Friday, 30 September 2022

Just How Do We Improve?

There was a run of games last season which could reasonably have been described as the worse in the club’s post-war history, not so much for the actual points gained but given the opposition (we haven’t forgotten the run without a win in Curbs’ first season in the Premiership but for crying out loud we were playing against the best then). Have to say the current run is on a par – and of course it hasn’t definitely ended yet. Successive fixtures against Cambridge, Wycombe, Bolton, Forest Green, Fleetwood, now Barnsley have delivered no wins. I mean no disrespect to these teams, good luck to them, we have no divine right to beat them; but don’t tell me it isn’t depressing. As is our position in the league and the prospect of, for the first time in my life, a fourth consecutive season in this bloody awful division. That is enough to make any Addick miserable.

The reported claim by Thomas Sandgaard in the recent Fans Forum that “the squad is in a better place than last season” is no longer supported by the evidence. It sparked a discussion with fellow Addicks over whether we are stronger or weaker, with opinion divided. For my part I’d say that the squad now has arguably greater potential but that last season’s was the more likely to get us promoted – while acknowledging that it failed to do so. Both squads you would say were short of what was required. But when JJ changed the formation, brought back Dobson, forged a midfield three of him, Gilbey and Lee, and had Washington available as well as Aneke to support Stockley, we had a period of time when we were as good as anything else the division then had to offer (and the opposition is stronger this season). Pity we had then good traditional full-backs (Matthews and Purrington) when we wanted wing-backs (while now perhaps the reverse is true), fell foul of injuries and suspensions, and ran out of steam, proving unable to overcome the dreadful start to the season.

By contrast, this season we have so far recorded two victories. Peversely the first, against Derby, delivered our only clean sheet to date, when we could easily have been three or four down at the break and out of it. The other, the win against Plymouth, was splendid but deceptive. We had taken the lead early on and were playing well, as we had done so in periods of other games. But shortly before the break Plymouth will have been thinking at one down all was still to play for against inconsistent opposition. Then a shot blocked by a flailing arm, penalty and a red card; and before they could regroup in the dressing room Clare goes and hits an outrageous third. Game over, one of those nights. And since then we have been leaking goals without the opposition having to do much, like early last season, and failing to turn decent openings into goals. So Just don’t tell me that we are stronger now than last season. Rather let’s say we have the potential to become stronger.

I’d start by acknowledging some errors. TS handled the final days of the transfer window badly, increasing the sense of disappointment at the outcome. You don’t say what he did unless and until deals are all but signed off, just stick to something like ‘we are looking at opportunities to strengthen the squad and if we can we will do so’. (More recently it was pleasing to see his apology for Leo Rifkind’s regrettable tweet regarding what we might expect as regards ‘financial stability’ and our owner’s objectives for reducing losses and getting promoted.) Equally, in the aftermath of the window it helped nobody for Ben Garner to talk in terms of a top-six finish amounting to over-achievement. If you get asked whether or not you agree with such a statement you say something like ‘getting promoted remains our objective; achieving that goal will require steady improvement and hard work’. I do think that if you tell a group of players promotion is probably beyond them you affect their motivation, however marginally and subtlety.

Moving on from those issues, what can be done? If some things seem obvious to me, someone with no background in football, they can’t be rocket science. Whatever is being done on the training ground isn’t working (yet) at either end of the pitch. So here’s my plan.

First, for the defence, assuming we stick with a back four I don’t know which combination will work best, but we haven’t seen a strong partnership yet emerge from the three (now four) centre-backs available to us; and consistency is not helped by Inniss (and as a result Lavelle) being in and out of the team. Nevertheless, anyone listening to Steve Brown tearing his hair out on CATV at the nature of our defending must be aware that something is not right with the approach. If the training staff don’t know why, bring him in to help. Also, we seem to accept that Blackett-Taylor and others can’t last a full game, so why not alternate more frequently during games the centre-back pairing? If Inniss can’t do two consecutive full games play him for an hour in each (not least as without him we seem to carry no threat from set pieces). I thought the increased number of substitutes available was going to be a game-changer, but that’s not been the case so far.

