The misunderstood talents of Andy Carroll: more than just a master of headers?

By Andrew Misra

“I cause problems”. Not the ominous words of a vengeful villain on the big screen, but those of Andy Carroll on his latest return off the bench against Crystal Palace a month ago. That’s right, he’s back. The pony-tailed beast is back. Big Andy is back. For now, at least.

The rest of that interview with Talksport provided further context to those three words. He’s a good talker these days, is Andy. He’s had the time to practice, mind.

“I feel I don’t have to score to make an impact. I think dragging defenders away and creating space for others to get in position – that’s something I do a lot. You see the goals that we scored, I think there was more space for the lads to get the shots away. Whether the centre halves are focused on following me for a cross or whatever. Even if I don’t get on the scoresheet or assist I cause problems.”

He does indeed cause problems. Sadly, they are usually selection problems for his managers not because of his form, but his injuries. Of course, those injury struggles are well documented. Since joining West Ham permanently in the summer of 2013, he’s only managed 97 Premier League appearances over the following five and a half seasons. It was fitting, then, that his goal against Birmingham in the FA Cup Third Round on Saturday came in injury time.

That was his first goal in nine months. The intermittent nature of his appearances means we are usually restricted to flashes of his ability at their briefest and purple patches at their most prolonged. That ability doesn’t often get the credit it deserves.

Let’s start with the obvious. Carroll’s main, undeniable attribute is his aerial ability. It feels, though, as if we don’t always do it justice. He’s an absolute monster in the air and might just be the best header of the ball in the world. It’s hard to think of many candidates who could jump with Carroll and emerge victoriously. His former manager Slaven Bilic certainly agreed after his hat-trick against Arsenal in April 2016.

It’s easy to see how defenders are terrified of him. The Guardian’s Barney Ronay simply described Andy Carroll as having a head “like a foot”. At times it does seem like he can run in the air, such is his apparent capacity to hang airborne for a second longer than should be possible.

Of course, these scenarios have happened before. Carroll dusts himself and his boots off after his latest injury and awakes a deeply cherished English ideal of blood and thunder, satisfying our craving for ‘old-fashioned’ centre-forward play.

Bilic alludes to it in that interview, “for the third goal he played a diagonal ball 50 yards then got to the far post, heads it in”. But what’s interesting is that Bilic also vouches for those other abilities that Carroll brought up. “It’s impossible to stop him. His work rate, molesting them, keeping the ball, laying it off.”

If Carroll wanted to counter any suggestions that all he can do is head the ball, his remarkable scissor kick against Crystal Palace two years ago should be all he needs.

In those 97 appearances for the Hammers in the league, he’s returned 26 goals. That’s slightly better than one in four and if you extrapolate that form to a full 38 game season he’d be netting about ten goals. Of course, he’s never really got close to playing a full season, with a stand out 35 appearances for Liverpool in 2011-12, his first full season as their record £35 million signing. He scored four.

That hypothetical ten goal return is not too bad though when considering the incessant injury disruption he faces. It’s a record that wouldn’t be far off the likes of Olivier Giroud, another striker very adept in the air but who offers something more than just goals and assists. Albeit, he may express himself slightly more artistically on the pitch.

We’ve seen in previous seasons that it only usually takes a couple of headed goals from Carroll before the clamour begins to get him in an England shirt, to add to his nine caps. He hasn’t featured for his country since 2012, scoring in the European Championships that year against Sweden (header, you guessed it). The prospects of him doing so under Gareth Southgate’s more dynamic side look slim.

Even before Southgate, though, we never really took Carroll to an international tournament to play, it was always that you take him as an option. That you can chuck him on in the desperation of avoiding being dumped out by Iceland, for example. We couldn’t because even Roy Hodgson resisted the urge to mobilise the weapon, as Ronay terms Carroll.

Carroll turned 30 on Sunday and his deal expires next summer. He could still feasibly have several years left at the top if, as ever, he can remain fit. The prospect of Samir Nasri dinging balls into Andy Carroll’s forehead with Marko Arnautovic milling around creating havoc, is a tantalising one indeed. Throw in the brilliant Felipe Anderson too and the Hammers could be a real threat going forward.

Sadly though, it looks a bit too late to be remembered for the all-round centre-forward play that Carroll is so clearly convinced that he is capable of. His injury record has been attributed several times to his lack of professionalism. Sam Allardyce suggested that Carroll had some culpability in his terrible injury record, as did Bilic. “He is professional but he has got to be totally dedicated to football and then he will be totally unstoppable.”

Coming up to three years on from those words, it looks as if Carroll’s chances to announce himself as one of Europe’s most feared strikers are behind him. His move to Liverpool, an astonishing fee for a relatively unproven player at the time, was far too much too soon. It would have been hard enough without all those injuries to contend with. Still, he will always be fondly remembered for his goal against Everton in the 2012 FA Cup semifinal. Teammate Jamie Carragher stated that the goal was “worth the £35 million in itself and he’ll be remembered forever”. You can probably guess how he scored it.

14th April 2012 and Steven Gerrard is brought down by Seamus Coleman in the 87th minute at Wembley. Substitute Craig Bellamy goes over to take it. Gerrard has a word with him and touches his face reassuringly as he leaves him to it, lingering on the edge of the box in case a loose clearance drops to him on the edge of the box. No need. The delivery from the Welshman finds the ponytail as Carroll outjumps Marouane Fellaini to send the ball nestling into the corner of the net.

Of course, it was a header. It always seems to be that way. Sadly for Andy Carroll, it now seems it always will.

Andrew Misra is a founder of 5WFootball, presents the weekly podcast and writes regularly for the site. You can see his work for 5WF here. He also contributes to The Anfield Wrap and you can follow him on Twitter here. He also maintains a general sports blog.

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