Sunday, 28 October 2012

Sending 'Em Home Miserable

I’ve never enjoyed listening to commentary on a Charlton game when not in attendance; somehow you can’t get a sense of perspective and every time the commentator’s voice rises you fear the worse (or at least I do). So for the past two games that’s meant whiling away the minutes pretending to work, with the BBC site for news and the radio on. It’s also meant pleading for the final whistle, unaware at the time that these entreaties coincided with Wright-Phillips and Hulse failing to convert the chances to give us what to the unenlightened might have appeared to be unlikely victories. I don’t think it’s just natural pessimism; it was just that, having both times come back from being behind at the break, taking something back with us from two very difficult away games seemed very important. And you always assume that it’s the home team going all out for the win.

Fact is we’ve managed to send Leeds and Wolves fans home feeling rather miserable. Perhaps not as miserable as us after Watford and Barnsley, but miserable nonetheless. The inconsistency and narrow margins of the season to date can be summed up in two ways. First, my mood following the game (once the feeling of having been cruelly robbed each time we haven’t won has subsided). In chronological order this has been satisfied, ecstatic, content , miserable, suicidal, miserable, delighted, content, miserable, ecstatic, distraught, happy and happy. That sort of record is probably matched by the supporters of nearly all the other teams in the division, with the possible exception of Leicester and Cardiff, plus Ipswich (and of course Palace, who cannot be other than miserable and, as these are human emotions, Millwall). Second, I realise it’s stretching a point (and does not gloss over poor performances at home), but with that bit of luck in stoppage time we could have come away with all three points from Birmingham, Leeds and Wolves, and even a point from Derby. Those extra points would see us on the fringe of the play-offs rather than a couple of points off a bottom-three place.

I’m not saying we necessarily deserved those points, or that we haven’t had some luck too (Leicester will have been disappointed not to have got at least a point against us, while Doyle’s block yesterday at 1-0 to them takes some beating). But the games cited all involved the final few moments when if things had gone for us there would have been no time for the opposition to respond.

Consequently, while not delighted by it, I’m not too bothered about the league table (yet). We’ve shown that we’re competitive against some of the best sides in the division and capable of beating them when we play well. Yes, we’ve also shown that we can lose against anyone if the standards drop. And I don’t think the disruption to the side from injuries should be overlooked. We all expected tinkering with the team rather than revolution. You’d have got long odds in the summer on us about a quarter into the season beginning a game without Wiggins, Taylor, Hollands, Stephens, Green, Wagstaff, Kermorgant and Wright-Phillips, plus a forward (Fuller) brought in and injuries for Cook and Haynes.

Of course, Hollands and BWP were available for the recent games and not selected. In Wright-Phillips’ case that’s as much down to formation and the availability of a suitable partner for him (and a replacement on the bench) as form, although on form alone he can’t really complain. It’s fair to say that at the start of the season thoughts of a top half finish were probably based on an assumption of BWP and Kermorgant between them scoring at least 20 goals, preferably more. Without Kermorgant, and now without Fuller, we’ve had to find another way.

That’s the tough away games behind us for a while, so thoughts have to turn back to what we do at home. After the failure to win in a pair of home games, Sir Chris went for a formation (4-5-1) that brought victory away at Blackpool. He stuck with it for a home game and it didn’t work, resulting in changes at the break (which also didn’t work). Having commented after the Barnsley game that among other things we don’t operate with an outright defensive central midfielder, Powell plonks Dervite in the role, in a 4-1-4-1 formation, for the Leeds game. It works and he scores. It worked well enough against Wolves too. But do we stick with it at home?

For me the answer has to be ‘yes’. The players in possession of the shirt deserve to keep it if they’ve performed (and it’s notable that in the two away games the substitutions came late on). Also, we are coming up against tough opposition. Middlesbrough come to The Valley on the back of four successive wins and then it’s Cardiff, top of the league and having won eight of their last 10. There shouldn’t be the kind of pressure on us to make the pace in these games as there was against Barnsley in particular. We – the crowd and the team - might need to be very patient.

On Saturday this may well mean Sir Chris and the team ignoring well-meaning shouts from a French person in the crowd to charge forward and score bucketloads of goals (of course if we do charge forward and score bucketloads of goals no-one will be happier than me). My partner Suzanne will be there for the Boro game. While she loves a trip to The Valley, and hasn't been for a while, she will be the first (perhaps the second) to admit that she doesn’t necessarily admire the beauty of a tactical, cagey and defensive 0-0, or a disjointed, ugly 1-0 win (for us). I’m ready to live with it and she just might have to.

