As pre-season friendlies go, it was half-entertaining – in that the second half was fun after a sterile first 45 minutes. How many times last season did the break come and we were left to reflect on a total absence of goalscoring chances created? We lost with no complaints to a more accomplished side – and could easily have lost by more. The game would have been a better contest had we equalised in the first half from the penalty spot, a gift from out of nothing, but Thomas hit the post. Otherwise it was a case of what did we learn from the contest.
Given that the list of absentees included Weaver, Ambrose, Holland, Dickson, McLeod, Sinclair, Todorov, and Zheng Zhi it was hard to draw any conclusions about the season to come (even leaving aside thoughts of who may still go and who might come in). Most of the crowd treated it for what it was: a chance to try out a few things and to look at certain combinations in a relaxed atmosphere. There were two exceptions: the obligatory moron who insisted on screaming abuse at the referee (and anyone else who was unfortunate enough to be within earshot), including when play was stopped for a clash of heads, and Athletic’s engaging manager, who seemed to care a good deal more than many of the players. Oh, and one Athletic player obviously had his eye on the showers by managing to get a red card for some silly shoving late in the game.
We started with Elliot starting in goal, Semedo and Youga as the full-backs, and Fortune and Hudson in central defence. Central midfield paired Shelvey and Racon, with Thomas and Wagstaff providing the width and Gray and Varney up front. The second-half substitutes included Sam, Moutaouakil, Basey, Wright, Fleetwood, and Faye (I never thought I would see him pull on a Charlton shirt again). There may have been others.
First, the good news. Elliot looked comfortable and accomplished. No chance with the goal and one excellent save (albeit the forward was offside). If we have to rely on him at the start of the season it’s a plus. The other positives are qualified. Shelvey was anonymous for much of the game and a partnership with Racon was not a success. Both looked as if they would benefit (as Shelvey did late last season) from the steadying influence of a Holland alongside them, allowing them the freedom to do the box-to-box role. However, individually both had reasonable games. Racon was behind some of our best moments and Shelvey continued to look as if he has the knack of being in the right place for loose balls in the box. So a plus for both individually, but not as a pairing. Semedo looked as if we can rely on him as back-up for Moutaouakil if needed, but isn’t a natural right-back. Defensive midfielder or central defence looks best for him, but it was a capable enough job.
Youga and Moutaouakil are likely to be the first-choice full-backs. Nobody is happier about that than me. But they can’t afford the sort of mistakes they made today. The only goal of the game came from Youga losing possession and there could easily have been a repeat in the first half. Moutaouakil added vibrancy and drive when he came on in the second half, but he too gave away the ball and nearly cost us a goal. We just have to hope they both keep these sort of mistakes to a minimum.
Fortune and Hudson didn’t seem to be a natural pairing. There was no sign of communication. And wouldn’t you just have scripted it, for a general that Napoleon would not have favoured. No sooner had Pardew said how important it was that Hudson stays fit than we see him hobbling off injured. Hopefully it was just a precaution. Fortune must feel decidedly cheesed off at Charlton. We don’t seem to trust him and are not prepared to regard him as first-choice. Personally I think he can do a job if his partner is exceptional. We started last season in pretty much the same situation and paid the price.
Wagstaff will know he had a poor half and was rightly substituted. He has plenty of time. Sam looked lively when he first came on, but became increasingly ineffective against accomplished defenders. Thomas. Ah, Jerome Thomas. We need you badly this season. My heart sank the first time he lost the ball, displayed petulance in squaring up to their player after a poor effort to win it back. But thereafter he was involved in most of the good things that we did.
As for Gray and Varney, in their defence their service was almost non-existent. But Gray in particular offered nothing; Varney offered strong running but delivered no more, like last season. We need both to perform better this season and to become a pairing. This was the only pre-season game I’ve seen and maybe in others they were more impressive. Fleetwood had little chance to impress (coming on after Thomas had been moved inside). I left hoping that Gray and Varney are still feeling their way into the season – and that Todorov and Dickson can push them hard.
The two major negatives for me were: first, there was no sign that we were playing to any sort of style or system that indicated we knew our strengths and would play to them. Second, I know it was a pre-season friendly but in the first half in particular there was no sense of urgency or determination. This was a collection of many fringe players with an opportunity to make a case for inclusion in the first team. Leadership and collective spirit were not in evidence. I hope it will be come the time of Swansea, because they are vital for our coming season. Finally, I don’t want to hear Pardew giving any indication of being disappointed. Quotes are always taken out of context. But I want to hear that we are ready and up for the fight ahead – and to see evidence of this on the pitch. Today was a day for reserving judgement and to focus on the pluses. Elliot and Racon. Well, the latter’s French after all.