When Slaven Bilic confirmed that Dimitri Payet had expressed his desire to leave West Ham, the club’s fans were understandably devastated. Despite a drop off in form and an increasingly questionable attitude, the France international was still their most creative threat by far in the first half of the season – in fact, he played more key passes per game (4.1) than any other footballer in Europe’s top leagues.
Payet had signed a lucrative contract extension midway through his sensational debut campaign in London and supporters had every right to think he would be at the club for some time but, as speculation about a big-money move in the summer persisted, Bilic’s announcement became almost inevitable. The manager looked deflated by Payet’s decision – saying he was “angry” and “let down” – and the timing could not have been worse, with the news coming after a 5-0 drubbing at home to Manchester City, West Ham’s third defeat in a row.
In the games that have followed, however, West Ham have rallied in the absence of their star man and seem to have grown in self belief, no longer counting on Payet to conjure up moments of magic. The team is no longer over-reliant on Payet but they have a new talisman: Andy Carroll.
A very different type of matchwinner to Payet, Carroll has always made an impact for the club – when available. Plagued by injuries throughout his time in London, Carroll has started just 66 of a possible 172 league matches for the club. In that time West Ham’s win rate has been 40.9% when he has started compared to just 29.2% when he hasn’t – and his impact is even greater when this season is taken in isolation.
West Ham have won five of the seven games Carroll has started this season, having won just three of the 15 he didn’t start. They are scoring substantially more goals with him in the team: up from 1.07 per game without him to 1.86 with Carroll, whose presence has also helped to alleviate pressure on their fragile defence.
Not only is he strong when defending set pieces but his ability to hold up the ball means his defenders can play long passes up to him and bypass any high press from the opposition. By winning aerial duels (9.9 per game) and giving his team-mates an out-ball, he has helped the side concede just five goals in the seven matches he has started compared to 31 in the 15 matches he didn’t.
The issue, of course, is Carroll’s fitness. He has not started more than 12 league games in a row since he joined the club – initially on loan – in 2012. If he can avoid injury, Carroll will prove just as decisive as Payet was last season and he could take the club to a second successive top-half finish. Before his return to the starting line-up against Burnley last month, West Ham were just one point and one place above the relegation zone. Now they are 10th in the table, 12 points above the relegation zone.
Carroll’s inclusion allows West Ham to make the most of a back-three system that didn’t really suit them when he wasn’t playing. Bilic has fielded a back three on 12 occasions in the league, including three matches Carroll has started. They have won all three with Carroll in the team, but just two of the nine matches he didn’t start.
With Michail Antonio and Aaron Cresswell operating as wing-backs, the side has looked dangerous on the attack, with both players capable of providing the sort of service Carroll thrives upon. Moreover, Payet’s absence has encouraged Manuel Lanzini to flourish. Lanzini has scored one goal and set up two more in the two games Payet has missed. With Payet out of the team, Lanzini has produced ratings of 8.58 (against Palace) and 8.46 (against Middlesbrough) – his first and third best performances this season – compared to an average of just 6.78 in 14 starts when playing alongside Payet. Bilic will be hoping the 23-year old continues to relish the extra responsibility.
With Lanzini, Antonio and a fit again Sofiane Feghouli able to support Carroll – not to mention André Ayew, who is currently representing Ghana at the Africa Cup of Nations – West Ham have the players to hurt any side on their day. It’s now up to their top striker to prove he can be relied upon. If Carroll can avoid injury, which has proven a huge if in the past, West Ham will be on the up. The club might want to find a suitable replacement for Carroll rather than attempting to replace Payet, a player who had previously seemed irreplaceable.
The Guardian Sport