If she wants flowing football and goals she can walk the couple of hundred yards from her flat to watch Lyon Duchere. They have won six and drawn three of their first nine, scoring 17 in the process, to top CFA Groupe B with a five-points lead, having beaten Moulins last time out in the top-of-the-table clash (this weekend was the cup). I hope to be there with her before too long, but I’m afraid more important things need to be dealt with first.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Home And Away - Any Lessons?

Sir Chris commented after yesterday’s game that “we haven’t done ourselves justice at home and clearly that’s something we need to arrest”. Can’t argue with that as a record of 1-2-3 and four goals in six games (the figures are of course even worse if the first of the six is stripped out) speaks for itself – or does it? To put it another way, is our poor home record to date something which requires a fundamental change in approach (and/or players) or just a reflection of the nature of the league, our relative strengths, even luck? If there is an answer, for me it’s that there are good reasons for the contrast between our home and away records (with the latter standing comparison with virtually all others in the league and better than those of the top two). Whether this leads onto the possibility of changing things for the better is another matter.

You have to start (I believe) with knowing your strengths (and weaknesses) as a team. We are not blessed with great pace, don’t play an out-and-out passing game (nor have an overt long-ball approach), we don’t operate with an outright defensive midfielder, and we’ve suffered disruptions through injuries. More positively, even without Wiggins we have a solid defence (six conceded in six at home is reasonable, as is seven from five away), which is also credit to the midfield doing the necessary covering, we are a threat from set pieces, especially with Cort (although losing Kermorgant doesn’t help there – and when both Kermorgant and Jackson are out the first-choice options for shooting also go), are still in the process of integrating new players, and there remains a good team ethic, with no shortage of effort and commitment.

For me, this suggests it’s always going to be a fine line between playing well or badly as a team (and the result), with the margin down to the tempo, movement and precision. It’s also where the element of luck comes in as nicking a first goal makes a big difference. In each of the away games that turned out well (Ipswich, Blackpool and Birmingham, even if we didn’t quite win that one) it was 0-0 at half-time. When you are the away team, there’s a feeling that that’s fine; don’t have to change anything, keep it tight and with a bit of luck we’ll score one or two. The two that didn’t (Forest and Derby) saw us (I think, but wasn’t there) have the same approach but these times we made mistakes and conceded goals.

Of the home games, Leicester was very much the exception to the rule. They went for it from the start, probably believing that in an open contest they were more likely to come out on top (and their record since supports the approach). That gave us space to exploit and in the first half of that game we used it well. Contrast that with Barnsley. They play their style of football but for me most tellingly had that blond guy plonked in front of their defence. That largely negated the strengths of having Razak in the hole behind Fuller. He blotted out the space that the formation might have exploited. Not many teams (if any) are going to come to The Valley with Leicester’s approach, especially as any half-decent scout would be able to suggest ways to play against us based on the evidence to date. All the other five to date have been much tighter – and all went away with points.

When playing at home against teams that, like us away, are reasonably happy at 0-0 (and happier at 0-1) it is inevitable that the space going forward will be restricted. That of course makes it more difficult to pick out a telling pass and, with teams seldom getting caught out by a gung ho attacking approach breaking down, can result in too slow a tempo, and easily give the impression (which transmits to the crowd) that we are playing badly (which in relative terms is true as nothing much gets created). Again, away from home there’s no real problem; at home the pressure can mount.

Powell opted for a formation for an away game which worked well. Indeed, I took a look at the Blackpool site match report and it concluded with the following: “Blackpool continued to toil away for a way back into the game, but found attacking inspiration strangely hard to come by on this occasion, as they struggled to find any way through the Addicks’ defence”. That could have been written for us about a number of home games, including yesterday. Sir Chris opted to keep the formation for a home game but whereas as against Blackpool 0-0 at the break was fine, this time he felt the need to make changes (to be fair it seems that there was no shortage of chances created in the first half against Blackpool). Would he have done the same if we had been the away team?

So, what’s to be done? Powell added that for coming home games “even if it’s an ugly performance and we kick a 1-0 win, I, like many of our supporters, would settle for that at the moment”. I’d count myself among them. It means being ready to be very patient. That may be less of a problem in the next two home games, against Middlesbrough and Cardiff, as with no disrespect to Barnsley intended there will be less thought of them being games that we should win (there should have been no such thoughts ahead of yesterday as Barnsley showed they are a good side). The reality is that unlike last season we don’t have a settled side (the surprise a year ago was how well and quickly a new team gelled; let's not forget that we started yesterday with four players new to the team) and are up against materially better opposition; we simply aren't going to be able to overpower teams in the fashion that we so often did last season.

