Haller shows Premier League failure is not a career dead end

John Nicholson
Sebastien Haller

Sebastien Haller struggled at West Ham but his all-round old-fashioned centre-forward brilliance has shone through clearly everywhere else.


Who’s this then?
Sébastien Romain Teddy(!) Haller is a 6ft 3ins 27-year-old Ivorian striker who plays for Ajax. He was born in Ris-Orangis, in the southern suburbs of Paris.

He got his start at Auxerre, making his professional debut on July 27, 2012, playing in Ligue 2. In his third season, he was loaned to Utrecht and did really well, netting 11 in 17 games and winning the club’s Player Of The Year award, despite only staying for half a season.

Haller moved to the Netherlands permanently and spent 2015 to 2017 at Utrecht, netting 51 times in 98 games. That was a record which attracted the attention of the Bundesliga’s Eintracht Frankfurt, who had a whip round, came up with €7million, pushed it across Utrecht’s desk and took Seb away under their arm on a four-year deal.

In two seasons, he played well and scored 33 goals across 77 games. In the 2018/19 season he was involved in 24 goals, only beaten by Robert Lewandowski.

This caught the attention of West Ham United, who decided they’d rather like a good striker. So they offered £45million – nine times more than he’d cost two years previously – but couldn’t come up with the cash in one go so bought him on HP, putting 75% down with the other 25% payable over five years, which frankly looks like they couldn’t really afford him.

This was a club-record fee.

His first season wasn’t much of a success, scoring seven goals in 35 games, and then the club failed to make a £5.4m instalment payment in summer 2020 which got the Hammers reported to FIFA. Naughty cockneys. Frankfurt sold the debt onto investment group MSD Capital. In January 2021, with his second campaign not proving any better, West Ham cut their losses and sold him to Ajax for another club record – £18.8m – which just shows the difference in finances of big Dutch clubs to wiener-sized Premier League clubs.

Worse was to come: they had to pay the £5.4m owed to MSD Capital, which meant that they only got about £13m from the sale. The Hammers had lost the thick end of £30m in 18 months on Haller. Well done everyone. You must be very proud of your financial incompetence and incontinence. I think we can all agree it shows an unparalleled degree of financial stupidity which would get you fired on The Apprentice, ironically enough. But no matter, here comes the Premier League with another £100m+ of free money within six months.

Ajax really believed in Haller, and it turned out that breaking their transfer record was not the gamble that it appeared to be as he scored 13 in 23 from January 2021 and in the first half of this season he’s scored a mighty 22 in 24 games, meaning in one year he’s netted 33 times in 45 games.

Haller is proof that just because you’re no good in the Premier League it doesn’t make you a bad player, even if some of the ‘abroad is a foreign country’ pundits seem to think that anyone can score loads in the Hairydivhayseed, Jeff.

He also made his international debut for Ivory Coast in 2020, even though he’d previously played for France at every level. He has three goals in six games and heads to AFCON this month as a star player and one of Europe’s most in-form strikers. He has 168 club goals in 388 games.


Why the love?
His performances in the Netherlands and on the European stage have been so impressive this season. In this year’s Champions League group stages, Haller netted an amazing 10 times. He made his debut in the competition with a 5-1 away victory over Sporting on September 15, scoring twice in each half to become the first player to hit four goals on his Champions League debut since Marco van Basten for AC Milan in 1992. In the following match against Beşiktaş, he scored again, becoming the first player in the history of the competition to score five goals in his first two appearances. In the reverse fixture he scored two more goals to become the first player to score nine in five consecutive games. Then he scored in Ajax’s final match, becoming only the second player to score in all six games of a group stage after Cristiano Ronaldo in 2017/18. He is the fastest player to get to 10 goals in competition’s history.

Haller seems to be pretty two-footed, regularly scoring with his left and right. On top of that, being a tall and broad 6ft 3ins means he gets his fair share of headers. Looking at all his strikes, he scores almost all his goals in the box, often being first to goalkeeping spills and rebounds – an old-fashioned sniffer. He shoots early when he has the chance and has a good bicycle kick in his paintbox, too.

