There are few sights in football quite like that of Andy Carroll heading the ball. The spring-heeled leap, the hang-time and the neck strength make for something as powerful as it is spectacular. It owes some of its magic to its rarity. There are not many players like Carroll any more, far fewer than there used to be.
English football may well be moving away from Carroll and his ilk. There has even been a suspicion that West Ham United were going in the same direction, that Enner Valencia and Diafra Sakho were faster and sharper and that Sam Allardyce’s side were evolving away from their £15m No 9. Yesterday’s victory over Swansea City was a riposte to all that.
Carroll scored two headers – the type of goal that these days only he can score – and set up Sakho’s third in the final minutes. They were Carroll’s first goals for nine months, and his first at Upton Park for twice as long as that. It was arguably his finest performance in West Ham colours – Allardyce agreed that it was –both a throwback to an old way of playing and a promise of how much more the 25-year-old centre forward can give.
This has been a miserable year for Carroll. An ankle ligament injury in the summer kept him out until last month, and this was just his fourth start of the season. In his absence, new signings Sakho and Valencia have flourished, and a return to his old role in this side was not a formality.
But Allardyce has always trusted Carroll – who ran over to embrace his manager after his second goal – and was utterly vindicated by this performance.
Carroll started up front with Valencia, who was replaced by the far more effective Sakho at half-time, and it took West Ham some time to get up to speed. Swansea took the lead through Wilfried Bony in the 19th minute, before West Ham had put together one meaningful attack.
The home side did not panic, though, and when Aaron Cresswell met a cross at the far post, only to head the ball at goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski, it was a warning of what was to come. Four minutes before the interval Carl Jenkinson swung a perfect cross in from the right and Carroll leapt far above Angel Rangel at the far post. With that basketball player’s gift for staying in the air, he headed the ball back into the far corner of the goal.
It was a typical Carroll goal, reminiscent of his header for England against Sweden at Euro 2012, and it changed the course of the game. Sakho came on, bringing more pace and direct running, and West Ham looked more dangerous from then on.
Sakho’s first real involvement was to dart down the right and cross the ball in, forcing Rangel to turn it behind for a corner with Carroll lurking behind him. Stewart Downing took the corner from the left and Carroll jumped higher than anyone else. His header was forceful and precise, hitting Leon Britton on the line but still flying into the net.
Allardyce said afterwards that an appreciation of “technical heading ability” had been lost in modern football, and it is easy to see why he thinks that. Carroll has mastered this particular skill better than almost any other striker in the Premier League – Allardyce picked out Bony as one who is as good – and his two headers here were two of the best scored in the top flight this season.
The next combination between Sakho and Carroll reduced Swansea to 10 men, ending their chances of getting back into the game. Carroll, dropping deep, played a through pass to Sakho, who raced towards goal. Fabianski charged out and fouled the Senegal forward. Referee Chris Foy blew his whistle and, luckily for him, when Sakho played on, the striker hit a post – West Ham would have been furious had the goal been chalked off. Fabianski was then dismissed for denying the clear goalscoring opportunity.
From that point on West Ham were rampant. Sakho stormed through again and hit the post before, with four minutes left, scoring the goal which ended the game. Adrian hit a long goal-kick, Carroll – whose head is far more than just a blunt instrument – flicked it on and Sakho ran onto it and struck it with such force that it might have ended up in the Thames had the net not got in the way.
This was West Ham’s third win in eight days, as Allardyce was keen to point out. Either Manchester United or Southampton will go above them tonight but West Ham will stay in the top four. Their next two games are against Sunderland and Leicester City, so it is reasonable to expect they will be in the top four at Christmas, before they face Chelsea and Arsenal.
That will be a very different test from this one. Swansea did not offer very much, their manager Garry Monk afterwards bemoaning the quality and tempo of their play. Their goal was slightly against the run of play but delightful, a brisk incisive counter-attack after 19 minutes. Jefferson Montero broke down the left and pulled the ball back to Bony, who finished coolly and low into the net.
Beyond Bony, though, there was not much. It was he who missed Swansea’s only real chance to go 2-0 up, as well as their best opportunity to retake the lead, clipping the top of the bar after again being set up by Montero on the break. After Fabianski was sent off, Monk withdrew Britton and while Swansea did not collapse, they did not look much like coming back into the game either.
Bafetimbi Gomis added some more physical presence in the box for the final minutes but Allardyce responded by introducing James Collins, and West Ham were only ever comfortable.
West Ham: Adrian, Jenkinson, Cresswell, Tomkins, Reid, Song, Kouyate, Nolan, Downing, Valencia, Carroll
Swansea: Fabianski, Rangel, Richards, Williams ©, Bartley, Sung-yueng, Britton, Sigurdsson, Routledge, Montero, Bony
Booked: Swansea Routledge.
Sent-off: Swansea Fabianski (68).
Man of the match Carroll.
Match rating 5/10.
Referee C Foy (St Helens).
MATCH IN NUMBERS
2 - Goals for Andy Carroll, matching his total for the previous 19 months
10 - Months since Swansea’s last trip to West Ham – which saw Carroll sent off
6 - Home matches unbeaten for West Ham – after three losses in August