Andy Carroll has played more games for West Ham United than he has for any other team. This is his sixth season at the club, and in the meantime, he’s scored 30 goals for the Hammers in all competitions. Every last one of them has come in the league.
That’s quite a shocking stat. Carroll hasn’t scored an FA Cup goal since May 2012, a consolation goal in Liverpool’s 2-1 defeat in the final at Wembley. His last League Cup goal came in the same season, the third goal of a 3-1 victory over Exeter City in the second round in August 2011, a competition Liverpool would go on to win, and in which Carroll would get the only major honour of his career so far.
2012 was also the last time Carroll scored a goal for England, meaning the last time the West Ham striker scored a goal that wasn’t in the Premier League was five years ago.
As odd as that is, it’s hard to know exactly what it means. It’s a quirk of Carroll’s West Ham career, and is perhaps borne out of the fear his managers may have when it comes to selecting him: if he can’t play two games in a week, save him for the league games when he’s needed the most.
But maybe, despite the oddness of Carroll’s cup competition goal drought, there’s a certain logic to it, and one that’s best brought out by the feeling he engenders in his team. In fact, it’s probably also a feeling he engenders in his team’s fans, too.
When Carroll plays, as we’ve seen so far this season, the temptation is to play to his very specific set of strengths. His aerial dominance, his strength, and his ability to hold the ball up make him the perfect target man, even for the Premier League’s rough and tumble ethos. It’s a potent weapon. After the Hammers had lost their first three games, conceding ten goals in the process, it was when Carroll was brought back that it became clear that his qualities would be perfect for the struggling team.
Indeed, sending the ball long towards their towering striker has clearly been a way to negate the terrible defensive frailties that dogged Slaven Bilic’s side in the first few games, and it also cut out the chance for midfielders to dally on the ball and lose possession in dangerous areas, just like the mistakes that allowed Manchester United and Newcastle, most notably, to score seemingly at will. Mostly, that was achieved by simply bypassing the midfield.
“It’s handy to look up and see we have that big lump up front” – Jack Collison, Speaking in 2014.
That explains why Jack Collison would have such a view of Carroll: when you have him in your team, you know there’s always an out-ball. When Pep Guardiola first came to Manchester City, you could see the fear in the eyes of some of the players when they got the ball. They knew they weren’t allowed to knock it long, they had to look for a short pass and knew they were going to be under pressure straight away. More limited players than the likes of David Silva and Kevin de Bruyne, however, would certainly prefer to look up and see an easy and safe ball.
Therein, perhaps, lies Carroll’s problem.
In cup football, games are usually more open. There’s a fear of losing, of course, but no way you can simply settle for a draw. In league football, draws can be positive results, and safer football is rewarded. And that means plenty of mid-table battles – of the types West Ham have often been part of in the last few years, apart from two seasons ago, in the club’s final season at the Boleyn Ground – can end up in the sort of attritional games which can be settled by a misplaced pass in midfield.
That is to say, they are the sorts of games in which having a player like Carroll means playing the long balls that bypass midfielders, negating the risks, and put pressure on opposition defenders, making it easier to break them down. In other words, Carroll is infinitely more suited to the attritional grind of league football than he is to cup games, unless it’s a cup game you’re losing late-on.
And whilst West Ham fans won’t be thrilled to see their team playing that sort of football, it certainly helped the Hammers get out of their rut, at least temporarily. Carroll’s presence is calming, because when a player is in trouble, he instantly knows of a pass he can play. It serves a purpose in the mundane marathon of the Premier League season.