Charlton AthleticSport

Albie Morgan shows he can be trusted by Charlton boss Adkins – as Steve Avory provides insight into midfielder’s game

May 4, 2021. 7:38 pm. The Valley. In the infinite realm of future possibilities, there’s a very real scenario where this moment is remembered as the pivotal juncture in Albie Morgan’s young Charlton career.

Desperately needing maximum points after Saturday’s draw at Accrington Stanley, Nigel Adkins’ side once again got off to a slow start against Lincoln. Ben Amos was needed at his most alert to deny Callum Morton one on one in the early stages as the visitors piled on pressure. Charlton held firm and started to settle but still hadn’t truly imposed themselves when Jake Forster-Caskey, Player of the Season-elect and one of the very few near-constants in this tumultuous campaign, went down uncomfortably clutching his left leg.

As Forster-Caskey hit the deck, Albie Morgan was gathered from the subs ‘bench’ in the early rows of the West Stand and sent to warm up. There isn’t a perfect replacement for Forster-Caskey in this Charlton squad, but Morgan can do elements of the job, particularly going forward, albeit without the same consistency and stamina. A few moments after Morgan started jogging down the touchline to get loose, Darren Pratley joined him. Utilised in midfield and defence this season, Pratley has played more games than any other Charlton outfield player. The 36-year old can also do parts of Forster-Caskey’s role, largely the defensive side without offering his passing ability or energy to get around the pitch.

We’ve spoken repeatedly in recent weeks about Charlton’s proclivity for caution over aggression and this was another moment in which the forces of chaos and control came to a head, Adkins needing to twist in a new direction due to Forster-Caskey’s exit. Bringing on Pratley would be another flutter towards solidity, whereas opting for Morgan represented a far bolder, if riskier, choice.

Despite Pratley getting in a few stretches, the veteran soon put his coat back on and Adkins called for Morgan to join him in the technical area for some final instructions before he replaced Charlton’s captain on the night.

It was a big moment in the game, a big moment in the season, but perhaps most of all, this was a very big moment in Albie Morgan’s Charlton career following months, if not years, of frustration.

Admittedly, Morgan himself likely wouldn’t have bothered to focus too heavily on the scale of the occasion, just excited to be on the pitch.

“He loves football. He just loves football,” Charlton academy manager Steve Avory tells the South London Press. “I don’t make statements like that about every player, but I feel particularly some of the top players that have come through the academy in my time and established themselves, they have this genuine love of football. And he has a passion for it. He wants to be on the ball, on the football, which has not always made him the most straightforward person to coach, because the one thing Albie probably doesn’t like at times is sessions to be stopped, where coaching points are applied, because he just wants to keep playing.

“But having said that, I think that’s been part of his maturity, he’s come to accept that the coaches do have very relevant points to make to him.  He’s got plenty of belief in himself. But it’s not a belief that extends into overconfidence, it is his belief in his ability. And I think everybody who’s worked at the club, including Nigel Adkins now, will recognise the ability he’s got with the ball at his feet. That’s what will hit you straight away.

“But he recognises even more so now, as a 21-year-old, that there’s an out of possession side of the game as well that he’s had to work very hard to develop at…which I believe has got a lot better, particularly in this last season, where I also think he’s become fitter. He’s worked very hard at that side of his game.

“But he’s got a genuine passion, and you need that because it’s the greatest job in the world, as I always say to the lads. But I don’t think every single academy player looks at it that way. And I don’t think every academy player, not just at Charlton, but everywhere, has that passion and love and enjoyment of the game and wants to be on the football. And he does.

Steve Avory     Picture: Keith Gillard

“It seems a simple statement to say it but when I think of the Gomezs, the Lookmans, the Konsas, the Shelveys…and many, many more. They did have one thing in common apart from talent. And Albie’s certainly not short of talent. But they all have this genuine love for the game. In addition to that, I think what Albie has got even better at, is the desire side of it, the dedication side of it. And a big thing for Albie over the years is being able to deal with disappointment. Because he can – or has done in the past more so – get disappointed in that moment where things are not going too well for him or for the team.”

Avory first met Morgan when he arrived at the club as an eight year old alongside his brother Frankie, but for those who have only followed the midfielder’s recent development, Avory’s last point feels particularly fitting. Disappointment is unavoidable in football and unfortunately, it’s been a persistent presence in Morgan’s fledgling professional career.

After breaking into the first team during the back half of the 2018-19 League One campaign, Morgan started both legs of Charlton’s play-off semi-final against Doncaster before being relegated to the bench for the showpiece finale. The following season he went on loan to then-National League side Ebbsfleet United before returning to SE7 to make 21 Championship appearances. It was progress in many ways, but in the end, Charlton were relegated while Morgan was publicly criticised on multiple occasions by Lee Bowyer.

