The more I watch West Ham’s Andy Carroll assert his height, brawn and firepower on Premier League defences, the more I’m left giddily confused. No, not sexually – although he is blessed with chimpish good looks. Not as a football fan either, although there is something bizarrely enjoyable about watching the Hammers kick their opponents more frequently than the ball, like a buffet of anti-Barcelona propaganda.
Rather, when the England striker leaps majestically in their air above the opposition backline, elongating his lanky limbs like an imperious gazelle, elbowing one defender in the face and a second in the luxuries, before controlling the ball with his chest, pulling off a few step-overs and slamming the ball into the top of the onion bag, as he did, albeit in a slightly less romanticised fashion, against Swansea City two weekends ago, what am I actually watching?
Am I watching, simply, an old-fashioned, dying breed of No.9 enjoying a superfluous run of form, arguably his most convincing yet in Claret and Blue? Or, is Andy Carroll something greater, something uniquely unappreciated, something more beautiful in its complexity, than your run-of-the-mill, 6 foot 4 target man?
Carroll has always been unplayable when in top form; his lurching frame too aerially dominant to effectively overcome, his ruthlessly combative Geordie spirit too physically draining for opposition defences, his flamboyant hairstyle so distracting and drawing that space develops in the box, with almost miraculous uncanniness, for veteran goal-hanger Kevin Nolan to readily exploit. Lest we forget, such performances for Newcastle convinced Liverpool to invest £35million in the pony-tailed front-man back when he was just 22 years of age.
But the same can be said for most players in the Premier League, ranging from Manchester City’s Sergio Aguero to Stoke City’s John Walters. On his day, Emile Heskey was unplayable, as was equally maligned England team-mate Darius Vassell; the infrequency of such occasions was always the predominant issue.
There’s been far more consistency about Carroll this season however, perhaps due to it being the first campaign in which Sam Allardyce hasn’t forcibly rushed the England international back to fitness following yet another long-term injury. The honeymoon form of Enner Valencia and Daifra Sakho subsequent to their summer arrivials, bagging nine goals and three assists combined before Carroll’s return in November, allowed him the time to rehabilitate and he’s now reaping the rewards.
The influence of added competition is clearly a positive one too. Not only is Carroll’s place in West Ham’s starting XI contested by Valencia, Sakho and Carlton Cole, but his destiny within the England set-up is now intertwined with Charlie Austin, Saido Berahino and Harry Kane’s – three home-grown products amongst the Premier League’s top eight goalscorers this term.
Carroll’s liberty from injury combined with the plethora of competition he now faces suggests a player in improved form. The subtle changes in philosophy at West Ham, effectively ending the days of him being a sole figure in the opposition half for the majority of any given 90 minutes, is also beneficial. The front-man’s receiving a higher quality of service than in prior campaigns and he’s no longer contesting entire defences single-handedly. It’s all got a bit easier, a bit less of a one-man-band ordeal, for Carroll to impress this season.
That being said, the technical side of the England international’s game is almost incomparable to last season. The afore-described goal against Swansea, in addition to a divinely guided lob against Leicester in December, wouldn’t be out of place on the wall of the Tate Gallery for their aesthetic quality and required skill, whilst Carroll’s link-up play, those deft touches into the paths of on-running midfielders, those cute flick-ons with chest, foot and head, have been equally sublime.
Combine that with easily the best aerial duels record in Europe, an incredible 9.3 headers won per match – the next best is Hannover’s Joselu with eight – and it suddenly becomes very difficult to spot a weakness in the Hammers front-man’s game. Are we finally seeing the striker Kenny Dalglish and Sam Allardyce saw fit to pay a combined £50million for? Is Carroll verging upon world-beater territory?
Well, the answer will surely lay in his form between now and May-time, and perhaps more importantly, whether or not Carroll can stay fit for so long. If the West Ham striker has always been a worldly prospect disguised in the body of a cumbersome, 6 foot 4, gypsy fashionista, its his injury record that’s prevented the exposure of such potential.
Nevertheless, at 26 years of age, perhaps it’s finally all clicking to place for a front-man verging upon his footballing peak. I’m not suggesting the spirit of Diego Maradona possessing the body of the Geordie giant, but if you’ve always been anti-Carroll snob, then watch this space between now and the end of the season. You might just be pleasantly surprised.