Saturday, July 30, 2005

Play It Again Sam

A nice short drive to Watford, and another rare chance for me to gauge the pulse of the team as we approach the new season. The occasion was Alec Chamberlain's testimonial and at the grand old age of 41 too - the attendance seemed pretty healthy (perhaps 6000) though again the Addicks turnout was limited to 300 or so.

Vicarage Road is a fairly impressive stadium on three sides, and a peculiar mix of stands, steps and pylons on the other. Visits to both QPR and Watford are useful since they remind us not only how far we have come (both clubs would have been considered bigger than us ten years ago), but how far we could fall if things begun to unravel on either the playing side or at the board level. Like many clubs who were relegated from the Premiership in recent seasons and failed to bounce back, their squads are now a slightly sorry mix of youngsters, ageing pros, cheap foreign imports and few, if any, are recognisable. A combination of the growing size of Premiership squads, and the dire financial positions of most Championship sides, means the gap in class between the two is large and growing.

The starting eleven of Kiely, Young, Hreidarsson, Spector, Fortune, Murphy, Holland, Smertin, Ambrose, Thomas, Bent arguably could well be the very eleven which takes the field at Sunderland, though one hopes they have gelled and learned to pass and move by then given the soporific first-half performance. In truth we created very little other than a late Murphy chance, and Kiely was the busier of the keepers thanks in part to the menace posed by Watford's smart young wingers, McNamee and Young. Ambrose was a disappointment and again doesn't look like a wide player to me, whilst Smertin again looked assured though was harried into some errors by a Watford side which on this performance at least, looked superior in most departments to QPR.

Holland was taken off as a precaution midway through the first period, and at half-time Curbs made three further changes and switched to a 4-4-2 formation which certainly proved the turning point. With JJ and Jeffers up front, Thomas and Lloyd Sam providing genuine width, and Murphy directing affairs from slightly deeper in midfield, the balance of the side seemed more secure. It was strange to see Bent and Smertin not reappear for the second half though tiredness may have been a factor given the regularity of the games.

We duly took the lead when Jeffers rammed home a penalty after Young's nosebleed-inducing run was apprehended by a slight tug of the shirt. Jeffers had earlier missed an open goal but his general approach play was impressive and he clearly has something to offer, though whether he will get a chance to prove it will remain to be seen. A Bent/Jeffers partnership may be interesting - the pace and strength of the former, combined with the clever feet of the latter. JJ for his part had some neat touches also to be fair (other than a shocking left-footed effort from twelve yards), but the mere sight of him pretending to compete for a header whilst ensuring he has no chance of winning the ball (or god forbid, an injury) is enough to confirm that my negative view of him is justified.

The appearance of Lloyd Sam was the obvious plus point from the afternoon - he showed lots of natural ability, a willingness to take on (and beat) the full-back and also the awareness to drift inside as required. It appears likely thus that he will become the first player since Jonathan Fortune to make his way up through the ranks to become a first team regular, a slightly worrying statistic given the resources spent on our academy, but clearly losing Jay Lloyd Samuel and Jermaine Defoe didn't help in this regard.

Watford equalised when a downward header from Marlon King evaded the despairing (and late?) dive from Kiely, but Charlton swiftly scored what proved to be the winner, Murphy creating the chance after being fouled en route to goal, then delivering an unstoppable free-kick into the top corner. The game then faded away as both teams seemed to tire in the muggy conditions, and the Addicks registered another win, albeit an unconvincing one.

With visits from Feyenoord and AEK Athens to come, things are becoming a little clearer though the improvement today when playing 4-4-2 may have raised more questions than answers for Curbs. Given that Curbs had never strayed from 4-4-2 until the middle of last season, it will be interesting to see if it will again become our 'default' formation or whether he hopes the versatility of the squad can fluidly switch between the two.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Bent Over Treble - QPR report

Thanks to a brief trip back to blighty, I was able to make it to Loftus Road along with some 3,000 other hardy souls (including perhaps only 250 Addicks, thanks perhaps to a combination of summer holidays and public transport problems), and enjoyed a promising performance notably from the new signings.

