The Carlton Cole enigma

With the injury to Andy Carroll, we are once again heavily dependent on our number 9 as our main striking option but will he deliver?

Hammers fans were pretty chuffed with Big Sam’s performance in the transfer market before the season but despite a host of excellent additions to the squad, the injury curse has struck and we are starting to look threadbare facing into a busy Christmas fixture list.

We are particularly light up front and once again the focus of our offensive hopes has switched to the enigma that is Carlton Cole. First of all, let’s be clear, despite being of a physical style that is not naturally suited to the traditional West Ham way, Carlton has become a firm favourite amongst Hammers faithful due to his commitment to the club.

He also tends to score memorable goals (like in the play off final against Blackpool). In interviews he comes across as an honest and grounded bloke, while his strike rate of 56 goals in 205 appearances is decent, if not overwhelming. That said, with Andy Carroll’s absence Hammers fans are waiting anxiously to see how well Cole responds to the challenge of bearing the weight of our offensive efforts on his shoulders.

Carlton can be frustrating — sometimes seeming to psyche himself out of it, with his best efforts usually reserved for when he has less time to think. However, at other times, despite all the positive psychobabble he exudes, there’s no doubting that given time to think in an one-on-one with the keeper he can be lacking in composure. One of the more pleasing elements of the Gianfranco Zola period (there were some!) was the transformation of Cole from a frustratingly inconsistent contributor to a confident and productive striker.

Interestingly, the emphasis during this period was not on his obvious physical strength, but instead focused upon improving his decision making when in possession, and especially in relation to taking scoring opportunities. This was reflected in a huge improvement in his strike rate which has remained at more than 10 goals in each subsequent season, four of which he has been our top scorer.

However, in the Big Sam system it’s all too tempting to fall back to the physical side of Carlton’s game, and there can be little doubting that he is a forward who needs to score goals to maintain his confidence. In addition, he is a rhythm player — when he’s on form he can be almost unmarkable but on his off days he rarely turns it around and we are usually left feeling relieved when he is substituted. Thank God for Ricky Vaz Te last year when Carlton hit a barren patch during the crucial run in period.

Modibo Maiga may well be a similarly crucial support up front if Carlton struggles over the Christmas fixtures, but he looks more suited to playing wide rather than at the pinnacle of our spine which Cole and Carroll naturally inhabit. Carlton has expressed a preference for working alongside a strike partner rather than as a lone forward, but Big Sam is unlikely to change the 4-5-1 system which has been a big success so far.

Never the less, with Kevin Nolan’s role as a nomadic second forward, we can presume that Big Sam is working on getting Cole as well attuned to Nolan as Andy Carroll with whom he has an almost telepathic understanding. Nolan likes to ghost about with late runs into the box and Carlton needs to get on this wavelength in order to pick him out. If he can do that, we know Nolan will deliver!

So far things look good — the goal against Chelsea was a huge boost, while he was a big presence in the Liverpool game and against West Brom he provided the only channel of respite during that stressful second half onslaught — frequently winning and holding up the ball from impossibly outnumbered situations, creating two chances from almost nothing, and even popping up to help the defence. He looked like he was relishing the responsibility.

Let’s hope that against Everton and Arsenal that ‘Killer’ Cole clicks and pushes on into his top gear. As for all the psychobabble, maybe the final piece of footballing wisdom is best left to Big Ron Atkinson,“ At the end of the day it’s all down to the two M’s: Movement and Positioning”!

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