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Andy Carroll: Reading’s Useful But Limited Veteran Striker

An in-depth look at what’s gone right and wrong for the Big Geordie at Reading so far.

Norwich City v Reading - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Stephen Pond/Getty Images

Andy Carroll has signed an 18-month contract extension at Reading and... I’m fine with that I guess. Nothing more, nothing less, just modest satisfaction. When I saw the news break on Tuesday afternoon I couldn’t really muster up a more overtly positive or negative reaction than that either way. A few days later I’m still in the same boat.

It’s less that I’m on the fence or apathetic. Carroll’s a hugely likeable guy who’s clearly bought into being at Reading, his tactical profile is so distinct that it’s hard not to have an opinion on how he fits into the team, and he’s certainly capable of being an important part of the side too. After all, he’s won our December 2022 player of the month award, helped in large part by some key goals over the festive period against Swansea City and Norwich City.

A new deal for him though? I’ve got mixed feelings which I needed to work through. To do that I’ve looked at Carroll’s contract first from the club’s perspective (spoiler: from Reading’s point of view it makes sense) and then from mine.

If you’re Paul Ince, Mark Bowen and co, keeping Carroll makes sense. Absolutely. They clearly value Carroll’s experience, leadership and all-round personality, and the manager’s more direct style of play means Carroll (in theory) is a good fit.

Ince has also used Carroll extensively since the World Cup break: four starts and two sub appearances in Reading’s six matches across all competitions. With Lucas Joao, Yakou Meite and Shane Long (among others) all in contention to start up top, that’s a significant endorsements of Carroll, although there’s always the possibility that his game time has been influenced by his contract status. After all, if you’re trying to persuade someone to stay on, you don’t keep them on the bench.

Financially and contractually this deal works for the club too. Carroll won’t be on particularly big wages (Reading aren’t allowed to pay those this season anyway) and keeping him on for 18 months gives both parties some longer-term security without being that extensive. Two and a half years would have been reckless for a player who’s just turned 34, while six months probably wouldn’t have been all that tempting for Carroll himself.

Questions will inevitably be asked over his fitness, but a formerly injury-prone player is yet to miss a game because of that for Reading. In fact, he’s not had an enforced absence of more than three matches since 2019/20 according to Transfermarkt. This could of course very easily change - you’re an injury-free, regular starter until you’re not. Just ask Michael Morrison, who barely missed a kick earlier on in his Reading career but was never the same after injuries in 2021.

West Bromwich Albion v Reading - Sky Bet Championship - The Hawthorns Photo by Mike Egerton/PA Images via Getty Images

So, from the club’s perspective, agreeing an 18-month contract for Carroll ticks plenty of boxes. From mine though, I’m less convinced.

I’m happy with Carroll staying if he’s here in a relatively limited capacity: a back-up striker and plan B who’s generally a substitute but also gets the odd start. If Reading are looking for an experienced striker who can come off the bench specifically when an aerial threat and/or big presence is needed, we couldn’t do much better in the current transfer circumstances than Carroll. As it happens, Reading average more points per game when he comes off the bench than when he starts.

The issue however is that Paul Ince wants more than that from Carroll - he wants a first-team player - but he’s unwilling and/or unable to set his team up accordingly. If you’re going to start Carroll regularly, making him a key part of the XI rather than just a wildcard to bring on in the second half, you ideally need to sort out these two things:

  • Making sure aerial crosses are going into the box for Carroll to get on the end of
  • Ensuring the right kind of supply for Carroll in general play

Do Reading consistently get either of those things right? No.

On the first point, Carroll isn’t a consistent aerial threat in the box for Reading. Or an inconsistent one for that matter. He’s scored just one header for the Royals so far and that was last season at Middlesbrough; the closest he’s come in 2022/23 was (kinda) forcing an own goal at Hull City by meeting a free kick at the back post and heading the ball back into the danger area. This season he’s behind Naby Sarr, Tom McIntyre, Mamadou Loum and Amadou Mbengue for headed goals.

In his defence, Reading aren’t much of a crossing team. The Royals play just 18 crosses per game which is lower-mid-table by Championship standards; to really get the most out of Carroll’s aerial prowess that figure would have to be much higher. This issue is resolvable though: Reading have players capable of putting in dangerous crosses such as Junior Hoilett, Tom Ince and Baba Rahman. Achieving that in a 3-5-2 however, when Reading won’t consistently have bodies out wide to provide a steady supply of crosses, is tricky.