The 3-0 scoreline just about reflected our dominance, and other than a ridiculously speculative effort from former Addick (and now Rangers cult hero) Danny Shittu which cannoned off the bar, Deano's able deputy Stephan Andersen was rarely threatened. Indeed only two fantastic second half saves from Rommedahl (particularly) and Hreidarsson prevented Charlton from racking up five goals for the third time this pre-season. There was a notable 'first' during the second half when we did not bring all eleven players back for a corner, and lo and behold, a quick smart throw from Andersen set up a breakaway chance for Rommedahl. Let's hope this may be a sign of things to come; if not perhaps a more enlightened fan could explain to me exactly what defensive benefit is garnered from having the likes of Rommedahl, Thomas, Jeffers etc.. back at corners, particularly given it just allows the opposition to bring an additional man forward?

The star of the show was perhaps not Bent (though more about him later), but Alexei Smertin who was absolutely outstanding and far better than I could have hoped having not really seen him play properly before. I genuinely don't recall him ever giving the ball away, and his clever interventions, positional awareness and even a touch of pace suggest he could be the 'real deal' for us this season. Indeed I texted my father on the hour mark to say that he had Player of the Year written all over him, injuries permitting of course. The warm ovation that greeted his late substitution suggested that I wasn't alone in noting his obvious class.

Darren Bent was another who impressed, his first goal in particular suggesting a confidence in front of goal which is not shared by many others at the club, perhaps only Jeffers aside. However he could have left the field with no goals and still left a positive impression because it is clear he brings different (and stronger) attributes in the lone striker role than Bartlett. Whilst Bartlett is clearly superior aerially, this trait is frankly wasted in a lone striker role since the whole point of playing a strong target man is to have smaller pacier strikers to latch on to the flick-ons. What Bent brings however is an impressive turn of speed (which allows the ball to be played over the top rather than to his head, chest or feet), but more importantly far better ball control which allows him to bring others into the game. He still looks a little raw but it is clear what Curbs saw in him and how he will fit into the side.

The other Darren (Ambrose) also showed enough to suggest that he will play a key role, though he was able to have a far more positive influence when moved to the centre of midfield, where his close control and balance enabled him to open up the game. Indeed, played in this position, he could be the answer to the problem of our embarrassing lack of pace in central midfield last season. Stuck on the left wing during the first half however, he constantly was forced onto his weaker foot and it is not clear what he can offer us in this position, other than joining Curbs' long list of "Flexible Players."

The fourth and final new signing on show was Jonathan Spector who played alongside Perry (for 70 mins) in the centre of defence before moving to left back to accomodate Fortune. His two-footedness was notable and his willingness to bring the ball out of defence was impressive for a teenager, though hopefully Curbs might remind him that a ten-yard ball that finds a teammate every time is preferable to a fifty-yard ball that finds them occasionally. I also didn't sense that he was particularly dominant in the air though to be fair both him and Perry were fairly roughed up by the old-fashioned strikeforce of Furlong and Santos in the first half, but it's fair to assume their Premiership adverseries will replace brute strength with a little more guile.

Elsewhere, Young was solid, and Hreidarsson looked fit enough to me and provided a typical combative performance and many notable attacking forays. Rommedahl combined his usual combination of brilliance with a frustrating habit of giving the ball away or running into a cul-de-sac; moreover he always seems rushed on the ball though perhaps when you can run 100m in ten seconds, that is inevitable. Murphy was fairly anonymous and created far less than Ambrose when played in the attacking central midfielder role behind Bent during the first half. Indeed, given Curbs' preference it seems for two midfield 'enforcers' in a 4-5-1 (yesterday it was two of Kish, Smertin and Holland - El Karkouri is another possibility), it is possible that it is Ambrose that threatens Murphy's place. If this is the case, one has to hope Curbs has the guts to drop our high profile signing from Liverpool rather than do his usual 'fiddling' and stick Ambrose out on the wing. Thomas showed flashes of flair but I wish he would stop showboating for the sheer sake of it and focus on what he does best, namely running at defenders. Finally Kish was as busy as ever but as most fans have probably now accepted, he isn't good enough to be playing regular Premiership football, but I fear that he will.

