Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Autumn Change

Have the last few weeks been significant or not for this Charlton season? Since beating Dagenham and Redbridge (1-0, Therry Racon the scorer), the Addicks have lost at Exeter (1-0, to an injury time penalty), then scraped home against Notts County 1-0 (Joe Anyinsah scoring on his debut), before recently settling for a draw at Tranmere (1-1, the recalled Scott Wagstaff with his third goal of the season). Just four points from the last four league games, yet the side sit a mere three points off the top of the Division One table. It would be easy to be comfortable (rather than happy) with this positioning, yet it is the unconvincing style of play which is the most worrying aspect for me.

Most new sides – and Charlton have a squad full of new players – take time to gel, especially when upwards of nine players are playing together regularly for the first time, but the reality is that many League One sides have new squads and teams each season, and many of the teams we have played could also use the “taking time to gel” argument into a match. At some point, we have to say that enough is enough and find out why the chosen team is not working?

That point may have been reached last weekend, as Phil Parkinson made five changes to his starting eleven. One was enforced (Robbie Elliot’s chipped elbow forcing him onto the sidelines for a month) but four were tactical, or form related. Parkie made a point of saying that he had to pick a team to combat Tranmere’s brute force, and that may have been why Manual Llera got the nod ahead of Matt Fry at centre back (with Christian Dailly still out following his clash of heads in the Daggers cup game). More obvious though was the picking of Racon ahead of Alan McCormack, and also Joe Anyinsah for Pawel Abbott. Neither of those two is more combative that the man they replaced, so something was clearly not working here. In addition, Wagstaff got a recall for Kyel Reid on the wing.

So what are the problems facing Parky, and with the result at Tranny clearly not getting the result wanted, what can our manager do to remedy the issues?

First, Parky has to find out who his preferred starting eleven are; one of the best things about last season was that not only did we win our first six league games, but that the side remained exactly the same during that time too (and for the next two unbeaten games). This season, we have used no less than 19 players in the first seven games, with every position on the field played in by at least two different players. The only player to have started every league game is Gary Doherty, whereas last year we had eleven in this situation.

Last year, possibly due to the paucity of the squad early in the season, we knew what the starting eleven would be, barring injury. This year, we (the fans) and obviously Parkie too due to the tinkering, do not.

Some of the problem to my mind is that while it can take different individuals time to settle, that isn’t a problem if the team knows what they are trying to do and how to play. Clearly, with so many new players, each are at a different stage in settling in, yet the team itself has had little chance to form a unit due to injury, suspension (two sendings off in the first two league games didn’t help!), form and tinkering.

In goal, we do know that Robbie Elliot is first choice, and that Ross Worner (left) was due a season sitting on the bench. Instead, Worner has played and started in three games already, and even though Luke Daniels has been signed on loan from WBA as cover, Worner may yet get the nod to start on Saturday too.

Charlton fans know when a youngster is giving his all, and we got that from Chris Solly last season, especially when he was played out of position and suffered as a consequence. This year, he started at right back, and did well (including being man of the match against Bournemouth), but even before Simon Francis was considered fit enough to play a full game, he usurped Solly in the side. Francis has had his positive moments so far, including a great cross for McCormack to head in at Orient, but overall, his play has been poor, and he has not contributed enough. Due to his size and the fact he is a full back, he is often compared to Hermann Hreidersson, but the marauding run he made against Notts County ran out of steam soon after he passed the half way line, and with just the ‘keeper to beat, he didn’t even get a chance to shoot. His passing needs improvement, as does his oft-cited dead ball delivery. Tell me why this six foot plus beast is taking corner kicks please, and Kyel Reid (or Lee Martin) is left in the box? I just don’t understand it, and he ain’t Russian!