Second, up front. I’d say we have two problems: players snatching at chances and/or making poor decisions in good positions; and insufficient flexibility when it comes to team selection and making changes. On the former, this comes across as a mental issue. The best finishers in the game register a decline in heart rate when an opportunity develops, as the focus narrows and the brain reverts to relying on what they know to work. For others it rises, leading to panic. I guess the solution is one or a mix of mental coaching and endless repetition of shooting in training. Johnnie Wilkinson didn’t suddenly wake up a fantastic points kicker, he devoted countless hours practising, so when he was called on he delivered. Experience says some players (in many sports) just never master the art. But they have to try. Hard.

On the latter, we may have CBT, DJ, Rak-Sakyi and Kirk all available to play in a three, but they are not the same players. Equally, if Stockley is on his own it requires that we play differently to if we have him partnered with Leaburn. The choices also I think affect how we set up in midfield. Basically if you start with CBT and Rak-Sakyi in a front three, as I think we should continue to do, you regard them as the main goal threat. The onus is on midfielders to supply them with the ball, in a fashion which enables them to use their pace (CBT), trickery (RS), and ability to go inside and outside. Stockley’s job is to hold possession and bring them into the game, as well as look to be in the box for the end-result. However, if Leaburn joins Stockley during a game the onus switches more in favour of well-delivered crosses from the wide players, which is where Kirk comes in. CBT can’t last 90 minutes at the moment, so if he is replaced look at changing the formation at the same time.

Third, we still haven’t found our best midfield combination. We tried not including Dobson (Derby) and nearly paid for it. So then it’s down to two others, from Morgan, McGrandles, Fraser, Payne, Forster-Caskey (and Henry) – and here I’d add Clare. I’d say that if it’s a front three with CBT and RS you want one midfielder to see it as a major part of his job to get into the box and finish. That would be a choice between Fraser and Payne. So far neither Morgan nor McGrandles have nailed down a spot. I’d make the case for a change and putting in either Clare or Forster-Caskey to accompany Dobson and Fraser/Payne. Let’s be honest, we don’t yet know if JFC is back to the player he was; if he is, has to be an option. Equally, we may now list Clare as a defender but he started the first game last season along with Dobson in midfield. He would tighten things up and leave things clear for Sessignon and Egbo to be chosen to start, let’s see what they can do (and I really want to see Sessignon and CBT working in tandem down the left side).

Well, that’s my sixpennethworth. We know we badly need a win tomorrow. And for all the verbiage above, I really don’t care how we get it.

 

Sunday, 18 September 2022

Pretty Obvious Lessons As Another Game Slips By

It always feels better when the crap 45 minutes of a game comes first rather than the other way around. You end the game thinking you might have won, that if the game continued you would have won, and the fact that you could easily have lost tends to fade from the memory. Especially in this case since it wasn’t difficult to point to the reasons behind a poor first half. When the dust has settled we’re still on a poor run, now four points from five games. Didn’t get the win we craved, but at least there was something to lift the spirits as at half-time yesterday we seemed to be staring down the barrel of a trend towards a repeat of last season’s dreadful start.

The team showed four changes from Tuesday night. In defence Lavelle not surprisingly came in for the suspended Inniss, while Clayden took over again from Chin at left-back. The midfield trio saw Dobson retained and Fraser return while Payne kept his place - must admit I’d been assuming those two would be interchangeable rather than partnered - with McGrandles back on the bench. And up front Stockley was brought back to lead the line, Leaburn among the subs. The bench featured both Thomas and Egbo, with Chin missing out after his promising debut, while there were places for Morgan and Jaiyesimi but not for Forster-Caskey or Kirk.

