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Between The Lines

What would be a good season for Andy Carroll?

In a recent column, Daily Mail football writer Martin Samuel declared that Andy Carroll “has to be a 20-goal striker in his first full season”, otherwise he – and by implication Liverpool’s director of football Damien Comolli – would be considered a failure. So how likely is it that Carroll will score twenty goals next season? Will Liverpool really measure Carroll’s value purely on the number of goals he scores? And is there any value in setting arbitrary targets like this one anyway?

Before we look at the complex question of what Liverpool will hope to get from Andy Carroll next season, let’s take a look at how likely he is to score 20 goals next season based on his age, experience and how many 20-goal scorers there usually are each season in the Premier League.

Andy Carroll is currently 22 years old. The 2011-12 season will be his second full season in the Premier League and his first full season spent entirely with Liverpool. In the 25 games he played for Liverpool and Newcastle last season, he scored 13 goals. Before he moved to Liverpool in January, Carroll had scored 11 goals in 19 games for Newcastle.

So how often do we see 20 goals scored in a Premier League season by the same player? In four of the last five seasons, scoring 20 goals would have put you among the top three highest scorers in the league. In 2008-09, it would have made you the number one. In those five seasons, nine different players have scored 20 or more in a season. Only one of them (Cristiano Ronaldo) was the same age as Carroll is now. Most were several years older.

Top scorer:
2010-11 – 21 (Tevez, Berbatov)
2009-10 – 29 (Drogba)
2008-09 – 19 (Anelka)
2007-08 – 31 (Ronaldo)
2006-07 – 20 (Drogba)

20 or more goals:
2010-11 – Tevez (21), Berbatov (21)
2009-10 – Drogba (29), Rooney (26), Bent (24), Tevez & Lampard (22)
2008-09 – None
2007-08 – Ronaldo (31), Torres & Adebayor (24)
2006-07 – Drogba (20)

If we look beyond that period, there are several interesting players we can compare to Andy Carroll. Another 22-year old who scored more than 20 goals in a Premier League season was Andy Cole way back in 1993-94. Cole also left Newcastle in controversial circumstances at practically the same age. In Cole’s case, he did so six months after an extraordinary season in which he scored 34 goals in 40 games. Peter Beardsley also scored 21 that season for Newcastle, making the club top scorers in the league. Although Cole scored more than 20 the season after that for Newcastle and Manchester United combined, he never scored 20 again in his eight seasons in Manchester.

In the 1992-93 season (just a year before Cole’s great season), legendary Newcastle striker Alan Shearer was 22-years old and starting his first season with Blackburn in the newly-formed Premier League. Shearer scored 16 goals in 21 games that season and the fact that he went on to score 121 goals over the next four seasons suggests that he may have reached 30 in 92-93 as well if he had played more games. Shearer also had the benefit of playing two full seasons (and parts of the previous three) in the old first division with Southampton before that, so he had a lot more experience under his belt than the average 22 year old.

If we go back even further, there is another tall, powerful striker who played his first full season for Liverpool at the age of 22. In 1972, John Toshack joined Liverpool from Cardiff City and went on to form a legendary partnership with Kevin Keegan. Carroll and Luis Suarez have already been tentatively compared to them. Buying Toshack for £110,000 was considered a bit of a gamble at the time but he won the fans over by scoring on his debut in the Merseyside derby. That season, Toshack and Keegan both went on to score 13 league goals as Liverpool won the title and the UEFA Cup.

So does any of that tell us anything? Perhaps it shows us that it is possible to score 20 goals in your early 20s, but only exceptional players like Shearer, Cole, Ronaldo, Rooney and Torres have done it. Although none of them were able to do it consistently, year after year. Asking Andy Carroll to suddenly step up and do that is asking a lot, particularly in a team that is rebuilding and isn’t likely to challenge for the title next season.

Then again, Carroll scored 11 goals in 19 games for Newcastle. If he had stayed fit and stayed with Newcastle, he was on pace to get to 22. The thigh injury he picked before he arrived at Liverpool (which restricted him to just six league games after January) would almost certainly have prevented that from happening though.

There is no doubt that it is much more difficult to score 20-30 goals now than it was in the early 90s. If Carroll does that, it will probably be seen as a bonus at Liverpool. A more realistic total might be the 13 goals that John Toshack scored in his first season at the club, particularly if Luis Suarez matches or betters that number. Certainly if I was going to bet on one of Carroll or Suarez to score 20 goals next season, it would be Suarez given that he’s already demonstrated his ability to score goals at the highest level.

