Preview: Charlton Athletic

Last Saturday’s win over Peterborough was perhaps the most enjoyable home game of the season. The game itself was a fairly mediocre one that we slightly edged, however, it was the atmosphere brought on by the good weather, legend’s day, and the chance to congratulate our Wembley heroes that made it such a wonderful afternoon.

Already, that’s feeling like a distant memory following the announcement of the season ticket prices this week. Personally, I don’t feel like they’re as scandalous as it’s being made out, but I also appreciate that people making a decision with their own money may feel differently. Regardless of the actual pricing of the tickets, the announcement has seen the battle lines drawn for what’s inevitably going to be a summer of mud-slinging and what could be a really difficult next season ahead.

Possible Line-Up

While the Peterborough game was an opportunity to bask in the sunshine and forget about the reality of the situation we’re in, this Charlton game where they’ll be protests and relegation could be confirmed looks set to serve as a cold, hard dose of reality. For Mark Robins and the players, it’s about displaying that they can cope in a less advantageous atmosphere, potentially having to deal with disruptions to the game, which could be a truer mark of their ability to produce the goods next year.

After a hectic list of fixtures in recent weeks, Robins should benefit from having a better rested squad than the past few games. Hopefully, the likes of Jordan Willis, Kwame Thomas and others dealing with minor knocks will be fit enough to enter contention for selection, potentially offering the manager some difficult decisions to make.

With Ruben Lameiras in good form over the past few games, it’s hard seeing even a fit Kwame Thomas taking his berth just behind Beavon in the starting line-up. The main selection quandary could well be whether to hand Jodi Jones a rare start ahead of Kyel Reid, even though the latter has been much-improved under Robins.

Last Time We Met

As I tried to locate the away end at The Valley back in October I heard a mysterious cockney voice utter “beware of flying pigs” darkly into the South London air. Thinking nothing of it other than that Londoners are weird, I took my seat for a game of football that I hoped would kick-start a season that hadn’t exactly gone to plan yet.

That cockney wisdom soon came to make sense when the referee blew his whistle to start the game and pigs did indeed fly (well, fall in style). Point made, the game resumed after a lengthy period where rubber pigs were removed from the pitch by the players and we proceeded to lose 3-0 to a team managed by Russell Slade. In fairness, it wasn’t actually a terrible performance, but we were too weak at the back and lacked the ability to convert possession into goals, however, it was a display that screamed relegation.

How Are They Doing?

Charlton have been beguiling this season, at times they have been one of the best teams in the division but they’ve so often been sub-par and appearing to be lacking in motivation that they now find themselves in mid-table with nothing to play for. A high level of squad turnover this season hasn’t helped, first in Russell Slade clearing out the mess of a squad he’d been left after relegation from the Championship, and then Karl Robinson making sweeping changes after replacing Slade in November.

While Karl Robinson has the excuse of not working with a squad entirely of his own choosing, Charlton’s performances under him at times have questioned the concept of him being a good up-and-coming young English manager. He’s got a very strong squad to work with, possibly one of the best at this level, yet he’s only picked up 20 points from the 21 games he’s had in charge – 10 fewer than Slade managed with the same number of games.

The quality in Charlton’s squad comes mainly comes from midfield/attack, where Ricky Holmes has been the star player this season. Remarkably for a player who’s never played as high as this level before, Holmes has looked a cut above in his wing play and end product. Former Swindon winger Nathan Byrne provides further quality out wide, while the attack boasts the physical prowess of Josh Magennis and Lee Novak, as well as the enigmatic former Celtic striker Tony Watt.

Karl Robinson’s big signing Jake Forster-Caskey has been a class act in a deeper midfield position, supplying creativity alongside academy product Joe Aribo who was rather exuberantly likened to Dele Alli early in the season by Robinson. The experienced Andrew Crofts provides a physical platform at the base of midfield to build from, while there’s also club captain and hero Johnnie Jackson to call upon despite his advancing age.

