BY BENJY NURICK
It was hard not to feel slightly bad for Rochdale’s Gabriel Osho as his fourth League One start was ruined just seven minutes into Saturday’s meeting with Charlton. Osho didn’t do too much wrong, getting tight to Chuks Aneke as the striker picked up the ball from Liam Miller. But before he could even react, Aneke spun and fired low past Gavin Bazunu to give Charlton the lead.
In truth, it’s unfair to blame Osho for Charlton’s opener. After all, many more experienced defenders have found it impossible to stop Aneke this season.
The early strike was Aneke’s 10th of the league campaign, the double-digit mark hit with impressive efficiency. Of every player in League One with 10 goals or more, Aneke’s 101 minutes per goal sits second behind only Plymouth’s Luke Jephcott. Excluding penalties, Aneke ranks first. It’s been a remarkable resurgence from a striker who scored just once in the Championship last term as injuries hampered his first year in SE7.
This season, Aneke has largely stayed fit, and he’s quickly become Charlton’s most decisive game-changer.
Handled with intense care by Lee Bowyer, Aneke has started just eight of Charlton’s 27 games, coming off the bench in another 14. But his light usage hasn’t been down to a lack of impact. For Bowyer, Aneke has simply been too important to risk. But the inescapable reality is that Charlton are a much better team with Chuks Aneke on the pitch.
In Aneke’s eight starts, Charlton are unbeaten, winning four and drawing four, earning two points per game. In his 14 substitute appearances, Charlton’s points per game have dropped to 1.5. And in the five games where he didn’t feature at all? 1.2 points per game.
To be fair to Charlton’s manager, it’s not as if he doesn’t recognise Aneke’s importance.
“It is an impossible situation that I’m in,” Bowyer said in January. “You see what he brings to us and I want to play him all the time – but at the same time I can’t afford to lose him.”
With the team-orientated nature of football, ‘points per game with and without any individual player’ is an easily fallible statistic. But in the case of Aneke, he truly has proven to be this team’s spark time and time again. Despite playing just 41 per cent of his side’s minutes, Charlton have been noticeably more dangerous with Aneke on the pitch, scoring 23 goals with him, and just 18 without him while managing 163 shots (14.6 per game) when he’s played, and 152 shots (9.6 per game) when he hasn’t.
Charlton have lost just once in the nine games Aneke has scored in, and many of their better results and biggest moments are owed to him.
Against Blackpool in October, he came off the bench in the second half and headed in the winner with seven minutes left to play. A month later he rescued his side at Gillingham, coming on to equalise in the 82nd minute.
In December, Charlton found themselves 2-1 down to Wimbledon at The Valley when Aneke entered the pitch after 53 minutes. By full-time, Charlton had completely turned it around, winning 5-2, in no small part due to Aneke who assisted Jake Forster-Caskey’s equaliser before making it 4-2 himself. One week later he did it again, coming off the bench to score in Charlton’s 2-2 draw at Swindon.
In fact, Aneke has been so effective off the bench that it’s become his main role. But recently, he’s also started to debunk the myth that he isn’t as good from the start. It’s been frequently hypothesised that Aneke needs tired defences to fully assert himself and while it is true that he didn’t score in his first four starts this season, his goal on Saturday made it four goals in his last four starts.
In the home fixture with Rochdale, Aneke just about led the comeback on his own, scoring in the 22nd minute to halve an early two-goal deficit before again bringing his side back into the game with the goal to make it 3-4 in the second half. But Aneke didn’t stop there, assisting Ronnie Schwartz’s equaliser as he completed the first full 90 minutes of his Charlton career. It was quite possibly his best performance in a very good season, and playing the full game is a hugely important added caveat after constant struggles with fitness over the last 18 months.
Charlton went into half-time that night 4-2 down with their season threatening to spiral out of control. But as has been the case throughout this campaign, it was Aneke who brought them back from the brink, hounding the opposition defence, making them thoroughly uncomfortable, and giving his side renewed belief.
Eleven days later, Aneke did it again, this time with Charlton down two goals at the break to Swindon. He got one back after 57 minutes before Andrew Shinnie’s goal earned a point in the 90th minute.
It’s impossible to feel completely out of any game with Aneke on the pitch, the striker having the rare ability to make something happen out of nothing. That much was evident with his bicycle kick at Burton and his run and finish against Rochdale at The Valley. Aneke’s 10 goals this season have come from an expected goals (xG) of just 7.65 showing that he has been putting away tough chances and creating his own out of relatively little.
On Saturday, Aneke started his fourth game in seven and once more made his presence felt from the beginning. This time he helped his side avoid slipping into an early hole, scoring the opener before hitting the post and nearly setting up Liam Millar in the closing stages.
As with many games throughout the season, Aneke didn’t just score. He wreaked havoc on Rochdale’s defence, holding up the ball and bringing others into the game, while also taking on defenders and getting off shots of his own. No one topped Aneke’s five shots on Saturday, and despite his limited minutes, his 61 shots this season are more than double that of Charlton’s second-highest shooter, Conor Washington (30).
At Rochdale, Aneke was aided by the performance of his strike partner Jayden Stockley, the duo tormenting their opponents from the opening whistle.
When Stockley arrived from Preston in January it was assumed he would take on the Omar Bogle role, acting as an alternative to Aneke when Charlton’s star striker needed a rest. Throughout the first half of the season, Bowyer rolled with his ‘big man-little man’ strike partnership system, rotating Bogle for Aneke and Paul Smyth or later Ronnie Schwartz for Conor Washington.
This had continued to be the case after Stockley’s arrival, the new signing partnering Washington and Schwartz in his first two starts. But after he and Aneke finished the defeat to Portsmouth up front together, both started the trip to Rochdale. Considering Bowyer has gone with the same partnership system in almost every game this season, there were reasonable questions asked about the viability of his two big men starting alongside each other.
Those questions were answered empathically at the Crown Oil Arena. And really, there was never any reason to be concerned. Aneke’s unique skill-set, combining strength to hold up the ball, but also close control in tight spaces, means he’s essentially a cheat code, able to morph into any system alongside any and all strikers.
Now that he knows it can work, Bowyer will be looking for his new partnership to fuel Charlton’s promotion charge over the coming months and Stockley’s arrival should help him fully unlock Aneke at the time when he needs him most.
Stockley has already shown himself more than capable of leading the line on his own and armed with someone of his pedigree, Bowyer can now afford to be slightly less cautious with Aneke, secure in the knowledge that if his top scorer were to get injured, he has another reliable option to turn to. With all due respect to Bogle, Bowyer had to limit Aneke’s minutes because he knew no promotion fight could be won with the former Cardiff striker as his main goal-threat.
The problem with Aneke’s renaissance this season is that it won’t just be those around South London who have noticed. All across League One and into the Championship, teams will be seeing Aneke’s remarkable efficiency and one-of-a-kind blend of talents, leaving Charlton in a vulnerable position. Aneke’s contract is set to expire in the summer and currently, if nothing changes, Charlton could be faced with another of their prized assets departing for free.
Tuesday’s announcement that the salary cap is being abolished gives the club slightly more freedom and Bowyer confirmed on Saturday he will be speaking to owner Thomas Sandgaard about an extension for Aneke. But Charlton absolutely cannot afford to hesitate. Aneke is only getting better and he needs to be a crucial part of this club regardless of the division they compete in next season. There aren’t a lot, if any players, with the unique ability of Chuks Aneke, and as everyone knows, Charlton are a much better team with him on the pitch.
Now it’s time to make sure that’s the case for years to come.
PHOTOS: KEITH GILLARD/PAUL EDWARDS
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