We welcome Tom Nash to The False Nine,who has written this brilliant piece on Andy Carroll,hopefully this is the first of many!
When the dust had barely settled after the deadline day whirlwind of January 2011, the biggest question mark hung over Liverpool’s £35M acquisition of Newcastle forward Andy Carroll. Here was a player with just one senior cap for England, who had enjoyed only half a season in the English top flight, and before Newcastle’s promotion season the year before, had hardly been prolific in the Championship. Chelsea’s £50M splurge on Fernando Torres has been widely criticised since then, with the Spaniard looking woefully short of form and confidence, but there is always the old adage of “class is temporary, form is permanent” to fall back on, which has been trotted out by football journalists and Chelsea fans ever since. There is a feeling that Torres would inevitably come good, perhaps a summer break and intensive pre-season with the Blues will bed him in nicely and he would resume his intelligent runs, get back his poaching instinct, and once more terrify defences throughout England and Europe. Luiz Suarez already looks like great business, and perhaps because of the Uruguayan’s instant impact, and the fact that Carroll’s own debut was delayed for such a long time due to an injury, the jury is still well and truly out on Andy Carroll. So, what has Kenny Dalglish got for Fenway Sports Group’s money?
Described as a typical English number nine, Andy Carroll offers Liverpool a number of options tactically.
Kenny Dalglish’s tactics have historically involved variations on the 4-4-2, best seen during his previous tenure at Liverpool, and his title winning stint at Blackburn. Parallels have been drawn between Dalglish’s purchase of Carroll, and Alan Shearer’s move to Blackburn. Liverpool fans must be hoping he makes half the contribution that Shearer did in the mid-nineties. Dalglish himself enjoyed playing in this formation, alongside Ian Rush, and Liverpool are noted for their front two partnerships – Keegan and Toshack, Beardsley and Aldridge, Owen and Heskey.
So, it is easy to fit Andy Carroll into a 4-4-2, perhaps better described as a 4-4-1-1, with Luis Suarez as a tricky support striker alongside Carroll, in his favoured centre-forward position. However, the formation is widely derided as being out of date these days, and few top teams employ this tactic. England’s pitiful performance at the 2010 World Cup has been blamed on the rigidity of their 4-4-2, and it’s inability to cope with more modern, fluid formations.
Few would argue that Carroll lacks the physicality and positional sense required for being played up front on his own. A 4-5-1 certainly looks like a possibility, as Liverpool continue to stock up on central midfield players – they now have Gerrard, Meireles, Lucas Leiva, Spearing and Henderson all vying for position, and continue to be linked with a move for Charlie Adam. Three of those five/six would make for quite a formidable central midfield. Henderson is also able to play on the right, so a choice between him and a resurgent Dirk Kuyt could be one of King Kenny’s dilemmas for the coming season. Another player linked with a transfer to Anfield is Aston Villa’s Stewart Downing, who can play on either wing, and it’s very easy to slot him into this formation too. Against superior opposition and European away games, a 4-5-1 is a definite possibility – but can Dalglish justify dropping Suarez? In my opinion, a Chelsea style 4-5-1/4-3-3 is the most likely formation for Liverpool to play with any regularity. A front three of Suarez-Carroll-Kuyt certainly looks good on paper, Kuyt having the discipline and energy required to track back when Liverpool aren’t in possession. Steve Clarke’s influence on tactics shouldn’t be underestimated, and he was supposedly brought in as Dalglish’s number two for his tactical nous and modern methods. His loss is felt at Chelsea more so than Ancelotti’s departure.
As Mourinho’s assistant, Steve Clarke will know this formation inside out, will know the players needed to make it work, and would know how to coach the players to thrive in it.
If rumours are to be believed, Liverpool are currently sniffing around Gael Clichy, who would suit both the typical 4-4-2 favoured by Dalglish – using full-backs to give width, and the 4-3-3 employed by Steve Clarke and Mourinho at Chelsea a few years ago – which also relies on the full backs bombing forward. Clichy on the left and Glen Johnson on the right certainly has lots of attacking potential, and should ensure Liverpool fans get their wish of attacking football granted.