Back in League One this season, it really should have been Morgan’s time. Instead, it’s been another difficult campaign. In and out of the team, Bowyer recommended he go on loan to the National League before continuing to question his footballing maturity in the months that followed.

Under Adkins, Morgan’s new beginning seemed to last less than 90 minutes as he started against Wimbledon in March before being left out of the squad for the first three games following the international break. Back in the 18 at least, a pair of substitute appearances followed before he sat on the bench for the full 2-2 draw with Crewe. It seemed it would be more of the same when Charlton visited Accrington at the weekend but a brief stoppage-time cameo yielded the telling contribution of a free-kick dropped on to Chuks Aneke’s foot for his side’s last-gasp equaliser.

Photo: Paul Edwards

Still, somewhat unsurprisingly, it was back to the bench for Morgan three days later when Lincoln came to town. After playing just 84 minutes under Adkins across the seven games leading up to Tuesday night, Morgan was finally called upon in a pressure moment of a pressure game when Forster-Caskey limped off.

Much of the criticism levied at Morgan has been concerning the less natural side of his game, his defensive awareness and workrate. Replacing Forster-Caskey, Morgan was thrust into a slightly unfamiliar role that tested all of his weaknesses.

Adkins has mostly utilised a 4-3-3 system since taking over, preferring one defensive midfielder and two box to box players. But against Lincoln he went with a slightly more rigid 4-2-3-1, Forster-Caskey playing alongside Watson in the ‘two’ with Gilbey much further forward, almost next to Jayden Stockley up front. Instead of altering the set-up, Morgan slotted right into Forster-Caskey’s spot alongside Watson.

The first task was just to get to half-time, a challenge made significantly more difficult by the eight minutes of stoppage time added on due to Forster-Caskey’s injury and an earlier one to the referee. Morgan didn’t need any time to get up to speed, immediately involving himself in Charlton’s play on the ball, racking up 20 touches in those 11 minutes before half-time. No Charlton player managed more touches in that period.

Charlton started to control the ball in the closing stages of the half without looking particularly dangerous. Just five of Morgan’s 20 touches occurred in Charlton’s attacking half as he attempted 18 passes, constantly receiving and returning the ball.

After the break, Charlton came out firing with the help of half-time substitute Chuks Aneke and Morgan was able to get involved slightly higher up the pitch, 18 of his 34 second-half touches coming in Charlton’s attacking half. Still, despite the tactical shift at the break, it was Gilbey who went wide on the right while Morgan stayed in his deep role, the system relying on his discipline.

This season, Morgan has frequently played on the right side of midfield, sometimes in a diamond or a flat four. He’s also played as the attacking member of a three, likely his most ‘natural’ position. But rarely has Morgan sat deep as the controller. On Tuesday evening he did not disappoint, putting in his best Forster-Caskey impression as Charlton ran out 3-1 winners courtesy of a lightning 12-minute period after the restart in which they scored thrice.

Below are Forster-Caskey and Morgan’s heat maps from Tuesday night. It’s striking how similar they are, Morgan taking up almost the exact same space Forster-Caskey vacated.

Jake Forster-Caskey’s heat map against Lincoln
Albie Morgan’s heat map v Lincoln

Playing alongside Watson in a bank of two defensive midfielders, Morgan had to reign himself in, focusing on staying deep to receive the ball and ignite passing sequences while remaining a disciplined and constant line of defence when his side lost possession.

Below is Morgan’s touch map vs Lincoln. As is clear from the image, he forced himself to linger very deep where he could receive the ball from his defenders and look to move Charlton further up the pitch. Typically, someone who wants to get forward and break into the box, Morgan kept himself primarily in the middle third of the pitch, right where he was supposed to be.

Despite missing the first 37 minutes, Morgan still managed 52 touches, more than five of Charlton’s 10 starters (excluding Forster-Caskey).

While Avory admits he would like to see Morgan get into attacking positions where he can use his passing and shooting ability to open up opposition teams, he also believes his former pupil has shown real development in the less comfortable defensive phases. Meanwhile his range of passing makes him a danger wherever, and whenever, he gets it.

“One of the key target areas for Albie when he came in as a full-time scholar, at U17, was to work on the defensive side of his game, both in terms of understanding but also in terms of work ethic,” Avory continues. “And I know that when he first went into the first team, Lee Bowyer picked up on that. He felt Albie was quite weak, really, in that area of understanding the out of possession side of the game. So I could understand that when Lee was making that comment, but we worked hard at it with him even when he was a U18 player.

“He has worked at it. And I think he’s become a better defender, a better all-round midfield player. Because I’ve got no doubt that wherever you get him on the ball in whatever area of the field, he’s capable of managing the ball under pressure, and he’s capable of getting the team passing in whatever third of the pitch it is.