In midfield, early in the season, Parky was able to play five across the park, with Lee Martin floating around behind Abbott up front. This allowed McCormack and Semedo to win the ball and distribute it wide launching attacks. With Semedo banned for three games, the similarity of the two ball winners was hidden, but it soon became clear to everyone that in a 4-4-2 formation, McCormack and Semedo just could not play together if the team was to progress. What is needed is more creativity, but with Martin (left) playing further forward (or wider), the only midfield option is Therry Racon. When on form, this Frenchman can do a very good job, but he has yet to hit his straps, and the front men are still shy on service of any value. Racs will stay in the team I feel, presuming Parky does not take a chance on Martin and Semedo as a pair, unless a new player arrives on loan?

The front players so far this season have all been a little disappointing. Much was said about Akpo Sodje being a weak link coming into pre-season, but he has been about our best attacker so far. His winning goal in the league opener saw him dropped in favour of Abbott and Martin (and this is strangely the first of three times that players have been dropped for the next league game after scoring! No wonder nobody wants to hit the back of the net!); Both played well in the League cup game with Abbott showing his undoubted skill in controlling and shooting home his first for the Addicks, but since then he has flattered to deceive I feel, and now he’s been dropped. Martin has been pushed back to a wide area, though we still do not know if that is his best position, while it was the two new signings – Benson and Anyinsah - who started last Saturday’s game on Merseyside.

Paul Benson (left) may become a Charlton legend, but for all the wrong reasons. Don’t get me wrong here, I hope he succeeds, but so far, from what I have seen, we have a dud. In the matches he has played since signing, he has yet to contribute anything worthwhile. On his debut, admittedly against his former team-mates, he fluffed four relatively easy chances, but we forgave him that as he had only just signed. In two more games, he hasn’t fluffed as many as he hasn’t had many to fluff. He flicks on the odd goalies punt, and wanders into the penalty area (apparently taking up very good positions we are told) yet he seems to me to offer no threat, with none of the pace and poachers instinct we were held to believe he has. He adds nothing to build up play, and usually loses the ball or is tackled when he does get control of a pass. I may be a bit harsh on the lad, and I would love him to prove me wrong, but he reminds me more of Paul Davies than Arthur Horsfield, Johnny Ostergaard more than Derek Hales, Paul Gorman more than Clive Mendonca, and more of Marcus Bent than Darren Bent! Please, please, please show me I am wrong on Saturday Benno!

Admittedly, service into the strikers has not been good, and some of that is due to the missing creativity, but also due to the inconsistency of the wingers. With McCormack and Semedo in midfield, it is pretty obvious to any opposition team that Charlton will use the wings to get the ball forward in an effort to score. While Scott Wagstaff has done well (scoring three times), he has been the young scapegoat for Parky so that the supposedly better Lee Martin and Kyel Reid can play in their preferred positions. Reid and Martin have both had minor injuries it’s true, but other than in the opening game, Reid has been kept pretty quiet, and Martin seems more intent on upsetting referees than his opponent which is never a good sign (unless you are John Robinson!). Parky needs to settle on his chosen wingers and ensure that they play a full part in the game.

On paper, we have a very good squad; one which is capable of doing well this season. The league is tight, with many of the fancied teams starting sluggishly. This is why Charlton sit a mere three points from the summit going into two upcoming home games. But the league is not played on paper. It is played on the pitch, and that’s where we need the team to start performing.

Twenty five years ago this week, Charlton Athletic played what they thought was going to be their last ever game at The Valley. I was there, stood on the small terrace between main stand and the covered end, as I had been for all games that season. I didn’t run on the pitch at half-time, or collect my piece of Valley turf afterwards, but that made me no less of a supporter. I was as heartbroken as the next man, but I stayed with my team. I’m still there, and so are many others who saw Robert Lee and Mark Stuart score that day. I’ve been at other grounds when half-time introductions have worked wonders and roused the crowd into winning the game for their side; if necessary (and I hope it isn’t), we need the Valley crowd to bring us three points on Saturday that will turn this season back in the right direction. We all know that this season is so important, and crucial if we are still to have a club to support in another twenty five years.

Come on you Reds!


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