That said, I do think there are areas we can improve on. I often feel during games that we are an extremely hard-working side when not in possession but lack movement when we have the ball. Every player with the ball has to have an easy pass as an option and that’s down to players doing more of the thankless task of moving to make themselves available. Too often it seems to me that a player looks up and too many are standing still. The counterpart to this is simply doing things better, being braver with the passing and expecting to have to make decisions faster in this league. That's part of the stepping-up process.

All of this may not mean much when it comes to the reality of two tough away games and Fuller joining Kermorgant and others on the injury list. BWP can’t play a lone striker role – unless we pack midfield and play through it, effectively ignoring a ball up to the striker. I guess the options are to bring in Hulse to either play alone in a 4-5-1 or with Wright-Phillips. Whatever the options chosen for the two games, we are in the weeks ahead going to have to work out the new Plan A in difficult circumstances. In pre-season Sir Chris was talking about having different options and did do some tinkering. But as long as the midfield shapes up and plays the same they are minor variations on a theme. Injuries have limited the options in any event, putting the emphasis on character and resolution in the week ahead. The team showed those qualities in spades last season.

Finally, I’m not close to the club, don’t have contacts there, so have no real idea what is going on behind the scenes and what the departures might really mean. Suffice to say that when a guy like Rick Everitt is sacked by the club and – whatever the reasons for him leaving – doesn’t merit even the briefest official appreciation of his contribution to Charlton over many years it reflects poorly on those in charge. That it seems Wendy Perfect is following him out of the door, apparently of her own volition, only compounds the effect. Silence in this context risks being interpreted as indifference to, if not contempt for, the feelings and opinions of the fans.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Not A Day To Remember Fondly

Merde. Not a lot, if anything, went right today. It began at sparrow’s fart French time, with a mouth like the proverbial bottom of a canarie’s cage (well, it was my last night in Lyon for a while and a lot needed to be finished off). At St Exupery the doubts surfaced with the announcement of a 20-minute delay to the flight, which was soon updated to 45 minutes. What became an hour became two as we didn’t have a slot to take off. That meant the dash from Gatwick had to involve going straight to the pub, where there was just enough time to sling one glass of wine down my throat. No matter, a victory and all would be well (enough). Just wasn’t to be, due to two factors: first, we didn’t play well enough; second, the ref doesn’t give a stonewall penalty.

Sir Chris opted to keep the 4-4-1-1 formation that had secured the splendid win away at Blackpool, with Razak supporting Fuller up front, Kerkar and Green out wide, and Hollands and Stephens in the centre, with no changes either in defence. No real problems there, but I don’t know if my own sense of lethargy extended to the rest of the crowd and onto the pitch as the first half proved to be something of a stalemate. The tone for first-half shooting was set by Razak, whose ambitious shot from closer to the half-way line than the goal drifted harmlessly wide, as were just about all of Barnsley’s efforts. They seemed to have a propensity to shoot from not especially dangerous positions – and to send them wide in any event.

Our play was steady but lacked zip and too often foundered on their blonde-haired guy, who spent all the afternoon sweeping up effectively in front of their defence. There were flashes, not least from Razak and Fuller, and a splendid run and cross from Kerkar. And a couple of free-kicks, the first (from Green) being blocked and the second (Razak) turned round the post. But if you’re summing up 45 minutes and that’s it, it’s a fair indication that the game didn’t have the bumper crowd on the edge of its seats. Aside from their poor shooting Barnsley did create one decent chance, as a cross from the left saw their guy and Hamer engage in a game of spot the ball, before it ended up in Hamer’s arms.

0-0 at the break was a fair reflection of the game. Barnsley had moved the ball around well enough but didn’t look threatening; we hadn’t moved it with enough precision or pace to disrupt them. What had been notable was the ref’s apparent desire to let the game flow, which is fine in principle but meant that one or two late challenges by them went unpunished and in general we weren’t getting the better of the physical contest.

Changes came at the break, with Wright-Phillips coming on for Razak and Jackson for Hollands. The former, basically a change in formation (back to 4-4-2), was reasonable and in itself no real reflection on Razak’s display, which was promising even if he didn’t seem to exploit the space between midfield and defence (perhaps due to that blonde git). The latter was a little curious as it seemed to involve like-for-like in terms of position. Perhaps Sir Chris was thinking in terms of set-pieces. Fact is the second change came back to hurt us later on.

