With a few extra days for the team to prepare for Brighton (thanks fixture compilers, instead of one of the best away outings of the season we’re squeezed into a midweek fixture which for me is impossible to make), there’s the chance for a little reflection on the season to date, fixtures, team issues etc.
Undoubtedly before the season started we would have been absolutely delighted to take second place about a third of the way in. Of course things will fluctuate and no-one can say for sure how the campaign will pan out. But as things stand this period, plus the welcome absence of player sales, means we can say that anything less than automatic promotion will be a real disappointment (as Richard Murray pretty much said on Thursday night), a play-off spot would be the minimum acceptable, and anything less (including not winning the play-offs) would be a disaster.
Of our current nearest challengers for second spot, I would imagine that most would agree with the notion that Norwich are the biggest threat (especially if their start is taken out of the equation). We all have a soft spot for them, it’s one of the best away trips, so them going up in the play-offs would be a decent outcome. This doesn’t look like a league where teams often go on storming runs; the games come too thick and fast and generally there’s not the difference in quality that means a team can often win at a canter. Southampton aside, even this early it’s hard to see a team coming through from the lower half. Leeds are not yet a shoo-in, but signing three loan players this week looks a pretty fair indication of their intentions to cement their position. Perhaps we have to hope for a Premiership bid for Beckford to unsettle him.
So far this season I haven’t bothered about how other teams are faring, but perhaps now’s the time to consider the results of Norwich, Huddersfield, Colchester and MK Dons as almost as important, and to look at the fixture list (another thing I’ve barely done). On the former, aside from Norwich Huddersfield’s home record worries me (seven wins and two draws out of nine, 28 goals scored), Colchester’s strike force as we found out is a concern (although as indicated on Thursday it’s always possible a certain Lisbie will return to Ipswich). Otherwise, most of the teams I’ve seen this season appear limited (and sometimes downright awful).
League games are seldom unimportant, but looking at the fixtures it seems to me that the next 11, to end-January, provide us with at least the opportunity to cement a top-two spot. Home games against Southend, Millwall, Swindon, Hartlepool, Orient and Tranmere, plus away at Brighton, Stockport, Brentford, Walsall and Wycombe are all on paper winnable (of course there will be hiccups). This is the cold, hard slog part of the season, but it’s one where we should be pulling away, if we are to go up. After that it looks more tricky, with especially the away trips tougher (Swindon, Bristol, Southend, Millwall, Huddersfield, MK Dons, Southampton), while Colchester, Norwich and Leeds come to The Valley for the run-in. So, a re-run of the last promotion campaign could be on the cards if we really turn the screws over the next couple of months – although I could do without a repeat of the limping over the line.
It is strange how the team and the tactics have evolved/changed. Killer noted in the Bristol programme that he favours 4-4-2 – and given the comings and goings that may now be the case. Previously, with only one reliable striker and a powerful midfield it was in my view a different picture. It’s also strange that having not made an enforced change for the first 10 games, when the team just about picked itself, I don’t think we’ve since fielded an unchanged side. Of course it’s been down to injuries and suspensions, but the bringing in on loan of Mooney and Sodje(A), plus the purchase of McKenzie, have altered the range of options. We started the season with what looked like a capable and stable defence (albeit one short of cover in the centre and short of pace), a powerful and settled midfield five, and little choice up front. The defence has recently had to be patched up with loan signings due to injuries, but the bringing in of additional forwards and the switch to 4-4-2 have left the midfield now a more open area.
I doubt whether there has been a situation at the club similar to the one now for forwards. On the books we have Burton, Tuna, McKenzie, Dickson, Fleetwood and McLeod. One (Tuna) is still learning his trade, two (Dickson, Fleetwood) are out on loan, quite possibly never to return, one (McKenzie) has been injured, and McLeod would be off if we get a half-decent offer. So out of six actual Charlton forwards only one can be viewed as likely to feature in our strongest side. The two loan signings can be considered next in line after Burton, at least until McKenzie is available, and while Mooney has signed up for another month we quite frankly have no idea who will be with us and available come January. I guess there’s the transfer window to clarify the picture; in the interim we make use of whoever is around. In an ideal world January would see two or three forwards on our books passed on and the two loan signings made permanent, but who knows how it will turn out. We could see Dickson return and nobody wanting any of the others, in which case it’s hard to see Mooney or Sodje staying, especially if they cost money.
The defence still picks itself if all were available. Elliot seems set to return for the Brighton game, with Randolph having to make sure he is ready if needed despite having been passed over in favour of the now departed Ikeme. Richardson with Solly as back-up as right-back, Youga with Basey on the left side. It’s tough on Solly to miss his chance this time around – and tough on Omozusi to come in and be first choice from the start (even when dropped for Tuesday he had to come on to replace Youga). I thought he deserved plaudits for sticking at it against Bristol and getting better as the game went on, but presumably until Richardson is available Parkinson’s first choice now is to switch Youga to the right. Dailly (my player of the season to date) and Sodje(S) are the incumbents, with Llera ready to step in (and Youga, Semedo or Basey capable of playing in the centre of defence if really necessary). It’s a bit patched up at the moment, but nothing fundamentally wrong and, barring further injuries, it would be surprising to see anything done in the transfer window. Let’s not overlook that there’s no guarantee that Moutaouakil won’t return (and cost more money) if nobody else wants him come end-February.
The five-man midfield had for much of the early part of the season a fluidity and goalscoring potential that was a delight (I hope the season’s DVD shows the full five minutes that culminated in the second goal against Brentford). Of course we always at least needed a Plan B (which until recently meant McLeod) and I’m not quibbling about the change of formation. The personnel available have changed, at least temporarily. Both Shelvey and Racon could have been due a rest, but 4-4-2 means no place in the hole at least for Shelvey and Racon has not been at his best in a two-man central pairing. The switching of Bailey to the centre of midfield has reinvigorated him, but there’s always a downside. Wide left hasn’t worked for Racon and Shelvey looked out of sorts there on Tuesday. Also, I would imagine that Spring is less than pleased at being overlooked when it was decided a change was needed. Bottom line is with 4-4-2 we haven’t yet found an ideal midfield four and the current set-up involves the exclusion or marginalisation of two players who at their best would be in the first team (of course it’s all about how the team functions and if that means they’re out so be it).
Given all of these issues and recent changes, it is perhaps surprising – and a testament to Parkinson and his team – that we are where we are in the league. He has made changes when he felt necessary. I just hope that players at the club who may be feeling a bit piqued at the moment – Randolph, Llera, Spring, Racon, Shelvey, McLeod – show the right attitude. Everything Llera says and does suggests confidence in him at least on this front (which is not to suggest in any way that the attitude of others is different). We have had enough of prima donnas over the past few seasons and there will be no forgiving anyone who throws his toys out of the pram given our situation.
We are overdue an away win and most of us I guess will be expecting three points from Brighton. Of course we love turning The Valley into a fortress, but if anything we’ve had most of the breaks at home and not away. Six away winless since Tranmere, but at least three could have been won (we will draw a discreet veil over Colchester and Carlisle). Time to start the run through December and January that provides the real platform for promotion.