Of course, football isn’t played in lines anymore (someone should tell England manager Fabio Capello) and it’s the fluidity and movement of modern formations such as Barcelona and the Spanish national team – the current benchmark for all things great and wonderful – which may show Carroll up to be a little limited. In a modern formation such as 4-1-3-2, 4-1-4-1, or 4-2-3-1 players need to be able to interchange to find space and confuse the opposition’s markers. Whilst it’s easy to see Andy Carroll as a very effective spearhead for these formations, it’s more difficult to imagine him switching to the wing, or dropping deep into midfield to turn and face goal as a trequartista, or false nine. He just hasn’t displayed the inventiveness or vision to make him anything other than a target man.
Looking back over the last 7 years, only two teams have won the Champions league playing with a traditional centre-forward in the mould of Andy Carroll. In 2007, AC Milan played a 4-4-1-1 with the quintessential number nine Pippo Inzaghi in that role, and in 2009 Jose Mourinho’s Internazionale beat Bayern Munich fielding Diego Milito up front on his own in a 4-2-3-1. Both men were over 30 when they played in those games. So whilst it’s probably unfair to consign the centre-forward role to the scrapheap on those statistics, it does illustrate that fewer of the top teams have an out-and-out target man these days. If Barcelona are to continue to sweep all before them with a formation that employs no recognised centre-forward, that trend will only continue.
No centre-forward has won the FIFA World Player of the Year since Ronaldo in 2002, and aside from Fabio Cannavaro, all other winners have been attacking midfielders, wingers, and strikers.
So, whilst Andy Carroll could be used as a focal point for many different formations, he is unlikely to be as adaptable and interchangeable as those winning major awards and trophies, which may leave Liverpool lagging behind the top teams.
That said, tactics and formations evolve to enable teams to beat pre-eminent sides, they are responsive and organic. Perhaps Kenny Dalglish and Steve Clarke have sat down and concluded that the way to beat these possession based, passing teams is to put a big guy up front. Andy Carroll is, as discussed, not able to interchange as much as most other attacking players, but if he does what he’s paid for, he can leave that to the rest of his team. It’s also a disservice to Carroll to infer from his positional monogamy that his link up play isn’t good – it is. From 19 games for Newcastle in the Premiership, he scored 11 times and provided 6 assists. That’s good returns in anyone’s book for a mid-table club.Also his passing is very good and unlike other “big man” center forwards he comes deep to collect the ball at times.
Carroll’s passing against Man United and Arsenal
He certainly is a nuisance to play against. He’ll provide an exit route for when Liverpool have possession but are under pressure. There’s not many defenders who fancy a 50/50 aerial battle with him, and perhaps in this regard, his reputation off the field may even help him intimidate defenders. There are other strong centre-forwards in the English Premier League, notably Kevin Davis, Emile Heskey, Drogba, and Kenwyne Jones. Aside from Drogba, who’s best is clearly past him, none of the others score with any regularity. A centre-forward who scores goals shouldn’t be a rarity, but they are these days. Which is why – as any first year Economics student can tell you – he cost so much.
Far from the finished article, Carroll will surely develop more as a player under the tutelage of Dalglish and Clarke than he might have done at Newcastle, and his future career is one of the most eagerly anticipated in England.
Provided he makes a concerted effort to keep himself on the back pages rather than the front (Although the predatory nature of the British press ensure that they now circle like sharks round a bloodied seal), and provided that Liverpool continue to sign and retain players who will give him the service he needs, there is every chance that Carroll can be the man who can buck the current tactical trends, and lead Liverpool back up to their perch. 30 goals a season should be a target
So, Andy Carroll – £35M throwback? Yes, but that might not be a bad thing.–Tom Nash