His performances have been so ruthless partly because he fits into the Ajax system so well. Erik ten Hag, their manager, is one of the game’s best coaches and he gets the best out of Haller in a way that David Moyes couldn’t, but the player holds no grudges.

“Maybe I wasn’t in the best moment of my career. Maybe things were quite difficult for me and maybe the set-up was not perfect and me myself was not at the right time. I never blame one thing, it’s just the situation that you need to understand and see. It was really frustrating to see those games coming and getting no goals. I also had the feeling that I couldn’t really find the perfect place on the pitch or anticipate what my partner will do.”

That sounds like they didn’t set up to get the best out of him and he couldn’t fit into the system that they wanted him to play in. It also sounds like they didn’t do their research in scouting him and thought they were buying a different sort of striker. Even if the price tag weighed heavily on him, if you don’t have the team architecture right then everything will be disjointed and it won’t click. With that said, Haller did produce some impressive bicycle kicks against Crystal Palace, Bournemouth and Watford.

The impressive thing about Haller is that he’s an all-round striker, one capable of scoring all sorts of goals. He is not a pretty player by any means, not someone who blinds us with high skill and a grab bag of tricks. Put simply, he’s direct and ruthless, a striker who is not bothered how he scores or what it looks like. And in that sense, he’s a bit of a throw-back of a centre-forward. It just goes to show that a simple, first-to-the-ball and leap-highest striker, though somewhat out of fashion in the modern game, can still be supremely effective, possibly precisely because defences do not play against such players as often as they once did.


Three great moments
Two with the left foot, one with the right and a header:


Only 14 goals in 18 months for West Ham but some crackers here:


His quality was clear in Frankfurt:


What the people say
And what the people said was not much at all this week. Maybe most people still think Ajax is a household cleaner. Everyone used to pronounce it A-Jax back in the ’70s but now it’s Aye-axe over here – though Ah-jahx is, I’m assured by actual Netherlanders, the right way.

Having spent only 18 months in England, maybe no-one noticed him. Even so, it always disappoints me when a top European player barely registers in England. I suppose it all goes to show that when mainstream football culture tells us abroad is a foreign country, they really mean it. Those with a pan-European outlook feel we are all one football nation bound together by our love of the game, but in Brexit England, nothing could be further from the truth. Interest in anything outside these shores is unpatriotic intellectual elitism. F**kers.


Future days
The problem with a club like Ajax having such a high-scoring striker on their books is that some useless bloated moneybags Premier League club like Newcastle might offer a stupid amount of money for him again. Money that Ajax would find it hard to turn down. This must be infuriating. You scout your players well, fit them into your system and turn them into a supremely effective player, only for some rich Premier League club using their money as a substitution for developing their own players to turn up and tip an enormous amount of cash onto your table.

The discontent at the grotesque financial imbalance between the Premier League and everyone else is a source of much fury right across Europe, understandably enough. When even a club of the pedigree and history of Ajax cannot financially compete, you know something is badly wrong.

However, they may be lucky with Haller. The fact he failed at West Ham United will definitely keep some other greasy English fingers off him. The stain of having failed in the best league in the world is not easily washed off the more narrow-minded Premier League executives who will think he’s had his chance and blown it. They won’t be keen to touch such soiled goods. This is the Premier League, Jeff. Then again, given Newcastle are so desperate that they’d sign a wheelbarrow of beef mince for £100m to play as centre forward, they may make an exception.

With their next game being against Benfica, there is the chance of going deep into the Champions League and Haller will want to stick around for that, even if there is interest from afar. His is a great story and one which shows the importance of matching player to team and manager and not just expecting that spending money will buy you success.

At the Africa Cup of Nations, it’ll be fascinating to see how far he can help Ivory Coast progress. They play Equatorial Guinea, Sierra Leone and Algeria, with their first game on Wednesday. Without doubt, he’ll be one of the most dangerous strikers in the competition.