BY BENJY NURICK
As fourth official Ian Smedley raised the board to signal four minutes of second half stoppage time at The Wham Stadium on Saturday, an Accrington Stanley staff member walked past the press box with a stack of pizzas, steam practically rising from the piles of cheesy goodness.
Never meant for those in the media section, the taunting sight felt an apt metaphor for what was happening in the background as Charlton watched their dangling play-off hopes begin to evaporate. Admittedly, while I had to settle for a burrito on the drive home, Chuks Aneke’s last-gasp equaliser means the play-off race will continue – at least until tomorrow night – for Nigel Adkins’ side.
The goal was greeted with the most muted of celebrations from the few Charlton staff and club members in the ground while the players on the pitch immediately ran back to the centre circle. Everyone associated with Charlton knew what the goal meant…quite little.
Accrington rank fourth in League One in long balls attempted per game (84) yet they lead the league in shots per game with 14.2. Aware of the hosts’ route one success, Adkins set his side up to nullify their opponents, matching John Coleman with five at the back.
In a way, it had the desired effect as both teams crowded the middle of the pitch through a first half that ended with zero shots on target. Accrington started the second period in the ascendancy without doing too much to trouble Ben Amos until Joe Pritchard riggled through and found the bottom corner from the edge of the box with just under 10 minutes remaining.
A few moments before the goal, Adkins shifted to a more attacking 4-4-2, chasing a win that was made even more necessary by Portsmouth and Oxford’s eventual victories elsewhere. In the end, the draw does little to boost Charlton’s barely-breathing play-off hopes.
Adkins knows what it takes to earn promotion and sometimes playing ugly at a team like Accrington is necessary, a fact the Charlton manager was quick to point out after the game. But following the 2-2 draw with Crewe, Charlton couldn’t afford to drop more points. In their great time of need they didn’t go in with all guns blazing. Instead, they approached the game with the distinct appearance of a team attempting not to lose rather than trying to win.
After deciding they couldn’t pass out from the back due to the suspect nature of the pitch, Charlton were determined to keep the game tight while relying on a touch of fortune and set-pieces to spark their attack. Adkins deserves credit for helping administer the booster shot that has given Charlton a chance in recent weeks, but the decision to directly match Accrington displays a lack of total faith in his players.
While all managers adapt their tactics depending on the opponent, the best teams believe their identity and approach will guide them to victory. In a season where Charlton have tried it all, it’s not clear what their identity is. On Saturday, Adkins adopted a risk-averse approach, intending to keep his side in the game and hope for a slender win rather than go out and look to dominate on the front foot. Perhaps, Accrington would have blown through them had they tried this, with a more open approach killing Charlton many times throughout the season, something we discussed recently when looking at their lack of balance.
But the need to hang around rather than truly go for it, shows something we’ve already known for a while. This squad might be almost good enough. But that’s exactly why they’re likely to only almost make the play-offs. In too many key areas they are still missing centre-pieces to build around. This is a group full of squad players.
With an average age of 27.8, second oldest in League One, Charlton’s team is certainly not made up of promising youngsters. But despite their advanced age, this squad is also not full of experienced winners in their prime either. Rather, they are almost entirely made up of players who were deemed not good enough to be central figures at their previous clubs. Add five loanees on top of that and there is no real core to this team.
Individually there are plenty of good players in this current Charlton crop. If any one or two of them were added to the greatly impressive 2018-19 promotion team, they would likely do a job and play a reasonable role as a squad player. The key difference is that three years ago, the team was filled with a core of leaders, both in temperament and in the way they played, meaning the less dazzling players’ could have their weakness hidden and their strengths enhanced by the set-up they were a part of.
This season, there is no group of stars to lead the team and make the more standard members perform at a higher level than their talent may have previously dictated. Almost every individual in Charlton’s current squad fits this profile. We could focus on any of them, but let’s look at Conor Washington.
Always a willing runner and happy to do the dirty work, Washington has chipped in with a very respectable 11 goals this season and been one of Charlton’s most constant and consistent players. But it is unfair to expect him to regularly produce the kind of individual magic that single-handedly carries a team up the table. Partnered with Lyle Taylor, Yann Kermogant, or any of the other star strikers so integral to Charlton’s (admittedly limited) success over the last decade, Washington would likely thrive and be the perfect foil to the “superstar” (much in the way that Josh Parker helped beat Sunderland at Wembley while Jonathan Leko could be celebrated for aiding Taylor as opposed to doing his job for him). Washington can make a difference on his own, but much of his natural game gets reduced when he’s expected to do more than he’s good at and defences key in on him.
As the positional chart below from Saturday’s draw shows, Washington became isolated from the rest of his team as he was forced to chase lost cause after lost cause while repeatedly being asked to challenge in the air against defenders much taller than himself. With Charlton unable to play to his strengths, Washington painted a frustrated figure of anonymity, managing just 16 touches, the fewest of any visiting starter.
Four of the top five teams in League One have a striker with at least 20 goals this season. Meanwhile, Charlton’s top scorer, Chuks Aneke, is on 15, a hugely impressive total considering he’s started just 11 games. Jayden Stockley can lead the line in his own hyper-physical way while Aneke has shown himself to be a game-changer when on the pitch. But as was somewhat expected at the start of the campaign, Charlton just don’t have a consistent goal threat to make the difference when there’s little to separate the two teams.
