At one level Lee Bowyer’s absolutely right to say after Saturday’s disappointing defeat and performance that “we’ve got two home games coming up and we have to win them both”. Nobody’s giving up on automatic promotion at this point and for sure, as we are into the final third of the season, the team should be approaching each game with that mentality.
At another level he’s wrong. Arguably for the month ahead at least performances are more important than results (of course the two are not exactly mutually-exclusive). It doesn’t take a genius to see that there are four teams above us and if their games in hand are played out the gap between us and the top two spots it likely to be substantial. Closing it would require a team firing on all cylinders, aware of how it wants to play and how to play together – and of how to play to its strengths. Nobody would say that’s us at this point in time. I’m certainly not suggesting either that a play-off spot is assured and we can just experiment. But the chances are that it will be the play-offs for us at best and if we are to have a good shout in them we would need to go into them in a much better shape than we are now.
Any team is likely to suffer some problems when there material changes, in our case both forced and unforced. We’ve coped pretty well with the departure of our then first-choice keeper, as Dillon Phillips seems to have done little wrong; and in the absence of Lewis Page the introduction of Ben Purrington has made us stronger (including being able to avoid the unsettling need to play guys out of position). But that’s pretty much where the good news ends.
Losing Jason Pearce was a big blow, irrespective of how well others have contributed. His partnership with Patrick Bauer was the cornerstone of the defence, our first-choice pairing, and of course now we will also be without Bauer for one game. But I think most would agree that the defence/defensive midfield isn’t the area of concern.
From what I can glean from match reports we are some way from getting the best out of our possible midfield combinations. I can’t make any suggestions for obvious reasons, but most partnerships take time to bed down and we don’t have anyone who is a nailed-on first choice in midfield – preferably a ‘bedrock’ pairing. Leaving aside Jake Forster-Caskey of course, and accepting that Joe Aribo is only just returning, let’s not overlook that also available to us are Krystian Bielik, Mark Marshall, Tarique Fosu-Henry, Ben Reeves, Darren Pratley, Albie Morgan, Jonathan Williams (who may be considered a forward), Josh Cullen, George Lapslie, and Anfernee Dijksteel (who may of course be considered a defender but is listed on the club site as a midfielder).
Now that’s 11 names for a team that can cite only one fit, first-choice striker – who happens to be suspended. Unbalanced undoubtedly, but surely even allowing for the needs of the modern game there’s a blend of available talent that will work. It doesn’t look as though Williams has hit the ground running for us, but that may be down to any number of reasons, including him not being sure of his role or others not being used to playing with him.
Bowyer understandably talks of the squad getting stronger as players return. Midfield is the area where we do now have an abundance of options and surely, given the situation up front, the one we have to make our real strength if we are to get promoted (one way or another). So for me if anything the priority for the games ahead is that we know how we want our midfield to function and what combinations work best for us.
We can of course gloss over the forwards as everyone knows the position. We are operating on the proverbial wing and a prayer, hoping that Igor Vetokele can get match-fit very quickly and strike up a partnership with Lyle Taylor and/or that Reeco Hackett-Fairchild and/or Josh Parker – neither of whom by the way are as yet blessed with a first-team ‘full squad’ profile on the club site – come good quickly. We all hope Parker proves to be an astute signing. He no doubt will be aware that response to the news of his arrival has been, shall we say, underwhelming, which is no reflection on him. Hopefully that will translate into an extra desire to succeed. Equally, Hackett-Fairchild will be aware that Bowyer is not confident that he is ready to step into Grant’s position. So as the boss says, it’s an opportunity there to be taken, for him to prove to people that he is ready.
Equally there’s no point in howling once more about what recent events tell us about our sad owner. Really they reinforce what we already knew about him and where his priorities lie. For sure in other circumstances getting around £2m for a player who might walk in the summer, one who during the summer was looking more at risk of seeing the inside of a Spanish jail than appearing in the Premiership and one who over the past few years no Charlton fans would have cared much if he had left for nothing. But the circumstances are that we are pressing for promotion and the partnership that Grant had formed with Taylor was central to that effort.
If promotion was the owner’s objective (after selling the club of course, which we are regularly told is the priority, as it has been for a year now), either Grant would have been told, before clubs were encouraged to sniff around, that he was going nowhere, or it would have been made clear that the funds received would be made available to Bowyer. Instead there seemed to be a half-hearted effort to offer a new contract as an attempt to save face and a failed attempt to secure a forward on loan, which seemingly depended on the other club involved bringing someone in and so was destined to go to the final stages of the transfer window, even though it was acknowledged that the club knew Grant was off for some days. We even had to wait until the end for news that Parker has signed from Gillingham, on a ‘permanent’ six-month contract (now I’ve never heard a six-month deal described as permanent before, leaves you guessing what a short-term deal might be).
Some may just shrug their shoulders over Grant’s departure and use the cliché that we’ve always been ‘a selling club’. I’ll confess I really don’t know if that means anything. Arsenal were pushed into selling Robin van Persie to Man Utd. Does that mean they are a selling club? If they are, there are precious few in the world which are not, in which case the phrase is pretty meaningless. But either way there’s a difference between being a ‘selling club’ and a ‘player farm’. And under Duchatelet we are the latter, as Meire so kindly informed us. So be it. We avoided relegation in 2013/14 despite the inane actions of our owner; let's get promoted this season despite them.