Possible Line-Up

At the back, Charlton have an array of high-calibre centre-backs who could all really be playing at a higher-level. Patrick Bauer and Jorge Teixeira are domineering presences in central defence and the only random foreign players to last Russell Slade’s summer cull. There’s also Jason Pearce who has excelled in the past at Championship level, while Ezri Konsa has emerged as a big prospect this season after playing in a number of positions in defence and midfield.

There’s also the reliable Chris Solly to call upon at right-back, who has stayed loyal over the years despite previous links to Premier League clubs, and Declan Rudd in goal, who made several appearances last season in goal for Norwich in the top-flight. All in all, this is a time that shouldn’t be languishing in mid-table in League One.

Prediction

There are similarities between this Charlton side and the Peterborough one we faced last week. Both have aspirations of playing pretty, passing football and have a number of dangerous attacking players, but both have appeared to lack a cutting edge to their play and have a soft underbelly that can be exposed with proper organisation and the right mentality.

I would be confident predicting a win in this game, however the potential protests present an unknown factor both in how they may happen and whether it will have any effect on the team. Given that it is an unknown factor, I’m going to stick to my guns and tip us to win this game 2-1.

Preview: Charlton Athletic

With our ‘crisis’ (i.e. a more succinct term for a 16-year long decline) entering the national media and being the subject of an MPs debate since we last played a game of football, the return to action feels almost novel. We’ll see what the ultimate upshot of this increased awareness of us being in the shit is, but in the meantime, it would be nice to see us sort the on-the-field mess out as soon as possible.

Despite having won both of our last two games (one of which uselessly came in an almost meaningless cup competition) we’re still bottom of the division. Although we face a team in Charlton that we could overtake with a big enough win (three goals or more), there’s nothing like being bottom of the table to sharpen the urgency to go out and win a game.

It was confirmed today, in the obliquest terms possible, that the club currently aren’t looking to rush into the appointment of a new manager. On the one hand, it feels a bit slapdash that the club has taken two weeks to decide that they’re not ready to make a decision. On the other, if there is this level of indecisiveness behind-the-scenes, it’s probably best they aren’t rushing to appoint a new manager. With three league games over the next week, what may be required of a new manager could be different to what would be required right now.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

The win over Northampton in the Football League Trophy demonstrated the attacking potency that this team potentially has, Dan Agyei, Jodi Jones and Ruben Lameiras all scored spectacular goals in differing manners. However, Northampton’s goal – where Jamie Sterry and Jordan Willis were both easily outmuscled and caught out of position – demonstrated that the defence remains a problem area. Although performances have improved, we have been lucky over the past two games that our opponents have missed some good chances.

I would imagine that Venus’ team for this game won’t be too dissimilar from the one he named against Northampton Town. A front three of Dan Agyei, Jodi Jones and Marvin Sordell looks like the best configuration in attack, although Ruben Lameiras might have something to say about that. Gael Bigirimana and Chris McCann have demonstrated considerable quality in midfield over the past few weeks, it’s a choice between Ben Stevenson or Vladimir Gadzhev to make up the three. The main selection dilemma is whether to restore Reice Charles-Cook in goal, if he’s fully fit.

Last Time We Met

Thanks to Charlton’s various promotions and relegations over the past 15 years or so, we haven’t played the Addicks on a regular basis for quite a while. Our last meeting came in 2009 at the Ricoh Arena while Charlton were busy being inexplicably relegated from the Championship in just their second season after a long spell in the Premier League. It was a 0-0 draw, but I thought it would interesting to state some of the players involved in a dull bottom end of the Championship game in 2009. Charlton had Rob Elliott in goal, and the likes of Zheng Zhi, Nicky Bailey and Jonjo Shelvey in midfield with Tresor Kandol leading the line, Phil Parkinson was their manager. We had Keiren Westwood, Scott Dann, Danny Fox but also Kevin Thornton, Isaac Osbourne, Freddy Eastwood, brought Ashley Cain off from the bench and were managed by Chris Coleman.

