Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Posh Spice

Watching Charlton has become rather predictable, even if the results remain unpredictable.

You can show up confident that we will be outplayed in midfield, but set up to be 'bloody hard to beat' and ordered to give absolutely everything for the shirt.

It's not pretty but you can't deny it's been successful. 

Somewhat remarkably given how we all felt just three weeks ago, we sit just five points off the play-offs.

On a chilly South-East London night, it was clear from Powell's team selection that we would revert firmly to type.

Unusually playing two target men together signalled we intended to 'go direct', whilst at the same time cementing the view that Bradley Wright-Phillips is at best a fringe player nowadays.

Although Kermogant enjoys a cult status at The Valley, seeing him alongside Fuller emphasised for me at least the difference in quality, with the Jamaican showing a good deal more guile along with the same terrific upper body strength that his partner also displays.

An early volleyed effort by Kermogant from a Fuller knock-down boded well, but there wasn't much chemistry between the pair.  A pacier partner like Haynes would suit both better.

As we know the Charlton midfield is ponderous on good days, but it was set up to be particularly so with Jackson and the surprisingly ineffective Frimpong unable to do much more than 'hold' in the centre.

Pritchard's workrate and athleticism is really astonishing and his defensive contribution is probably underappreciated, but he is really just that ie. an athlete, not a footballer. 

Kerkar meanwhile is just frustrating, even more so when he gets into dangerous positions as he did on a couple of occasions in the first half.

However the back four was rock solid, and whilst Posh regularly and impressively bypassed our static midfield, they never really threatened to score except from the deflected shot which rebounded off Hamer's post.

George Boyd and the less-than-svelte Lee Tomlin were technically the most impressive players on the pitch, but it's telling that they have contributed nearly half of their side's goals this season.

On this performance, a 15 goals per season type of striker would have seen them sitting somewhere in midtable.  Instead they rely on the midfield for their goals.

Chris Solly in particular was terrific at the back, winning tackles and bombing forward where he could - two pinpoint early second half crosses for Kermogant and Pritchard particularly noteworthy.

The late introduction of Danny Green changed the dynamic, and whilst Powell presumably considers him rather 'unreliable', he does at least pass and move with a degree of competence. 

Fuller's goal shortly thereafter was a wonder strike but the space he found himself in was actually created by one of the few episodes of neat interchange through the midfield.  A lesson perhaps?

The second goal was also well-worked, Hulse and Kermogant both involved in the move at the beginning as well as at the end, finishing off Green's perfect low cross to put the game beyond the visitors.

As my last post suggested, if our away form to date can be explained by more than just mediocre opposition, then this season could really surpass all reasonable expectations. 

As the quality of opposition at The Valley degrades as the League table suggests it will, then even average performances may be enough to pick up wins. 

Last night provided supporting evidence.

Here are my player ratings:

Hamer 7 - flapped a couple of times, but distribution was good and handling generally secure;
Solly 8 - the team's outstanding player; so much more effective on the right
Seabourne 6 - a solid unspectacular short-term answer; Nigel Adkins can safely delete his mobile no. though
Morrison 7 - the team's on-pitch leader even if he isn't wearing the armband
Cort 6 - causes nervous moments when the ball is on the floor, but wins vital headers
Pritchard 6 - helps Solly immensely by tracking back, but lack of quality is painful to watch
Jackson 6 - one of his better games but the opposition midfield highlighted his limitations
Frimpong 5 - on this performance Cazorla and Arteta need not fear for their places
Kerkar 6 - never stops trying and occasionally got into good positions, but no end product
Fuller 7 - service was poor so he had to take matters into his own hands; a quality act
Kermogant 6 - struggled to get involved; realistically should be 3rd choice target man
Green 7 - Powell's natural conservativeness will see Pritchard usually preferred; shame
Hulse 7 - added some energy upfront; more mobile than Kermogant

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Home and Away

The mood amongst Charlton fans has shifted in the space of just eleven days from manic depressive to cautiously optimistic.

Three wins in a row within the context of some meaningful additions to the squad, has even had some fans (including me) daring to look up to Blackburn in 6th place, just five points away.

Indeed a glance at the league table more generally reveals a rather extraordinary statistic:

We have played only one of the bottom half teams at home (namely Barnsley).

Given that we have played eight League games already, this is rather surprising. 

The observation is slightly self-fulfiling because our home form has been so poor (only 8 points from 8 games) and thus 14 points have 'leaked out' of The Valley into the points total of the sides we have played, thus aiding their League position.

Putting this slight bias to one side, it remains true that the average current League position of the 8 teams we have played at home is just 6.5. 

Meanwhile the average current League position of the 9 teams we have played away from home is 16.4, almost ten League positions worse.