Substitutions were limited and hence it's perhaps possible to get a sense for how Curbs intends us to line up at Sunderland. It is fairly clear that 4-5-1 will be the preferred formation, but currently I suspect only five places can safely be pencilled in (Kiely, Young, Hriedarsson, Smertin, Bent).

Thursday, July 21, 2005

What is the point of Chelsea?

The news that Chelsea had snapped up yet another exciting young player from a midtable club naturally brought back memories of January 04 when we too were raided for Scott Parker, for what now seems a bargain £10m. To the list of Parker and Wright-Philips, one can also add Damien Duff and a trio of ex-West Ham starlets, namely Lampard, Johnson and Cole. Whilst I wouldn't be daft enough to suggest that Chelsea view Charlton, Man City and West Ham as genuine rivals, the sheer fact that they can snap up these players on wages which naturally they won't refuse, and in many cases allow them to rot in the reserves, whilst perhaps great for Chelsea fans (still smarting from their first title for several decades) can't possibly be good for the game. Whilst Lampard has clearly benefited from the move, one could argue that Duff and Cole have gone sideways (in a footballing sense, not a financial one) whilst Parker and Johnson have gone backwards.

I write this as someone who would place Wright-Philips in my top five 'players I look forward to watching' at the Valley, and now there is every chance we will be denied the opportunity (again - he was injured over Easter) as he will now compete with Duff, Robben, Cole, etc.. for a place, as opposed to rightly being the quintessential star at Man City.

I don't blame the players and nor do I blame the agents - sporting careers are short, and they are entitled to maximise their incomes, and it would be unrealistic to expect blind loyalty (though the actions of Rio Ferdinand defy belief in light of his drugs ban). The real question is not only whether Chelsea's dominance is healthy for football (it isn't) but whether in the long-term it is even healthy for Chelsea.

In a great book called 'National Pastime' by Stefan Szymanski and Andrew Zimbalist, the authors discuss the differences between baseball and football (soccer) but rightly conclude that both sports ultimately rely on healthy competition amongst clubs to ensure a strong future for all. Baseball (and pretty much all American sports) operate as a quasi-monopoly with very tough entry requirements for new clubs, and essentially no relegation. Moreover, the worst-performing clubs are aided by beneficial policies, most notably in the 'draft system' which recruits the best college players. Whilst this attitude would seemingly run against that which most UK football fans take for granted (ie. the possibility of a club like Wigan gaining promotion to the Premiership), it shouldn't be written off as 'too American' or 'too idealistic.'

We are rapidly reaching the point where there are just three clubs with a realistic prospect of winning the Premiership. On Betfair, Liverpool (Champions of Europe after all) are available at 20/1 and believe it or not, Spurs are 4th favourites at a whopping 220/1. If one stands back from one's blind loyalty for a second, the idea that 16 clubs (out of 20) are rated as no more likely to win the League than Elvis is to be found alive in Tesco, is frankly ludicrous. Yet even more ludicrous is the fact that all of those 16 clubs will probably sell out their desired season ticket allocations. This entire concept would be anathema to an American sports fan and the question is surely how long it can persist?

Indeed, if Chelsea's financial dominance continues, one could imagine a virtual monopoly with even Arsenal and Man Utd competing for second place only. This may seem far-fetched, but bear in mind that Chelsea's title was virtually wrapped up in Jan/Feb and their spending has yet to reach third or fourth gear. Arsenal are now strapped with debts thanks to their new stadium and have never been a truly 'huge club', whilst Man Utd are famously now indebted thanks to their American owner and show little sign of participating in major pre-season transfers.

