BY BENJY NURICK
Heading into the international break after their disappointing 2-2 draw with Wimbledon, Charlton somehow still held a weak grip on the final League One play-off spot. Tomorrow, when their season recommences at Doncaster, they’ll find themselves in 10th place.
But it’s not all bad news. Of the top 11 teams in the division only Portsmouth managed a 100 per cent record over the international break and looking at the League One table there are as many as 12 teams still in the play-off hunt.
At this point, it’s best for Charlton if the current top three — Hull, Peterborough, and Sunderland — continue to stretch their lead, with Nigel Adkins’ side not in the hunt for automatic promotion. But that still leaves nine teams angling for three spots, Charlton stuck somewhere near the middle of the pack. The form guide tells us that Portsmouth, who have won back-to-back games since appointing the Cowleys, and Blackpool, who are unbeaten in 11, are the likeliest candidates for two of the three spots.
MK Dons and Gillingham, unbeaten in five and four games respectively, appear to be the race’s dark horses, but Charlton’s eyes must be drawn to the crumbling form of those above them, namely Doncaster and Lincoln. Over the international break, neither side won a game as their winless runs stretched to five apiece. Lincoln have been rocked by injuries while Doncaster have lost more games since the start of February than they had the entire season leading up to that.
It’s with great gratitude to the football script-writers that with nine games left to play, Charlton’s season is heavily wrapped up with Doncaster and Lincoln’s. After their visit to Keepmoat Stadium on Friday, Charlton were supposed to play Lincoln on Tuesday but that game has now been suspended due to a Covid outbreak at the Imps’ camp. Still, with multiple dates on the fixture list against those around them, Charlton have a real chance to claw back some ground and not only deliver themselves much-needed points, but also deprive their rivals of equally important ones.
On top of the clashes with Doncaster and Lincoln, Adkins’ side face all three teams competing for automatic promotion, their remaining opponents sitting at an average position of eighth in the league table. While daunting on paper, this would be good news for Charlton in almost every period of their recent history, the club always backing themselves against the best. Throughout their Premier League years Charlton were the scourge of the top flight’s biggest names regularly beating Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, and more. Last season, the scalps may have been slightly smaller names, but the feat was no less impressive as a weakened Charlton team stayed unbeaten against the Championship’s top five heading into the Covid hiatus.
The worry this time around though, with a spate of games coming up against the best teams in League One, is that Charlton’s giant-killing gene seems to have disappeared. In their 13 matches against the top 10 thus far, Charlton have averaged just 0.92 points per game while picking up 1.83 points per game against the rest. Continuing at these rates would see Charlton earn just 12 more points from their remaining fixtures, almost certainly not enough for a play-off spot.
Last season, in a significantly tougher division, Charlton averaged 1.05 points per game against the Championship’s top 10 finishers. Their success against those challenging for promotion came in no small part through a foundation of defensive solidity. Lee Bowyer’s side conceded 17 goals in the 12 games against the top six, 1.4 goals per game. Four of those came on the last day at Leeds, Charlton conceding just under 1.2 goals per game in the 11 matches before that. Some of their best performances of the campaign, 1–0 victories against Leeds and Brentford, were perfect examples of what a resolute defence helped them achieve.
Unsurprisingly this season, Charlton’s struggles against the division’s best sides have accompanied their general defensive frailties. No team in the top 10 of League One has conceded more times than Charlton’s 50, while their goals against versus the top six has shot up to 1.7 per game, comfortably more than their season average of 1.5.
At their best and worse, Charlton have shown that a defensive foundation isn’t just important, but truly decisive. In the three games they’ve won against those in League One’s top 10, Charlton have averaged an expected goals (xG) of 0.97. Meanwhile, in the 10 games they haven’t won, that xG number has barely changed, actually rising ever so slightly to 0.99.
The meaningful difference comes in the xG against column where Charlton have averaged just 0.57xG against in their victories, and a whopping 1.60xG against in their draws and defeats.
These numbers show that Charlton’s attacking performance this season hasn’t actually differed much in their successes and failures against the best teams. But defensively, they’ve fallen apart in their draws and defeats.
Perhaps it’s due to the salary cap or the lack of fans in stadiums, but League One is a picture of remarkable parity as the season reaches its climax. Unfortunately, the focus on tight margins has been bad news for Charlton with their insistence on self-destruction. Horrific individual errors cost them against Peterborough and Portsmouth (amongst others) while red cards for Darren Pratley and Chuks Aneke against Hull and Gillingham killed any budding comebacks. Against Blackpool last month they were truly outclassed, but the big games have largely been decided by big moments and Charlton have made a habit of handing them to their opponents.
We’ve discussed Charlton’s lack of identity plenty of times this season and regardless of the reasons behind it, getting swept aside by the teams at the top is very un-Charlton.
Now, with a chance to start fresh under Nigel Adkins, they have a real shot at redemption. The general mediocrity of League One means that even after months of stutters, Charlton could still squeak into the play-offs. But that doesn’t mean the path is simple. Charlton haven’t won two games in a row since their six-match run of victories through October and November. Now they will likely need to win at least five of their remaining nine games.
In typical ‘Adkins’ fashion, the new Charlton manager sees this sprint to the finish line as an exciting opportunity rather than a fear-driven chance for failure.
“It’s really exciting that the games we’ve got coming up are virtually all against the teams above us in the league,” Adkins said. “What a great opportunity to test ourselves and see if we can take points off them and give ourselves points as well. That’s really exciting. From my point of view, it’s a new league. Nine games to go, we’ve got to find a way to get us into that sixth position. It’s a fresh start, this is where we are, how can we get the best out of all of us?
“It’s a great opportunity. Maybe at the start of the season, the football club, and all the supporters were thinking ‘will we actually see the season out?’ So all of this is a big bonus. But it’s an opportunity and what have we got to lose? That’s how I look at it: what have we got to lose? We have to get points on the board, we have to win games, we know that. But let’s break it down, how can we get our performance right to go and do it?”
For Adkins, it really is a great opportunity. Coming in with less than a quarter of the season remaining, the reward is still great and short-term expectations are low. But to stand any chance of making the play-offs, Charlton need quite a few wins and they need them immediately. Everything that’s fed into their rather meh season can still be forgotten with the “run” fans have spent months hoping for. But it has to be now and Charlton are going to have to do it against the league’s best.
MAIN PHOTO: PAUL EDWARDS
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