Only Sunderland have more draws this season than Charlton’s 14 and while some of those stalemates are owed to defensive issues they have frequently displayed lots of huff and puff but far less magic or brilliance. Armed with League One’s top scorer – Jonson Clarke-Harris – Peterborough showed exactly why you need attacking difference-makers in this unpredictably tight division when they grabbed a 1-0 win at The Valley last month despite playing far below their best.
The positional map above also alludes to another major issue that has plagued Charlton this entire season and contributed to their periodic toothlessness up front. As the game pinballed from front to back on Saturday, the midfield became increasingly condensed with Charlton unable to get it down and pass. At the end of the first half, Jason Pearce and Washington were the only outfield players with fewer touches than Charlton’s three starting midfielders.
The game largely passed by the struggling trio with Charlton crying out for someone who can break up play and get attacks started with short and medium-range passes. At Accrington, it was Darren Pratley tasked with holding down the midfield. He and Ben Watson have combined for 65 League One appearances this season and Charlton’s reliance on the two ageing midfielders helps explain their struggles to fill the hole in front of the defence. Pratley has generally been used by Adkins when Charlton are expecting to be on the back foot and forced to do lots of defending whereas Watson has been called in when Charlton are hoping to get the ball down and pass.
Unfortunately, they both struggle when it comes to each other’s strengths – Watson unable to adequately protect the back four and Pratley not of the required standard on the ball. This is why Adkins has rotated between the two with neither able to fully nail down a starting spot.
Charlton lacked any semblance of control at Accrington, failing to keep the ball in midfield and win it back when they lost it. They have yet to replace Josh Cullen and the lack of a ball-winner who can ignite attacks with his passing has been a huge problem all season. In many ways, Cullen was the glue of Lee Bowyer’s Charlton teams, and it was his metronomic passing influence and tigerish tackling ability that made him so important. Pratley and Watson can each do half the job, but Charlton need someone who can effectively help them control the game on both sides of the ball. The emergence of Jake Forster-Caskey has helped but he is at his most productive when allowed to roam all over the pitch.
Moving forward and the absence of Diallang Jaiyesimi highlighted Charlton’s intense weakness out wide. They came into the season with this as a major issue and it has never been fully rectified. Alfie Doughty’s hamstring tear and further departure meant Bowyer often had to rely on a diamond midfield without wingers or use players such as Washington and Albie Morgan in uncomfortable positions. In January, Charlton addressed the problem, bringing in Liam Millar and Diallang Jaiyesimi, but the former has run hot and cold while the latter excelled under Adkins before picking up a hamstring injury against Peterborough.
Without a consistent threat out wide, Charlton have been far too predictable all season long, frequently relying on individual brilliance in the first half of the campaign while the main tactic since January has often been lumping long balls up to Jayden Stockley. Without multiple points of attack and threats from different parts of the pitch, opposition teams can isolate Charlton’s most dangerous players and work to remove them from the game knowing full well that Adkins’ side don’t have much else to throw at them.
On Saturday, Charlton relied on wing-backs Ian Maatsen and Chris Gunter for width in an experiment that trended closer to failure than success, at least going forward. The duo had the first and second most touches respectively of all Charlton players but combined for zero shots, zero accurate crosses, and zero successful dribbles.
The ineffectiveness of Charlton’s play out wide meant that, once again, all their attacking menace was funnelled through the middle of the pitch, usually with long passes in the vague direction of Stockley.
Charlton rank 14th in League One with 78 long balls per game, but they attempted 94 against Accrington Stanley. The hosts seemed happy enough to see the game reduced to trading clearances, eventually managing 32 touches in Charlton’s box compared to just 10 for Adkins’ side the other way.
Charlton weren’t much worse than Accrington and on a different day could have nicked all three points. That in itself is not an unfamiliar feeling. They’ve been good enough to compete in nearly every game this season, losing just once by more than two goals. It would be unfair to question the squad’s effort. The players are clearly trying and the competitiveness of nearly every game tells that story.
But the reality is they just aren’t good enough. They’re good enough to be in the conversation, but to reach the heights of promotion you need players that can make the difference in tight moments and turn draws into wins or protect three points when holding a slender lead.
In 2019, Charlton had a number of these almost transcendent game-breakers but this season only Chuks Aneke and Jake Forster-Caskey can really stake a claim for the kind of individual impact displayed by the likes of Taylor, Joe Aribo, Josh Cullen, and Dillon Phillips. There’s a reason no Charlton player made the League One Team of the Season or likely even came very close. Getting to the cusp of the play-offs has been through a team effort and many players chipping in, but without a core of leaders able to elevate the entire group, they are going to fall just short.
League One is damn hard to get out of. That is just a fact. With a team of hastily assembled leftovers, it was always going to be even harder. Charlton’s fate could be confirmed on Tuesday night when Lincoln visit The Valley, but regardless they have a big rebuild on their hands this summer. They don’t just need to pad the edges of Adkins’ squad, they need to build an entirely new core. A full group of decent players isn’t quite enough – you also need a few great ones.
PHOTO: KYLE ANDREWS
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