BY BENJY NURICK
Heading into first-half stoppage time at Plough Lane, Charlton captain Jason Pearce bellowed some advice to the rest of his team.
“HEY, NOTHING F***ING STUPID!”
Pearce’s side heeded the message and made it through the three minutes of added time without any costly moments — getting to the break 2–1 up. Unfortunately, that mantra didn’t extend through the second half and in the 65th minute Wimbledon were gifted an equaliser, Ryan Longman pouncing on Akin Famewo’s underhit back-pass to make it 2–2.
The error definitely falls into the category of what Pearce would label as “stupid”, but it was a fitting welcome for new manager Nigel Adkins.
For months Charlton’s season has been poisoned by inexplicable individual errors and if the incident on Saturday looked familiar, it’s because it was.
In the 4–2 defeat at Burton Albion in November, both Chris Gunter and Ben Amos were caught when attempting to pass out from the back. Against Accrington Stanley, it was Pearce whose header fell short of Amos allowing Colby Bishop to steal in and score. At Peterborough, Charlton held the lead until Deji Oshilaja and Pearce collided going for the same ball. Sammie Szmodics picked up the pieces to equalise before getting the winner when Andrew Shinnie slipped attempting to play the ball back to his defence.
Famewo — who largely hasn’t put a foot wrong this season — was just the latest to commit an error that squandered his team’s position of authority and it shows that the crippling tendency for self-sabotage has seeped through this entire group. Charlton are battling a serious confidence crisis and it doesn’t even seem to matter who’s on the pitch.
After a first half of promise in south-west London, Charlton didn’t show up after the restart. Still, they were doing just enough until the 65th minute calamity. Wimbledon had been enjoying a slender lead in the shot-count, nine to eight, but after the equaliser the hosts took control, managing a further five shots to Charlton’s one as Adkins’ side retreated into their shell.
Charlton did have a chance to win it in the dying moments, Chuks Aneke smashing the post from a tight angle, but it would have been extremely harsh on Wimbledon. Expected goals (xG), used to measure the quality of each team’s chances, tells the story of the game.
Wimbledon finished on top in terms of xG, but the bigger worry came with the clear sway of momentum in the second half. As the xG chart below shows, it was a fairly even game up until Wimbledon’s second equaliser. But from that point, the hosts dominated proceedings, while Charlton couldn’t get going.
Joe Pigott nearly gave Wimbledon a late lead on two different occasions, hitting the post and then seeing Amos claw out a free-kick that looked destined for the top corner. Meanwhile, Charlton had Aneke’s stoppage-time effort and nothing else. Ronnie Schwartz didn’t even manage a touch after coming on in the 79th minute, while Aneke had just 13 touches in more than 25 minutes of football.
The manner in which the game turned, a switch flipped with Famewo’s error, should greatly concern Adkins. The shift of momentum showed something that admittedly isn’t surprising: this team, as has been the case for weeks, is struggling with their identity and their belief. It was evident in the moment when Famewo misplaced his pass, and it was even more clear in the half-hour of Wimbledon pressure that followed.
Nigel Adkins now has almost two full weeks to get to know his squad and attempt to make the right fixes in order to give Charlton a shot at the play-offs. The first thing he must address is the confidence crisis that has been plaguing this team.
Thomas Sandgaard chose the former Southampton boss in part due to his optimism and positive attitude, and he’ll need every ounce of that energy in order to instil some belief into his battered and worn down squad.
One place to start could be in the way Charlton build play, notably how they do it passing out from the back. Adkins has always played out from the back throughout his managerial career, and he confirmed after the draw on Saturday that his philosophy is unlikely to change at Charlton.
“As a theme, you want to go and do it,” Adkins said of building play from defence. “But it was the wrong decision at that time — the way the opposition set up, the game at the time, it was a poor decision. And that’s what we’ll talk about in the debriefing.”
Adkins points out two important reasons why attempting to play short from their goal-kick was the wrong decision in this specific situation. The first reason being the way the opposition, Wimbledon, set up.
As the image below shows, Wimbledon were pressing high up the pitch, readying themselves to pounce on any Charlton mistakes.
Amos has the ball at his feet and three short outlets available to him — Pearce to his left, Forster-Caskey central, and Famewo to his right. Clearly, the first two aren’t viable options with Wimbledon attackers within just a few yards. That leaves Famewo as the only somewhat “safe” short pass.
Amos goes to Famewo, and in doing so, Charlton play right into Wimbledon’s trap. Longman sees the ball and runs in to cut off any passes upfield while Pigott and Jack Rudoni add further pressure.
As is clear in the image below, Rudoni, Wimbledon’s number 12, even motions for Longman to press high, the entire team sensing an opportunity as soon as Charlton started to mess with a potentially risky situation.
At this point, Famewo could either pump the ball long or play it back to his keeper. Either way, Charlton are in no position to play short passes out from the back and it must get launched forward. Maybe Amos would have gone long next, but we’ll never know because Famewo’s ball didn’t reach him.
The frustrating thing for Charlton fans, and surely for Nigel Adkins too — once he gets a chance to thoroughly review his new team — is that this almost exact disaster happened in November at Burton.
Once again on that occasion, Charlton attempted to play out from the back when it just wasn’t on. Amos’ goal-kick found Pratley to his left, but he immediately had to give the ball back to his keeper with pressure behind him.
Amos then dallied slightly before eventually spooning the ball out to the onrushing Burton players. But the concern here, as with Famewo’s error, isn’t even necessarily in the execution of the pass, which is virtually unexplainable. The major issue is the decision-making that placed Charlton in danger from the offset.
As the images above show, Wimbledon had matched Charlton’s defenders three for three, and even worse, at Burton, Charlton attempted to play out from the back when they were actually at a numerical disadvantage.