The surprise when the game started was that we’d switched from a 4-3-3 to a 3-5-2, back to JJ’s preferred formation with Blackett-Taylor and Clayden operating as wing backs and Rak-Sakyi partnering Stockley up front. Now the day after, and as similar sentiments were expressed by Curbs and Steve Brown on CATV at the break and post-match, this is going to sound like hindsight, if not stating the obvious. All I can say is that through the first half I was moaning to other Addicks that the best way to deal with the problem of an isolated central forward is not to neuter our two main attacking threats; basically in the first half CBT managed one run and cross and his main contribution was heading the ball out of our box, while Rak-Sakyi struggled to impact the game – in both cases hardly playing to their strengths. And (for me) compounding the problem was that with two up front the space for midfielders to provide the support up top was squeezed, yet we played together the two most likely to look for such space (ie Payne and Fraser).

The result was plain to see. We spent the first half under the cosh, unable to establish any pattern of play, not sure whether we were playing through the ranks or lofting balls for Stockley to flick on for Rak-Sakyi. At the same time, while Clayden was enjoying the greater freedom to get forward, all the old familiar failings of this system last year were apparent in defence. Three centre-backs adopting a passive stance, gaps appearing around and between them. Brownie was fair tearing his hair out at the break over the defending, for good reason. It was left to others to highlight our inability to do anything going forward and the incoherence of the performance – which may be a little unfair to Fleetwood, who were determined and aggressive, stuck to a gameplan which they were familiar with.

In that first half we created one chance, albeit a very good one. Clayden seemed boxed in on the left but audaciously took the ball on along the byline and squeezed past his marker. The ball back for Rak-Sakyi came at his perhaps a little quickly, but the shot wasn’t controlled and flew over the bar. Should have scored. At the other end Fleetwood did score, when a mistake by Clayden led to the ball going out right and a dangerous low cross was missed by the first pair but not by the second, their guy getting ahead of Clare (I think) to fire home from close range.

Otherwise they didn’t exactly tear us apart, just played much better than us, creating some opportunities not taken. They will have been content at the break but perhaps, as so often this season, regretting that the game had not been put to bed. Our misery was added to by Wollacott spilling a ball again, although this time it didn’t cost us. The only question at half-time was how much longer we would persist with the formation, assuming that the absent Garner was still calling the shots.

The change came immediately, with Clayden withdrawn, Egbo coming on for his long-awaited Charlton debut, Clare switching to left-back, with Blackett-Taylor and Rak-Sakyi back in their familiar positions. And it almost paid immediate dividends at CBT received the ball, went outside and gained a yard or so, and hit a fierce shot which came back off the crossbar. Not long after that we hit the woodwork again, albeit this time more by accident than design as an Egbo cross drifted over everyone only to hit the inside of the far post. When another shot was saved by their keeper, we’d gone from one shot (and none on target) for the first half to four.

It was by no means one-way traffic. In what was now a pretty open contest Fleetwood may well have added to their lead, with shots blocked and appeals for penalties. A second for them then and the points were theirs for sure. Then, with around 20 minutes left we made another change in personnel and formation. Leaburn was brought on for Payne and we switched to a 4-4-2, arguably a 4-2-4. And before there was the time to assess how that would work we were level. Egbo down the left fed Rak-Sakyi. With both Stockley and Leaburn in the box his low cross went just behind the latter, but splendidly he improvised and sent a back-heel flick into the net.

Soon after that DJ came on for CBT, who had again shot his bolt by that stage, and Morgan replaced Fraser. Both sides had chances to score a winner, but in the final 10 minutes (plus only four of added time, despite multiple substitutions, a goal, and a lengthy injury to their guy after a nudge from Egbo along the touchline resulted in him hitting the boardings) we finished the stronger as Fleetwood seemed to tire. Jaiyesimi tumbled in the box with no penalty, then in stoppage time Rak-Sakyi found space, played it past their guy and was in for a one-on-one. He hit it to the keeper’s right, but the effort was saved. And right at the death the ball dropped to Rak-Sakyi again from a corner but he snatched at it and put it over the bar.

