BY BENJY NURICK
Charlton have spent their time this season on a quest. No, I’m not talking about the quest for promotion – that goes without saying. Running through their promotion fight has been a near-constant quest for balance between the forces of chaos and control. And as of now, with just six games left in their season, Charlton still haven’t quite mastered it.
On Saturday, Nigel Adkins’ side extended their unbeaten run to nine games with a 0–0 draw against Ipswich at The Valley. But after erring on the side of caution – and with the visitors unable (or unwilling) to do much with the ball, perhaps all three points could have been stolen with a more aggressive approach. Ah, what could’ve been…at least Charlton fans have become accustomed to that particular sensation.
At the start of the season, when Charlton embarked on their eight-match unbeaten run – including six straight wins – the identity of the team was clear, even if the balance was slightly off. Built on a staunch defence, Charlton relied on keeping teams quiet rather than outscoring them, earning six consecutive cleans sheets, but scoring one goal or less in four of the eight games.
Throughout that expectation-raising run of victories, which came immediately following the arrival of Thomas Sandgaard and the squad reinforcements he brought, Charlton conceded a total of 21 shots on target, just 2.6 per game. They themselves managed just 24 shots on target, three per match. They found success by strangling games, sucking the life out of their opponents without even attempting to truly dominate.
Then, Ryan Inniss got injured and Charlton were blown apart 4–2 by Burton Albion, and their identity seemed to change, largely by necessity. Unable to keep teams at bay, Charlton went on the offensive, trying to pilfer enough goals to alleviate the burden on their delicate defence. Charlton’s shots against rose in the 20 games following the end of their unbeaten run to 4.6 per game, an increase of 43 per cent. But at the same time, their own shots on target also grew to 4.2 per game, rising by 29 per cent.
This long period following Inniss’ injury, exactly half their 40 games played so far this season, was categorised by total chaos. At times Charlton were genuinely very good, at least going forward, frequently able to conjure up enough goals to keep themselves in games. But their complete lack of control cost them dearly in these helter-skelter times as games routinely finished with ridiculous scorelines including 5–2 (win vs Wimbledon), 4–4 (vs Rochdale), 3–2 (defeat to Gillingham), as well as three 2–2s – against Swindon (twice) and Plymouth.
In this 20-game run — stretching from November 24 all the way until the awful 3–0 loss to Blackpool on February 27— Charlton’s matches yielded an average of 3.3 goals per game.
And in their other 20 matches this season? An average of 2.1 goals per game.
Charlton’s expected goals (xG) trends provide further evidence to the chaos vs control debate. xG is used to measure the quality of chances each team creates, looking at how many goals they should score based on their opportunities. In the 20 games before and after their chaotic middle of the season run, Charlton gave away an xG of 0.99 per game. Going forward they managed an xG of 1.22 per game. Both these xG numbers, for and against, grew with the rising mayhem, Charlton conceding an average xG of 1.35 per game in the middle 20 fixtures while creating an xG of 1.40 per game themselves.
High-scoring matches have usually been accompanied by disappointment for Charlton this season. While occasionally fun, and almost always entertaining, the chaos that had engulfed Charlton’s season wasn’t working. They have been at their most successful in the periods before and after the wildness in the middle, earning 2.1 points per game in their other 20 matches — equating to 96 points over the course of a season. That would likely be enough for automatic promotion this year.
Bizarrely, Charlton’s 11 games at the start of the season yielded 23 points while there was a total of 23 goals scored. In their last nine games, culminating in Saturday’s draw with Ipswich, Charlton have earned 19 points while their games have included 19 goals.
The coincidence is almost spooky, but the important point is this: in the 20 games before and after Charlton’s out of control mid-season crisis, they collected 42 of their 63 total points.
While Charlton sometimes looked on the verge of exploding through the middle of the season, seemingly often close to the “run” Lee Bowyer kept talking about, they desperately struggled to actually accumulate points. Through those 20 games, they collected 33 per cent of Charlton’s total points, winning just 1.05 points per game.
Chaos and excitement, while entertaining, has threatened to kill Charlton this season. It’s not always pretty but they’ve been a play-off calibre side (or better) when keeping games tight and limiting the total amount of opportunities for both teams. Order, rather than exhilaration, was the mark of their early season form and it’s been the key to the recent run that’s given them a chance in the play-off race.
Adkins has clearly decided that he has no choice but to follow the blueprint that has yielded much of Charlton’s concrete success this season, opting to smother games with his team burned by open encounters too many times in recent months. After watching his new side draw 2–2 at Wimbledon in his Charlton debut, Adkins was left frustrated by the openness of the game, remarking afterwards that “it was very frantic. I’d like to see the team have a lot more controlled possession, rather than it be end to end.”
His team are yet to master the art of controlling games with the ball, keeping an average of just 44 per cent possession in Adkins’ four games. At Wimbledon, they held 53 per cent of the ball but have had less than half in their next three games. Adkins has wasted no time attempting to make sure Charlton are a tighter, more difficult team to bypass. His first major change was moving Ian Maatsen to right wing. Maatsen has played 30 times this season and is needed for his build-up play and ability to pass. He and Jake Forster-Caskey lead Charlton in total touches this season, the left-back constantly relied upon as an outlet with the ball.