It is worth noting that the most 'extreme' possible version of this effect (ie. if our home games had all been against the top 8, and our away games had all been against the bottom 9) would only give an average League position of 4.5 and 20 respectively, compared to 6.5 and 16.4 actual. 

Meanwhile the observation shows little sign of letting up with the teams sitting in 7th and 8th place currently (Brighton and Huddersfield) visiting The Valley between now and Dec 8th.

The extent of this odd distribution of fixtures is perhaps best represented optically via the current League table (with teams we have played at home and away represented in red and blue respectively):

Sheff Wed
Bristol City

There are a few potential conclusions one might be able to draw from this seemingly important observation.

Firstly, it is not surprising perhaps that our home form has been poor.  In short, we have played the best teams.

However the key question (which ultimately will dictate where we finish the season) is whether our materially better away form is simply explained also by the polar opposite (ie. we've played the poorest teams), or whether we are also inherently better equipped tactically to play away from home.

If the answer rests more with the latter then the conclusion is quite optimistic. 

Notwithstanding the fact that we simply don't play as well at home, we should pick up proportionately more points because the opposition will be worse. 

Likewise, whilst the current heady rate of points accumulation (15 from 9 games) will likely degrade to some degree, the team's inherent strengths on the road should nonetheless keep the points total ticking over nicely. 

Cue a realistic push for the play-offs.

If the answer however rests more with the former, then we may be in for a nasty shock despite sitting pretty right now.

As the quality of opposition away from home improves, the pressure on the impressive defence proves too much (particularly given our ongoing problem with keeping possession). 

Meanwhile the inability to break teams down consistently at home remains, regardless of weaker opposition.  Fans get frustrated and nervous as a result, impacting the players.

Cue a worrying flirtation with the relegation zone.

My personal view is that the optimistic conclusion is more likely.

Even discounting for weak opposition, I think the away form (particularly defensively) is too good to be explained away so easily. 

Nine goals conceded on the road is the joint best in the division after all, and it's been achieved with arguably the team's best player (Wiggins) missing for the majority.

Indeed regardless of which conclusion one draws, it is likely that the squad available in the remaining 29 games will be stronger than that available in the 17 so far (as injured players return and reinforcements play a part).

Things may be about to get very interesting.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Dragon Slayers

I was in sunny San Francisco instead of a chilly Valley on Tuesday night, and having sat through so much midweek dross in recent seasons, typically I missed a veritable goal-fest. 

However my friend and fellow supporter Chris was there and was kind enough to pen an honest and thorough account of the night's action which I thought it would a shame not to share:

Contrary to what you may have read elsewhere, or inferred from what you've read, Powell actually set up with a 4-5-1.

That was as I'd have expected after the Middlesborough disaster, but the personnel he chose was a surprise, to me anyway.

One change I did anticipate was Solly moving back to left back with Morrison then replacing him at right back.

I think fans have misunderstood Powell's logic since Wiggins has been injured.

My take is that his decision making has been driven more by his thoughts about Lawrie Wilson than about where to play Solly or by doubts about Evina.

He eventually played Evina not because he suddenly decided he was good enough, but because Wilson, whilst playing at right-back, suggested he could also play right midfield.

Powell was then impressed by how well Wilson and Solly worked together and so chose to compromise defensive integrity to retain that combination when Evina himself got injured.

Hence, he played Kerkar at left-back vs. 'Boro. With Wilson out for Cardiff, the reaction was obvious.

I was a bit surprised, however, to see Dervite drop back to replace Morrison alongside Cort, not because I have doubts about Dervite, per se, but because it made the midfield less solid.

The middle three was then, from right to left, Pritchard, Stephens and Jackson. Of those three, the only one with sufficient quality to play at this level is Stephens, but Pritchard does have a great engine.

The idea, I assumed, was to contain and, when possible, get the ball out to Haynes on the right and Kerkar on the left.

I watched Haynes' movement very carefully early in the game and there is no doubt he was playing in the wide position in a 4-5-1 ie. Hulse was on his own up front.

After 35 minutes I was wondering whether I'd bother to renew my season ticket for next season in League One.

Cardiff were 2-0 ahead and, whilst both goals may have been disappointing from a defensive point of view, there was a huge chasm between the two sides in terms of composure and quality on the ball.

Cardiff passed and moved elegantly and effectively whilst Charlton were unable to string two passes together. It was simply embarrassing and the result seemingly an inevitability.

By this time Charlton had gone 4-4-2 with Haynes pushed forward alongside Hulse, Pritchard on the right of midfield, where he is unquestionably less effective than when deployed more centrally, leaving central midfield patrolled by Stephens and the struggling, sluggish Jackson.

We looked a poor side, painfully lacking in quality and without an obvious game plan.

Football is a funny old game though and that phrase could have been invented for what happened on Tuesday evening.