Since Martin Samuel plucked the number 20 out of the air, I’ve seen a few other people mention it in comments on different websites. It is as if the idea has seeped through into football mythology already. There are a number of problems with setting 20 goals as a benchmark though:

  • It’s completely arbitrary. Is Carroll a success if he scores 20, but a failure if he scores 19? That can’t be right. The difference between 19 and 20 could be a late deflected goal in a meaningless end of season game, or a debatable decision by the dubious goals panel.
  • Samuel didn’t actually specify whether he meant just league goals or goals in all competitions. I’ve assumed he meant league goals, since Liverpool won’t be in Europe, Carroll may well not play in the League Cup and you never know how many FA Cup games you’ll get a chance to play in in any given season.
  • That brings us to a related problem. We don’t know how many games Carroll will play. If he misses 15 games is it fair to expect him to score 20 in 23? Of course not. Even if you are looking for an arbitrary number of goals from him, you would have to readjust the total as a proportion of games played.
  • Ultimately, judging strikers purely on goals alone is a crude way to measure their effectiveness. If he scores 10 but other players around him score more than they have before, is that still a failure? In a team sport, clearly it’s not a failure if Carroll makes a significant contribution to the team winning games even without scoring himself.

And that leads us to the main reason why Martin Samuel (and anyone else who has set a notional goal target for Andy Carrol) is asking the wrong question. It is now common knowledge that Liverpool are using sophisticated analytical methods to evaluate player performance. So is almost every other club, although I’m not sure anyone else is using these techniques to guide their transfer policy to quite the degree that Liverpool are.

You can be sure that Andy Carroll will not be judged by anyone within Liverpool solely on the number of goals he scores. Given that around 35% of Premier League goals now come from set pieces and Liverpool have brought in players like Charlie Adam and Stewart Downing who are good at supplying crosses and set pieces balls, Carroll’s height and physical presence will obviously still be a factor in Liverpool’s season, but it won’t be the only measure of his importance to the team.

As well as that, Liverpool will be looking for Carroll to maintain or improve on some of the performance statistics that lead them to buy him in the first place. These will be elements of his performance like the percentage of goals that he contributes to and the number of chances the team create when he plays compared to when he doesn’t. You can be sure that Liverpool are trying to find ways of replicating baseball stats like Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) in football, if they haven’t already.

From a psychological perspective, it doesn’t make any sense for Liverpool to demand a certain number of goals from Carroll, either publicly or privately. Being bought for such a huge sum of money must be pretty bewildering for any player. Unexpectedly becoming the most expensive player in British football practically overnight probably made it doubly so.

From the moment he arrived at Liverpool’s Melwood training ground, the club had clearly gone out of its way not to make that a burden for Carroll. The player himself was immediately saying publicly that there was nothing he could do about the fee, but realistically it is inevitable that it will create a degree of pressure on him.

Kenny Dalglish is intelligent and experienced enough to know what will happen if Carroll doesn’t score in his first few Premier League games next season. The media will be itching to write articles criticising the transfer fee, just as they did with Fernando Torres after he moved to Chelsea. It will also give them an excuse to vilify Damien Comolli for a second time and once again question whether the director of football role will ever work in British football. Guardian columnist Paul Hayward started preparing the ground this week by describing Comolli as “the director of football whose presence is bound to cause friction at some point between manager and executive floor”.

The media narrative will probably go something like this: poor Andy Carroll weighed down by this ridiculous price tag. When will people like Comolli ever learn that you can’t do things this way in England?

So will Liverpool have targets in mind for Andy Carroll next season? Of course they will. But you can be sure that those targets will be kept private (perhaps even from the player himself) and they will be much more complex than old school football writers like Martin Samuel and Paul Hayward can possibly imagine.

If they or anyone else chooses to judge Andy Carroll as a failure if he scores less than 20 goals then they will have missed the point. Samuel’s absurd and insulting description of Liverpool’s transfer strategy as Comolli’s “customary supermarket sweep of the best English and British players” suggests that he has no interest in trying to understand what Liverpool are doing. I can’t think of a less appropriate metaphor for the way Liverpool are trying to rebuild their squad than likening it to a frantic hording of the first players they see.

 

Related Posts:

Why the Jordan Henderson deal works for Liverpool (9th June)

Summer departures from Liverpool (8th June)

 

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