West Ham United have struggled for effective strikers in recent seasons. Many players have come with the intention of filling the void and gone with dismal scoring records, and the position has become a problem for the club. This season, however, Andy Carroll has provided some relief in this area.
The 6’4” behemoth has been one of West Ham’s best, most consistent performers in 2016/17. Often used atop Slaven Bilic’s preferred 4-2-3-1 formation, the striker has scored an impressive six goals in 13 Premier League appearances.
Results with and without Carroll in the team seem to indicate the Hammers are much better off for his presence. Whenever he has appeared, Bilic’s side have won six of 13, drawing one and losing six. Meanwhile, without Carroll in the team they have won just three of 14 league games, drawing five times and losing a further six. In addition, West Ham tend to score more frequently with Carroll in the side – they have 20 goals in 13 games compared to 16 in 14 in the striker’s absence.
Yet, as was shown in Monday night’s 2-1 home defeat to league leaders Chelsea, playing with Carroll on his own atop a 4-2-3-1 also presents some tactical issues. Antonio Conte’s side dealt comfortably with the target man, in doing so providing food for thought not only for future West Ham opponents, but for Bilic.
As the Croatian manager looks to re-establish his side in the top half of the Premier League this season and going forward, he must rethink relying on Carroll as a lone central focal point up front. Here, Football Whispers analyses the problems of this tactic, and the potential solutions Bilic might consider.
Problem: Predictability of the Carroll threat
Perhaps the most obvious issue with utilising Carroll as a lone centre-forward is the one-dimensionality of the 28-year-old’s play. While exceptional in the air, he is not particularly effective on the ground. His link-up play and passing is average, meaning he is not adept at combining with those around him, while he also lacks the pace and movement to get in behind a defence.
Despite those limitations, West Ham have been able to maximise Carroll’s strengths at times throughout this season, hence his goals record and their form with him in the team. However, as Chelsea showed on Monday night, there is a blueprint for dealing with the striker.
Blocking crosses essentially ends Carroll’s threat at source, while double-marking him inside the penalty box goes some way to mitigating his aerial power either by beating him to the ball or reducing the space for him to gain leverage for a header. And, outside of the penalty area, teams can simply allow Carroll to win the header and focus instead on the second ball, or allow him to bring the ball down where his aforementioned weaknesses on the ground will tell.
Essentially, Carroll is a specialist, making him a fairly predictable threat to counter.
Solution: Go for a more-rounded option
Considering the predictability of West Ham’s play when they opt for Carroll, one possible solution would be to instead go with a more rounded option up front.
Michail Antonio would be the most obvious choice. While he doesn’t pose the same aerial threat as Carroll, he is still an effective target and has much more pace and skill to boot. On top of that, he has shown a scoring touch, with eight Premier League goals to his name this term.
Other more rounded options could include Jonathan Calleri, who has shown sound movement and combination play in his short time on the pitch this season, and Ashley Fletcher, who is a more mobile striker.
Problem: Ineffective against packed defences
One issue evident in West Ham’s defeat to Chelsea was that direct balls and crosses to Carroll simply were not as effective when he had three central defenders to tussle with. Cesar Azpilicueta was seen as a potential weak point for Carroll to target, but he was backed up well by David Luiz and Gary Cahill, while Victor Moses also helped out to the Spanish defender’s right.
Crossing as a tactic is a difficult one to perfect. In order for it to prove an efficient attacking weapon, the crosser must not only be an accurate passer, but must be in the correct position to make the cross. Then, when the ideal cross comes in, the target must be in the right position at the right time to take advantage. And even then, if the target is well covered, the cross can be rendered a waste.
WhoScored’s statistics reveal that Manchester United and Southampton play more crosses per game than all other Premier League teams. However, the former are the lowest scoring side in the top six, while the latter are the joint-lowest scorers in the top half.
Evidently, crossing isn’t always the answer in the search for goals.
Solution: Partner Carroll with someone else
If West Ham are going to make crosses and long balls their primary forms of attack, they would be wise to abandon the lone striker role and partner Carroll with someone else. For example, a Carroll-Antonio duet would offer twice as much aerial threat for opposition defences to mark.
Problem: Neutralised by a high press
In order to play to Carroll’s strengths, a number of plays must first be carried out by West Ham. They must establish themselves in the opposition half so as to force the opposition defensive line back and enable Carroll to get in and around the penalty box, where his heading ability is most potent. They must then build possession effectively out into the wider areas to create the necessary room and position for a good cross.
However, opponents can take all of this away by operating with a high defensive line and pressing West Ham effectively deep in their own half. The high line takes advantage of Carroll’s lack of pace – he isn’t going to exploit the space behind with runs – while also neutralising his aerial quality by taking him away from the 18-yard box. Meanwhile, an effective high press could rush West Ham’s build-up or force them to pass centrally, cutting off crosses.
Solution: Opt for pace
Against high back lines, West Ham could benefit from pairing Carroll with a faster strike partner, such as Antonio, Calleri or Fletcher. Another alternative would be Andre Ayew, who hit double figures for goals in five of the previous six seasons with Marseille in Ligue 1 and Swansea in the Premier League before joining Bilic’s side.
The threat of the other striker’s pace would make opposition sides think twice about pressing and defending high, forcing them back and bringing Carroll’s main strengths into play.