Goals win you games; it’s an old cliché but when your strikers have had such a barren run in front of goal (it took West Ham’s forwards an astonishing 19 games to score one between them this season) you can truly begin to appreciate the transformational effect an in-form striker can have on the team.
Andy Carroll’s form certainly speaks for itself, five goals in 10 league games is an exceptional effort considering he only returned from a troublesome knee injury in November. It is also testament to the fact that the club’s strikers have been so goal shy that his goals already have moved him up the Hammer’s goalscoring charts to second behind Michail Antonio on eight.
Many Hammers fans will certainly be thinking: what if he had stayed fit after the Chelsea game in August? It is a difficult one to quantify. You have to consider how West Ham’s poor early season would have affected Carroll.
They kept one clean sheet in their first eight matches, conceding 17 goals, and scoring only nine in the process. With the 28 year old playing those games it could be argued that he could have given the Hammers an out ball, and taken pressure away from the shaky backline.
Certainly he would have done a lot better than Simone Zaza and a host of other players that Slaven Bilic chopped and changed to spearhead the forward line. On the other hand, who is to say how an early goal from a Carroll header would have changed the nature of those defeats, considering the four goals the team conceded against Watford and West Brom in consecutive matches?
It’s probably futile looking back with too much hindsight on those games. The leaky defence was still in evidence when Carroll came off the bench on his return to action and scored in the 5-1 home defeat against Arsenal.
Yet, the turnaround in form that coincided by the target man’s return to the starting eleven cannot be coincidental. His first start since August against Burnley in mid-December has led to a run of form of five wins in seven league matches. Of the two defeats, Carroll was a substitute in one of those games, in the 2-0 loss to Manchester United.
All football teams are reliant on a system of play. Unless you are Barcelona who can create numerous chances from all areas of the pitch, the striker is the focal point in all attacks. A strong player like Carroll can take at least two defenders out of the game, and allow space for others to exploit. The more direct route to goal also allows for less intricate play where fewer mistakes can be made in the build up to an attack.
Carroll’s reintroduction has therefore had a domino effect on the team. An increased frequency of goals (15 in the last eight games) combined with a team shape (4-3-3 to 4-4-2) that is far more comfortable for the defence.
The switch to 3-4-3 could be said to have been a necessity due to the lack of in-form out and out forwards; allowing for a more flexible front three. The lack of a goalscoring threat, especially in home matches was clear though, and the backline never looked comfortable with it. Carroll’s return allowed Slaven Bilic to be more flexible in the tactics he employed leading to a turnaround in performances.
It was only a matter of months since the Hammers were flirting with relegation but now in tenth place and twelve points clear of Crystal Palace in 18th, Bilic’s side should be looking up rather than down for the rest of the season. The question remains however: what happens if Carroll does pick up another injury?
It is certainly a worry that Bilic is all too aware of going by the numerous bids for strikers this month. There were some huge errors made in recruitment up front last summer, and the Croatian will be mindful of not repeating those same mistakes in this window.
To be so reliant on one player should not have happened in the first place. If the club had done a better job last summer, who knows how many more points the Hammers could have had at this stage? At least with Carroll fit and hopefully Scott Hogan coming in to support him, the club’s form should be able to be maintained, even if it may be too late this season for an assault on the top six.