Monday, October 31, 2005

Charlton lose war of attrition

A 'war of attrition' is defined as, "..a strategic concept that to win a war, one's enemy must be worn down to the point of collapse by continuous losses in personnel and matériel. The war will eventually be won by the side with greater such reserves."

Whilst I wouldn't want to draw parallels between the triviality of a football match with the tragedy of war, the analogy is at least useful in a purely footballing context not least when Bolton are playing. It's not clear to me whether their style has been created to suit their squad, or players are bought to suit their style, but either way it's not pretty. Moreover their five-man midfield has no wingers, causing the type of midfield congestion which resembles the Blackwall Tunnel approach in rush-hour. As Curbs rightly pointed out, there is more than one way to play football, and good luck to them - the only way they will change is if teams work them out and start beating them thus enforcing change upon them.

I had been greatly looking forward to my first visit to the Valley this season, and my first since the visit of Man City last season which produced a performance nearly as soporific as this one - perhaps I am the problem and should stay in NYC.

I had listened intently to the penalties on Wednesday from Paris and strolling the boulevards on Thursday morning, it was clear from the look on the beret-clad faces of the French as they smoked their Gauloises and read Le Monde that a near footballing miracle had occurred at Stamford Bridge. Although their expressions were blank and their shrugs unmistakenly Gallic, I could see it in their eyes.

Unfortunately however, our home form is such that those hardy few hundred that traipse up and down the country watching the Addicks, get far more pleasure than the twenty-odd thousand that make the short drive to the Valley.

Bolton's ugly but highly effective approach has been well-documented, and I would imagine it is hard not to be intimidated when you see the muscular presence most notably of Davies, N'Gotty, Jaidi and Faye. The question facing any manager about to face Bolton is "do we try to match them for physicality or do we try to show some guile and play around them?" Unfortunately Charlton did neither, hence the result.

I have written before about the importance of playing to our strengths and letting the opposition worry about us and adapt to our style of play, but Bolton are probably a unique case which required more team changes than the one forced upon Curbs, when Bent's virus saw a League debut for the unconvincing Bothroyd.

Firstly, playing Chris Perry against a team with a sole giant striker (who was ably marshalled by the Herminator) was futile and prevented us from having El Karkouri mixing it up physically. Second, we needed someone up front who might at least have a chance of turning their huge (but slow) central defenders - instead we were reduced to pumping long balls at Bothroyd who won his fair share of headers, but lacked support when he did so.

Although I'm far from his biggest fan, JJ showed in just 15 minutes that he could get behind them, forcing their keeper into his first save of the match from a Bothroyd flick. If not JJ, then perhaps Ambrose or Rommedahl should have played as a second striker. I get the impression both Ambrose and Rommedahl would make a better striker than winger anyhow but what do I know? They both showed glimpses of promise, but they were billeted on the wings as the battle took place elsewhere.

There is so little to say about the game itself, other than it was pretty obvious by half-time that one goal would probably win it and so it proved, and a highly fortunate one at that though Curbs was right to castigate our defenders to reacting so slowly to Andersen's superb parry. The Hughes header right at the death would have at least have given the game a fair result, but it just felt like one of those days.

It would be easy to blame the defeat on tiredness from Wednesday, but more likely as Curbs intimated, there was an inevitable flatness after the Cup-induced adrenaline rush, rather than tiredness per se; Bolton after all also had a tough midweek tie and a journey down south. In short, he got it wrong tactically and once this became apparent, he didn't have the nous or perhaps more worryingly the personnel, to put it right.

To sum up a few individual performances, if Kevin Davies demonstrates the brutal and physical approach to the lone striking role, and Darren Bent the pacy and skilful one, then unfortunately Bothroyd falls somewhere in between. He clearly has nice quick feet, but got roughed up too easily for a big man and never offered the type of option 'over-the-top' which Bent does. However pairing him with Bent (or another quick forward) would be a different proposition altogether.

Spector was chosen again at left-back and whilst he won important headers (thus emphasising the value his height brings), his positional sense looked awry and more width-minded teams would have taken advantage. Hreidarsson was immense for most of the game and has become the default choice at centre-back in the space of just ten games. Luke Young continues to impress and he made several promising forays forward whilst never neglecting his defensive duties. Kishishev had a decent game, particularly in the first half, but along with Murphy and Smertin, in the end they were outfought (and outnumbered) in central midfield.

There is no doubt that our home form is a concern. It is truly astonishing that we can accumulate 19 points from 10 games, yet win just a single home game (a win over Wigan which looks more impressive than perhaps we realised at the time). One wonders why we can't just approach home games in the same way as a away games - emphasising a patient build-up, soaking up pressure and hitting teams on the break. It is probably the crowd influence (both ways) which subconsciously affects the players and encourages them to go forward with abandon, when a more thoughtful approach is required. I can't honestly recall us dominating and looking as comfortable in a home game, as we were at say 'Boro this season.

