Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Season Review

Back in August, after we had taken apart Sheffield Wednesday at The Valley in a stunning 2nd half display, I urged readers to put on a serious bet that Charlton would win the title.This is thus an appropriate opportunity to express my apologies for such a premature outburst of unbridled optimism.

The final table suggests we were only two wins away from the play-offs, and any frustrated Charlton fan can reel off the ones that got away, without even needing to consider those away from the Valley (Colchester, QPR, Preston, etc..).

However we were also only four defeats away from a Leicester-esque relegation with 52 points, and we were no strangers during the season to late goals, including one at the Walkers Stadium that ultimately condemned the Foxes.

Where did it go wrong? Injuries were certainly a factor, often occurring at highly inopportune times. Todorov for example was outstanding during that Wednesday game, but was crippled shortly thereafter. Bougherra was similarly sidelined just as he appeared to be forming an excellent partnership with McCarthy, whilst who knows what effect Andy Reid's injury had on the club's decision to accept Sunderland's offer?

Pards was forced to build essentially a brand new team, understandably preferring younger players with potential to more experienced types. Certainly his preseason challenge compared unfavourably to say Gary Johnson at Bristol City, or even Ady Boothroyd at Watford. Then again, when one reviews the fabulous job Neil Warnock did after arriving at a shambolic Crystal Palace, perhaps it wasn't such a great excuse after all.

Unfortunately Pards never found the right balance, offering 30 different players a starting berth, with Jonjo Shelvey the last, yet ironically perhaps the most exciting. It was inevitable that Holland and Zheng were voted 1st and 2nd in the Player of the Year, because they were the only outfield players seemingly assured a starting berth if fit. Meanwhile, Chris Iwelumo appeared in every game (14 times from the bench), and he was never remotely close to be being a striker of promotion quality.

The disappointing final League position I can accept, but occasionally our season smacked of experimentation. Yet when an experiment seemed to be yielding interesting results, it was soon replaced with a new one. As one example from many, Luke Varney and Izale McLeod showed signs of forming an unlikely, but exciting partnership up front most notably during the 4-1 win over Blackpool (our then highest-scoring fixture). Three games later, McLeod was forgotten about and now the rest unfortunately for him, is history.

Although increasingly the squad comprised his own signings, he clearly lacked confidence in many of them (was Varney really signed to be a winger for example?). He has pleaded guilty to overutilising the loan market, but here I am less critical since each one of the six concerned was (on paper at least) a valuable addition to the squad. The fact that they did not improve results does not imply Pards was wrong to go down this route. Hindsight is always 20/20. It should instead be seen as an understandable (albeit ultimately fruitless) attempted short-term solution.

However where I would be critical of Pards, is in the sheer number of first eleven permutations he dabbled with. I'm not necessarily against the concept of Benitez-esque rotation, so long as the players are technically drilled enough to cope. Ours patently are not. Some players were given the benefit of the doubt for weeks on end (eg. Ambrose, Iwelumo, Halford), whilst others were seemingly dropped instantly for daring to make a mistake, or play poorly just once.

Naturally therefore, if Pards was not sure what his best team was, then it was inevitable that he might over-react to short-term negative results as he did on several occasions. If he was only changing the personnel (but stuck to a consistent system) then this may have worked out, but increasingly he seemed to do both. No wonder we looked so disjointed at times.

The goalkeeper and his defence always sets the foundations for a successful side, and this fact did not bode well for us, Weaver generally aside. Three defensive loan signings (Mills, Sodje and Halford) made 57 starts, whilst the talented but very raw Moutaouakil and Youga made just 18 between them. Ben Thatcher ended up securing the left-back berth in the end, despite being unwilling to cross the halfway line for a series of matches we needed to win. Paddy McCarthy meanwhile emerged as our best defender, yet he was overlooked for nearly half a season.

Our enigmatic French-speaking pair of full-backs (their own injuries aside) sum up for me our problems this season; it was as if Pards likes to 'talk the talk' when it comes to exciting young talents, but is afraid to truly 'walk the walk' as soon as their understandable propensity to overindulge takes hold. I hope we see much more of both next season, but I'm not convinced they'll stick around.

The midfield was a familiar story of no creativity. Once Reid had left, Holland and Zheng secured the central berths but they needed genuine invention outside of them in order to ensure adequate forward service. Ambrose is a round peg in a square hole played out wide, whilst our true wingers (especially Thomas and Sam) were selected only sporadically, and usually not together. Maybe Varney meanwhile could have been a productive winger, but again he was never given the run of games there to prove it.

Playing 4-5-1 seemed at times to offer the panacea to all of the above, freeing up one of Reid, Ambrose or Zheng to play in the 'hole', but like many of Pardew's experiments, he seemed to lose courage after just a single poor result using the system.