Ironically, Charlton scored their first goal on Saturday in part due to Amos’ decision not to play short, instead going long to Albie Morgan.
In a not too dissimilar position to the one from which Charlton conceded in the second half, Amos has the ball at his feet with only one short option available, Famewo to his right. Facing Wimbledon’s high press he decides not to risk it and instead goes long, playing a perfect pass to Morgan who then finds Millar on the wing , the Liverpool loanee eventually crossing for Stockley to head in.
“I’d like to see the team having a lot more controlled possession of the game instead of it being end-to-end,” was Adkins’ verdict of the first Charlton performance under his watch. Adkins wants his side to control the flow of the game, and as has been the case at his previous jobs, he believes that starts with how you pass out of defence.
Adkins knows his team need to pick the right moments to play in that manner, and recognise when the situation doesn’t allow for it — as was the case with Wimbledon’s second goal and indeed Charlton’s first.
The second factor Adkins pointed to – as he struggled to understand the decision-making from his team – was the state of the game at the time of Famewo’s error.
Charlton started the second half somewhat okay, but Wimbledon hit back and by the 65th minute had managed five shots to the visitor’s two. Still, Charlton held the lead and Wimbledon hadn’t yet created much in the way of clearcut chances.
A bit under the cosh, and with an important lead to protect, it wasn’t the right moment in the game to take a risk and try playing out from the back. Considering the state of the game it would have been smarter to clear the ball long, attempt to hold possession in the opposition half, or at the very least get a chance to take the sting out of Wimbledon’s budding progress.
Instead, Longman scored what he called the easiest goal of his career, giving Wimbledon the ultimate shot in the arm to go and chase a winner — which thankfully for Charlton didn’t quite arrive.
Adkins’ philosophy is centred around getting on the ball and trying to pass through teams. But with the constant errors this season, Charlton need to limit their risk-potential, particularly at times when they don’t need or can’t afford to take chances – 2–1 up at Wimbledon was a time when they didn’t need to take such a risk, while Burton’s gift came when they couldn’t afford to take such a risk.
On that night, Charlton started on the back foot and went down a goal in the ninth minute when Gunter’s pass was intercepted. Facing the proposition of a killer second goal after the nervy start, Charlton needed to adopt a risk-averse approach in that specific instance and just go long. Instead, possibly in desperation to get their foot on the ball and try to change the flow of the game, Charlton played short and the cost proved great.
All these individual errors no doubt come in part due to the fragile nature of the squad, but perhaps the lack of consistency in personnel and set-up has helped fuel that fragility.
It’s no secret that Lee Bowyer struggled desperately to figure out his best team, constantly chopping and changing those on the pitch as well as the formation they played in.
On Saturday, Adkins started with an unchanged team from the midweek win against Bristol Rovers but heavily played around with things as the game wore on, using it to experiment with his new squad. The starting XI could be looked at as the basic blueprint of Charlton before their new manager’s arrival, while the changes Adkins made give us a window into where he might be trying to go.
The first alteration – changing from a 4–4–2 formation with two strikers up front to a 4–3–3 with Liam Millar and Diallang Jaiyesimi on the wings – was enforced by Washington’s early withdrawal. But that wasn’t the final switch.
Midway through the first half Adkins shifted Millar up front and moved Andrew Shinnie out to the left creating a 4–1–3–2 with Forster-Caskey in the hole between his defenders and Shinnie, Albie Morgan, and Jaiyesimi ahead of him.
Adkins made the change because he felt his team weren’t dominating the ball enough, particularly in the middle of the park with Wimbledon’s 4–2–3–1 giving them an extra man in midfield.
He then altered things slightly for the start of the second half, going to more of a diamond shape in midfield, with Forster-Caskey at the base, Shinnie on the left, Morgan on the right, and Jaiyesimi in the space behind Stockley and Millar.
Hoping to grab a winning goal, Adkins switched to a 4–3–3 in the closing stages with Darren Pratley coming on to support the midfield and Ronnie Schwartz and Chuks Aneke joining Stockley up front.
After only getting unveiled on Thursday, Adkins has had virtually no time to work with his squad, so experimentation was understandably what he needed. The problem is, Charlton don’t have time for much more experimentation if they are to seriously challenge for a play-off spot.
Adkins said after the draw that he has a “Plan A” he intends to implement. It’s unclear which version of Charlton on Saturday most closely resembled the manager’s Plan A, but it’s safe to say multiple Plan Bs were also attempted.
Charlton looked at their most dangerous with Millar and Jaiyesimi out wide, scoring both their goals with this set-up as the two wingers briefly tormented Wimbledon’s full-backs. But with Adkins feeling his side were too open, perhaps he’ll find balance using a more defensive midfield in a 4–3–3, with one of Pratley or Watson supporting Forster-Caskey and Shinnie or Morgan.
The international break has come at the perfect time for Charlton and their new manager, with a host of issues to address before they travel to Doncaster on April 2. Instilling belief in his players has always been a major focal point of Adkins’ management and that will no doubt be where he starts.
But at the same time, attacking the underlying issues of their misguided build-up play and the inconsistencies in how they set-up could go a long way towards putting the pieces of the squad’s destroyed psyche back together.
Somehow, largely due to the ineptitude of their competitors, Charlton still have a real shot at making the playoffs. They’ll need a consistent run of results, but it isn’t impossible.
Dropped points courtesy of another defensive catastrophe cost Charlton a chance to really harness the momentum of the new managerial appointment and some good recent form. For those who have watched this team all season, it was far too predictable. Welcome to Charlton Athletic, Nigel Adkins.
PHOTOS: KEITH GILLARD AND PAUL EDWARDS
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