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.