Last week saw the much anticipated signing of Andy Carroll on a permanent deal after spending a year on loan with the club. The big Geordie target man completed a £15.5 million move on Wednesday, smashing the previous record signing of £10.25 million for Matt Jarvis. Both of these signings show Allardyce’s intent to attack wide and utilise the height and strength of the Hammers’ new number 9. Although Jarvis did not get a single assist last season, he created chances with his pace and crossing ability and he and Carroll seemed to enjoy great form in the latter stages of the season.
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There are few that would argue that Carroll’s move to Liverpool was money well spent by the Merseyside club. The £35 million move from Newcastle made Carroll the most expensive English player in history and he immediately took the number 9 jersey from the departed Fernando Torres. Carroll’s performances for Liverpool were heavily scrutinised, which is understandable due to the price paid for him. Despite some poor performances in the league, Carroll scored the winning goal to send Liverpool through to the FA Cup final against arch-rivals Everton and also scored in the final against Chelsea. Carroll made 44 league appearances for Liverpool and scored just 6 goals. Carroll struggled to repeat the form seen during the same season at Newcastle, where he scored 11 goals in 19 league appearances before moving to Liverpool in the January window.
Newcastle’s playing style and structure was fitted around Carroll’s aerial presence. Newcastle had players like Joey Barton, who whipped balls into the box from the right hand side for Carroll and he had the support of current West Ham captain Kevin Nolan alongside him to knock balls down to.
Despite Carroll’s obvious aerial ability, his ball control and ability to strike from range enticed West Ham to spend big on the 24 year old. For years the Irons have lacked an incisive goal scorer who has the ability to score over 15 goals a season, perhaps now we have a striker who can do just that.
Undeterred by the signing of Carroll, the Hammers are still linked with more strikers despite Allardyce’s “one-up-top” approach. Demba Ba, Romelu Lukaku and Gary Hooper have all been linked with the East London club. After the record-breaking signing of Andy Carroll however, it is unlikely to see more cash being spent on a striker, with any moves likely to be loans.
These rumours show intent from Allardyce to have at least two good quality strikers in the squad, despite the formations used last season. Allardyce very rarely looked to play two strikers alongside each other in a 4-4-2 and only resorted to this formation when the team were on the brink of defeat. The big question therefore is; would signing another good quality striker mean that playing two up top would become more of an attractive option for Allardyce?
4-4-2 as we know it, is almost never seen in modern football. Teams may line up with two strikers, most commonly Manchester United with Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney, however Rooney tends to drop deep to act as a more attacking midfielder, to present more of a 4-4-1-1 formation, which can also look more of a 4-2-3-1 if the wingers push higher. We saw this on countless occasions with United, where Van Persie would lead the line, Rooney would drop deeper to play centrally alongside the likes of Nani and Ashley Young and United would have two central midfield players who would drop deep, such as Michael Carrick. One might argue that this is still in fact a 4-4-2 formation, with just more of an expressive and roaming style, but I would argue that the classic 4-4-2 formation that we are all aware of, where teams would play two advanced strikers and conventional wingers is a dying art. This is due to the immergence of 3 central midfielders in teams. We saw this last year under Allardyce and it has become the most popular style of play for most teams in the country. By having 3 central midfielders, the team can keep possession better in the middle of the park but also compress the space in the middle when defending. We saw this especially when playing higher ranked teams, as Jarvis and Vaz Te would drop behind the ball when out of possession, allowing the central midfielders to stay tight in the middle of the park, causing congestion and making it more difficult for the opposition to create chances through the middle.
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If we move abroad to Italy, Juventus have played around with “two-up-top”. Mirko Vučinić and Sebastian Giovinco often lead the attack for Juve, with a four man midfield behind them. The difference being, that the four man midfield is made up of four central players, with the width coming from attacking full-backs. When Juve use this formation, the interchanging of positions with the central players allows for more space to be exploited due to defences being drawn out. We often see Vučinić drop deeper too, such as with Rooney at United, in a role known as a “trequartista”.
Perhaps then, this is the sort of striker that we should be looking for; a striker that could partner Andy Carroll, but have the creative ability to drop in between the defence and midfield of the opposition. It is a role that we have seen Kevin Nolan take up when playing alongside Andy Carroll, however he lacks the ability to make a killer pass and run at defenders.
Referring back to the first part of the article, we have seen Gotze or Reus play in behind Robert Lewandowski at Dortmund. Both have the pace and skill to run past defenders, but also have a clinical eye for goal and a creative spark about them. They are the sort of players that could “create a chance from nothing” and it is something that has been lacking from West Ham teams of late. Yossi Benayoun is the last real player West Ham had that can fit this category, although when he spent time on loan back at the club, he was primarily used out wide by Allardyce, often as he prefers to use Nolan in behind the striker. Joe Cole is another prime example of a player who can fit this position, however he is also pushed out wide when Nolan is fit, meaning that we lack creativity in the middle of the park. Nolan’s goals are often invaluable, however if a player could be signed that can contribute both in terms of goals and creating chances, the team would look more of a finished article. Nolan often looks out of his depth when the ball is at his feet and the team is looking to keep possession. A creative trequartista therefore, seems like a signing that would prove to be invaluable. Allardyce looks to play Nolan not only because of his goal scoring ability, but his work defensively. I would not be surprised now that we have a more assured place in the Premier League, Allardyce may look to play with a slightly more adventurous style come next season.
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To finish, the classic “big and little” strike partnership seems to be a distant memory as clubs look to fill the middle of the park and leave one man up front. More fluid styles and shorter passing has led to the emergence of a 3 man midfield but despite this, target men are still proving to be useful assets to teams looking to bring in more creative players from deep and attack wide. Target men are becoming more intelligent, more agile and more complete players than ever before; it’s time to step up Andy.