There have been periods this term when Andy Carroll has rather stewed on the fringes, his season at Liverpool more frustrated than fruitful and his international career apparently in limbo. Now, though, his timing might just be in. Roy Hodgson had stressed this occasion was all about preparation with the caveat that he expected those selected to seize an opportunity to impress. The forward leading his line did just that.
This was a fourth cap, a third start and a first international appearance in eight months for a striker upon whom Fabio Capello had initially pinned so much hope, but Carroll did enough here to suggest he will be the man to whom the national side turns to replace the suspended Wayne Rooney against France next month. Les Bleus will be craftier opponents than the Norwegians when the preparation gives way to competition proper, but the 23-year-old will be bolstered to feel this integral. Brede Hangeland and Vadim Demidov were discomforted; Carroll will have grown for the experience.
Hodgson needed this. Had the Liverpool forward been anonymous here, England would have felt horribly blunted at the tip of their formation while the manager frets over a final assessment of Danny Welbeck's ankle, to be made on Monday. The management consider Welbeck and Carroll the squad's two most natural lone forwards, players to whom the ball will stick when it is pinged up-field. Should the Manchester United youngster not prove his fitness then his replacement will be Daniel Sturridge, a player whose attributes are more slippery. In that case, Carroll would be in a class of his own while Rooney sits out his two-match ban.
Regardless, he now feels the more natural starter in Donetsk's Donbass Arena. The header guided wide from Stewart Downing's delicious fourth-minute cross had not been an ideal opening contribution – he will still crave a goal to feel he properly belongs – but England tapped into his other assets with relish. The new manager has shrugged off suggestions that his team will revert to a more direct style of play but it was in evidence here, and the emphasis placed on soaking up pressure and biting swiftly on the counterattack needs a focal point up front.
The lone forward must act as a pressure release, as well as a pivot from which to break up-field. Carroll performed those more selfless duties admirably, even flinging himself in to last-ditch defending when required as Morten Gamst Pedersen's delivery hinted at a Norway riposte.
"Sometimes you can get camped in when you play Roy Hodgson's style," said Hangeland, a key member of the Fulham team Hodgson took to the Europa League final in 2010. "Sometimes you get quite deep and it's always good to have the target man up front to be the outlet. We didn't go long to [Bobby] Zamora from the back too often but, when we had to, we knew he was up there. Carroll can easily do a similar job."
There is expectation heaped upon a player whose domestic season, until a late flurry of form over the final few weeks, had been endured rather than enjoyed. There had been three goals – a third of his campaign's tally – in the last seven games, with Everton and Chelsea, twice, unsettled by his brawn. John Terry would testify to the forward's strength having shrunk in his striker's presence as Chelsea subsided in their league meeting at Anfield this month, a performance that came a few days after Carroll had almost barged Liverpool back to parity in the FA Cup final at Wembley against the same opponents.
That was the form he carried with him to Oslo. "He's a very aggressive player, in a good way," said the striker's captain for club and country, Steven Gerrard. "When he's on his game he's unplayable. I'm sure John would agree with that and, if he's battering defenders about and causing damage, whoever plays in that withdrawn role or up top with him can benefit from the damage Andy can cause."
That team-mate was Ashley Young here, the United forward buzzing around Carroll's knockdowns and lay-offs, sometimes sprinting clear in anticipation of a flick on. The interplay for the goal boded well, Carroll collecting Joleon Lescott's punt, eking space in which to manoeuvre, then flicking Young away to torment Hangeland and convert with ease. It was a flash of vision and delivery reminiscent of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, an indication of talent and awareness, and not mere reliance upon brute strength.
The front pairing's combination play was excellent, the Rennes midfielder Alexander Tettey exposed in his deep lying berth. Carroll even wrested free from his markers with a burst of pace midway through the first half, albeit to overhit his cross for Young in the centre. That was a reminder that he remains rough round the edges. He will not be entirely polished in time for the group games in the Ukraine but Hodgson, and England, can at least be encouraged that an alternative to Rooney has emerged.
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image: © kong niffe