On 38 minutes, Michael Morrison, looking uncomfortable at right back and without any real control over the football, booted it high and aimlessly into the Cardiff penalty area.

It was the kind of random, pressured football, played with neither purpose nor control that had characterised Charlton's performance to that point in the game.

However, underpressure from Hulse, Marshall, the hapless Cardiff keeper, failed to catch the ball cleanly.

The loose ball found its way to Jackson who finished calmly and cleanly. It was a surreal moment.

Jackson reacted as if he'd scored a late consolation goal in a heavy defeat whilst I half-expected the referee to give a foul against Hulse. However the goal stood and it was 1-2.

On the stroke of half-time a Kerkar corner found Jackson completely unmarked in a central position. A terrific header. 2-2. What? How did that happen?

Cardiff must have spent their half-time break shocked, confused and disorientated.

Charlton, on the other hand, must have been buzzing. Beaten and depressed, they were now alive and kicking.

Cardiff came out early after half-time and were kept waiting by a Charlton side that must still have been listening to Chris Powell repeating the scoreline. "I know it feels like 0-4, but it's 2-2. They're better than us, but we can win this".

The second half started slowly, but Cardiff's confident rhythm and swagger had deserted them and it was clear that Charlton were, indeed, back in the game.

On 53 minutes the Addicks won a free kick midway into the Cardiff half but right out on the left touch line; my seat at the front of the Upper West gave me a perfect view of the trajectory towards goal.

I wondered if Stephens could repeat the outstanding deliveries into the box he'd managed on more than one occasion in the first half. He couldn't.

It was immediately obvious that he'd over hit his cross. It was going to sail aimlessly beyond the Charlton players waiting to compete for it. In fact, it was way too high; very disappointing. But wait, hang're kidding, it's actually going in!

What did Napoleon say about lucky generals?

Twelve minutes later it was 5-2! Charlton were now playing with confidence, freedom, pace and conviction. Cardiff had simply lost it.

Panicky at the back, their confidence in midfield had deserted them completely. Charlton were first to the second ball.

Most of the crowd must have been wondering what they had drunk along with their half-time tea. It was hard to believe.

A superb piece of skill by Pritchard had set up Haynes and Kerkar had set up Hulse for a simple headed goal.

Stephens was now dominant as Charlton surged forward. Haynes's pace threatened to destroy Cardiff's shell-shocked defence, whilst anybody questioning the Board's determination to support Chris Powell only had to watch the excellent loanee Hulse lead the line.

It was an extraordinary turnaround. A dramatic example of the impact confidence and momentum can have on a game of football.

Then Danny Haynes pulled up and lay, agonisingly on the left touch line. Not the hamstring again? He made a funereal march to the bench. Completely distraught he was comforted by Chris Powell.

Wright-Phillips entered the fray, but Charlton lost the high tempo they'd been enjoying. Perhaps that was inevitable and Cardiff began to get back into the game, but surely the result was safe?

On 90 minutes Powell gave the classy Stephens the chance to milk the crowd's applause. How can anyone fail to recognise his quality and courage?

Danny Hollands was given the bonus of a late appearance; it's important to make everybody feel involved. The gaffer will think twice before making that change again.

Charlton were now unable to retain possession and Cardiff began to see more of the ball. Six minutes injury time? You must be joking! Where did that come from?

Still, it's 5-2 so we're home and dry.

But wait, a long hopeful ball down the middle. Cort fails to deal with it. 5-3.

The young man next to me made a flippant remark about the Cardiff celebration. You'll be panicking if they score another I told him.

Another long ball forward. Again the Charlton defence fails to deal with it. 5-4 and still a minute plus to go. You can't be serious? His head was in his hands.

Yet another long ball forward. Hamer comes and flaps. Another cross. Too long. Game over. Phew! Unbelievable.

In simple terms, a night where Charlton beat a much better side because they worked hard and got the breaks when they mattered.

In truth, a lucky win. Who cares though? A fantastic boost to confidence, collectively and individually.

It is possible to beat better sides. Work hard, be positive and press. Even good sides can look shaky when not given the time to play.

Of individual players, Michael Morrison is a star, but he's not a right back.

Chris Solly is a star and he's probably as good at left back as he is at right back.

Leon Cort? Hmmm. Not sure. Dervite looks decent, but something wasn't right at the back.

Powell needs Evina and then Wiggins back. In the meantime, he has a problem to solve as the Dan Seabourne loan proves.

Haynes's pace makes him a threat, but it is not obvious he's got the quality needed. An option from the bench perhaps?

Hulse, the best striker bar Fuller.

Stephens can play. The midfield is weak though.

There's much work to do yet, but with Fuller, Wilson and Wiggins back we should be ok.

We've now played the top five teams at home.

Ironically, had we won the games against Watford and Barnsley we'd be looking great, just one point off sixth place! The margins are very fine indeed.