BY BENJY NURICK
The natural reality of League One is that almost everyone sees their season end in disappointment. Three teams get promoted and a few celebrate survival. But for the rest, summer brings a long hard look in the mirror.
It’s far too early to say with any certainty whether Charlton’s season will end in disappointment. But after another dispiriting defeat at home, the usual inquisition has begun, at least on social media that is. And as with seemingly every intensive period of self-reflection in football, the focus has largely been on the manager.
“I want to be in the top two but the worst case is the play-off scenario,” Thomas Sandgaard said of his team’s aim this season after taking over the club in September.
With Charlton on the outside looking in at the top six, held back by crippling inconsistency, it’s fair to wonder if Lee Bowyer’s job will be under threat at the end of the season should that top-six target not be met.
On Saturday, full-time was yet again met with a dazed sense of confusing disappointment as Charlton somehow conspired to lose 3-2 to Gillingham.
For the seventh straight home game Charlton conceded at least two goals. For the sixth consecutive time at The Valley they gave away the first goal of the game. On this occasion it took just 26 seconds, Deji Oshilaja’s header falling to the visitors before Olly Lee curled into the far corner.
Charlton reacted well, immediately piling on the pressure, and hitting the post twice before Chuks Aneke equalised in the 15th minute. From that point Charlton should have gone on to take control. And they did at first. But then Connor Ogilvie volleyed in from 25 yards out to regain the visitors’ advantage.
It was a spectacular hit and the latest in a long line of stunners at The Valley…for opposition sides of course. Kwadwo Baah and Stephen Humphrys each scored from distance in the 4-4 draw with Rochdale while Joe Pigott curled in a beautiful effort from outside the box to give Wimbledon the lead in December.
By full-time, Gillingham had managed four shots on target, their last one smashed into the roof of the net in the 86th minute to secure all three points. Four shots on target, three goals. All you could do was shake your head.
Unfortunately, there’s nothing new about this. Charlton have conceded with 16 of the last 36 shots on target they’ve faced, an astonishing rate of more than 44 per cent. Meanwhile Bowyer’s side have scored with just 14 of their last 45 shots on target, good for only 31 per cent.
It gets even more frustrating though. Of every club in League One Charlton have allowed the fourth-lowest portion of shots from inside the box and third-highest from outside the box. As Gillingham’s heat-map below emphasises, Charlton as a whole have mostly been playing decent defence in recent weeks, setting up to protect their box and reducing teams to low-percentage efforts from distance.
Almost all of that good organisational play has been ruined by individual mistakes and the procession of successful long-range strikes. Charlton’s expected goals (xG) against over their last nine games is 8.8 yet they’ve conceded 16 goals. There’s always something a team can do to stop any given goal and perhaps Charlton could have closed Gillingham down quicker on Saturday. But typically, a defence is happy to allow shots from distance and the low xG against numbers demonstrate how infrequently those efforts should, in theory at least, be finding the back of the net.
At the other end on Saturday, Charlton managed seven shots on target, and for the eighth time in their last nine games they ended with the advantage in expected goals. Except whereas their opponents are grossly overperforming their xG, Charlton are slightly underperforming, scoring 14 goals in their last nine despite an xG of 15.8.
Against Gillingham, Charlton were the better team for large parts of the game, but conceded to a pair of terrific finishes before Chuks Aneke’s red card, while missing a host of presentable chances themselves.
There was a period earlier in the season, immediately following Charlton’s six-game winning streak, when Bowyer’s side were routinely second-best. Real questions were asked of the team’s attitude, not least by their manager. Over a nine-game period culminating with defeat at Hull, Charlton ended on top in terms of xG just four times. It’s hard not to argue that the performances have improved in recent months and the effort on Saturday was noticeable as Charlton chased all three points in the final 20 minutes even after they were reduced to 10 men.
But Charlton aren’t getting the results these performances may deserve and it could well cost them a play-off spot. As is always the case in football, the manager must take responsibility for poor form. But the nature of Charlton’s struggles speak more to individual errors and opposition fortune than to issues with the way they play or set-up. And it’s harsh to blame Bowyer for that.
Asked after the loss to Gillingham whether his position would be in question should Charlton miss out on the play-offs, Bowyer understandably defended himself and his staff.
“Of course we want to finish as high as we can,” he responded. “But what I would say is that if you look at Wigan – who came down like us and lost most of their better players – have a look where they are and then have a look where we are.
“I think we are over-achieving, right now. So if we don’t make the play-offs then obviously that’s a discussion that the chairman, the owner Thomas, I’m sure we will have. But I believe that me and my staff – and the players we have got together now – we will give ourselves every opportunity and we will fight for every point.