Up front, we obviously lacked a prolific striker, and Charlton fans hardly need reminding that Kevin Lisbie (free transfer) managed just four fewer league goals than Iwelumo, Varney, McLeod and Gray combined (total cost: £4.6m). Some will however have taken comfort from the final game promise of a Gray/Varney partnership; they certainly appear to have the requisite balance and complimentary styles required. With the likes of Chris Dickson and perhaps a rejuvenated McLeod available from the bench, goalscoring productivity should increase. And let's not forget the mercurial Todorov of course.

So there we have it. Perhaps the most disappointing season (relative to reasonable expectations) since 1990/91, when a similarly relegated Charlton side stumbled to 16th place. But that very season serves as a vital reminder that we could easily lose perspective; we played our home games that season at Selhurst Park in front of pitiful crowds. The crowds today are larger, but also considerably more expectant, but that's the price of progress I suppose.

Looking to next season, the full composition of the Championship will not be known for some weeks, but it's fair to assume based on past evidence alone, that 2007/08 was perhaps an 'outlier' in terms of the low number of points required for either promotion or play-offs. WBA were deserving champions in the end, but they only won half their matches. Unfortunately for Charlton, that probably means the improvement required next season will be considerably greater than we might realise.

Seeking to examine the source of such improvement is pointless right now, with the summer wheeling and dealing likely to be as frantic as last time around (albeit hopefully a little more focused this time). However if the existing solid core of 8-9 experienced pros, can be blended alone with the growing group of younger players with scope to improve, there are enough reasons to be cautiously optimistic (or at least not irrationally pessimistic).

As Pards implied, this season has been a very conspicuous blot on his otherwise impressive CV, and I suspect his ego is too large to let it spread much further. 16/1 for the title anyone?


At 11:24 AM, Anonymous Johnny73 said...

A detailed and in depth analysis or our season. You captured everyone of my thoughts and concerns.

Most of the strikers we signed had scored goals on a regular basis at Championship or League 1 level. They have all been prolific at some point during the last two seasons.

Iwelumo in particular seems to take heavy flak across most forums and blogs. Unfairly i feel.

The problem is either, they all failed to perform, or Pardew did not figure out how to get the best out of their abilities. For me it has to be the latter.

Of course this all feeds back into your correct conclusion that Pards tinkered too much and never had a settled side.

At 11:50 AM, Blogger Wyn Grant said...

You have said it all really, leaving me with nothing to do. I believe that Todorov is on a one year contract and, for all his talents, I would not renew it given that Gray was really brought in to replace him. We need to cut the size of the squad as that then gives less scope for tinkering.

At 12:14 PM, Blogger Kings Hill Addick said...

Thanks NYA, you've literally saved me having to bother. In response to Johnny73 I would like to compare the playing styles (particularly the goals conceded) of the teams that our strikers scores many goals in. Maybe it's time for us to be more adventurous going forward, however, I suspect that if any of our strikers had been given a decent run in the side (ignoring Big Chris who was involved in all games - many on his own upfront though) then the goals return would have been greater.

At 12:57 PM, Anonymous stephen said...

It was very noticeable that we were never able to win games where we played badly - its very difficult to think of any lucky wins. Also strange that we never lost a game when someone was sent off. Must say something about the team spirit - but I'm not sure what.

At 4:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

NYA, thanks much for this and a whole season of great posts. I appreciate your take on things. It seems clear to me that our season went downhill as soon as Reid was injured and Pards was unable to find anyone with any creativity to fill that position and feed the strikers.

I believe you felt at the time that selling Reid was the right thing to do (unhappy, oft-injured player = poor performance and money could be better used). So, two questions: Has hindsight changed your view? And, do American sports teams react similarly to unhappy players or is there more of a "shut up and play" mentaltiy from the teams?

At 6:20 PM, Anonymous newyorkaddick said...

Anonymous, thanks for your compliments. I think it's too early to conclude whether selling Reid was the correct decision or not, but arguably it wasn't really a 'decision' at all because as we all know players have all the bargaining power (and he was offered a lot more money to move).

Our problems this season went a lot further than missing Reid, so it's debatable how much of a difference it would have made. There were some shocking performances with him in the side too.

Ultimately if the 4million received is put to good use (if only just to maintain stability), then I would argue longer-term it will have been a good decision.

Wtih regard to your question about US sports, I must confess I don't have a good answer because the transfer systems are so different (players are more traded than 'transferred' for money).

At 10:43 AM, Anonymous Johnny73 said...

Kings Hill,

It would be interesting to know how our forwards scored goals at their previous clubs. Look at Iwelumo, he's got the physique of a big target man, and brought out the long ball game in others around him. But that role is definitely not is strength. I believe he prefers more of a supporting striker role and vaguely remember him saying so at the start of the season.


I'm a big fan of American football and my team Kansas City Chiefs have (like Reid) recently sold (traded) their best player to another team. The sport has more protection in place for the teams if a player wants to leave (by way of compensation), but if a contract is nearing it's final year and the player is adamant he will not sign, then a transfer is nearly always inevitable.


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