Half an hour before Charlton strolled on to the pitch for their warm-up ahead of Tuesday’s meeting with Crewe, there were two players out on their own taking in the dazzling sunshine. While their team-mates prepared for another huge game in the League One play-off race, Deji Oshilaja and Andrew Shinnie had the freedom of The Valley to go through some rather mundane running drills.
When Charlton eventually came out of the dressing room at 6:15pm, the duo trudged back inside, not to be seen again for the rest of the night. Oshilaja is the unfortunate casualty of renewed centre-back depth thanks to the return of Ryan Inniss – and Jason Pearce’s improvement over the second half of the season. But Shinnie, suddenly the forgotten man, is an interesting case.
After arriving on loan from Luton Town in October, Shinnie started nine of his first 10 games as Charlton picked up seven wins in the process. A thigh injury suffered against MK ruled the Scottish international out of action for more than a month but after returning to fitness he almost immediately regained his role as a crucial component of Lee Bowyer’s midfield.
Shinnie signed on a “permanent” deal after the conclusion of the January transfer window but all that did was enable Charlton to fit their many loan players into the matchday squad. He will still be a free agent this summer as was the case before signing his renegotiated contract.
Following February’s disastrous 3-0 defeat to Blackpool, Shinnie only got back into Bowyer’s team as a late substitute but when the manager departed for Birmingham, the 31-year old came right back into the starting 11, scoring a crucial goal to ignite the comeback in Charlton’s eventual 3-2 win against Bristol Rovers under Johnnie Jackson.
Four days later, in Nigel Adkins’ first game at Wimbledon, Shinnie once again played 90 minutes as Charlton twice threw away leads to draw 2-2. Since then, the midfielder has played a total of just 23 minutes. For the first time this season, Shinnie was fit but didn’t even make the bench against Peterborough. Then it happened again 72 hours later when Crewe came to town.
Shinnie has amassed 27 League One appearances for Charlton, but under Adkins, he has disappeared.
“Andrew has been training very hard,” Adkins said ahead of Charlton’s visit to Accrington Stanley on Saturday. “His attitude has been spot on. He wants to play, like all players want to go and play. We’ve only got a small squad, maybe a couple of players miss out – unfortunately, Andrew, Dej, and young Smithy have missed out. All the rest are either injured or in there.
“Competition for places drives performance and players know that. Andrew and Dej were not on the bench for the last one. He [Shinnie] came on against Plymouth when we won 6-0. I’ve only had a handful of games and we’ve tried to make sure we have a bit of continuity in our team selection and be adaptable with the impact coming off the bench – sometimes it is going to be unfortunate for someone missing out.
“Total respect for all of them. They are working really hard. When you’re out it is a bit ‘oh, what have I done wrong?’ – they’ve done nothing wrong. Ultimately I’ve got to make a decision.
“If I play Andrew and someone else misses out then I’ll be having exactly the same conversation with that player – for example, if Jake Forster-Caskey is not in the team. We need that competition for places. Total respect for all of the guys, total empathy if they’re not in the team – but what can we do on the training ground to keep ready? So when the opportunity does arise they are ready to make that impact for the team.”
Part of the explanation for Shinnie’s total vanishing is likely due to the type of midfielder Adkins prefers and the set-up for his midfield as a whole. When Shinnie played in a two-man midfield at Plough Lane, Adkins felt his side were much too open and easy to bypass. Since then, the former Southampton boss has largely relied on a 4-3-3 system, opting for a defensive midfielder at the base of the three and two box-to-box or attacking options ahead of him.
For the defensive anchor, clearly Adkins believes it’s a choice between Darren Pratley and Ben Watson. The two veterans have almost exactly split the minutes under Adkins, the manager preferring Pratley when he wants to adopt a more defensive approach and Watson when hoping to get on the ball and pass through the opposition.
