Is Sebastian Haller suffering from a West Ham curse, or something much more mundane?
In the decade under the ownership of David Gold and David Sullivan, West Ham fans have sometimes felt like the striker position has been cursed.
Among the dozens of attackers brought to East London in the 2010s are Mido (a handful of games, no goals), Marouane Chamakh (a handful of games, no goals), Jonathan Calleri (a handful of games, one goal — progress!) and Jordan Hugill (a handful of games, no goals, but he’s still on the club’s books, so maybe he can come good ).
While several of these signings can be generously described as punts never likely to bear fruit, West Ham has also acted as a bizarre anti-goal oasis, where strikers can down tools for a few months and regain the energy to become real scorers again after leaving. Simone Zaza was a broadly adequate top-flight forward before and after his no goals in eight games for the Hammers, while Robbie Keane — best described as ‘not quite as awful as some of his teammates at Upton Park’ during a half-season loan back in 2011, proceeded to score more than 100 goals for LA Galaxy after departing.
While the word ‘curse’ is fun to throw around, there’s usually something deeper going on. With that in mind, it’s time to look at the latest case study, Sébastien Haller. The French striker became West Ham’s record signing over the summer, joining from Eintracht Frankfurt for a fee which could reportedly rise to €50 million.
He arrived off the back of a 15-goal season in the Bundesliga, having thrice hit double figures in the Netherlands before moving to Germany. His six goals in 19 Premier League games would probably feel more impressive if it didn’t feature a run of eight games without a goal in the middle, including four in which he didn’t even register a shot. What might look like not-much-to-worry-about numbers are arguably a little deceptive, as it seems that fast start is still propping up the former Utrecht striker.
Take away the game against Watford in August, when Haller scored two goals from a combined distance equivalent to the width of your dinner table, and things look a little more concerning.
Haller’s expected goals of 1.49 in that game, as well as accounting for more than one-quarter of his personal xG for the entire season, is more than West Ham have managed as a team in all but a couple of their games. When there's just one guy getting decent shots away, you’re going to notice when he slows down.
West Ham being West Ham, and January being January, talk of the club investing in more attacking talent before the end of the transfer window has inevitably been bandied about.
While the idea of cashing in on their frontman is unlikely to be a consideration — he was supposed to be part of a smarter transfer strategy; a long-term prospect with the tools to play a part in a team capable of incremental progress rather than a quick-fix — the same relegation worries that saw West Ham ditch Manuel Pellegrini for David Moyes may well encourage them to dip into the transfer market out of a need to be seen to be doing something.
If the club’s owners want to actually be proactive — as opposed to merely giving that impression — any transfer approach needs to consider why Haller’s arrival hasn’t been the expected magic bullet.
While 20 games isn’t the hugest sample size, there are still a few notable numbers evident in the 25-year-old’s output to date. Haller’s 12 non-penalty goals in last season’s Bundesliga came from a non-penalty xG of 10.8, or in per 90 minutes terms, 0.45. At West Ham, where Mark Noble is essentially glued to the penalty spot and has been for as long as we remember, spot-kicks are not a consideration. However, Haller’s non-penalty xG per 90 of 0.29 is noticeably lower.
To be fair, he's getting shots away slightly more frequently than last season (one every 40.6 minutes, compared to one every 44.6 minutes), but from lower quality positions. The numbers are by no means terrible, especially for a striker still adjusting to a new club and league. Yet the extent to which West Ham is concerned might have a bit to do with the fact that Haller’s high xG per shot (more than 0.2 last season, down to 0.13) was as big a consideration as attributes such as his aerial strength.
Haller’s numbers in Germany were broadly in line with the man he directly replaced at West Ham. Marko Arnautović averaged 0.40 non-penalty xG per 90 in the 2018–19 season and 0.41 the season before, bringing back-to-back double-figure goal returns in a team that wasn’t pulling up too many trees.
It’s easy to see how a striker with a record of taking high-value shots would seem ideal. Pellegrini was tasked with kicking on from last season’s 10th-place finish before his sacking in December (ostensibly for failing to do just that), and plugging a player into a side with a season-long xG of 37.2 in the 2017–18 season, and an even healthier 48.2 in 2018–19, seemed to make sense. But there’s more than one reason why things haven’t quite panned out that way.
In StatsBomb’s West Ham season preview, two things stand out: Haller’s tendency to go for higher-value shots, and his all-round contribution, which makes his virtually non-existent xG assisted in 2019–20 stand out.
A drop-off from 0.25 xG assisted per 90 last season to 0.05 this doesn’t exactly reek of 'all-rounder', and only four of Haller’s 19 games have seen him register even 0.1 xG assisted or higher. This might be less striking in a more rounded team, but no player with more than 1,000 minutes has a non-penalty xG+xG assisted per 90 tally higher than Haller’s 0.35.
This may be a consequence of the most notable change in Haller’s responsibilities: Last season, he frequently played with Luka Jović and Ante Rebić, both of whom delivered north of 0.4 xG per 90 from advanced positions, while this year he is very much the lone frontman.
With Javier Hernández leaving after playing a total of 24 minutes alongside Haller and Michail Antonio and Andriy Yarmolenko missing much of the season through injury, both Manuel Pellegrini and David Moyes have opted for a one-striker system out of necessity if nothing else (we have chosen not to acknowledge the £8 million Albian Ajeti, whose 121 minutes leave him within the margin of error of ‘entirely fictional’).
While Hernández found himself in and out of the starting line-up in his two West Ham seasons, a failure to utilise (or at least adequately replace) the Mexican may have been misguided. Haller’s breakout season in Germany occurred when sharing goalscoring responsibilities with forwards — as opposed to attacking midfielders who play high up the pitch — while utilising his aerial prowess to allow Jović, Rebić and others into dangerous positions. At West Ham, that aerial prowess is still there, but it’s not accompanied by anything close to last season’s creative numbers. There’s a difference between an all-rounder and a player who can do everything, and this can often come down to the presence of a supporting cast that gives a player the freedom to thrive. One striker cannot be his own wingman — at least not for long.
Adding in the fact that only two West Ham players are averaging more than one pass into the opposition area per 90 (six players achieved this last season, including four who did so over more than 1,500 league minutes) it’s not hard to understand why Haller and West Ham aren’t having the season some optimists anticipated. Yes, there are still some optimists at the London Stadium, despite *gestures at 125 years of history*.
With this in mind, surely there's a temptation for Moyes and the West Ham owners to invest in a more orthodox strike partner who can complement Haller’s more under-used attributes.
Declaring Haller has underperformed this season, or that he's been hit by that all-too-familiar curse, ignores the fact that he’s been forced to take on different responsibilities to those that brought him 15 goals for Frankfurt while being expected to deliver comparable results. The strangest thing about this is that, in setting up their squad in the way they have, West Ham have made this a near-inevitability.
Perhaps they looked at Arnautović, a man signed as a winger but quickly transformed into a quasi-Zlatan, as a prototype for attacking players being able to slot themselves into their system rather than the more sensible approach of setting up in a way that might, y’know, directly benefit the most expensive signing in the club’s history.
If the Hammers keep plugging away with their current approach, trying to fit Haller into a system that doesn't fit him, it will reflect the same lack of direction that has sabotaged any shot of progress, at least the progress seen in the years since their move to their new stadium. Even if you have the best roadmap in the world, it will count for nothing if you don’t take off your blindfold before trying to follow it.