In an earlier post, I suggested we may play different formations home and away. I had speculated that Curbs might play with two out-and-out wingers at home in a fluid 4-5-1 which could become 4-3-3, but play more conservatively away from home. Ironically given our results, it looks like we should become more conservative at home (rather than away), perhaps playing a narrower and more conventional 4-4-2 and leave the expansive pacy formation to away games. It's a funny old game.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Murphy's Law

Our performance at Fratton Park last season was dire (we lost 4-2) and for an hour yesterday, it looked like more of the same with a disjointed performance against a Portsmouth side who may not have much quality, but who realised the importance of the game. After two games without a win, Curbs bravely dropped Powell and rearranged the midfield to accomodate Ambrose who offers a different option to the injured Thomas, as his regular goal attempts (and goal) proved.

We were fortunate to go in at the interval only 1-0 down, the goal coming from a specuative punt upfield which Hriedarsson dealt with horribly allowing Silva time and space to deliver a terrific finish across Andersen's despairing dive. David Pleat attempted to blame Andersen but this was unduly harsh since the Icelander was clearly at fault, and moreover to beat the keeper from that angle Silva had to rifle the ball an inch inside the post, and he duly did so. However, if Pleat was correct, Andersen certainly made up for it with a terrific save early in the second half which won us the game as much as the two subsequent goals did.

Our success this season has revolved around Danny Murphy's instinctive passing and vital goals, and it's clear the team clicks into gear when he does. If only he had some pace, and we would have the best midfielder in the country (then again, if he had pace he probably wouldn't be playing for Charlton). I haven't checked the Fantasy Football stats for his 'assists' this season, but I can recall several (Rommedahl at 'Boro, Bent at home to Spurs, etc..) and he came up with two sublime passes again at Pompey to secure the points and our fabulous 100% away record.

I recorded the game and re-watched the two goals, and the first was a superb example of patient 'passing and moving' with several players involved (note to Kishishev-bashers: he was inovlved twice) before Murphy delivered that inch perfect pass into Ambrose's feet (thanks to the open legs of the defender) and he finished with aplomb. If that goal was scored by Chelsea or Arsenal, everyone in the media would have been drooling over it.

Ambrose had proved in the first half that he has a far narrower interpretation of 'wide midfield' than Thomas, and whilst the latter provides pace and guile, Ambrose will doubtless provide more goals and it's good to see the healthy competition Curbs loves present again.

You sensed that the equaliser finally relaxed the players and we kept probing and it was another slick Murphy pass into the path of Rommedahl who delivered a rocket finish thus continuing his unusual record of only having scored away from home. The goal was delivered on a plate to be fair by the failure of the Pompey defence to step up in unison, and if Perrin is given the boot eventually, it will be these types of goals which will seal his fate.

We looked comfortable thereafter and it was notable in my view that we dealt far better with crosses into the box, thanks in part to Spector's extra height. As mentioned before, if Curbs is (rightly) going to select Perry then I think his lack of inches needs to be overcome by the addition of either Spector or Hreidarsson at left-back, and a six-footer alongside him. We had the benefit of Bartlett's defensive heading ability (the 'best defensive striker' as Curbs once called him) last season but not this time around.

So after a slightly dodgy period, we are back in 2nd place and with Man Utd and Arsenal regularly slipping up, the Premiership is wide open behind Chelsea. As Curbs pointed out in his post-match interview, 19 points from 9 games would be title form during a 'normal' season. We have perhaps not had the hardest fixtures so far, particularly away from home, but we have had a terrific start whichever way you look at it.

All being well, I will attend my first match of the season next weekend against Bolton, and that game takes on extra resonance since the only black spot on the season so far has been our patchy home form, something which should concern Curbs if only because it seems so illogical.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Charlton rest on their lawyers

I watched this one in an Irish pub in San Francisco - the expected rush of West Coast-based Charlton and Fulham fans never materialised so, not for the first time, I watched it alone surrounded by the sort of people who think their Beef & Ale Pie is more important than events at The Valley. Thanks to the lack of moral support, I was forced to watch it with no sound, aided only by the subtitles which were a source of mirth throughout the game. I'm not too sure whether they are generated by a typist, or by a voice-recoginition system, but they offered the following insights:

(after Fulham took the lead) "Charlton appear to be resting on their lawyers."

(after Bent mistimed a header) "Bent rose bitterly." [as opposed to a 'bit early']

Genius. Anyhow, it was a funny old game - if anything, Fulham were set up to do to us, what we try to do when we play away, namely defend in numbers, but break with pace. It made for an exciting game, but one which neither team quite did enough to win, hence the fair scoreline.

