White Hart Lane, 22nd November 2015, was the scene of Slaven Bilic’s first significant defeat as West Ham manager.
A footballing massacre, Tottenham Hotspur mauled the Hammers in every department from the first minute until the 87th, when Manuel Lanzini was allowed to take home a consolation goal in a 4-1 defeat.
West Ham had already lost three times in the Premier League before the weekend, to Watford, Leicester City and Bournemouth, but the Spurs defeat was something different; the first time since Bilic took the helm that the East Londoners were completely out of the game; the first time their inferiority to the opposition reached the peripheries of embarrassment.
Many will write it off as simply a bad day at the office where everything went wrong. Bilic suggested in his post-match interview that the Hammers lacked the same level of focus when compared to their impressive performances against the Premier League’s title chasers in recent months, but there must have been another route cause than solely mentality.
After all, West Ham were second in the away table before this weekend with 13 points from six games, destroying Arsenal, Manchester City and Liverpool in the process. Although Tottenham entered Sunday’s game enjoying confidence and form, in theory this should have been an easier contest for the Hammers. Most fans expected a draw at minimum, so how did they end up losing 4-1?
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Of course, the absence of Dimitri Payet was a significant blow, having set Upton Park alight in the first twelve fixtures of the season with five goals and three assists. But in my opinion, many of the roads stem back to Andy Carroll, who endured yet another tough afternoon at the spearhead of the Irons’ forward line.
That may seem counter-intuitive considering the Hammers conceded four goals, but as the old adage goes, the best defence is a good offence – which is what the towering striker failed to provide.
Like Paul Merson, I envisaged a field day for Carroll at White Hart Lane. Prior to the international break, Olivier Giroud ran riot against Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweired, the two-inch difference in height proving to be too much for Spurs’ Belgian centre-back duo. Although the Frenchman failed to get on the score sheet, his aerial threat increased as the match went on – particularly at set pieces – and inaccurate finishing was all that prevented him finding the net.
Also, measuring in at 6 foot 4 and famed for his imperious leap, the stage was set for Carroll to have a similar impact. Instead, the 26-year-old finished the match with the least touches of the ball of any starter – including both goalkeepers – just two successful headers and two shots at goal, only one of which was on target.
Stat enthusiasts Whoscored.com gave him a rating of just 6.17 and that lowly figure wasn’t in a vacuum; enduring similarly ineffectual outings against Watford and Everton prior to the international break, Carroll received ratings of 5.71 and 6.42 respectively. One abject performance is understandable, but three in a row suggest a significant linking factor.
Nobody can doubt the England international’s enthusiasm and talent. He always works his limbs to the bone and on his day can have that Didier Drogba effect of being virtually unplayable through his physical menace. It was vital to keeping the Hammers in the top flight during his loan season from Liverpool and although Carroll spent the next two campaigns thwarted with injury, he reminded everybody of his quality when fully fit.
This is not a case of a player being simply no longer fit for purpose; Carroll is indisputably a Premier League-standard striker. Yet he suddenly seems so alien to a team whose philosophy he once embodied. Rather than being the focal point of an attritional side, Carroll has represented more an extra part in his last three appearances – good to have around but unlikely to be missed and by no means essential.
In the opening portion of the season, Diafra Sakho’s ability to stretch the opposition with powerful and relentless running, making room for the likes of Payet and Lanzini in attacking midfield, was crucial to the Hammers’ game-plan. Carroll’s hold-up play, in contrast, has been inconsequential since his return to the starting line-up and against Spurs only congested the area in which the game was played. That suited the home side, revered for the energy and enthusiasm under Mauricio Pochettino, far more than it did the visitors.
Once again, this is not a witch-hunt and to blame Sunday’s defeat on just one player would be a superficial analysis to say the very least. It’s as much a case of Bilic’s ability to get the best out of Carroll and at White Hart Lane he certainly did not; the Hammers produced less long passes than last season and even their average for the current campaign, whilst registering only six crosses.
The service the lofty target man craves simply wasn’t provided, but you wonder how many games will follow that pattern under Bilic, a manager who arrived on the mandate of moving West Ham away from the hoofball ideals of Sam Allardyce and recruited accordingly during the summer. The Hammers still have the personnel to revert back to that style if absolutely necessary, but the only purpose that would truly serve is Carroll’s.
No doubt, he’s still a useful tool to have around, as his substitute goal against Chelsea last month demonstrated. But in the long-term, Carroll’s days as a member of West Ham’s starting XI appear to be numbered and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him move on within the next two transfer windows.
There are already rumours of a reunion with Allardyce at Sunderland and although hard to believe considering Carroll’s ties with Newcastle United, that could be the best scenario for all involved.