Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Let's Get Physical

(WARNING: This post contains several rhetorical questions.)

After 33 games, Stoke and Watford occupy the two automatic promotion places. Oh yes, the beautiful game indeed.

If there's one thing I've learnt about the Championship, it's that you can't take your eye off of the table for a second. If you do, you suddenly have a 'how the hell did that happen?' moment, of which I've had several already. Indeed, I had one as recently as Saturday morning.

Watching a repeat of Sky Sports News, I was surprised to learn that Stoke were now top of the table, and at that very moment I also realised that this season's Championship really was at once both the most frustrating and fascinating division I can recall Charlton being involved in.

So how did the brutes of Stoke and Watford do it? As a Charlton fan, it is especially infuriating because they have failed to impress against us at least (taking only as many points as we've taken from them). All of which got me thinking, that if it was reasonable to describe the four teams currently occupying the play-off places (WBA, Bristol City, Charlton, Ipswich) as 'footballing sides', then did beauty really fall prey to the beast?

The quartet of play-off contenders have played the leaders twelve times so far this season, and their results are amazingly symmetrical:

P12 W4 D4 L4 F15 A15 Pts 16

So in short, Stoke and Watford have not climbed to the Championship summit through their domination of their immediate contenders, but instead (by definition) through their disproportinately strong results against teams outside the top six. Not coincidentally of course, much of our own frustration as Charlton fans has come from matches against these very sides, particularly those right at the foot of the table.

This begs the question, do Messrs Pulis and Boothroyd ask their teams to play in this way because it happens to play to the strengths of the squad they inherited, or was it a calculated (yet so far perfectly rational) methodology steeped in the knowledge that points are a commodity, regardless of who they're picked up from?

I suspect the answer is a combination thereof, but whilst we can bemoan the 'death of football' if the current leaders ultimately win promotion, might we not also accuse Messrs Pardew, Mowbray, Johnson and Magilton of just a little naivety?

I should put my cards on the table at this point, and declare a certain weakness for the long-ball game, so long as it's executed as ruthlessly as say Arsenal's passing game. It's purest adherent was surely John Beck and his Cambridge United side, whose approach to the game was reduced to a simple, yet perfectly logical tenet.....almost all goals are scored when the ball is in the opposition penalty area.

Beck didn't just tell his players to lump it, he commanded them to, urging them to put the ball tellingly into the opposition's penalty area, whether from open play, throw in, or dead ball situation. The grass on the wings was kept longer meanwhile so that the ball would hold up, and thus opposition full-backs would be more likely to concede throw-ins in dangerous positions. The club are currently in the Blue Square Premier, but under Beck they flirted with the Premiership.

Neither Stoke or Watford are executing the long ball game remotely as successfully; their points tally of 'just' 59 points from 33 games tells you as much. Their opponents have taken 29 and 32 points from each respectively. So wasn't there perhaps a happy Championship medium which, so far at least, the likes of Charlton could have reached, but failed to? Or if not, why have we consistently been unable to convert our passing football into points?

I have been consistently bullish about our chances this season, although 3 wins in 12 is severely testing my hypothesis. Much of my optimism rested upon the perceived superior flair that the likes of Ambrose, Thomas, Sam and Reid would impart upon the division. In each case, I was disappointed.

Meanwhile our joint top scorer, and arguably most consistent performer, has been Zheng Zhi, a real tough competitor if ever there was one. Likewise Paddy McCarthy is cut from similar cloth, and has tightened up a defence that has now conceded just 9 in its last 10 games.

So whilst I've no wish to completely mimic Stoke or Watford (and frankly we lack the personnel to do so consistently anyhow), did we with hindsight begin this Championship campaign a little naively, thinking we could out-football the competition, when a little brute force was more called for, at least in certain matches? After all, throw in the 6 points from 9 that we've taken from our fellow play-off contenders, and it's even more apparent where we've gone wrong.

Given that Pards has a great record in this division (albeit one ironically which suggests he can reach the play-offs, but no more), might I dare to offer my first hint of discontent at his seemingly pure but inflexible approach, at least from this side of the Atlantic? If we were sitting in first or second place right now, I suspect most of us would not be complaining about the occasional ugly three points.


At 6:18 AM, Blogger Wyn Grant said...

It's a good analysis as always but what it overlooks is that we have had little protection against referees from blatant fouls whereas if we started clogging you can better we would be getting booked and having players sent off. Hoofing long balls up to Iwelumo never really worked because he was always attended by two defenders and couldn't hold the ball up. We should just play to our strengths. Stoke and Watford are going to have real problems if they do go up.

At 12:28 PM, Blogger Kings Hill Addick said...

I agree. However, I was under the impression last summer (because I kept hearing it) that Pardew has lots of experience in the Championship. I just assumed that beefing up the physical side was included in that experience. I fear that we didn't sign the type of players that we were always going to need to win ugly games. Perhaps if we had done we would have beaten Colchester, Scunthorpe and QPR. I am, however, for now willing to overlook this as there are no guarantees, and I would rather play nice football than play ugly and not win anyway. Maybe this is something that needs to be reviewed if we fail to go up and Stoke and Watford do when it comes to summer transfer dealings.

At 2:34 PM, Blogger Blackheath Addicted said...

Good stuff indeed. Curbs was adept at getting the players right - and getting the right results - in games against teams around or below us.

I suspect that the way Watford and Stoke play make it easier for them than us to overpower 'lesser' teams. The poorer quality of finishing in this division puts a premium on maximising the number of chances created by whatever means and that can mean getting the ball into the area as quickly and as often as possible. It won't work for them in the Premiership, but they probably know that.

I also think we've suffered from having a new team and many enforced changes through the season. We could easily have Mills and Thatcher as our full-backs now, which is hardly going for the beautiful game. I like the football we're playing now and hope we stick with it - and that the team will improve as they play together more - and that it won't all be too late for promotion this year.


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