BY BENJY NURICK
With seconds remaining at The Valley on Tuesday night, Charlton launched a final attack into the Burton box.
“F****** HELL” came the cry from Ben Amos in the opposite goal as visiting keeper Ben Garratt made a simple catch. The words reverberated across the empty stadium, in part because of just that — the emptiness. But the call also stood out because it was one of few in a sea of relative silence as Charlton somewhat meekly accepted defeat.
Make no mistake about it; this was the week in which Charlton’s very real progress came to a shuddering halt.
As we’ve discussed recently, Charlton have been on the right track, repeatedly failing to get what their often decent performances have deserved. Bowyer’s side have found themselves continuously dropping points from positions of supremacy with a healthy dose of misfortune and destructive errors playing their part.
But this week, against Fleetwood on Saturday and Burton on Tuesday, Charlton got exactly what they deserved. No, that’s not quite fair — it would be more honest to say Charlton got more than they deserved.
Despite a 3–2 defeat against Gillingham, there was reason for optimism travelling up to Fleetwood. Contrary to their home form, Charlton had been excelling on the road, winning three of the four games leading up to Saturday while putting in one of their better performances of the season in the 2–0 victory at Rochdale.
That optimism only grew six minutes in when Jayden Stockley latched on to Andrew Shinnie’s cross to give Charlton the lead. But that was the high point of the afternoon.
Fleetwood pegged them back in the 41st minute before taking control after the break, outshooting Charlton 15 to one in the second half. As the game wore on, Fleetwood camped out in Charlton’s half forcing Amos into a number of important saves while Bowyer’s side steadily retreated — as shown by their heat map below.
On the few occasions Charlton did manage to get across the halfway line, their attacks spluttered harmlessly. Expected goals (xG), a statistic used to measure the number of goals a team should score based on the quality of their chances, tells the story of Charlton’s unimpressive display. Fleetwood managed a total xG of 2.2, the joint-most against Charlton this season. Meanwhile, Bowyer’s side summoned a quite paltry xG of just 0.13, their lowest of the entire campaign. Fleetwood ended the game with 21 shots to Charlton’s four and must have gone home thoroughly disappointed to not take all three points.
Still, Charlton didn’t quite fold and earned an acceptable point. It wasn’t great, but it was enough to push another, albeit smaller wave of optimism as Burton rolled into town. Again Charlton started on top, Stockley heading his side in front once more in the opening minutes.
Desperate for a win against last-place Burton, Charlton came out looking like a team who knew the importance of the game at hand. The first 20 minutes saw the hosts dominate with 60 per cent of the ball and three shots to Burton’s zero. They could have been out of sight before their opponents ever really even rocked up, Stockley and Shinnie each hitting the crossbar either side of the opening goal.
But instead of going on to the comfortable victory that seemed likely, Charlton were forced back. Defensive frailties have cost them for weeks now, and yet again, it was much too easy for their visitors on Tuesday. Diallang Jaiyesimi switched off from a throw-in and when the cross came to the back post, Mike Fondop outjumped both Deji Oshilaja and Ben Purrington to put his side back on level terms.
If the first goal felt like a scene from a disappointingly familiar movie, Burton’s second came straight from the same script utilised by countless sides before them who have taken advantage of Charlton’s discomfort on their own patch.
Danny Rowe picked the ball up 30 yards out and hit a hopeful effort vaguely in the direction of Charlton’s goal. It wasn’t going in until it took a touch off Ben Watson’s arm and looped over Amos into the top corner. Rowe’s strike made it the fifth straight home game in which Charlton have conceded a goal from outside the box and the eighth straight home game where Bowyer’s side have conceded at least twice.
As disheartening as those statistics are, there was nothing unfamiliar about this setback with the game following the same pattern that has been punishing Charlton since their last win at The Valley on December 12 – play some decent football, concede at the worst possible times, and then find themselves on the end of a spectacularly good, or in this case lucky, goal.
