Jonathan Wilson perhaps summed up Andy Carroll best, or just most simply: “A terrifying force in the air”. Barney Ronay, when it was his turn to wax lyrical about Carroll’s oeuvre, turned a typically luscious phrase: “Football as interpreted through the eyes of a rearing, drizzle-soaked highland stag”. Carroll’s reintroduction to West Ham’s starting line up has been a concussive shot in the arm for the Premier League. He’s played the full 90 minutes in 6 of West Ham’s last 9 games, and has seized the limelight with his destructive majesty, particularly in the 3-1 victory over Swansea, where he scored twice. Say it softly, and keep a piece of wood nearby, but his injury woes (which have been utterly, utterly ghastly) might just be behind him. We’ll all wave ironically as they recede into the distance.
West Ham fans, spoiled as they were at the start of the season by the fluent, zippy football being played so freely by the front three of Stewart Downing, Diafra Sakho and Enner Valencia, were ready to welcome Carroll back into the fold with just a touch of apprehension. Of course, he is player of immense talent, a cataclysmic aerial presence, but the front three was already working superbly, in rather a different manner than might suit Carroll. Counter-attacking with extreme pace, Sakho and Valencia are infinitely more mobile than Carroll, and gave Downing a perfect pair of willing runners to slip through on the break. There was a sinking fear, and its thrumming was only getting louder as Carroll recovered; the Route-1 football of last season might return with the record signing.
But these fears were unfounded. Yes, it is impossible not to be a little more direct with Carroll on the pitch, but having one of either Sakho or Valencia partnering the Englishman up front changes the complexion completely, producing a system that doesn’t resemble last season’s doldrums in the slightest. The key difference is the presence of pace. Sakho and Valencia are quick. Kevin Nolan is not, and when he partnered Carroll last season, the modus operandi was thus: launch it up to Carroll, and hopefully his knockdown will be scuffed in by the captain from close range. It wasn’t very fruitful, often because Carroll and Nolan weren’t even in the box when the long ball was played. This meant that even when Carroll won the header (which he invariably did) Nolan was left standing there, 30 metres from goal, with no pace to speak of, and a limited ability to retain the ball. With Sakho and Valencia it’s very different. Both have shown themselves to be excellent finishers, so now long balls up to Carroll offer them consistent opportunities to race through onto flick ons. Carroll is also a fairly good back-to-goal pivot, he’s very strong and can lay off passes to onrushing team mates. It’s a hybrid system that gives West Ham a great number of ways to trouble opponents, and Carroll has said as much:
“We’re playing great football and I think any team that we play against is going to be worried about us. We’ve got more than one attacking option – we play it on the floor, play it in the air, down the sides. Obviously we’re in the position that we are in the league and that’s well deserved.”
But what Carroll’s return has made gloriously apparent is how stacked Allardyce is with dive-bombing threats in the air. Obviously, there’s Carroll, who has won 90 airborne battles so far this season, the second most in the league, winning a higher percentage (63%) of his aerial duels than any other forward in England. His headed goal against Swansea was a magnificent exhibition of controlled, neck-clenching brawn, the leap, the perfectly medial connection with the ball, the looping trajectory, it was all there. His assets are stunningly apparent.
And then there’s Sakho, average height for a footballer at 6’0, but who has scored more headed goals than anyone in the league this season; he has 5, whereas no other player has more than two. His leap is excellent, to be sure, but it’s his positioning that has given him so many opportunities to nod home. His goal against Burnley, where he wriggled above his marker to dispatch Cresswell’s perfect delivery is a good example, as is his right-man-right-place headed goals against QPR and West Brom. Of course, Aaron Cresswell and, to a lesser extent, Carl Jenkinson must also be hugely credited for their swooping deliveries from the flanks this season.
Enner Valencia, let’s not forget, is no slouch when called up for bonce-duty either. This is a man who preferred a diving header to a routine side-footed shot when he scored against Stoke. He also scored a header in the win over Burnley, a remarkable piece of forehead work. With the delivery slightly behind him, Valencia had to check his run, therefore generating all the directional power with neck-power alone. The result was a fabulously puissant spectacle, and a very nice goal. As was advertised at the World Cup, his leap is also quite astonishing.
Finally, rounding out this superior airborne squadron, is centre back James Collins. Conspicuously tall, bald and imposing, Collins has a better win percentage for aerial duels than any other player (who’s been involved in more than 30 duels) in the league. Of his 52 off-ground clashes, he has won 40 of them, which is, in fact, 77% of them. Always a threat at set pieces as well, the player affectionately known as “Ginge” displayed this particular offensive virtue with gusto against Manchester United two seasons ago. Scoring both West Ham goals in a 2-2 draw, Collins was at his most untameable, rising and glancing twice for two fine headers.
Led by Andy Carroll, this band of lofty juggernauts is perhaps the most devastating aerial outfit ever assembled in English football. A wrongly derided technique, perfecting the header, in its many forms, is an admirable pursuit and, evidently, one that Sam Allardyce values. Though feet are the primary appendage in our sport, there’s more than one way to win a football match, so why not use your head?