It's fairly obvious that football, and sport in general, is not a usual industry. Most non-sporting companies would love the customer loyalty that football clubs engender. After all, as bored as I may have been with Charlton last season, my only realistic option is consuming no football; I will not decide to take my custom to Selhurst Park or The New Den. But likewise, Chelsea will soon realise that whilst their metal will no doubt be regularly tested in Europe, it is not ultimately in their interest to destroy the opposition and thus belittle the League they play 38 games in, since fans will eventually tire of seeing them beat WBA, Norwich or even Charlton 4-0 or 5-0 every week.

The problem of non-competitiveness is most obvious in minor Leagues such as Scotland, Portugal and Holland. How many regular football followers could name more than 3 or 4 teams from Portugal or Holland for example? Of course these Leagues are dominated (ridiculously so) by Sporting Lisbon/Porto/Benfica and Ajax/PSV/Feyenoord respectively, yet both are hurt by low attendances and poor TV revenues. We can all wax lyrical about the 'special' way of the Premier League, but fans want exciting games, not just goals.

If you want a hint of the way the Premier League may look in five years time, take a look at the FA Cup. The competition was special when Wrexham had a realistic chance of beating Arsenal, or when Bournemouth knocked out a full-strength Man Utd team. Attendances have dropped off along with general interest in the 'greatest cup competition' because the gap between the best teams and the potential giant-killers has widened to such an extent, that the best teams don't even field their best teams anymore (hence even so-called 'giant killings' aren't the way they once were).

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Senior Squad of 27, and Formations for the Season?

With the sudden rush to the door marked 'ENTER' at The Valley, and with things seemingly gone quiet at the 'EXIT' door at least as Messrs Euell and Fish are concerned, by my calculations we have a 'senior' squad of 27 players, not even counting a handful of youngsters (Sam, Varney, Sankofa, Fuller etc..) who may knock on the first team door in due course. With more signings likely before the season starts, it begs the question, can we keep a squad of this size happy? This is particularly relevant as Curbs is not typically one to rotate for the sake of it, and moreover clearly has his favourites whose regular selection baffles many fans (Kishishev, JJ, Lisbie etc..).

Just to put it in perspective, in midfield for example we will have Murphy, Holland, Smertin, Kishishev, Thomas, Rommedahl, Hughes, Ambrose, and Euell competing for probably four, and perhaps occasionally five first-team places. None of these players strike me as likely to enjoy a prolonged stint on the bench or in the stiffs, and moreover Euell proved it last season. Just in central midfield alone, it is a huge selection headache to pick two from Murphy, Holland and Smertin. It is easy to say "drop Holland" or similar, but he is club captain, Murphy is perhaps the highest profile player at the club and Smertin played 16 times for the runaway Champions last season. Admittedly the likes of Chelsea have this problem in spades every week, but we are Charlton after all - it's not like they're earning £50k per week to sit on the bench. Curbs clearly has some interesting selection decisions to make next season.

I suspect he will line up with a more defensive looking team away, and a more attacking one at home. He has shown willingness to line up with a entirely defensively-minded midfield in the past and I suspect his usual caution will be apparent again. Hence I see irregular appearances from Rommedahl and Thomas away from the Valley, and regular stints there for Kishishev and Holland. I suspect we will line up both home and away with just one up front (Bent?), since we have more than one player who can fill the attacking midfielder role (Euell, Ambrose, Murphy etc..). If we play both Rommedahl and Thomas at the same time, and an attacking midfielder in the 'hole' then by definition we have to play two defensive-minded midfielders behind him, and two of Holland, Smertin and Kishishev seem well-suited. Indeed, if I was in Curbs' shoes (which I'm not) this would be my 'default' team selection and shape for every game, home or away. Only Bartlett is a natural 'receiver' of crosses from the flanks, but the pace of Rommedahl and Thomas is such that their threat may come from their willingness to use their pace to cut inside and become the second striker, rather than the deliverer of chances. Indeed the combination of their pace of the two wingers plus Bent, and the guile of either Ambrose or Murphy behind, has me positively salivating. Clearly this formation requires the Herminator and Young to avoid the temptation to bomb forward, but these are hardly their strengths in the first place.