But it was at this point that the formula took an extremely worrying detour. Frequently in recent weeks, Charlton have been forced to chase games late on, needing to dig themselves out of their self-imposed holes. In the 4–4 draw with Rochdale they struck twice in the second half and had chances to get more late on. Similarly against Swindon, Charlton recovered from 2–0 down in the second half before Conor Washington missed a great opportunity to win it in stoppage time.
Even against Gillingham, Charlton were the ones pushing for a late winner after Chuks Aneke’s red card. They ended up getting picked off on the counter, but it was still a performance filled with desire, bordering on desperation.
On Tuesday evening there was a flat feel to Charlton’s chase. Bowyer made five second-half substitutions, all attacking moves, and while Charlton ended the game with three strikers up front, they never really looked like scoring. In more than 20 minutes of action, Ronnie Schwartz didn’t record an official touch and after Burton’s second goal, Charlton had just four shots to the visitor’s seven. Their final effort of the match came in the 77th minute.
Bowyer’s side ended up with a slender advantage in terms of xG, but a closer look just further emphasises the worrying picture that cropped up in the final half-hour. Ben Purrington saw a decent chance saved in the 63rd minute before Jason Pearce had a header turned away two minutes later. But as the xG timeline below shows, after that point, Charlton created pretty much nothing at all.
Through much of Charlton’s recent stuttering form, they’ve been the better team, or at least on par with their opponents. The same can not be said about the two matches this week. Charlton took a real step back, and while progress without results is always disconcerting, the same negative results minus the progress is gravely worse.
After the delayed start to the campaign, the narrative has always been that this team is likely to peak late in the season. While supporters may be tired of hearing about all the challenges facing Charlton, it would be unfair to say they don’t understand and largely respect them. And while the roadblocks in this uniquely unique season may stop Charlton from achieving their original aim of promotion, it shouldn’t stop them from continuously making progress as the situation at the club gets steadily more normal in the aftermath of the previous ownership crises.
Up until this week, there hasn’t really been reason to worry on that front. The results weren’t quite there, but the performances often were. A procession of horrific mistakes and bad luck has been holding Charlton back, but genuine attacking verve and spirit to recover has just about kept them afloat. This week though, the good attributes disappeared while the damaging ones remained, and in doing so, Charlton ruined their recent progress.
Charlton’s season is on the verge of petering out. To put it kindly, their chances of promotion are not good. But that doesn’t mean the season has to end with a dull thud.
For the first 20 minutes of Tuesday’s defeat, Charlton played like the team they had been becoming. They were fast, direct, and commanding. Then they collapsed and never looked like recovering. It’s alongside this surrender that dark clouds start to hover precariously above SE7.
It’s hard to say what the solutions are. Charlton need to get back to what they had been doing well — moving the ball up the pitch with pace and creating chances for their game-breaking players, namely Stockley and Aneke. The defensive side is an even greater challenge that has been hampering the team for months now. But while mistakes and bad luck are just about understandable, it’s the total lack of energy in the closing stages at The Valley on Tuesday that will leave supporters feeling let down.
It’s fair to wonder if this last week has been the most deflating for Charlton since Thomas Sandgaard’s takeover. Ignoring the long-term seasonal goals, ignoring the promotion battle, Lee Bowyer and his team have a huge task on their hands to breathe life back into this season and avoid a pedestrian final few months.
In fairness to Charlton’s manager, he appears to understand the magnitude of the job facing him. “I’ll try and pick the players up, I’ll try to pick myself up,” he said after Tuesday’s defeat. “Because I have expectations, ambitions, standards. At the moment the results ain’t matching where I want to be, where the club wants to be.”
In October when Charlton travelled to Blackpool, Aneke’s late header earned a rousing victory. The win made it two in a row giving Charlton some much-needed momentum after their slow start to the season. It felt big at the time and looked even more important when Bowyer’s side went on to win their next four.
The reverse fixture in South London on Saturday feels, well…a lot bigger.
PHOTOS: KEITH GILLARD AND PAUL EDWARDS
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