There were a few positives and a few negatives to take from the game. On the positive side, we looked lively for the full 90 minutes and never lacked for effort (maybe this is taken-for-granted these days?). Rommedahl was my man-of-the-match, and whilst he probably should have scored in the first-half, rather than hit the post, it was only his sharp feet and positioning which created a chance out of nothing in the first place. Smertin was everywhere and in the space of just eight games, it has become hard to imagine the side without him - he must be a nightmare to play against.

On the negative side, we look unbalanced defensively, and unfortunately, as much as he remains a true Valley hero, in my view Chris Powell should have played his final Charlton game this evening. It is sad to say so, but on at least two occasions he lost possession in vital areas, not due to a wayward pass (forgiveable) or over-ambition (forgivable), but because he was quite simply off the pace, and at his age, this is not a trait that can be worked upon. It would be in the interests of both Powell and the club if he was quietly taken aside and offered a non-playing coaching role.

Murphy meanwhile was also guilty of giving the ball away, but he is also capable of winning matches in the final-third, and his finish for the goal was as accomplished as it was timely. Four goals in eight games from midfield is a great tally, but credit must surely go to Smertin for allowing him the freedom to express his undoubted talent.

Darren Bent was strangely off-the-pace though perhaps it wasn't surprising that two weeks under the guidance of Sven might not have him returning fully motivated, inspired and brimming with confidence. Indeed one wonders if clubs might not sue the FA when players return from two weeks with the gormless one, thinking they are worse than Peter Crouch.

Nonetheless, whilst we might be a little aggrieved that our four home games have only yielded four points, 16 points from 8 games is a highly respectable total and one which reflects the genuine improvements made by the new signings and the more expressive tactics.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Little England

I can't claim to be hugely passionate about the England team, though my interest is heightened when Charlton are represented, as they were ably this week by Luke Young. Indeed, it was clear that in the space of just a few weeks, his confidence and sense that he truly belonged in the team was now tangible, and whilst he lacks that 'trick' when going forward, no England fan could fault his commitment and ability to do the simple things very well (not a bad trait for a defender). I suspect he won't make it to Germany though unless Gary Neville happens to be injured, because the 22-man squad is quite limiting, and Sven is likely to take more versatile types like Phil Neville or Ledley King, than our Luke. However picking up six England caps in just four months is no mean feat and it is a reward for several seasons of consistent performances for Charlton.

However one couldn't write a blog about England's games without mentioning Peter Crouch, who clearly has far more to do than Luke Young to convince England fans that he deserves to wear three lions on his chest. My suspicions had always been that he was a 'one-season wonder', and that it could hardly have been a coincidence that he had been transferred from club to club (rejected by Spurs, sold by QPR, Portsmouth, and Villa etc..) without ever having fulfilled his supposed potential. This concept of a 'one-season wonder' is pretty common, with the England manager at the time pressured by the media to play in-form strikers rather than those who are clearly international class (but may be having a short-term blip at club level). Examples in recent seasons would include: Kevin Phillips, Andy Johnson, James Beattie etc.. None of these players were ever good enough to provide a long-term option for the national side, but they were all picked and played to appease the media and the type of people that call 6-0-6 whilst temporarily suspending rationality and logic.

However in the case of Crouch, his unusual physicality implied that maybe he really did 'offer something different' as his apologists suggested (to be fair I would offer something different for England....not better, but certainly different). I watched the Austria game hoping to be wowed by our new direct style and the impossibility of defending against him. Instead, what I witnessed was an almost embarrassing spectacle of a man who moves without grace, and more importantly, without efficacy. A man who seems unable to be a powerful header of a football despite a height advantage that would allow natural headers of a ball (Shearer, Ferdinand etc..) to score 50 goals a season instead of 20 or so. I was truly astonished at how bad he was, and the indication that he is essentially already 'on the plane' to Germany is terrifying (unless you play for one of England's opponents). His apologists also argue that he has 'good touch for a big man' but surely that good touch should be in addition to the taken-for-granted assumption that the guy can actually head the ball. Because if not, he instead is simply a giant player with a poor touch compared to a small man.

Meanwhile our own Darren Bent who has scored eight goals in eight games, three of them powerful well-timed headers, was left warming the bench whilst Sven implemented this grotesque experiment. When you are the best paid person in your profession in the world, there is no place for second-best or mediocrity or defeats to Northern Ireland. Surely the only thing that has kept him in the job is the severance pay the FA would be liable for, and that is a cardinal sin because we have a squad that might actually have a chance in Germany if it was motivated, tactically-astute and properly selected.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Spurs Punish Charlton's Naivety

As someone who was brought up in North East London, and has more friends that support Spurs than any other club, our games against them are the most eagerly awaited and hence it upsets me greatly that we seem to have such difficulty against them at home. Admittedly we've beaten them three times at home in the past six seasons (and are unbeaten at White Hart Lane since the 1980s) so they are hardly the bogey team par excellence, but their painful 4-2 (FA Cup), 4-1 and now 3-2 wins have seen us take the lead each time.