Most fans have been frustrated at times with the caution of Curbs, but in my view by having a solid core of seven players (keeper, back four, two defensive-minded midfielders), we can allow the flair players to express themselves going forward, without the fear that we're going to risk losing too many games 3-2. The likes of Thomas and Rommedahl will only add real value if they are allowed to drop their defensive shackles and play the way that comes naturally; with a squad of 27 surely there is enough depth in the defensive departments to give them free rein?

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Experience over youth

It's a funny old game. Although the deals were separate, we have effectively sold Konchesky for £2m plus Chris Powell which I suppose is reasonable business, and you can understand Curbs' thinking. He knew he was short at left-back and why bother scouring the globe for a suitable replacement when there was a veritable Valley legend virtually begging to come home to end his career. Curbs has spoken of the need to inject some youthful exuberance into the squad, but he clearly isn't ageist and values the experience and enthusiasm that we probably also lacked during the run-in last season. If Kelly Youga shows suitable promise, he may be ready to play second fiddle to the Herminator by the time Chrissie Powell hangs up his boots and probably moves into a coaching role. It's a smart short-term move for sure. Even if he isn't playing and even if he isn't even in the 16-man squad, you don't have to know Powell personally to know his enthusiasm is genuine and he can only be an asset in the dressing room and beyond.

Indeed, after weeks of moaning, fans have four new signings to think about in a week, all of them very different yet all very rational and logical. Perhaps with the memory of the excessive money spent on the likes of Jeffers still fresh in his mind, Curbs has been doing some wheeler-dealing Harry Redknapp-style, and brought in two loan signings, Ambrose (on the cheap it seems) and of course Powell. The trail seems to have gone a little cold on Smertin, but the fact that Sorondo is loaned from outside England is a clever move and permits (I think) another loan signing from within the country. I think Smertin would be a terrific loan signing and add some more experience and depth to the midfield.

I know very little about Spector despite being based in the US, but I trust the judgment of Fergie who discovered and blooded him, and of Curbs who must have watched him. I'm willing to hazard a guess that he's a bit more level-headed than the last loan signing we had from a top-three club (Carlton 'Goal') and if WBA's experience with Kieran Richardson is anything to go by, he could make a great contribution. His addition to the squad, along with that of Sorondo, probably leaves Perry and Fortune a little bit concerned about their places, but whilst Perry doesn't have age on his side, Fortune will need first-team football at this juncture in his career and it'll be interesting to know if any clubs have shown any interest. Something in the region of £500k would be about right in my view.

Suddenly there is a sense of optimism in the air - as Curbs rightly pointed out, the fact that the signings of Spector, Powell and Sorondo were essentially cash-less, plus the unexpected sale of Konch, leaves him with plenty in the bank, a fact that he alludes to himself on the website. It seems likely Euell will depart for £1.5m or so, which leaves the bank a/c only about £1m lighter but the squad somewhat stronger. We still look a little light on the left-side of midfield, in central midfield (unless Smertin joins) and in attack (please don't tell me JJ and Lisbie will have more than bit parts) and hopefully these are the areas we are set to strengthen.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005


I was hoping the rumours about Konchesky's move to West Ham weren't true but alas it seems the gentle pull of his boyhood club aligned with a a series of shoves from Curbs were enough to send him back through the Blackwall Tunnel. It is slightly worrying that Konch would rather sign a long-term contract with a mismanaged club currently rated as a 4/7 shot for relegation than sign an extension with us, but interviews suggest his IQ is not in three figures and after his treatment over the past two seasons, I suppose you can't really blame him too much for moving on.