The formation change didn’t seem to disrupt Barnsley, as they went about their business. And in a 15-minute spell they took the initiative and grabbed the goal that was to prove decisive. They first squandered the best chance of the game to date, as a guy arriving at the far post unmarked opted not to head the ball in but rather to try to get his foot on the ball, sending it over the bar. Seemed par for the course, but as the announcer confirmed the crowd and we were all looking at the big screen number suddenly one of theirs had made inroads on our right side. Instead of the expected cross he moved away from the byline and curled one into the far corner of the net. It was a finish out of keeping with the rest of the game.

That should have stinged us into action, but not a lot changed. Until the other decisive moment of the game. Solly advanced into the box to get onto a ball inside and seemed (no, was) upended from behind. It looked to me a stonewall penalty. Whether or not their guy touched the ball (as the ref seemed to be indicating) he had gone through Solly to get there. One big decision to make and he bottled it. Final judgement has to await the TV highlights, but I think he just screwed it up. Irrespective of the balance of play, his indecision cost us dear.

Pritchard came on for Green, with not a great deal coming down the flanks, and Barnsley continued to frustrate most of our efforts to make something happen. One or two balls into the box, always the threat of Cort at a set-piece, but nothing much else, with Fuller looking less effective as the game wore on and BWP not getting a sniff in or around the area. If we were getting downhearted, the mood got worse as Fuller pulled up and quickly departed, presumably with a hamstring.

All that was left was the final hurrah, with Cort moving up front. In fact in the final five minutes or so, down to 10 men and with nothing to lose, we did start to cause them problems, with Wilson seemingly able to move down the right and past their guys with impunity. One late scramble in the box, but in truth Barnsley saw out the game (I think they made three substitutions in stoppage time) relatively untroubled, even when Hamer came up for the last corner.

We should have had a penalty and that could have changed the game. It wouldn’t have hidden the fact that we didn’t play well enough, with not enough verve, adventure or accuracy. But we might well have taken a point and moved on. Instead we have to reflect on what is becoming a dire home record. Four goals in six at home speaks for itself. Fuller will presumably be out for a few weeks, all of which leaves Sir Chris with some serious thinking. The first-half wasn’t great but was even, the change in formation at the break didn’t make things better, and the use of a second substitute then cost us when Fuller had to depart. Suddenly Hulse and Smith move up the ranks of available choices and we are left with the feeling that the team has to show more daring in games, especially at home.

To round things off, and with a couple of additional friends down for the game, we retired to the Oak. But like many others simply gave up waiting to be served by an indifferent and poorly organised bar staff. The way the day’s gone I’ll probably find that Khans has run out of food. I just hope that the ref has as miserable day tomorrow as I did today.

Player Ratings (I don’t think about these in advance, but that they all turned out, for me, similar, was a fair reflection of the fact the fact that nobody really did enough to hurt them, while nobody was especially bad):

Hamer – 7/10. Once again, what mark do you give a keeper who had no chance with the goal and otherwise no serious shot to save?

Wilson – 7/10. Can’t be sure whether he was culpable for their goal as I was watching the screen at the time. Got forward to good effect late on, although the balls in failed to find a target.

Solly – 6/10. A bit harsh as he should have been getting the plaudits for a run into the box which produced a goal from the spot. But he did seem to lose his rag after that, perhaps not surprisingly, and with a yellow card came close to getting a second.

Cort – 7/10. Distribution occasionally naff, but that’s not really his game. We failed to find his head with set pieces but defensively nothing wrong.

Morrison – 7/10. No complaints here, defended effectively and a game of very few chances means both back fours cannot be blamed.

Kerkar – 7/10. Was involved in most of our brighter moments and clearly had the capacity to cause them problems. Still a plus for me and hopefully will become increasingly effective in turning the threat into goals.

Hollands – 6/10. Not exactly a dramatic first half, but can’t really see why he was taken off at the break. The change didn’t exactly turn the game.

Stephens – 6/10. Equally unexceptional. Fact is throughout the game we failed to control midfield, even with the first-half formation.

Green – 6/10. Not effective enough. I can’t remember him getting past their defender, or delivering a telling cross. Perhaps symptomatic of a very tight game.

Razak – 7/10. Showed promise in the first half and nearly made a couple of things happen, although instead of his introduction creating a more fluid midfield the others seemed to rely on him alone to support Fuller, while their blond git closed out the space.

