than Jovic). But he racked up more assists than anyone in the top ten, an indication of what sort of player he is and he played only 29 games in the Bundesliga, missing last few of them due to an abdominal strain.
Despite being 190cm tall, Haller isn’t about heading the ball into the back of the net with a thumping header. He is a near-complete forward who has improved over time in the goal creation department.
More than anything, Haller is a fighter. He loves a tackle. He loves to get stuck into a challenge as if it is his last. He competed for 14.1 challenges per game this past season and won 8.3 of them per game. A monstrous statistic. That proves why former Eagles’ boss Niko Kovac described Haller as a man ‘even a bulldozer can’t move’.
He also made more tackles per game than any striker in the Bundesliga and also made more interceptions per game than any of them.
Frankfurt’s direct possession approach to the game saw Adi Hütter change from a flat back four from a back three towards the beginning of the season and the change brought immense effect as the Eagles marched onto an 11-game unbeaten streak. While they did not finish inside the top four due to bad results towards the end of the campaign, Die Alder caught the eyes for many due to obvious reasons.
The triumvirate of Haller, Jovic and Ante Rebic was the prime reason. It was Haller’s ability on the ball that helped the Frenchman form a much-feared triumvirate with his Croatian and Serbian counterparts. The Frenchman brought flexibility to the trio and the way he improved his hold-up skills from the 2017/18 season saw him contribute a lot in the build-up to goals.
A key part of that was Haller and his ability to interchange positions with Jovic and Rebic. His job was to hold up play and pick out Jovic or Rebic. His ability to pull off a turn or a half-turn to find himself in open spaces is exceptional when teams want to attack quickly on the break.
Another key part of his play is his intelligence. Playing in a front three that is free-flowing and plays quick football requires the players to know where to pop up at the right time. Haller has the brains to know when to drop into deeper areas to drag defenders out of positions, allowing the other attacking players to make runs in behind.
Haller is adept at using deft flick-ons to find teammates and that became a very important part of his approach at Frankfurt. From playing 1 key pass per game in the 2017/18 season, Haller played 1.3 key passes per game this season. That development in his game has seen him become a striker who got nine goals in his first Bundesliga season to becoming one of the most complete strikers in Europe.
Playing around quality players like Felipe Anderson and Andriy Yarmolenko will work in Haller’s favour. West Ham have preferred to play a direct brand football under Manuel Pellegrini and having someone like Haller upfront will benefit them. He is tailor made for the Premier League, the physical battles, the frenetic pace and the competitive nature of it.
The Hammers’ always had this sneaky feeling that Marko Arnautovic would not stay at the club for long when he was linked with an exit last summer. The Austrian had impressed as a striker for them under the brief tutelage of David Moyes and was used there throughout the campaign by Manuel Pellegrini in what was a very talented side.
Arnautovic did well as a striker throughout the phase when he was played as one, scoring 11 times this past season. But around players like Andriy Yarmolenko and the impressive Felipe Anderson, there was always a feeling that they needed someone better if they had to push the Premier League top six.
A move for Celta Vigo star Maxi Gomez almost materialised until Valencia snatched him away. That made many West Ham fans worry as to who will be their chief goal-getter next season. But in Haller, they have much more than that. They have signed a player who could well go onto be a cult hero for them.
It would be fair to say that the Frenchman has been one of the most underrated strikers in Europe in recent times. Perhaps, there is a reason why Mauricio Pochettino wanted him as a second-choice to his talisman Harry Kane not long ago. While that was during Haller’s days in the Netherlands with Utrecht, he has now become a player who can easily play for any top club in Europe.
The Premier League should beware. This man is more than just a real handful.
By Kaustubh Pandey.