Ahead of the defensive midfielder, Adkins seems partial to players who have the ability to cover the full pitch and support the strikers through the middle. Jake Forster-Caskey has had one spot nailed down for some time regardless of manager, and while the near-certain Player of the Season has seemingly begun to tire in recent weeks, it is incredibly hard to leave him out.
That means there’s only one space left in Adkins’ starting midfield. There’s always a shake-up when a new manager arrives, and Adkins’ reshuffle has led to six consecutive starts for Alex Gilbey. One of the fastest players at the club and consistently in the fittest running groups, Gilbey exemplifies the profile of an ‘Adkins midfielder’, able to eat up huge amounts of open space and support Stockley up front with deep penetrating runs beyond the opponent’s defence. In the 83rd minute at The Valley against Crewe, Gilbey headed in from close range to score his third goal in six games since the change in management.
In those six matches, Gilbey has racked up 18 touches in the opposition box, a number that Shinnie has needed his last 12 starts to reach. Meanwhile, over the course of the season, Shinnie has averaged 0.7 shots per game, whereas Gilbey has managed 1.4 shots per game.
Below is Shinnie’s heat map from his starring performance in the win against Bristol Rovers as well as Gilbey’s heat map from Tuesday’s 2-2 draw with Crewe. Outside of the bright left-corner of the pitch, highlighted due to Shinnie’s frequent set-piece responsibilities, it’s clear that Gilbey gets further forward than Shinnie, who prefers to sit deeper, get on the ball, and pick his pass.
But while Shinnie may not be the prototypical Adkins midfielder in the way Gilbey is, it’s clear that he does offer something. Charlton have collected 1.7 points per game in Shinnie’s 18 starts, and 1.5 points per game without him. That isn’t enough of a difference to draw any full conclusions, but it’s in other statistical categories where Shinnie makes his case. He sits third amongst Charlton’s midfielders in passes per game (29.5) and second in pass accuracy (81.1 per cent), comfortably clear of Gilbey’s 19.7 passes per game and 78.9 per cent passing accuracy.
Shinnie also ranks third in crosses per game with 1.1 while he still leads the team in assists with six. Four of those have come with crosses on to Stockley’s head and with so much of Charlton’s game-plan dependent on their number nine, Shinnie’s almost telepathic relationship with the striker could continue to pay dividends should they appear alongside each other moving forward.
The problem for Shinnie is that he’s not quite defensively dominant enough to hold down the midfield as a lone anchor, but he also doesn’t appear mobile enough to play as a number eight in Adkins’ system where he wants players breaking beyond the striker.
The make-up of Adkins’ squad makes it hard for Shinnie to nail down a consistent starting role but one would have expected his performances this season to at least yield him a place on the bench.
As Charlton chased a winning goal against Ipswich in mid-April, Adkins opted to leave Shinnie as an unused substitute, making just one change, Watson for Pratley. Against Peterborough and Crewe, Adkins went with two defenders on the bench (Chris Gunter and Akin Famewo/Ryan Inniss), two midfielders (Pratley and Albie Morgan), and two strikers (Conor Washington and Chuks Aneke).
With a nearly full squad and Adkins’ insistence on keeping two defenders in reserve, there’s really only two slots on the bench for midfielders – and one is almost guaranteed to go to Watson or Pratley. After being the odd one out for the first three games after the international break, it now appears Morgan has pushed ahead of Shinnie for the last open position. Tied down to a contract until 2023, in many ways it does make sense for Morgan to get minutes ahead of Shinnie who is likely to depart this summer as Charlton keep a tentative eye on the future while still pushing for promotion in the immediate.
There may not be a natural place for Shinnie in Adkins’ squad, but in recent weeks against Ipswich, Peterborough, and Crewe, Charlton have struggled at times to create meaningful chances and control the flow of the game. Shinnie has already shown this year that these are the exact areas he excels in. Cast to the side with limited time remaining, there may not be another opportunity for Shinnie as the season reaches its conclusion. But perhaps, that in itself is a shame.
PICTURES: PAUL EDWARDS AND KEITH GILLARD
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