If there is one department in which Ajax are not struggling this season, it’s finding the net on a consistent basis.
After the Eredivisie’s opening 15 games, Erik ten Hag’s men have scored an incredible 54 goals (exactly one scored every 25 minutes), making them the league’s most prolific club by some distance, although 13 of the 54 came at VVV-Venlo’s expense in October.
- Age: 26
- Premier League stats
- Appearances (minutes): 48 (3,198)
- Goals + assists: 11
- Chances created: 34
- Aerial duels won: 285
- Dribbles completed: 33
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But even this can be improved upon and the stark reality is, for all Ajax’s prolificacy, they’ve regularly played without an out-and-out striker, and when that hasn’t been the case, we’ve seen two extremes deployed. Despite showing no signs of letting up, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar is at the tail end of an 18-year professional career while Lassina Traoré has only just started his.
So, with the focus on successfully defending their title as well as having another real go in Europe, the powers that be decided to find a middle ground and the solution they came up with could become another Marc Overmars transfer masterstroke. Sébastien Haller, who is now Ajax’s record signing, is no stranger to Dutch top division football. The 26-year-old Ivorian international previously bagged 41 goals across 82 matches for FC Utrecht with 65 of those outings (resulting in 30 goals) coming under the leadership of Ten Hag.
Back then Haller announced himself through good timing and strong positional awareness consequently developing into a menace inside the penalty area. He also usually played in a two-striker formation with Ten Hag, fresh after coaching Bayern Munich’s second team, often utilising a 3-5-2 or 4-4-2 diamond. That isn’t going to be the case in Amsterdam as 4-3-3 is king there, meaning Haller will lead the line, but with plenty of attacking support to feed off.
Time spent at Eintracht Frankfurt and then West Ham sees Haller return to the Netherlands as an even better prospect. For as much as we can praise the Eredivisie, it is a few rungs below those where he recently plied his trade. Haller’s attributes (which shone abundantly in Germany) incidentally makes him perfect for the role he’s about to undertake.
Haller’s languid style and height which complements those attacking players around him, by allowing them into the game, turns him into what many call a ‘number 9.5’ or part-creator, part-finisher. Following the unveiling of Ajax’s latest recruit, Ten Hag noted that playing in a more conservative set-up, as he would have at West Ham, essentially stifled Haller’s potential.
But in a team which predominantly controls possession and is stationed in the opposition’s final third it’s a completely different story. Ajax, following the opening 15 rounds, average 61.9% possession and 22.4 shots per game which is respectively the most by an Eredivisie outfit. We saw first glimpses of that would-be-perfect relationship just days after Haller completed his £20.25m transfer when title rivals PSV Eindhoven paid a visit to Amsterdam.
Being introduced at the start of the second half, Haller took up his position in the space between Ajax’s wide players (Quincy Promes and Antony) and immediately went about business like he’d been there for years. Displaying strong movement and link-up play throughout, and winning all of his offensive duels as well as completing four take-ons, Haller thought he levelled proceedings after chasing a Dusan Tadic pass, but was flagged offside after VAR’s intervention.
Nevertheless, the ex-Hammer played a key role in Antony’s equaliser moments later, stretching before playing the ball into the Brazilian’s path. It was only 45 minutes, but supporters have already been left purring, and you can understand why. His presence offers Ten Hag options going ahead such as deploying mercurial Serbian forward Tadic in a deep-lying playmaker role, thus dovetailing with Haller, or from the flank where he’s often featured this season.
Strikers are ultimately judged on goals and 14 from 53 appearances for West Ham is modest to say the least, but as touched upon you can’t solely lay this at Haller’s feet. The French-born striker, initially signed when Manuel Pellegrini was calling the shots, was predominantly isolated in David Moyes’ system and nothing best illustrates that reactive approach than him winning more aerial duels (167) than having touches in the opposition box (109). However, it would be foolish to completely discount his Premier League sojourn, especially from Ajax’s perspective as that experience and personal growth in England could prove invaluable à la Tadic, whose signing from Southampton continues to be heralded.
Tadic, who didn’t exactly disappoint on the south coast, feels like a different player as he’s consistently playing for a side on the front-foot. Ten Hag and sporting director Overmars are confident of unlocking the real Haller who truly sparked when being front and centre of Frankfurt’s operation where he finished on 33 goals across 77 matches, nothing earth-shattering, but enough to suggest that in a proactive team he can be lethal. If the Amsterdammers keep on their current trajectory then it will not be long before he’s feeling like a kid in a candy store.