Picture the scene. West Ham have fought back from 2-0 down (in a fashion that used to be so characteristic of Slaven Bilic’s side) to be level with Arsenal. The momentum is with us and Upton Park is roaring. Arsenal’s hopes of staying in the title race look to be fading.
Michail Antonio outmuscles Nacho Monreal out wide and clips in a cross to the far post. It doesn’t have that much pace on it, but Andy Carroll rises and connects with a bullet header. The ball flies into the back of the net, clipping the head of Gabriel on its way past the goalkeeper. Carroll is off into the crowd, celebrating with the Bobby Moore Lower, not for the first time that season.
Carroll scored a hat-trick that day, and although Arsenal salvaged a point, it was clearly a damaging result for both their league position and confidence. Gabriel had looked close to tears by the end, for Carroll had tormented him all game.
It wasn’t happening for him every week, but our big striker has had a knack in recent years for either a timely goal in a big game, or making a contribution which can turn a match on its head – his winner against Chelsea, his brilliant far post header against Liverpool and his repeated demolition of Swansea’s back line to name a few.
The problem is, whenever I think of Carroll’s best moments, they are intrinsically tied with Upton Park. I can still picture him burying a header, before peeling off to the left to celebrate with Blocks 5 & 6 of the old Booby Moore stand.
Since the move to the Olympic Stadium, Carroll’s form has nosedived, this season in particular. His overhead against Crystal Palace was otherworldly, but it seems difficult to believe that this was the last goal he scored at home for West Ham, ten months and eight home games ago for him. His only other goal to date at the London Stadium was the consolation in the 5-1 defeat against Arsenal in December 2016. (How times change!)
This is especially concerning because he is in the midst of his longest period of sustained fitness in recent memory. Yet he has still to score this season in eight appearances. For your club’s star striker, this is difficult to take, above all when you consider his £15 million + transfer fee came at a time when £15 million was still a premium price, especially for a club like West Ham Is it time we started asking questions about his place in the team, and his overall record at the club?
We all know that Carroll can be unplayable on his day. His injury proneness was even something that bought Bilic time and sympathy, and for a long time the former boss could be considered most unlucky, with the likes of Carroll (as well as Diafra Sakho) able to transform a performance, yet never making it onto the pitch.
But the time we spend wishing Carroll were fit because of how good he’d make us reminds me of having McDonalds. Looking forward to it and wanting it is great. You think it’s going to be the best thing ever, but when you actually have it it’s never as good as the anticipation. In now his sixth season with us, Carroll has made 118 club appearances, scoring 30 goals, a record hardly synonymous with a star striker and indispensable member of the squad. More worryingly still, he has managed just two goals in his last 16 club appearances, most of which time he has spent fit.
If his form doesn’t improve soon, it’ll be reasonable to conclude from the evidence that looking forward to his fitness is a fallacy, for when he actually plays his impact just isn’t there any more. Is he the Big Mac of West Ham?
It’s not even as though he’s contributing much outside the box and in build-up play. In fact, part of the reason our build-up play is so poor is because of the temptation to pump long balls up to Carroll. The more the game moves on, the less this works, and more and more teams (especially those who play three at the back) are able to nullify his aerial threat before the ball reaches the box. It isolates him.
The fact that he’s isolated up front all the time isn’t actually his fault, and I sometimes understand his frustration. It points to a much bigger team issue of finding a way to build attacks properly. But it’s also clear that having Carroll as the focal point is not working.
Then there’s his attitude, which is dipping too. He has been lethargically making his way around the pitch, often throwing his arms in the air like a child when things haven’t gone his way. He ranges from at best unenthusiastic and lacking in intensity, to looking totally disinterested, like Spurs away in the cup. He’s resorted to criticising fans (always a dangerous road and only remotely sensible when you can practise what you preach) I appreciate he has had a child recently and that fan’s don’t have the right to any insight into a player’s private life, but Carroll has lacked an eagerness and spring in his step for a long while now. His conduct on the pitch is also becoming more and more reckless.
Going forward, is Carroll’s best role for now as an impact substitute? Could this allow our front line to be a bit more cohesive (like in the early stages against Liverpool) and maximise Carroll’s threats when we are a bit more desperate for a goal and therefore need to be a bit more direct.
Either way, it’s clear that one of Moyes’ greatest tasks in this job is to restore confidence in the squad, which won’t be easy amidst the massive supporter unrest and toxic atmosphere currently permeating the club. But in terms of player confidence there’s no more important a job than helping restore Carroll to his confident, dominant potential.
I’m still hanging on to the hope that he still has the ability to transform the side. If he doesn’t improve, I’m going to say it’ll soon be time to look somewhere