Andy Carroll has always seemed more horse than man. Often, this is his greatest attribute. There are few more paralysing sights for a centre-half than catching Carroll in your peripheral vision, tongue drooling and eyes bulging with anticipated glory, as he comes galloping in at the back post to meet a cross like a Grand National contender attacking Becher’s Brook. It’s a truly awesome sight and there are surely very few players in the world who are so good at one single element of footballing practicality as West Ham’s centre forward is in such a situation.
Yet for all that Carroll’s unstoppable set of specific skills can strike fear into the hearts of opponents, he can often look like, well, a horse charging around the same pitch as 21 blokes attempting to play a game of football. Such was the case on Saturday as an early booking for a loose elbow was followed by a complete lack of self-control, a second elbow, a second yellow and an admirably earnest look of complete befuddlement at the red card flashing before those big innocent eyes. It was a performance simultaneously embarrassing and unsurprising given what we have already observed of Carroll’s career. Even in the context of Premier League footballers, hardly revered for their intellectual capacities, Carroll has still always managed to stand out as, to use a bluntness reflective of his game, a bit thick. Perhaps it is unsurprising that a man whose principal talent involves thundering his head into the ball would end up a slightly brain-dead. One can imagine Carroll not being trusted to travel to games on the team bus and instead being towed behind in a trailer for fear of taking an impromptu shit in the aisle or being suddenly overcome by the desire to mount and plant his seed in Aaron Cresswell. Carroll can count himself thankful, however, that his equine qualities extend no further than this metaphor. Given his injury record, were he actually a horse Slaven Bilic would now have probably just about gotten over the night many moons ago when he had to lead Carroll into the woods with a suppressed tear, a spade and a shotgun.
The most interesting part of Carroll’s suspension, however, is the rejig it will prompt in his manager’s thinking. No one wears the phrase ‘world-weary’ quite like Billic, who of all twenty Premier League managers has the face you’d settle on if told one of them had previously committed war crimes. Yet while he paraded a typically grave expression at Carroll’s weekend antics, it could turn out to be a blessing in disguise for the Croatian.
Since the season’s inception, Bilic has repeatedly tried to shoehorn both Carroll and new kid on the block Javier Hernandez into the same starting eleven, despite the fact this approach relies on the latter dropping into a deeper or wider role to orbit around big Andy’s thrusting central presence. Yet just as we know what one specific trait Carroll possesses, Chicharito is equally limited and narrowly focussed in his footballing effectiveness. In sum, his list of qualities involves: hanging on the last defender, making runs in behind, finding space in a packed penalty area, and finishing well from within it. While the modern attacker is an increasingly versatile creature, a flexible cog capable of being plugged into an array of advanced roles, Hernandez is a refreshingly old-fashioned fox in the box. He doesn’t dribble past players nor have an eye for a pass and these are not criticisms so much as an honest appraisal of a player whose ruthlessness is well documented when appropriately deployed. To push him away from goal not only reduces such effectiveness but completely neuters it. In terms of selecting players to suit their various abilities it makes about as much sense as handing Marko Arnautovic the captaincy or asking Joe Hart to play in goal.
Carroll’s suspension will force Bilic into giving Chicharito the role he demands. The question beyond that is whether he continues to amalgamate this awkward couple again when both become available once more. As was scientifically proven this week, when you have two stars in close proximity, they don’t automatically shine twice as brightly but instead crash into each other and leave a black hole in their place. It took 130 million years for what happened in a galaxy called NGC 4993 to be revealed today yet it should take no longer than Carroll’s suspension for Bilic to draw the same conclusion. While the cataclysmic collision has provided our understanding of how gold was formed, a failure to realise the error of his ways could lead to a very different form of Gold sending a very different set of waves through Bilic’s system in a much less distant future. Go boldly where you haven’t gone before Slaven. Save yourself.