David N'gog, born April 1st, 1989, turned 22 earlier this year. Andy Carroll, born January 6th, 1989, also turned 22 earlier this year. Last season with Liverpool, N'gog started nine matches in the league and made a further 16 substitute appearances, playing a total of 1057 minutes. He scored twice, once every 529 minutes—or roughly once every six games. He registered a shot every 42 minutes, hit the goal 52% of the time, and converted 8% of his chances. Hardly stunning numbers by any measure, but then there was a reason most saw him as a promising backup at best and not the man to lead Liverpool's line in the present, while even those who thought of him as a promising youngster acknowledged he would likely need a great deal of playing time if he was to ever fulfill that promise—something Liverpool, struggling to remain in European competition and looking to perhaps even crack the top four, could hardly afford to give him.
By comparison, in nearly a year with Liverpool Andy Carroll has started 13 times in the league, made a further 12 appearances off the bench, and played a total of 1172 minutes. His scoring record is significantly better than N'gog's if hardly stunning, with four league goals to his name in that time—one every 293 minutes. He has registered a shot every 27 minutes, is on target 42% of the time, and converts 9% of his chances into goals. Better numbers for the most part to be sure, but hardly ones to set the Premier League alight and separate him from the slightly younger striker Liverpool shipped to Bolton over the summer.
It does have to be mentioned, too, that last season saw N'gog's production dip, his development appearing to stagnate after a more promising 2009-10 season. That year, N'gog played 1013 minutes, scored five times—once every 203 minutes—registered a shot every 32 minutes, and had a much more promising chance conversion rate of 16%. If Andy Carroll's return to date is markedly better than N'gog's in his final season at the club, it is inescapable too that N'gog's return as a 20-year-old was superior to anything Carroll seems likely to contribute by the time his 23rd birthday rolls around early in the new year.
Of course, just as digging deeper into N'gog's past paints a prettier picture than what is found in more recent history, looking back to Carroll's time at Newcastle shows a more promising player than the one Liverpool has so far seen. Yet Carroll has spent nearly an entire calendar year at Lieverpool now, and even if one accepts the argument that he not be judged based solely on his inflated pricetag it would be far from unfair to suggest that he was bought with the expectation that he had considerably more upside—and could contribute considerably more in the present—than a bargain French youth international picked up for £1.5M. And for all the protests many may make that Carroll cannot be judged on that transfer fee, if at the end of the day N'gog wasn't good enough to make a difference for the club at the time then neither, it would seem, is Carroll in the here and now. Which makes for an uncomfortable reality where the only good reason to continue giving him starting opportunities most seemed to agree N'gog didn't warrant is that transfer fee.
Most have sought to point out that Carroll has worked hard when he's been on the pitch this season, yet hard work and a markedly better return wasn't enough to secure N'gog starting minutes in 2009-10 except when others were injured. Moreover, it's not simply a lack of production in front of goal that's raising justified doubts about whether Carroll has the ability to fit in at Liverpool eleven months after he arrived. Against Fulham, given the chance to impress ahead of proven alternatives like Maxi Rodriguez and Dirk Kuyt, Carroll's lack of movement not only spoke to one of the player's biggest weaknesses but also hindered teammates Luis Suarez and Craig Bellamy. That lack of movement, an inability to quickly read and exploit space, prevented the three most advanced players from interchanging freely to capitalise on the biggest weakness of Fulham's towering centre back pair. It also pushed Suarez into a more peripheral position on the wing after consistently being Liverpool's most dangerous central attacker since his arrival days before Carroll in last January's transfer window.
Many continue to complain when Carroll's uninspiring return to date is brought up, but suggesting that Carroll can't be questioned because he's young or works hard is nothing but a straw man argument—after all, nobody is suggesting that he doesn't work hard or mightn't one day develop into an effective target-man. And regardless of whether he might one day develop into a player who can make an impact at the highest level, such arguments have no relevance when determining if he in fact offers the club its best chance to secure points in the present—and to maybe then get back into the top four and a Champions League berth, which has to be the primary goal for Liverpool this season.
Saying he needs to play to improve is all well and good, but worrying about turning Carroll into the beast everybody still hopes he can become in time to make a run at the league title in 2013 isn't a valid reason for playing him today. Not when there are players in the squad who give the club a better chance of reaching the top four this season. Not when nothing but reaching that goal should really, truly matter. And from that standpoint, even if Carroll were to come on strong towards the end of the season, it's hard to imagine he would give the squad so much more at that point that it would justify the harm it does playing him in place of players like Maxi and Kuyt right now.
As always when discussing Carroll, there seems a need to partake in lengthy disclaimers, pointing out that criticism doesn't equal blanket condemnation—at least for Carroll himself, who surely hasn't chosen to under-perform regardless of pricetag, and who based on the promise he showed at Newcastle may still, one day, develop into a useful player. Certainly it wasn't Carroll who decided the perfect time for a return to the starting eleven was when Liverpool came up against two strong, slow, towering central defenders in Fulham's Hangeland and Senderos, the sorts of players perfectly suited to negating the Englishman but who have in the past shown themselves vulnerable to smaller, quicker opponents able to interchange and exploit space. And from that point of view, after the wise tactics on display against the likes of Chelsea, Manchester United, and Manchester City, throwing Carroll into a game for which even his staunchest defenders would likely have considered him poorly suited speaks to the coaching staff approaching Fulham as an easy game. A game where they could afford to give Carroll a run to aid in his development, even if it made no tactical sense, instead of worrying only about getting the three points.
If Liverpool had won, of course, the talking points might have been different, yet regardless of the results it cannot be ignored that Carroll remains a tentative figure, worlds away even from the unpolished bull often seen at Newcastle. Certainly he is still young, and perhaps one day he will regain that lost edge while developing a newfound ability to create and exploit space in the attacking third, but for all his hard work in recent weeks he remains a player far from able to make a consistent impact at a club fighting for its future in the Champions League. It may not be Carroll's fault, and certainly he doesn't deserve to come in for much of the abuse he has begun to receive, but inflated fee or not he simply doesn't give the club its best chance at victory against most opponents right now. And right now, worrying about developing the player into what everybody still hopes he may one day become at the expense of results in the present is not a luxury that Kenny Dalglish and the coaching staff can afford.