How Are They Doing?

Charlton’s decline over the past few seasons is directly attributable to a single party – chairman Roland Duchatelet. For those who don’t know, Duchatelet bought Charlton as part of a wider European network of clubs he owns (similar to Watford’s Pozzo family) and tried to use Charlton as a springboard to sell cheap foreign talent to richer English clubs or abroad.

In addition, Duchatelet has rattled through a series of foreign managers with no experience of English football – they were managed by three different foreign managers during relegation from the Championship last season. Duchatelet has attempted to make amends after relegation from the Championship by appointing an experienced English manager, Russell Slade, and stopping the import of random foreign players, but things haven’t really improved.

There are three main factors behind Charlton’s lowly league position at the moment (they’re currently 18th, just three points above us), a fire sale of promising homegrown youngsters over the summer, those funds not being invested back in the team and Russell Slade. Those three factors have seen would could have been an exciting, enterprising side made up of players fans could identify with, replaced with a slow, dour bunch of cloggers.

While Russell Slade is a well-respected manager in the bottom two divisions, he is someone who’s never won promotion and is used to working at smaller clubs. Like Nigel Adkins Sheffield United last season, Slade has tried to build the team on a core of experienced players such as Andrew Crofts and Johnnie Jackson who lack the athletic capacity and dynamism of their younger days.

Aside from crosses and set-pieces directed towards target-men Novak and Magennis, Charlton’s main attacking threat comes from Ademola Lookman and Ricky Holmes. Lookman is a hot property after making an impression at Championship level last season and was surprisingly not sold over the summer. Holmes has had a different career trajectory, working his way up from non-league to be where he is today (although, Lookman was signed from non-league Waterloo FC). Both are exciting wide players who can beat players for fun and are capable of producing moments of magic. The key to this game is stopping those two.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

Elsewhere, the summer signing of last season’s League One second top-scorer Nicky Ajose hasn’t gone to plan, with Slade struggling to find a way to get the best out of a striker who’s had an inconsistent career if you take last season out of the equation. Jason Pearce and Patrick Bauer are a strong centre-back pairing at this level and they have Declan Rudd in goal, who played 11 times in the Premier League for Norwich last season and should really be playing at a higher level.

I’m not sure what this stat really means but I’m going to throw it out there anyway, Charlton have picked up just five yellow cards in 11 league games. Maybe they’re a soft touch, maybe they’ve been lucky with referees.

Prediction

We should be wary of Charlton despite their poor form – they haven’t won since August – as they’re a side that contain three or four players who can just win games on their own. With a physical threat in attack allied with pace and skill out wide in Ricky Holmes and Ademola Lookman, Charlton look to have a decent way to exploit our young, inexperienced defence and they should at least threaten from set-pieces. It’s a case of whether we can dominate the ball and take advantage of being on top.

I am fairly confident about this game, we’re showing signs of finding form and there’s going to be a strong away support. I’m predicting that we’ll win 3-2 in a fairly crazy and chaotic manner.

Preview: Wigan Athletic

A point and seemingly a decent performance against Gillingham last week counts for very little now. Even if we played extraordinarily well between now and the end of the season, several teams would have to play extraordinarily poor to allow us the chance to sneak into the play-offs. Essentially, last week’s result extinguished any partially realistic hope of making the top six.

It has though already felt that way for several weeks, so it was somewhat encouraging that we played with some commitment at Gillingham last week. There does seem to be some determination to play for pride, albeit the confidence of the team has made it difficult to actually get results. How much of a chance this gives us against the division’s best team is anyone’s guess.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

James Maddison has returned to fitness ahead of this game, but you would imagine Tony Mowbray is only going to utilise him as a substitute. It’s Jodi Jones at the moment who is our new exciting young thing after a series of bright performances. I hope for his sake though that he finds an end product in the next few games otherwise  he could be facing up to the kind of paralysing scrutiny that has beset Maddison and Jacob Murphy this season.

