It seems ridiculous to be writing that Sebastien Haller, West Ham’s club-record signing for £45m (once the hundreds of mandatory instalments have been paid) has just six weeks to show that’s he capable of cutting it in the Premier League.
But the harsh reality is that the 26-year-old, who has just represented Ivory Coast for the first time, really is coming to a crossroads in his West Ham career.
Starved of regular game time, bereft of confidence and, more importantly, dreadfully short on goals, Haller’s stint at the club has been anything but memorable. And with Michail Antonio in the form of his life after converting into an out-and-out striker, it’s hard to see how things can possibly turn around for him.
There is, however, a six-week window of opportunity coming up for Haller, where he must show West Ham’s board, his teammates and the club’s supporters what he’s all about.
The long face, sulky demeanour and lackadaisical work rate have got to go, and Haller – in the potentially (but probably not) continued absence of Antonio – must show that he’s worth persevering with, having previously shone for Eintracht Frankfurt in the Bundesliga and Europa League.
If he doesn’t, it really will be cut your losses time for West Ham and yet another example of untapped potential drifting away from the east end of London.
So what needs to change?
All of the above, for one. In West Ham’s recent clash with Liverpool at Anfield – a game they were unfortunate to lose 2-1 in the dying embers – Haller had the chance to make his mark after injury ruled Antonio out of the trip to Merseyside.
Haller wasn’t expected to score and put in a man of the match performance, no, but he was expected to work hard and chase down lost causes, as a minimum. That is, after all, what Antonio does on week in, week out, no questions asked.
That is also what most strikers worth their salt – and ones who have been looking on from the sidelines waiting for an opportunity – would do, if they really wanted to put the squeeze on the manager and make a ‘hey, why aren’t you playing me?’ kind of statement.
Instead, while West Ham put in a spirited, gritty display that pushed the slightly off colour champions to their limit, Haller threw away his chance to impress David Moyes. You can even argue that the circumstances were perfect for him to showcase what he could do, given that he was coming against Nathaniel Phillips – a Premier League debutant and last resort for Jurgen Klopp in central defence.
But Haller was a muted, insipid, hollow figure up front, and gave off an aura of ‘I really can’t be bothered’ as he struggled to get into the game. Granted, coming into the side having not played many minutes is not an easy thing to do, and Liverpool are not Charlton or Hull; who he’d scored braces against in the Carabao Cup earlier this season.
But to not put the leg work in, give it his all for 65-70 minutes and give Moyes something to think about is borderline unforgivable. He was better against Fulham a week later – even hitting the crossbar with a sharp first-half header from a corner – but again, against a side who usually haemorrhage goals for fun, he really didn’t do enough to inspire any confidence.
Now there is a valid argument to be had when discussing whether Haller fits into David Moyes’ system or not. Standing 6’3, he’s a big old unit and while he’s not completely immobile, he certainly doesn’t have the endless pressing in his legs that Antonio does.
His inability to tot up the high intensity sprints then have a knock-on effect on the respective pressing games of Jarrod Bowen and Pablo Fornals, causing the Hammers to lose their shape when they don’t have the ball. Haller’s also not particularly adept at running the channels, basically because he doesn’t have any kind of pace.
So with Bowen and Fornals forced to do most of the leg work, Haller struggles to get into the game – as the two inside forwards instead look to offload the ball to overlapping wing-backs Vladimir Coufal and Arthur Masuaku. Arguably, what Haller really needs is for Said Benrahma to come into the team at the expense of Fornals.
The Algerian is a Dimitri Payet-like figure (in terms of style, not necessarily in substance) and is the kind of creator and on-the-ball talent that can open things up in a game. That may benefit Haller as West Ham‘s shape will loosen up and become more fluid, creating opportunities for crosses to come into the box from the aforementioned wing-backs, or from Benrahma himself.
He’ll also run with the ball centrally and commit defenders, rather than chasing balls in behind like Bowen and Fornals do. That in itself will create a different dynamic for Haller, and can perhaps help him to isolate a defender one-on-one, rather than trying to outwit a central defensive duo.
All of this could of course be irrelevant, as Antonio looks to overcome his latest hamstring niggle quicker than anticipated and slot straight back into the side. But whatever the timeline of his recovery is, Haller’s time to save his West Ham career is now or never.
Failure to step up will book him a one-way ticket out of the London Stadium – if anybody will stump up the cash to take him.