Moving to a system that contains a back four and wingers would be a solution, but that then opens up the dilemma of either giving Carroll a strike partner (which would bring more out of him) in a 4-4-2 and being overrun in midfield (no thanks) or going 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 and sacrificing that partner. Do Reading really want to base their formation around Carroll when other attacking players are available?

The second point kinda relates to how direct a side Reading actually want to be. The Royals certainly have a direct style this season, as demonstrated by The Analyst’s “team sequence styles” chart which you can see below or view on their website here.

Graphic: The Analyst

That should be to the benefit of Carroll, but in practice, is it?

Going by the eye test, it’s not often that I come away from a game thinking Carroll has been distinctly influential in build-up or chance creation, that he’s really made a tangible impact on proceedings. If anything, matches are more likely to pass him by - I’m thinking in particular of Coventry City (H), Swansea City (H, excluding the goal naturally) and West Bromwich Albion (A) as recent examples. A better evening at Norwich City was a nice exception.

Whether it’s down to Carroll himself, the rest of the team, the manager’s approach or a mixture of all three, this side is not good at consistently using Carroll effectively in open play. Reading are a good team that plays direct football, not a team that is good at direct football.

And if Reading really want to play to Carroll’s strengths - by putting in aerial crosses and using him as a target man - we’d probably be better off looking at other centre forwards anyway. Carroll’s qualities are largely covered elsewhere - Meite is an excellent aerial threat in the box and Long can hold the ball up effectively, although he lacks the outright presence of Carroll. But Meite and Long have more in their locker than Carroll, being more mobile and better at getting in behind, as Long did for his goal against Watford.

Which brings us to attacking output. I’m deliberately going to factor out penalties and set-piece goals in this section, of which Carroll has scored three: two spot kicks (QPR and Norwich City away) and one goal from a dead-ball situation (Swansea City at home). While certainly commendable and important, I’d expect any striker to convert these chances anyway. They don’t set him apart from his peers.

Reading have scored just 11 goals from open play in the 18 matches in all competitions since Carroll arrived in September - a big problem in itself, but that’s a discussion for another time. Of those 11 he’s only been directly involved in one, popping up at the back post late on against Bristol City to stick the ball home. He was also involved in the build-up for Joao’s close-range goal at Birmingham City last month.

For context, going by open-play goals and assists in the same time frame, Tom Ince (5) and Yakou Meite (4) lead the way. Even Jeff Hendrick (2) is higher than Carroll despite being a midfielder, and not a particularly attacking one at that. He scored once against Norwich City and came away with a hashed assist for Joao at St Andrews; if you include him putting in the cross that was diverted into the net for an own goal at home to Huddersfield Town his tally rises to three. Also on the list are Long (2), Joao, Kelvin Abrefa and McIntyre (1).

That lack of goal threat is underlined by the data. When excluding penalties, Carroll’s xG per 90 minutes - measuring how many goals he’s ‘expected’ to score per game based on the quality of his chances - is lower than any of the other four players to have had extended game time up top for Reading this season.

That last section came out more negative than I was expecting before I started writing it; Carroll’s stats don’t make for particularly good reading. However, there is of course plenty more to football than stats. Despite the flaws I’ve outlined above, Carroll is still a trusted member of the first team and is certainly not a bad player.

Carroll hasn’t made as much of an impact up top as I’d have liked this season, but then again, none of Reading’s centre forwards have really. All have been outscored by a winger - Tom Ince - and none have found the net from open play more than three times. That shortfall is in large part down to a general approach from the manager which is designed to allow Reading to narrowly win games, not for the strikers to thrive. It holds Carroll back as it does Joao, Meite and Long, just in different ways and to different degrees.

It’s fair though, I think, to put the spotlight on a player who’s clearly highly valued by the manager both in the immediate and longer terms. Paul Ince is keen to start Carroll regularly right now and wants to retain his services next season too. As such, some context around how effective Carroll’s actually really been is helpful.

Carroll absolutely can be an asset to this team and has been an asset to this team, but he’s got his limitations too. Keeping him on for another 18 months makes some sense and Reading could do a lot worse than Carroll, but we shouldn’t expect too much from him.