There’s nothing else really interesting about the possible starting line-up for this game, most likely because there’s zero riding on the game itself. Romain Vincelot could well continue to play in the number 10 role, Adam Armstrong might not start, Aaron Phillips could get another start. We’re not quite at the stage yet where we might as well ‘play the kids’, I still want to see us play our strongest side and see what happens because this was a very exciting side not that long ago, I don’t want to say goodbye to that just yet.

Last Time We Met

Similarly to this meeting, we entered our last game against Wigan without many expectations. But is was a lack of expectations of a different kind, genuinely not knowing the team, rather than in what mood they might be in. Mowbray threw a curveball with his starting line-up, playing a 4-2-4 with Ruben Lameiras and James Maddison playing nominally as strikers, the kind of tactical gamble that Mowbray hasn’t really deployed since then.

Somehow managing to defend relatively deeply and putting Wigan’s back three under pressure at the same time, it was an energetic display from a young team with a game-plan and desperate to impress. Jim O’Brien sprung Adam Armstrong in behind Wigan’s defence and he finished with unerring accuracy to give us a first-half lead. Despite Wigan building pressure as the game wore on, John Fleck received the ball after pressing their centre-back high up the pitch and teed Armstrong up for a second goal which ended the game as a contest.

How Are They Doing?

 

After starting the season slowly, spending long spells outside of the top six, Wigan have risen to the top which was to be expected given the massive financial advantage they enjoy over the rest of the division. When things haven’t worked out for them, they’ve brought in quality to plug the gaps, but have generally stuck to quite a patient, attractive style of football, combining technical skill with strong physicality.

Having won the FA Cup just three years ago and been in the Championship play-offs a year later, it’s patently obvious that Wigan simply shouldn’t be in this division. They’ve taken the opportunity to clear the decks and give a young manager a chance to bed into the job but the test for them really is next season where they find out the substance of this sojourn in the third-tier.

If there is one player that sums up Wigan this season, it’s 6 foot 2 winger Yanic Wildschut, signed from Middlesbrough in January after a successful loan spell. Not only a brute of a physical specimen, Wildschut is quick and skilfull, bowling defenders silly enough to get into his wake with glee. A player who has impressed in both the Dutch top-flight and intermittently in the Championship, there’s no way he should be playing in League One and he has proven just why too.

As well as the earlier mentioned Wildschut, Max Power, Sam Morsy and Michael Jacobs in midfield supply the technical brilliance that has really come to the fore in the second half of the campaign. Alone, either of them could make strong claims to being the best players in the division, together they form a formidable attacking force, especially with the finishing of Will Grigg up front.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

In defence, Wigan have experience, physical power, and quality. Jason Pearce has stood out at Championship level for several years, making his switch to Wigan in the midst of their relegation campaign somewhat odd, predictably, he has been solid as a rock this season. Donervon Daniels is an immoveable object alongside Pearce in the centre of defence. Oh, and Wigan also happen to have Stephen Warnock playing for them at left-back.

In goal is 40 year-old Jussi Jaaskelainen who has proven he’s still more than good enough for this level of football even at his advanced age. Jaaskelainen’s back-up earlier in the season was Richard O’Donnell, who was offloaded to Bristol City in the Championship where he is now first-choice, summing up just how strong Wigan’s squad is.

Prediction

It looks a daunting prospect ahead of us against a formidable Wigan side and a Coventry City one low on confidence with nothing to play for. It’s one of those games though that can say a lot about the mentality of a manager and their team as well, you can either put a plan together and stick to it with the dedication that we showed back in August, or you can lose the game before you’ve even made it onto the pitch. If we are to see this collapse as a prelude to success next season, we’ve got to view this game, and the others after it, as an opportunity to bed in ideas and a mentality for next season, regardless of who’s actually going to be sticking around for it.

It is just impossible to tell what kind of performance we’re going to put in for any game at this moment in time. We could hand Wigan another bloody nose, or this could be a dismal afternoon as we drop further down the table and watch what could have won. I’m predicting a 2-1 defeat.