But on the flip-side, Charlton have spent much of the season leaking goals and a noticeable amount of those have come from Maatsen’s side. Adkins remedied this, and kept Maatsen’s influence, by moving him into attack. It could be looked at as an offensive move, but the primary aim was no doubt to shore up the defence.
After the stalemate at The Valley on Saturday Adkins didn’t hide his fear of allowing games to become stretched. Opting to leave his only real attacking option, Ronnie Schwartz, on the bench, Adkins explained the non-decision by saying; “I did think about it, bringing on Ronnie — playing two up front. But I thought that might leave us exposed in the middle because they had the three in the middle.”
Similarly, Adkins chose to start Darren Pratley as his holding midfielder ahead of Ben Watson. When Watson replaced Pratley for the last half an hour, Charlton looked far better in possession, able to pass the ball quicker and move it around the pitch with renewed purpose. Watson actually ended the game with more touches than Pratley (21 to 19) despite only playing 30 minutes. But Adkins chose to start Pratley due to fears of being overrun in midfield; fears that appear fair when seeing the level of work Pratley went through in the first half as Ipswich held 61.5 per cent of the ball.
The reliance on solidity over style has been bad news for Charlton’s more maverick players, particularly Albie Morgan and Andrew Shinnie. Morgan, who struggled to ever fully satisfy Bowyer, can’t seem to get into Adkins’ squad, the manager choosing to place three defenders on the bench against Ipswich instead of the 21-year old. Morgan has gotten some minutes with the U23s alongside Arsenal loanee Matt Smith, but at this late stage of the season neither seem likely to have a major role.
Shinnie is an interesting case having been excellent in patches this season, leading his side with six assists while also chipping in with three goals including the belter to start the recent comeback against Bristol Rovers. Additionally, four of his assists have been crosses headed home by Jayden Stockley. Still, despite some impressive performances and his almost telepathic relationship with Stockley, Adkins decided against utilising Shinnie against Ipswich, opting to make just one change, Watson for Pratley, as Charlton chased a winning goal.
Adkins seems to prefer central midfielders who have the capacity to overwhelm opposition teams, able to cover every blade of grass and influence the game all over the pitch while simultaneously carrying a goal threat. It’s a perfect task for Jake Forster-Caskey and Alex Gilbey, but it doesn’t suit the strengths of the less mobile Shinnie. Still, one would think the former Luton playmaker has done enough this season to earn a chance at some point soon.
The major caveat to Saturday’s draw was that Charlton were missing Chuks Aneke and Conor Washington, scorers of 24 of their 57 goals this season. Their absences greatly limited Charlton’s ability to chase the game late on. But even once they return, it is likely Charlton will continue to adopt a risk-averse approach based on a solid defensive foundation. The appeal of this outlook is obvious, with Charlton at their most effective this season when able to operate this way. Their wins have averaged a total of 2.4 total goals per game while their draws and defeats have seen 2.9.
If Charlton do make the play-offs, the confidently guarded set-up seems the right strategy with it particularly potent against teams who don’t want to sit back and will leave space in behind to counter. This was seen in the wins at Doncaster and Sunderland where Charlton took first-half leads and somewhat comfortably held out — at least until Sunderland made it 1–2 to cue a nervy finish. Armed with the first goal, Charlton could play to their strengths, strangling the game and making life very difficult for their opponents rather than having to truly force the issue themselves.
But against Ipswich, Charlton were the ones searching for a goal. Paul Cook’s side likely should have been as well considering their desperate need for points, but in the final 30 minutes, it was all Charlton going for the breakthrough. In this circumstance, needing to push on the front foot, they couldn’t quite get it done. Adkins’ side moved the ball better with Watson, but throughout, Charlton relied on long balls up to Stockley as they struggled for ideas and ways of breaching an Ipswich team that sat deeper and deeper as the second half wore on.
You could argue Charlton need a further-developed Plan B to accompany their Stockley-empowered long-game . While that likely is true it’s also clear they’re suited more to clashes with the better teams where the onus to attack can fall on their opponents.
Much has been said of Charlton’s difficult run-in and it really is daunting on paper. After already facing three teams in the promotion race, they still have to play both Peterborough and Hull — the two runaway leaders for the automatic promotion spots — while their penultimate game of the season is against fourth-place Lincoln City.
But that’s only three of their remaining six games. The other half of their fixtures are all very winnable — in theory at least — their opponents (Plymouth, Crewe, Accrington Stanley) sitting at an average position of 14.6 in the League One table. The big games are crucial but these other nine points up for grabs could be equally decisive.
An unpleasant team to play against once again with Inniss back in the side, Charlton can feel confident against the best, able to play to the strengths that have guided the successful periods of their season. Should they reach the play-offs it means Charlton will have a real fighting chance.
But to get there they must first figure out how to tweak their gameplan in order to get the job done against those who are less than best, starting on Tuesday at Plymouth.
MAIN PICTURE: KEITH GILLARD
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