I'm racking my brains to recall when it all started to go wrong, but his career to date has never really taken off in the way that Bowyer or Parker's did, each of whom also made their league debuts as fresh-faced teenagers. The 'full-back or midfielder' argument never really did him any favours as it was fairly clear to fans (and Curbs) that he was not good enough in defence, and his key attributes (energy, pace, shooting, crossing) were not utilised there. Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the whole episode is that last season his performances and attitude suggested the problems were behind him, particularly when played in central midfield (by all accounts, he was masterful against Spurs, our final win of the season). However as pointed out by most fans, he did indeed always give 100% and has been a senior squad member throughout the most dlub's successful period for several decades.

In the absence of any new signings, the squad naturally looks very weak as they begin pre-season training, but one has to hope (surely) that new faces are just a few faxes away. Talking of Bowyer, he is strongly linked in The Sun at I suppose we are one of the few clubs that might welcome him onboard. It seems like ages ago that he was strutting his stuff for us, but my memories are of a superb engine and an eye for goal, rather than on-field punch-ups or racist 'incidents.' Everyone deserves the chance for redemption, but perhaps more than any other current player, he would be drinking at the last chance saloon (and not literally I hope).

Another player linked strongly is Anthony Gardner, although the prices quoted seem steep for a player for whom the jury is firmly still out on his Spurs performances. However, he ticks all the boxes for the types of players we should be signing (young, something to prove etc..) and who knows, perhaps Chris Perry had a quiet word with Curbs about his underappreciated former colleague?

As discussed in my last post, it is important to remember that our best signings this summer may not be those that fill fans with instant excitement. After all, it doesn't get much more exciting than Dennis 'fastest man in Europe' Rommedahl (although I remain bullish on his prospects and role in the side if he stays.)

Friday, July 01, 2005

Bent over? Double

The quickfire signing of Darren Bent gave most of us cause to believe that Curbs and Murray really did have a half-dozen transfer targets ready to sign on the dotted line in time for pre-season training. However with July now upon us and the new fixtures in the calendar, we are again left wondering who is next and whether there may be unforeseen difficulties cropping up as some of our supposed targets (Kezman, Stead etc..) confirm moves elsewhere. However Jonathan Stead's quote relating to choosing Sunderland over us may just have been an early attempt to endear himself to the Mackems, and frankly the price paid (virtually double what Blackburn paid to Huddersfield) seemed excessive given his Leaburn-esque season.

The board are right not to risk bankrupting the club by ratcheting up wages, but the flipside clearly implies that some of the more illustrious names we are linked with will never become realistic signings. Indeed I wouldn't be surprised if some of the rather mediocre but fairly high-profile players that have changed clubs already this summer (Phillips, Berger, Forsell etc..) would have been rejected as potential signings for us on account of wage demands alone.

The alternative therefore is to continue to fish in the pool of highly promising non-Premiership players and cheaper foreign imports. Clearly Bent falls into the former category, and some other names mentioned as potential targets also (Jagielka, Sidwell etc..). These players may lack the immediate 'publicity' impact of some better-known names, but who is to say they won't be more successful pound-for-pound in the long-run? Our somewhat disappointing experience with Murphy/Jeffers/Rommedahl (all of whom were exciting signings on paper) suggests this may indeed be the case. I suspect most Charlton fans (myself included) didn't rub their hands with glee when the signings of Mills, Kinsella, and Hunt were confirmed but each proved to be hugely successful and outstanding value. Likewise, the lower-profile signings of Holland, Hreidarsson and El Karkouri have proved (so far) to have been solid business.

I have no doubt that we will indeed sign four or five more players before the opening day, but one has to hope they are our main targets, not the next-best alternatives. It is clear we need a commanding centre-back, a ball-winning midfielder, and a goalscoring striker (it is sad that we have to an adjective in the description since we have been starved of one since Super Clive retired). Less important signings would probably be extra goalkeeping cover and another central midfielder, preferably one with some pace. Charlton are commendably good at keeping deals quiet until confirmed (unlike Spurs for example), and hence one should expect to be surprised though with little else to keep fans occupied this summer, it is no surprise that the message boards are abuzz with a little disquiet.