Fuller – 6/10. Bright enough in the first half, but seemed to get more shackled as the game progressed before his early departure.

Subs – Wright-Phillips (6/10 – worked well enough away from the box but nothing came his way in it); Jackson (6/10 – nothing of note in the second half, when we failed to create a single decent chance aside from the penalty); Pritchard (6/10 – no real chance to shine but perhaps helped create the space for Wilson to get forward late on).

Monday, 8 October 2012

Disjointed - But Not So Bad

There is I suppose something odd about doing a post when in essence I’m doubtful that I have anything to say; belatedly expressing delight at the Blackpool result doesn’t seem to cut it. But popular consensus is that’s never stopped me before, so perhaps it’s best to scribble and see where the path leads.

If there is a theme it’s that through no fault of my own the season seems to be passing me by. I’ve managed just three of the 10 games so far, having had to forego home games against Hull (wedding in Lille) and Watford (work-related Amsterdam trip). Work doesn’t make midweek away trips especially easy and while Forest was in retrospect possible Ipswich was ruled out (my partner Suzanne chose that weekend for a London visit and when faced with the option of a day’s outing or a slow-cooked leg of lamb ... well, she is French). Any thoughts of Blackpool were ruled out by returning from Amsterdam with the office bug.

The way things are looking it’s not going to get any easier. I’m off to Lyon for the week ahead and, easyjet permitting, will fly back in time on Saturday morning to get across town for Barnsley. But the next Amsterdam trip could rule out the home game against Cardiff and to round things off Suzanne’s penchant for forward planning meant that we booked to go to Brussels for new year, only to discover when the fixture list came out that we head off the day Ipswich come to town. I’m still pondering whether it’s possible to watch the game and still make the last Eurostar, or just hoping that for some reason they bring forward the kick-off, but my prevarication is starting to cause concern in Lyon as the prices tick up with each passing day.

It all makes things rather disjointed, which is a fair assessment of the season to date (you see, there’s always a link). Three games witnessed to date and the season almost a quarter gone. I’ve seen a win, a draw and, according to the record books, one defeat (albeit one that is blessedly fading from my memory; give me another couple of weeks and it just won’t have happened). Add in the loss of Kermorgant and Wiggins, as well as Taylor, Jackson and Wagstaff, plus the new guys who’ve come in, and it’s given rise to an air of uncertainty that we learnt to live without last season. And it’s a fine line at the moment between uncertainty when we hover around the drop zone and opportunity/excitement when a win sees us looking upwards. Any team which includes three consecutive defeats in the first 10 games isn’t going to be among the early pace-setters and we’ve yet to manage back-to-back wins; it’s Barnsley’s role to get rid of that unwanted statistic.

The decision to drop Wright-Phillips for Blackpool will have been a tough one, but another Addick who attended the Ipswich match commented that he had a poor game there – and the result speaks for itself. Wilson seems to be taking his opportunity, however tough it is on Evina, and the little I’ve seen so far of Kerkar was positive. I can’t comment at all on Razak (or Dervite for that matter), but it’s an exciting move, especially if this works well for Fuller (and signing him was nothing less than a master-stroke). It remains to be seen whether Sir Chris will keep the formation for a home game, but you have to say why not? If there is a figure which stands out from the table it’s four goals in five home games.

I have rambled on before about the contrast with last season, but a fellow Addick pointed out that it’s actually been a number of seasons since we began a campaign without a clear idea of what would constitute success (and failure). At this stage we can only rank the priorities (starting with the blindingly obvious), especially as each time the media tags us as ‘struggling’ Charlton we respond with an away win. Progress is good enough for me as we have time to think about our own ‘next level’ (which is a spurious link to allow some criticism of the normally sensible Mick McCarthy who recently on Radio 5 trotted out the silly line that somehow it was Charlton fans demanding more that led to Curbs’ departure).

And it seems we are not alone in making progress. My adopted French team, Lyon Duchere, has made an explosive start to their CFA Groupe B campaign. With five wins and three draws from the first eight games – including a 4-3 victory over PSG B - they top their league. If my timings weren’t all so screwed up I would be there to witness their next game, at home to second-placed Moulins. But that would have meant no Barnsley game. Guess while I am in Lyon I’ll have to settle to Suzanne’s slow-cooked leg of lamb, washed down with whatever we pick up at the wine fair during the week. Like the league table, it ain’t all bad.