By Tim Treacy
Let’s face it, most Liverpool fans were expecting more from Andy Carroll this season. After scoring just 2 goals in 7 games last season, and failing to impress this season, albeit with a marked improvement against Wolves last week, Carroll is the topic of much debate among Liverpool fans. To some people Liverpool overpaid for Carroll, although the price tag is not his fault. People have labeled him as slow and laborious, and even say he doesn’t have what it takes to succeed at Liverpool. Other fans see the opposite side of the coin. They see a young player with bags of potential, who is just returning to full fitness and match sharpness, and who is surprisingly quick and agile given his frame. The perception of Carroll could not be more different among fans.
Having signed from Newcastle for £35 million last January, expectations, as well as eyebrows, were raised among footballing connoisseurs on Merseyside and beyond. A return of just 3 goals in 16 games is the forwards tally at Liverpool over the past 8 months and many are wondering why isn’t it more?
Carroll has promising attributes to make him a star. He is strong and powerful. He is tall and athletic. He is surprisingly good with his feet for such a tall center forward. He combines aggression and skill to batter his way through defenses. He has terrific heading ability. And he is, to many people’s surprise, quick. He showed an abundance of talent and promise at Newcastle — scoring 30 goals in 62 games in the 18 months prior to joining Liverpool. So what has gone wrong at Liverpool? Injuries? Lack of form? Bad luck? Tactics? Settling into a new team takes time? I would say it’s a bit of each of these reasons.
Carroll is a typical target man. The problem for him at Liverpool is that he has lacked support around him. For all his playing time in his 16 games for Liverpool, more often than not the ball is lobbed up to him from defense or from central midfield. For all these long balls hit to him, Carroll wins the majority of them but Liverpool are nearly always second to his knock downs and herein lies the problem. Not only is the long ball not the way Dalglish wants to play, it’s not the way to play Andy Carroll. Dalglish’s philosophy is pass-and-move and for the first time this season, Liverpool consistently implemented that philosophy against Wolves without resorting to long balls up to Carroll — something we’ve seen a lot of this season.
When Carroll and Suarez play together, Carroll can often be isolated alone up front. Suarez’ natural playing style is to come deep and come off either wing. Sometimes he comes so deep that he receives the ball at midfield with anywhere from 15-25 yards between him and the furthest advanced Liverpool player, Carroll. Kuyt too also comes deep, especially down the right channels. Henderson has been mainly deployed on the right side of midfield this season, but his natural instincts are to move into a deeper, central midfield role, which among others things exposes the right back, most notably at White Heart Lane two weeks ago. Only a few times this season has Henderson crossed from the right sideline or attempted to link up with Carroll. Charlie Adam, and especially Lucas rarely get forward in support — Spearing too when he plays. With all these players playing so deep, it’s all but impossible for Carroll to link up with them, especially when he is surrounded by two or more defenders.
The Wolves game, however, saw a shift in tactics from Liverpool and a marked change in its playing style. Lucas, who rarely ventures forward, never mind getting into the opposition’s penalty box, actually got into the Wolves box three times in support of the attacking players. Adam too went forward with more consistency and regularity than games past. This tactical decision to press the deep lying midfielders forward obviously came from Dalglish and the coaching staff, and is a move to provide Carroll with the running support he so needs from midfield. It is also an acknowledgement of the problem, namely the lack of support for Carroll, Liverpool have had in games past. Due to the general lack of support for Carroll, his headers rarely fell to Liverpool players, leaving the opposition to clear the ball and for Carroll to only grow in frustration as the game went on. The game against Wolves saw all this change.
This tactical move by Dalglish to push the midfield forward, including the usually deep-lying Lucas, proved fruitful for Carroll and for Liverpool. It wasn’t by coincidence that this was Carroll’s best game for Liverpool arguably ever, but certainly since the Manchester City game last season, when he scored his first Liverpool goals. Carroll thrives when he is getting running support from the midfield and the flanks. Any center forward does. Getting support to your forward from your midfield and out wide occupies the opposition, leaving fewer defenders to cover the strikers. It’s basic football math. Liverpool were just not playing to the sum of their parts until last weekend against Wolves.
The video below is evidence of this tactical change at Wolves showing willing runners onto Carroll’s knockdowns; his nice link up play with Suarez, Kuyt, Lucas, Downing, Enrique, and Adam; how he harassed the Wolves defenders into making mistakes; how he came deep and linked up well with the midfield; how he went wide and made crosses; and how he was back defending and winning headers in his own box. Arguably, Carroll has turned a corner for Liverpool. He did everything but score last week. In turn, Liverpool’s playing style may have turned a corner too. There was clear evidence last week that Liverpool are beginning to both attack and defend as a unit, using every player in midfield in attack and likewise, every forward thinking player when defending. It will be interesting to see what we Liverpool does against Everton this weekend.
With Steven Gerrard returning to full fitness, it can only get better for Carroll. Gerrard will be deployed in the middle of the pitch. I’m not going to guess as to who he will replace, but he will play behind Carroll and Suarez while drifting out wide at times in that free role he loves and excels in. With Gerrard in this position, it leaves Suarez free to hold and share an offensive line with Carroll. This also means that with every knockdown from Carroll, he should have Suarez and Gerrard running off either shoulder, with Downing and one of Kuyt or Henderson running off Gerrard and Suarez. If Lucas and Adam get in on the action too, then that is a bonus and a marked change in how Liverpool attack. Add to that the full backs bombing down the flanks and Daniel Agger’s keenness for getting forward, and Liverpool look a true attacking force to be reckoned with.
I am not going to attempt to guess at who Kenny will start in midfield once everyone is fit but I do imagine that Gerrard, Suarez, Carroll, Lucas and Downing are all going to be starters for the most part this season. The defense apart, that leaves Kuyt, Henderson, Adam, Maxi, Bellamy, and Spearing to fill one spot on the team sheet. Add to that the calls from some quarters for Johnson to play ahead of Kelly on the right side of midfield and you can see that team selection is becoming a welcome headache for Dalglish. Liverpool’s strength in-depth this season is apparent for all to see.
Once Gerrard returns to full fitness and earns back his starting birth, Liverpool will get the best of Andy Carroll. Gerrard will add his famous drive, creativity, and energy to the midfield, something that has been missing from Liverpool these past 6 months. From the moment he came on in the 81st minute against Wolves last week, Liverpool looked more composed, balanced and committed once again with Gerrard making his famous driving, defense-busting runs from midfield. Once his match fitness is up to par, watch out. Not only will Liverpool gain his presence and goals back in the team, it will gain a goal scoring machine in Andy Carroll. After all, Gerrard and Carroll have only ever played together for Liverpool for a total of 9 minutes, and that was at Wolves last weekend. With Gerrard bursting onto Carroll’s knockdowns, we will see just how dangerous Liverpool can be. It’s a truly exciting prospect for Liverpool fans and an equally frightening prospect for anyone Liverpool plays against.
I’m sure Andy Carroll will make more headline news in the coming months, but I expect those headlines to be discussing things like, how does any team stop the trio of Carroll, Suarez, and Gerrard. Just wait and see.