“It’s a good question but if people think we lost 12 players, were under an embargo and weren’t allowed to sign anybody – and everyone else had four, five or six weeks headstart on us – then we had the cap come in…if any other team had what we had to deal with then I’d love to see where they would be sitting now.
“We’re overachieving, trust me.”
While a comparison to Wigan, who still don’t have their ownership situation figured out, is not fully representative of Charlton’s position, Bowyer’s explanation deserves genuine acknowledgement.
Twelve of Charlton’s current 23-man squad weren’t even on the books when the season began and the mad scramble to end the summer window was always going to leave them in a vulnerable position. The January exodus of players who had only arrived a few months earlier just goes to show how challenging it was to rebuild the squad in such a short space of time.
Perhaps now, after a good January window, this squad may have enough quality for a top-six spot. But that hasn’t always been the case and it’s not fair to judge Charlton’s season as a whole on the strength of their squad at this moment, particularly when this specific group of players have had just weeks to work together.
Meanwhile, the salary cap, as much as supporters are tired of hearing about it, has also had a very real effect with Charlton simply unable to spend as much money as Sandgaard was willing to part with.
In addition to the issues uniquely hurting Charlton due to the fall-out of their troubling summer, more general problems have also hit them hard, notably the lack of fans in stadiums. In his previous two full seasons, Bowyer’s success has been built on home dominance, earning 61 per cent of his points at The Valley. This season Charlton have won just 37 per cent of their points at home. It would be foolish to suggest that losing Charlton’s vocal support hasn’t impacted Bowyer and his team, with the manager making no secret of his belief in the more emotional and intangible elements of the game.
In fact though, there’s real statistical evidence to show the potential impact of The Valley crowd. Looking at Charlton’s home form last season, while fans were still allowed in, paints a fairly clear picture. The average home crowd for their seven wins was 16,691, while in their seven home defeats that number dropped to 16,176. The difference becomes even more stark when the outlier of last February’s defeat to Blackburn in front of a sold-out “Football for a Fiver” crowd is removed, with the average home attendance for the rest of their six losses sitting at just 14,988, almost 2,000 less than in their victories.
Depending on how emotionally you look at Charlton’s current predicament, all the above reasons can come across as excuses. But any decision to sack a manager can’t be looked at in an emotional lense. Taking a step back, it’s hard to blame the brunt of Charlton’s issues on Bowyer, particularly as the performances haven’t necessarily been as bad as the results.
Of course though, there also is an emotional argument. Bowyer has given Charlton three incredibly dedicated years under a spate of damaging ownerships. He has had opportunities to leave but chosen to stay, determined to be the one who leads Charlton back to the Premier League. Goodwill really doesn’t last long in football these days, but considering the impressive job Bowyer has done in destructive circumstances, it would be unfortunate not to find out what he can do under properly supportive ownership.
Throughout this season, the leftover dregs of the former regimes have continued to haunt Charlton, while the additional coronavirus-bred speedbumps certainly haven’t helped. There’s no reason to pretend next season will provide a perfect platform, football doesn’t work like that, there are always complications. But finally supported by an owner who cares and has the funds to strengthen the club, coupled with the abolishment of the salary cap, Chartlton have a real opportunity to build for the first time in years this summer, regardless of the division they end up in.
Is this current squad good enough for a play-off spot? If you believe yes, then surely Bowyer’s recruitment, alongside Steve Gallen, is the reason. If you believe no, then perhaps Bowyer isn’t the main concern. Either way, faced with yet another summer rebuild, there’s no certainty that a different manager can recruit better than what we’ve seen from Bowyer and Gallen over the past few years in tremendously difficult conditions.
That isn’t to say, however, that Bowyer is immune from criticism. Valid questions have been asked about his extensive rotation this season while the decision not to pursue defensive reinforcements in January will continue to raise eyebrows until Charlton stop leaking goals.
It may still just be a vocal minority baying for Bowyer’s exit, but it’s fair to wonder if his position is the least guaranteed it’s been since taking over. It’s entirely possible that Charlton miss out on the play-offs which would make for a disappointing season any way you look at it. But this summer, Charlton have a chance at something of a fresh slate for the first time in Bowyer’s tenure and it would be rather merciless not to give him the keys to that new beginning. After all, has this rough patch really been bad enough to discredit all the good work he’s done?
Of course, with Charlton still on the cusp of the play-off spots, there’s a very plausible reality in which Bowyer’s side finish in the top six, thereby rendering this debate a waste of time.
PHOTOS: PAUL EDWARDS + PA
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