SÉBASTIEN Haller’s spectacular scissors kick in West Ham’s 4-0 win over Bournemouth on New Year’s Day felt like a new dawn.
It was the first day of the new decade, the first game of David Moyes’s second spell as Hammers manager and the first goal that Haller had scored at London Stadium since the first week of October. He celebrated his acrobatic 26th-minute strike impassively, his face devoid of emotion as his team-mates mobbed him and the home fans rejoiced, but the sense of release inside the ground was palpable.
Nearly two months on, what seemed at the time to be a new beginning turns out instead to have been a false dawn for both player and club. West Ham have gone seven games without a Premier League victory, a run that has sent them skidding into the relegation zone, and Haller has not found the net in eight matches in all competitions. Having started all of the first six league games of Moyes’s second tenure, he found himself on the bench for both the 2-0 defeat at Manchester City and last Monday’s 3-2 reverse at Liverpool. More than any other player, the 25-year-old Frenchman has come to symbolise Moyes’s desperate – and hitherto fruitless – search for a winning formula.
Oohhhh Sebastian Haller that is special
— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) January 1, 2020
Haller joined West Ham last summer for a club-record fee of £45 million after scoring 33 goals and providing 19 assists in 77 appearances for Eintracht Frankfurt across his two seasons at the club. Expectations could scarcely have been higher, but with only six goals and two assists to show for his first 27 games in a West Ham shirt, the initial returns on the club’s investment could scarcely have been more underwhelming.
A common consensus among West Ham supporters is that Haller has been too isolated on the pitch, having been obliged to plough a lone furrow up front under first Manuel Pellegrini and now Moyes.
"There is an argument the service at times hasn't been brilliant,” club legend Tony Cottee told Love Sport Radio last week. “Have they played enough [balls into the box]? And they've not really played someone alongside him. When [Michail] Antonio played up front with him, he got a little bit of support. So there is an argument for that.”
Haller’s 6’3” frame and powerful build give him the air of a target man, but the former France Under-21 international is a much more multi-faceted player than that, as he demonstrated during his time in Germany. Adi Hütter, Haller’s coach at Eintracht Frankfurt, constructed a fluid 3-4-1-2 system in which Haller was closely supported by Luka Jović and Ante Rebić, who would take it in turns to occupy the number 10 position.
The trio scored 88 goals between them during the two seasons they played together at the Commerzbank-Arena and it is a sign of the special chemistry that existed between them that although Rebić is currently on an excellent scoring run for AC Milan, all three have taken time to find their feet at their respective new clubs since they parted ways. With only two goals in his first 24 games for Real Madrid, Jović is having an even more torrid time than Haller.
75/75 – Sébastien Haller has scored 75 top-flight goals to date, all of which have been netted from inside the box – 45 with FC Utrecht in the Eredivisie, 24 with Eintracht Frankfurt in the Bundesliga and 6 with West Ham in the Premier League. Proximity. pic.twitter.com/TImTsA2BpC
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) January 1, 2020
Speaking after West Ham’s 2-0 defeat at home to Liverpool at the end of January, Moyes acknowledged that Haller needed more support, although he did not entirely absolve the striker of blame for his current struggles in front of goal.
“From what I see of his finishing, it looks very good,” Moyes said. “Technically, he looks a good finisher. I think we’re probably going to have to try and get him more service, more balls in the box, more opportunities. We’ve tried to get people around him to help him. But we need a bit of magic from him. Like the goal he scored against Bournemouth for me. I could do with a couple of them from somewhere.”
Intriguingly, Haller is averaging the exact same number of shots per game (1.9), the exact same number of shots from inside the penalty area per game (1.4) and the exact same number of shots from inside the six-yard box per game (0.4) this season as during his final campaign at Eintracht.
But while six goals from 24 league games feels like a disappointing return for a player who cost so much money, Haller’s Expected Goals (xG) tally is only 7.03, indicating that he is not far off the sort of figures that could reasonably be expected from the opportunities he has had. By comparison, he scored 15 league goals in his last Eintracht season from an xG of 13.69. Haller’s scoring contribution at Eintracht was additionally enhanced by the fact he took penalties, scoring six in total across his two seasons there, whereas at West Ham, it is skipper Mark Noble who is in charge of spot-kicks.
With Jarrod Bowen having arrived from Hull in the January transfer window, Felipe Anderson fit again after six weeks out with a back injury, Andriy Yarmolenko on the comeback trail and Antonio, Robert Snodgrass and Manuel Lanzini also vying for selection, Haller does not want for potential attacking partners.
If the players around him can start putting him in better scoring positions, beginning with Saturday’s vital home game against Southampton, Haller could yet end up scoring the goals that send them to safety. Because as the goal against Bournemouth showed, it’s not as if he doesn’t have it in him.