BY BENJY NURICK
After an 87-day wait Charlton finally won at home on Tuesday night. Eighty-seven days, a whole 36.5 per cent of this season.
Here’s another number for you: 10. Ten days separated Charlton’s 3-0 defeat to Blackpool and their 2-1 win against Northampton. But really, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was an entirely different team on the pitch.
The performance against Northampton was far from perfect. Charlton looked sluggish going forward, creating just one shot on target from 55 per cent of the ball in the goal-less first half before fairing slightly better after the restart. It’s fair to wonder if the breakthrough would have come at all had Jack Sowerby not clattered into Jake Forster-Caskey midway through the second half to hand Charlton their lead from the penalty spot.
Still though, amid all the imperfections of a game that at times lacked real quality, Charlton turned up and made life extremely difficult for the visitors. And that in itself is the major differentiation from the crumbling defeat to Blackpool.
On that particular Saturday, Blackpool walked all over Charlton. Neil Critchley’s side were handed two penalties while the hosts were reduced to nine men, but dispiritingly, Charlton summoned very little courage, seemingly accepting defeat from an early stage.
By half-time, Blackpool had managed six shots to Charlton’s one and at full-time, the shot count sat at 11 to two. Unsurprisingly, the expected goal (xG) stats – used to measure the quality of a team’s chances – tells the story of Blackpool’s thorough dominance. The away side conjured up a total xG of 2.3 from their 11 shots, the most against Charlton all season. Meanwhile, Bowyer’s team managed an xG of just 0.2, their third-lowest of the campaign, creating pretty much nothing at all.
Charlton couldn’t match Blackpool’s intensity and while the second penalty may have been harsh, they got exactly what their meek performance deserved – absolutely nothing. Charlton just didn’t seem interested with Bowyer even questioning after the match whether his players cared enough. No moment summed up the weak effort more than Blackpool’s second goal when Matty Virtue picked the ball up in midfield and plowed forward 10 yards, totally unobstructed, before firing his shot in off the post.
Following the defeat, which has no doubt been Charlton’s rock-bottom this season (so far at least), Bowyer and his team took a step back in order to re-evaluate their season. Bowyer gave the players Sunday off, something he almost never does – feeling that everyone at the club needed to take some time to think before beginning fresh.
Returning from that reset, Charlton have slowly started rebuilding their campaign with a procession of important baby steps.
At times this season Charlton have genuinely been very good, particularly going forward, attacking at pace and causing opposition defences real problems. But many of their better performances have led to very little reward thanks to individual errors and bouts of misfortune. During Charlton’s most successful spell of the season – the eight-game unbeaten run through October and November – their performances were marked by solidity rather than swashbuckling football. The team was built around the centre-back pairing of Ryan Inniss and Akin Famewo, with the positive results helped by six consecutive clean sheets.
On Tuesday night, Charlton were seconds from making it three clean sheets in a row for the first time since that autumn run and it certainly appears that Bowyer’s side have gone back to basics, making themselves hard to beat first and foremost before focusing on what they can do going forward.
Against Northamtpon, Charlton lined up in a 4-4-2 formation with Jake Forster-Caskey and Ben Watson sitting in front of the back four while Albie Morgan and Liam Millar operated on the wings. This set-up frequently turned Charlton into a back six with a front four, and while it wasn’t always pretty in building attacks – often just pumping the ball forward to Jayden Stockley – it made it very tough for Northampton to punch through them.
Charlton’s heat map vs Northampton (shown below) emphasises this approach perfectly. Bowyer’s side didn’t bother controlling the middle of the pitch but focused their resources on making sure they were secure at the back while having options up front to ideally get up the pitch quickly.
This strategy didn’t always work as the attack became isolated from the rest of the team. But it did have the desired effect in totally shutting down Northampton. The visitors goal came with their only shot on target, and while Charlton fans will no doubt have watched the game expecting the worst, Northampton never really looked like troubling Ben Amos’ goal.
Similarly against both Oxford and Wigan, Charlton didn’t set the world alight, coming up with two (one being Ronnie Schwartz’s penalty) and three shots on target respectively. But what they did do was stay solid while limiting their opponents to equally little, Oxford managing three shots on target and Wigan just two.
Over the last three games, Charlton’s combined xG against has been 2.03, less than they gave up in the defeat to Blackpool. Meanwhile, they’ve faced just six shots on target in those matches, compared to 15 in the three games before that. Most importantly they’ve picked up seven crucial points.
The defeats to Burton and Blackpool seemed, at the time at least, to be the nail in the coffin of Charlton’s campaign as bad results were matched by ugly performances.
But now, Charlton are slowly rebuilding their season, and it’s come from returning to the basics of what they excel at – making themselves very hard to beat.
No player has epitomised this mini-revival more so than Jason Pearce. Pearce started just four of the 10 games leading up to last week’s win at Wigan and his uncertain spot in the team, coupled with a few decisive errors, made it fair to wonder if his Charlton career was coming to an anticlimactic end.
But after they were swept aside by Blackpool, Bowyer reinstated his captain and the last three games have seen Pearce perform at a level that we haven’t seen for a long while – at least not for the entirety of this season.
At Wigan, Pearce led his side in headers won and clearances while deservedly picking up man of the match accolades. But that one game wasn’t a mirage. Pearce did it again four days later at Oxford, leading his side in headers won and clearances once more as well as blocked shots this time.
With two good performances up his sleeve, Bowyer really didn’t have a tough decision to make as Northampton came to town, rightly picking Pearce to lead his defence. And once again he did not disappoint, putting in a proper captain’s performance, winning a massive 16 headers while constantly putting his body on the line. Pearce was also fouled four times, more than any other player on the night, taking two shots to the head as he simply refused to let Northampton gain the upper hand.
“He’s been solid,” Bowyer said of Pearce’s form after Tuesday’s victory. “He’s been what you want your captain to be and that’s solid. Most important thing is that he reacted the right way, took his criticism, and now he’s come back fighting and performing very well for the team. I’m really pleased for him.”
Much like Charlton’s recent renaissance, Pearce’s performance against Northampton wasn’t necessarily filled with brilliance – but what he did do was make his presence felt from start to finish.
When Charlton lost to Blackpool it looked as if there was only one team playing. The visitors rested their best players in the second half and dismantled Charlton with such ease that it felt like a practice match for them.
But since that crushing defeat Charlton have answered many of the questions surrounding their attitude and desire and are now just about heading in the right direction once again. They’ve done this by re-establishing the principles that made them successful earlier on – namely being an incredibly tough team to beat.
In addition, they finally saw some luck go their way. Northampton manager Jon Brady made his feelings clear on the penalty decision, saying: “When the referee looks back he will feel as sick as I do.”
Whether or not you think it was a penalty, it was a decision that finally went Charlton’s way after a succession of home games where everything seemed to go against them. You can’t rely on ‘luck’ of course, but as momentum builds it’s just another factor that will make this team believe.
The manner of victory wasn’t totally convincing but Charlton certainly didn’t back down on Tuesday night. They stayed strong – and with Pearce leading from the back – truly imposed their will on Northampton all over the pitch.
There’s no point looking at the League One table for now, but after finally winning at home for the first time since December 12, Charlton have a chance to add real strides to their recent baby steps with a flurry of home fixtures on the horizon.
They may not be brilliant, but Charlton are once again becoming a team that’s no-fun for their opponents to play against. And the importance of that can not be understated.
PHOTOS: PAUL EDWARDS AND KEITH GILLARD
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