“When a team is putting the sequences together you start to feel a little bit more in control of the game, particularly if you’re breaking some lines and going forward with your passing as well. And then in the final third, getting behind them. And Albie’s got this very good range of pass. He’s got all of the tools that are needed for passing a ball as a midfield player. He can do the short stuff, he loves getting involved in combination play. But he’s got that lovely switch of play within his toolkit as well. And, he’s very good, I feel, on the restarts and on set-play deliveries. I mean, that was the case at Accrington on Saturday.

“Going back to his schoolboy days, he always wanted to be on the corners, the free-kicks, you know, he always fancied his chances. I felt actually as an under 18 player on many of the free-kicks, the central free-kicks, he didn’t hit the target enough. But I think he’s worked very hard at that side of his game to be able to affect the game in those situations as well as within free play.”

Following his free-kick to Aneke on Saturday, Morgan grabbed another assist from another dead-ball situation against Lincoln when he placed a perfect corner on to Ryan Inniss’ unmarked head.

While Morgan’s development in the defensive side of his game still has a ways to go, it will always be his effortless ability on the ball that leaves supporters licking their lips. It’s been that way since the moment he arrived at Charlton and no one knows that better than Avory who frequently relied on a piece of magic from Morgan down the years.

Photo: Paul Edwards

“I think one of the best compliments I can give to Albie is that whenever I’ve watched him play, even now, but I’m referring in particular to when I had that contact with him in the academy…I was always excited by getting him on the ball. I felt the team had to get him on the ball. So as I’m watching the game, as a coach or manager, I’m thinking ‘we’ve got to get this lad on the ball.’ Because when he’s on the ball, you feel as if something might happen.

“He might just provide that pass that splits the opposition. Or he might be someone who delivers for us on a corner or a free-kick. Or he might get himself into that scoring position where I think he’s very capable of hitting the target. So I was always thinking that about him. You get a feeling with some players, when they’re on the ball, something might happen.

“And it’s easy to say that sometimes with a player like Lookman, who’s a great dribbler. I’m not saying Albie was renowned for that, but he could manage the ball so well under pressure, free himself up with a good first touch, as well as play very good one-touch football himself. And you feel that there was that creativity about him where he could do something sometimes off the cuff that you would find exciting, could lead to a winning moment in the game.

“I used to regard him at the beginning, particularly as a schoolboy player, as a bit of a maverick, Albie sometimes wanted to do his own thing. But with those players, you do have to allow that to happen to a degree. You have to nurture it very carefully otherwise, you’re going to take the creativity out of them.”

Granted, Morgan’s performance against Lincoln wasn’t the ultimate display of creativity, but he still managed two key passes, second behind Liam Millar of all 22 starters, and 43 total passes, fourth-most of Charlton players on the night. More importantly, though, it was a performance filled with the kind of determined resilience everyone at the academy has known Morgan is capable of for the last decade.

It’s easy to forget that Morgan still has plenty of time to improve, only turning 21 in February. Having already made 56 first-team appearances, Morgan is far from the finished article, something Adkins acknowledged after the game as he lauded the midfielder’s ability on the ball, but said: “he’s got to continue learning the other side of it.”

Replacing Forster-Caskey, Morgan had a huge hole to fill in a position that naturally tested all the weaknesses of his game. Letting down his team could have cost Charlton the game and their play-off chances with it. It would have also likely cost Morgan in the eyes of his manager as he continues his long ongoing fight to become a regular starter.

Morgan was given the captain’s armband for the final seconds of Charlton’s chase for a point at Accrington. While it may have just been a move to accelerate the speed of the game after he replaced Pratley, it also could end up being a window into the future.

“I think his leadership qualities come in the example he sets to players in terms of his desire,” Avory says. “He’s a winner, he’s a definite winner. And that winning mentality that he’s got coupled with his ability, enables a respect from his team-mates, for sure.

“I wouldn’t say he’s someone who’s necessarily got a big voice on the pitch, but he’s become more….he expresses himself at times when the team might not be doing so well. Because he wants to win. He wants to win. And he believes that within his own ability, that he’s got enough in his locker, in his toolkit, to be able to win the game himself. So I think he could be an inspiration to others in the way he approaches the game. He’s a definite winner, coupled with this love and enjoyment.”

With Charlton needing a mini-miracle to reach the League One play-offs, it’s unlikely Morgan will truly be able to push on and make the next steps of his progression this season. But contracted until 2023, he could be a central component of the long-awaited rebuild that will finally start this summer under the ownership of Thomas Sandgaard. Morgan has shown Adkins he can be counted on in a moment. Now it’s time for him to prove this can become ‘his’ team.

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