Hodgson's leap of faith pays off as Carroll soars
THE MEMORY of the facial expressions will endure. Andy Carroll is airborne, his eyes fixed on the ball as it careers over in its delicious arc from the right flank and the white flash of gritted teeth, his jaw fixed, an indication of the power he is straining to summon from heaving neck muscles. Beneath him Andreas Granqvist winces, his shoulders hunched as if resigned to the reality that Sweden have been undone. He is diminished, shrunk in the striker’s presence.
The scene was played out midway through the first half at the Olympic Stadium and, as Carroll’s thumped effort flew down from forehead to net, Roy Hodgson’s tactical game-plan had felt inspirational.
Not visionary, because this was the seventh header out of the last eight goals the Swedes have shipped, but astute. The Swedes were apparently cowed and wilting, their European Championship on the brink. Events after the interval, when it was the English who threatened to disintegrate defensively, would put all the giddy optimism into proper context.
It is hard to assess the success of the manager’s blueprint here when his team were so mystifyingly undone in the quarter-hour after the break, all that defensive surety in which Hodgson had taken such pride going forgotten.
His big change here had been to hand Carroll his full competitive debut in the hope the 23-year-old would offer a focal point alongside Danny Welbeck to unsettle and disrupt the Swedes.
As an attacking unit, England did feel more aggressive. Even progressive. Indeed, in his primary function, Carroll’s inclusion felt merited throughout. He won headers to unsettle Olof Mellberg and floored Granqvist, a player whose frailties in the air while at Wigan had swiftly suffocated his Premier League career, even though shifted to right back for the occasion.
One leap above the full back and Sebastian Larsson on the touch-line, and flick with that pony-tailed head to find Ashley Young down the line, had caught the eye. Carroll was the handful his manager hoped he might be.
This felt like a Premier League occasion – the pace, the aggression, even the atmosphere -and the forward leading the line revelled in it all.
This was always how it was supposed to be. Fabio Capello had spied glimpses of the future in Carroll, his desire to fast-track the forward into the senior set-up reinforced when he had witnessed him dominate at first hand. Back at the Emirates stadium in November 2010, the rookie had spearheaded the newly promoted Newcastle – a team expected to labour in the top flight – and, as if single-handedly, battered Arsenal into submission.
Laurent Koscielny, a relatively recent arrival from the more delicate experience of Ligue 1, wilted under the onslaught. When the Frenchman was sent off for a late pullback on Nile Ranger it felt like a mercy, the visitors prevailing courtesy of Carroll’s lone goal.
That the winner was a header from a set-piece was no surprise, but the forward had done more than merely dominate in the air. He had run the channels, outmuscled and bullied defenders.
Capello had been struck by the power on show from the stands and thrust him into his senior side for the friendly against France 10 days later.
“He is young,” he had said. “He is 21 and just to play last season. This season he has exploded. But he is one for the future for England: a really good player, good in the air, with good movement without the ball. Technically he is good, and he is also a fighter.”
Too much of his career has been overshadowed by suggestions of scrapping, largely off the pitch, but the touch remains. The collection of a punted clearance, and clip to liberate Ashley Young, in Norway to set up the only goal in Hodgson’s first match in charge last month was a reminder of quality. The real question was whether Carroll could refine his style to suit international football.
Does he boast the speed of thought, awareness and instinctive movement to thrive on this stage? Does he have the temperament? His goal smacked of the required quality, the technique of the header majestic, yet there were also reminders here – too many for Hodgson’s comfort – that he remains raw.
Rather, when this contest needed refinement it was not Carroll but his strike partner, Danny Welbeck, who provided it. The flick with his heel from Theo Walcott’s cross to edge England ahead 3-2 was as glorious as it was impudent, Welbeck and Carroll ended the game with 12 appearances and four goals to their names, their team victorious and Wayne Rooney to return.
There is reason for optimism for England after all.