Game of Numbers #21: How to play as the ‘Target’ like Sébastien Haller

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Sébastien Haller has been one of the key difference makers to Borussia Dortmund in another title-chasing campaign for the Black & Yellows. They’ve been brilliant under Edin Terzic since the turn of the year, and some of that success has been down to the resurgence of cancer-free Sébastien Haller into the team.

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While the likes of Marco Reus, Jude Bellingham and Julian Brandt were inevitably strutting their stuff in the first half of the campaign, Dortmund were not getting the same end product out of wingers like Karim Adeyemi and Donyell Malen. They had to resort to using Youssoufa Moukoko up top as somewhat of a ‘Channel Runner’ with passes in behind the defense, as opposed to the way Dortmund love to play with close proximal connections and pretty little flick-on’s as they form triangular combinations in the final third.

This is precisely why the inclusion of Sébastien Haller into the team at the turn of the year has been such a transformative change of pace. Dortmund now have the ‘Target’ and reference up top – and not one that they are using for his aerial strength, but one that they are using for his strength in linking up with teammates and allowing others to surge in behind. With that, we break down some of the finer details behind the Ivorian’s game, and why he’s been such a criticial player in their title-chasing campaign.


Like any outstanding ‘Target’, Sébastien Haller has excelled with his back to goal this campaign. He’s adept at finding spaces to dismark himself away from the opposition defense, ensuring he can be in the best position to receive and link the play.

Being a ‘Target’ is not all about pinning opposition defenses backward so that others have more space. Sometimes that ‘Target’ himself should be the one to attack the open spaces further from goal, so that others can seek the spaces in behind. Alarm bells are then bound to ring in the minds of the opposition as they question whether to hold position or follow the player.

After all, if you give him space and time to turn, he’ll likely make an even better decision with a forward pass to a winger or a pretty one-two connection with one of Dortmund’s midfield men. So you have to follow his path!

But there lies the danger! In doing so, you’re creating a hole in the defensive structure, for speedsters like Karim Adeyemi and Donyell Malen to surge in behind. This is exactly how Augsburg found themselves down to ten men at the weekend in Dortmund’s latest match.

As soon as the Black & Yellows won the ball in this example, they looked immediately for their ‘Target’, knowing he’d aid the fast break. Sébastien Haller came to the side of the ball as he so wonderfully does, which then allowed Donyell Malen to exploit space in behind off Raphael Guerreiro‘s pass.

You see, any time you have a ‘Target’ moving into midfield areas, the defenders feel as though they can relax. There’s no one else around to hurt them at that point. What they don’t realize is that on their blindside, someone else is making a run in behind.

For Dortmund’s purposes, they can also continue these great combinations in front of the eighteen yard box that they always love to create. This is where the likes of Reus, Brandt, Bellingham and Guerreiro will thrive.

The likes of Brandt and Guerreiro don’t have the pace to beat players on their own. They need someone to bounce the ball off, so that they can create more moments of magic with their precision of movement, passing and ball control. That’s where Haller becomes such a vital figurehead at the top of Dortmund’s attack.

For a high-possession team that is often then looking to break down opposition blocks, Haller’s movement in deep is also great in unbalancing and undoing defensive structures. The Ivorian will often come all the way into midfield areas to pick up possession, which has the potential to cause chaos for the opposition in the question of who to mark.

When you combine that astute awareness of space with the strength to ward off challenges and fight back against pushy defenders, you get one of the best ‘Targets’ in the game.

Essentially, the quality that Haller brings within his role has allowed for more fluidity in the front-line, more success in the attacking third for the likes of Malen and Adeyemi, and a greater ability for Dortmund to fulfill their intended ideologies.


As mentioned, Sébastien Haller is also astute when it comes to finding the spaces to attack. He often shifts to the side of the ball, ensuring he can remain at the forefront of an attack regardless of attacking origin.

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As most ‘Targets’ do, Haller will often move to the side of the ball on throw-ins to be used as that outlet to bring the play down. Dortmund are a club that prefer to play with the ball on the ground than in the air, and so they don’t tend to use the Ivorian’s aerial strength as a key mechanism for engaging him throughout other phases. Instead, most of the time they will play into his feet to break an opposition structure, and then play the ball back to him at the end of a move.

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When he reaches the penalty area, Haller is not one that loves to get on the blindside of defenders or constantly move side to side to create chaos like Erling Haaland.

The 28-year-old instead likes to position himself just in front of the defender, within touching distance of the nearest defender.

He will then often catch that defender more or less flat footed and paying greater attention to him than the ball. Since he’s often the quickest to react, this allows the Ivorian to score many of his goals. It helps that Dortmund have players like Guerreiro and Brandt who can pick out the perfect pass into his path, but it’s still an interesting strategy from the ‘Target’ to remain within touching distance of the defender and then react to the flight of the ball just that half a second quicker than his opponent.

The quickness within his reactions also means that he has a knack for gobbling up rebounds, and scoring the simplest of goals. He’ll often score tap-ins from just a few yards away due to the speed at which he attacks open space, and his ability to anticipate the likely direction of a save from the keeper.

The Dortmund man has scored some atypical goals this season, but the vast majority of his 9 goals in 18 appearances have been simple finishes. All of those goals have come inside the eighteen yard box, and more than half have come from less than six yards away. He’s a poacher, and that is perfect for Dortmund given that they will always generate high-quality chances.

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Had Sébastien Haller only been fit for the first half of the season, who knows where they could be right now! He’s had a brilliant second half of the campaign after returning from cancer, and fully deserves the plaudits as one of Dortmund’s key figures in their title charge.

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