We’re only 7 or 8 games into the season, but from an elitist point of view the division is already shaping up as might have been predicted. If you asked such an elitist which are the ‘big clubs’ in League One, I’d imagine that person would say that after Charlton you have (in no particular order) Hull, Ipswich, Portsmouth and Sunderland. Add in Peterborough and Doncaster, two teams you’d imagine would be in the mix, and a wildcard in Lincoln, and thanks to our three-game winning run you have the top eight as it stands.
No disrespect intended to any of the other 16 teams, and acknowledging that any one of them can end up promoted, even prove to be the best team in the division; but if that elitist looks at those now below us in the league he/she might be tempted to say none of them you would look at and say ‘what on earth are they doing down there?’ Obviously Wigan are there because of off-field issues and may regroup, Blackpool would point to history and the fact that they were in the Premiership more recently than us. But that’s about it.
We’ve already played three of the seven still above us (would have been four but for the Ipswich game getting suspended), with the undistinguished record of one draw and two defeats. But those games fall into the pre-Thomas Sandgaard team era (technically Sunderland was the first game of the era but came before the new team arrived). For me, Doncaster were impressive, strong and know how to play together to a system. Lincoln looked hard-working but basic; they were fortunate to beat us when we barely had a team. Neither did Sunderland look likely to storm the division. Hull, Ipswich, Peterborough (clearly the form team at the moment, along with us) and Portsmouth (also in form having won four out of the last five) I have, as yet, no idea.
Obviously we will have a better idea about Portsmouth after Saturday, but that game aside, and without wishing to tempt fate, the fixtures through to the end of November pit us against teams currently below us: Oxford (H), Fleetwood (H), Orient (H), Rochdale (A), Gillingham (A), Burton (A). And at least as far as the league is concerned, once we get beyond Fleetwood on 3 November the hectic pace of fixtures does ease off (there will be the first round of the FA Cup thrown in for good measure for us, hopefully we can avoid the second round), which should allow for more time for knocks to heal and for the emergence of something like a settled squad.
It's perfectly fine that Lee Bowyer, in the wake of Saturday’s game, commented that he will continue to rotate players. The issue against Northampton wasn’t rotation as such, rather not having either Watson or Pratley starting in a game which was a real scrap in dire conditions; that did Levitt and Forster-Caskey no favours I think, with the change made at the break. Sure, changes will be made, but at least some of the areas are becoming clearer.
Amos has been excellent so far this season and is now the first name on the teamsheet if available. The back four currently picks itself, as on Saturday, with Pearce and Oshilaja currently not available and Purrington now assumed to be back-up for Maatsen (although it will be too much to expect him to play every game). If the rumours are correct and we resign Matthews, it’s another good option (especially if Doughty is out for a while and cannot in extremis operate as a full back/wing back), although the assumption is that Gunter would be first choice for the foreseeable future. Surprisingly Barker seems to have fallen out of favour for now (or is he injured?) but is surely still in the mix. As a fellow Addick pointed out this morning, what is set to be our second-string back four – Matthews, Pearce, Oshilaja, Purrington – could easily have played as a unit in the Championship last season.
Equally, the picture up front is reasonably straightforward, with Davison going out on loan, even if the best combination has yet to emerge. Aneke or Bogle and Smyth or Washington. I don’t see the latter pair as like-for-like, and suspect that if all are fit and available the pairing of Aneke and Smyth would be best to start a game, but Bogle is really still getting up to speed and Washington has had a decent start to the season.
It's really in midfield where it is a bit of a mess, primarily because Gilbey got injured and Maddison is still getting fit. To Watson and Pratley and Forster-Caskey and Levitt you add Shinnie, Williams, Morgan, Vennings and of course Doughty. That’s 11 in total, an abundance if all are available, but right now the options are more limited, down to eight if Doughty is out and effectively six if you assume that Watson and Pratley don’t both start and the same now for Forster-Caskey and Levitt (perhaps they would work as a combination if there is a minder behind them). Perhaps if Matthews comes in and Doughty is out, Gunter could be moved further forward.
For all these decisions in Bowyer we trust. There’s a lot more still to find out about this group. I hope it never happens but for example how will they react to going behind? The spirit and determination has been excellent so far, if that’s maintained we will stay rightly optimistic.