BY BENJY NURICK
There was something different about this Charlton performance. No, it wasn’t perfect. At times it wasn’t even very good. But Charlton’s 1-0 win at Wigan was laced with a determination that has been sorely missing in recent weeks.
Lee Bowyer made seven changes from the team that was crushed by Blackpool and a number of the new starters played a major part in Tuesday’s victory. Jason Pearce was a colossus at the back, putting in his most assured performance of the season, and Chuks Aneke was at his wrecking-ball best. Meanwhile, Ben Watson protected the back four superbly.
But on a night that epitomised the fight Bowyer has been so desperate to see, it was the returning Jake Forster-Caskey who set the tone for Charlton’s gritty and important three points.
After starting 14 consecutive games, a hamstring injury suffered against Gillingham saw Forster-Caskey miss the three matches leading up to the trip to Wigan. It’s no coincidence that Charlton’s performances dropped off a cliff with Forster-Caskey’s absence, drawing with Fleetwood before losing to Burton and Blackpool in a trio of displays severely lacking any sort of oomph.
But Forster-Caskey returned on Tuesday, looking as if he never left – much to the relief of his manager.
The night before Charlton’s clash at the DW Stadium, Bowyer sat down with Forster-Caskey and explained that he needed him at his best immediately. Charlton’s season had collapsed and there was no time for Forster-Caskey to work his way back into form. Charlton, and Bowyer, needed the pre-injury Forster-Caskey – the driving force that was so integral to everything good they did. And thankfully for everyone involved, that’s exactly what they got.
From the opening whistle, Forster-Caskey was his team’s spark, getting all over the pitch, playing his usual combative yet substantive role, effecting the game wherever he went. Everything he did seemed to have an impact, whether that was spraying a delightful chipped pass down the line for Liam Millar or snuffing out a dangerous attack on the edge of his own box – two outstanding pieces of work he managed in the space of about three first-half minutes.
Charlton have desperately missed Forster-Caskey and his enthusiasm was infectious on the rest of his team-mates, something his manager acknowledged after the game.
“Jake will have that effect,” Bowyer said. “If you see your team-mate running and fighting and pressing it has a natural reaction. You have to go with him, because if you don’t you stand out like a sore thumb. So yeah, he does have that impact. He’s been here since day one that I’ve been here, he has that aura as well in the dressing room. He has that respect. And if you see someone like him doing it, others have to follow.”
On a night when Charlton couldn’t afford to slip up, Bowyer and his team turned to the continuously improving Forster-Caskey to help guide them out of the darkness. Looking like a micro-version of Andrea Pirlo with his headband and metronomic passing influence, Forster-Caskey led his side with 46 passes and four tackles, while also racking up the second-most touches behind only Ian Maatsen. This is nothing new for the midfielder, with Forster-Caskey dominant on both sides of the ball nearly every time he steps on to the pitch.
Of the 19 games where he’s played at least 45 minutes, Forster-Caskey has finished first or second amongst his team-mates in passes on 10 occasions, touches nine times, and tackles a further seven.
Chuks Aneke deserves all the plaudits he’ll receive after another crucial game-winning goal, but Forster-Caskey is quickly emerging as his main rival for Charlton’s Player of the Season. The difference in his side’s performance with him back in the starting 11 on Tuesday demonstrated exactly why.
But his impact goes much deeper than just one excellent outing. Charlton have managed 1.7 points per game this season when Forster-Caskey has played at least a full half and just 1.2 points per game when he hasn’t. In addition, he sits joint-third in Charlton’s goalscoring charts with four while operating as his team’s main set-piece taker alongside Andrew Shinnie.
After making just 12 league appearances in the last two years due to a spate of terrible injuries, Forster-Caskey has quickly established himself as his team’s heartbeat this campaign and that has never been more evident than in the win at Wigan.
As well as being able to pass and ensure his side move the ball quickly, Forster-Caskey has the engine to get all over the pitch and influence the game wherever he goes. He’s really the only midfielder in Bowyer’s arsenal who can effectively operate in the box-to-box role with the stamina to make it work.
On Tuesday, Bowyer found the perfect balance with his midfield, Watson allowed to focus on protecting the defence and Matt Smith able to lead the press and get into promising attacking positions. But that was only enabled by Forster-Caskey’s remarkable ability to somehow be everywhere at once, knitting it all together, as his heat-map below shows.
In their most desperate moment of the season, Charlton needed someone to step up and lift them above the malaise. Unsurprisingly it was Forster-Caskey and his near-desperation to make his presence felt that reignited a fire in this team.
After signing a one-year extension to his contract last summer, Forster-Caskey is set to be a free agent at the end of the season and Charlton must do everything in their power to keep him around. He’s one of very few guarantees in this team and the strides he’s made this season just show the potential he possesses.
Tuesday’s win at Wigan was a small step in the right direction for Charlton and Forster-Caskey was one of the main reasons it was made possible. Whatever happens in the final months of this bizarre season, Forster-Caskey will be at the centre of it all. And he’ll probably help out on the right. And in defence as well. You know what? He’ll just be everywhere.
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