The game was shown here in full (but delayed) in Spanish two hours after kick-off so whilst events were taking place at the Valley, I was pacing up and down like an expectant father with my phone firmly switched off (couldn't risk any pithy text messages from Spurs fans) awaiting the coverage. After a dodgy first 15 minutes, we began to control matters and we took the lead via a route which is proving highly (and perhaps surprisingly) fruitful, namely a simple ball over the top to Darren Bent (his two goals at Sunderland were very similar). Quite what Naybet was doing wasn't clear, and his last gasp attempt to fool the linesman by stepping up with his arm up was thankfully ignored for what it was. Robinson helpfully was slow off his line and Bent took his chance with his usual aplomb.

The remainder of the half belonged firmly to us and we carved them open again before half-time, the Spurs defence again more square than Trafalgar, this time Smertin bursting through but Bent was, for once, wayward with his left-footed effort coming to him whilst temporarily unbalanced. However after the interval, it only took him a few minutes to put matters right, with Bent put clear by Thomas and despite seemingly having blown the chance, he delivered the type of cool finish which Charlton fans have waited years to witness from the main striker.

Curbs has said before that 2-0 is a 'difficult scoreline to defend' which I've never quite understood (surely it's better than 1-0?) but the impact on the respective psyche of each team when the losing team pulls one back is meaningful. This impact was exacerbated by the nature of the goal, a free-kick recocheting off King's shin, but the lesson is that once you lose the first header at a set-piece then you have to be willing to pay the consequences, even fortuous ones. With Davids beginning to win the midfield battle, Spurs began to command more possession and sensed an equaliser, even if it came from their first deliberate shot on goal, Mido benefiting from a combination of Smertin's heel and Andersen's failure to heed what any debutante graduate of finishing school knows....always keep your legs closed (in public at least).

On 71 minutes, we suffered a double blow - Bent clashed heads with Stalteri (the former's last act of the game), the ball got returned to Murphy whose outstanding pass found Young and he somehow failed even to make England teammate Robinson make a save. When games are on tenterhooks, you tend to get punished for not taking gilt-edged chances, and so it proved nine minutes later when Powell lost possession on the edge of the Spurs box, and fast interplay between Defoe and Keane saw the Irishman put clear and he finished superbly. It's hard not to feel a little envious that they have a player of his quality in reserve (whilst we had Bartlett) but whilst Spurs have strength in depth in central midfield and attack, they look average in other departments.

We then threw the proverbial kitchen sink at Spurs but we created only half chances, and the game drifted away from us. It was a cracking game of course, the type which may tempt some of the missing fans back, though as I've argued before at length, it's not the quality of the matches per se but the lack of competitiveness in the league, Chelsea's demolition of Liverpool merely hammering home the point. Winning a hard-fought local derby is nice, but both clubs are already nine points behind Chelsea and the clocks haven't even gone back yet.

A few observations (I had the benefit of watching the game in full twice, as it was repeated in English later on): Kish didn't have such a bad game after all and wasn't at fault for losing possession leading to a goal, though he is not the long-term answer in midfield if we genuinely want to move to the next level. Smertin and Murphy were okay but Davids isn't called the 'Pitbull' for nothing. However quite how Sven could conclude based on Saturday's performance that Jenas is more worthy of an England squad place than Murphy is beyond me; I genuinely can't recall him having any meaningful touches during the entire game. Andersen is getting some stick but it's probably a little harsh - the first goal was a fluke, the second and third were powerfully struck and unfallingly accurate. Bent was top-notch - he won virtually every header and took his goals well - £2.5m is looking an absolute bargain and seven goals in any seven games in the Premiership is highly impressive, let alone the first seven for a new club.

The most important observation though is whether we have sufficient height given our current formation. We conceded a goal at WBA and another on Saturday due to failing to win basic headers, and we didn't look entirely certain whenever Spurs got a corner on Saturday (and they are not a big side). El Karkouri offers different qualities to Hreidarsson, and assuming the Herminator wins his place back, I wonder if the Icelander's future really lies at left-back which would allow us to play an with an extra six-footer at centre-back (El Karkouri, Spector, Sorondo or Fortune) and thus provide the extra height that Powell lacks, particularly if Perry continues to play. The fans favourite has done little wrong, and we can forgive him his error on Saturday (it was ninety yards from goal after all), but I think he needs to step aside for tactical reasons alone. In both Young and Hreidarsson we have full-backs who are both strong defenders, and capable (albeit not outstanding) going forward, and their presence on each flank, but more importantly at set-pieces, gives us extra solidity in my view. Moreover, it gives us an extra target at our own set-pieces. Lining up as we are currently makes us highly vulnerable, in my view, to big direct sides like Bolton (who we play in a couple of weeks).