So a point apiece. A neutral might say probably the right result overall. At least for us there are lessons presumably learnt. If CBT has 60 minutes in the tank best not waste 45 of them using him as a wing-back. If CBT has to depart, his replacement is not going to be like-for-like (except in the sense of the position) and we have to adjust accordingly If we want to address the problem of an isolated central striker the answer is not to neutralise our most effective weapons (rather get the three to work together better, build play down the flanks, get midfielders into the box in support etc). If we want to switch to two up top Stockley and Leaburn can cause problems, while Leaburn would still be available to play on the right in a front three). The answers to how we tighten up the defence and start delivering clean sheets is altogether more problematic. Will Egbo start in place of Clare? Will Inniss automatically return when fit and not suspended? Will Wollacott and his defenders work out who is coming for what? These and other conundrums await further evidence in the next match, while in the cold light of day, taking some positives for sure, we look at a league table which is unavoidably depressing.


 

Thursday, 15 September 2022

More Than Frustrating

There’s been the time to reflect on Tuesday night’s game, but after cutting and dicing it, further reflection etc there’s just no getting away from both the disappointment. I thought before the game that the postponement of Saturday’s match if anything upped the ante; whereas before the weekend we were eyeing two (on paper) winnable home games and potentially six points to lift us from mid-table obscurity (yes, I know it’s early days), now there was just one. One we really needed to win. We didn’t, and with three points from four games it all looks very different from when we routed Plymouth a few weeks ago, with that result looking increasingly like an aberration rather than a portent of things to come.

No point now in going into too much detail on the game itself, just general impressions then questions (for me) arising.

The team selection was interesting to say the least, seemingly a result of parental duties, niggles, and some reaction to the Bolton game. Of the recently injured – Egbo, Sessegnon, Inniss, Aneke – only Inniss was included, with Lavelle dropping out again and no place yet for the returning Thomas. In addition Chin was given a start and Clayden a rest, while in midfield Dobson was retained but Morgan dropped and with Fraser unavailable McGrandles and Payne – the two Garner signings of which we have seen little of so far – were given the opportunity, with a place on the bench for Forster-Caskey. Blackett-Taylor was chosen to start, with Jaiyesimi in reserve and Kirk not included in the squad, while Leaburn was chosen for the central role over Stockley. It seems from subsequent comments from Garner that the latter had a small injury problem ahead of the weekend and he didn’t want to risk him for fear of doing more long-term damage.

Forest Green I’d say started the better, but we soon assumed control and it was clear that in CBT (ably assisted down the left by both Chin and Payne) and Rak-Sakyi we had weapons they couldn’t deal with, their wing-backs getting overwhelmed. We scored a decent goal before 10 minutes were up: Clare diverted a ball forward from them, Dobson picked it up, fed it into Payne, who advanced with menace and then played it square to CBT, going into the box and up against one guy. He was allowed to go inside and with the gap opened up struck the ball unerringly into the net. If we could score that easily surely there would be more to come.

That we didn’t extend the lead didn’t seem to be a major problem as half-time approached. Forest Green’s forwards had caused one or two problems but on possession, chances, and goal threat we were streets ahead. Then a crossfield ball out to their left, in behind Clare. Still no real danger as the cross looked simple for Wollacott. It should have been, but whether he tried to catch or punch he only made marginal contact and it dropped to their guy, who promptly stabbed it back into the net. A howler for sure, coming on the back of at least some culpability for Bolton’s equaliser, something to work on getting right. But even level at the break it didn’t seem serious, surely we weren’t not still going to go on and win the game.

The second half was an entirely different affair. Forest Green tightened up, more intent on getting behind the ball and crowding out our wider forwards. We did nothing in response for too long, despite it being increasingly apparent that it was no more a war of attrition and we were not threatening inside their box, while Blackett-Taylor was visibly tiring. We did eventually change things, with first Morgan replacing McGrandles and not long after Stockley and Clayden on for Leaburn and Chin. And when Jaiyesimi came on for Blackett-Taylor we seemed to switch to three at the back, with Rak-Sakyi moving more central alongside Stockley.

Fact it that through the second half we created little, just a couple of half-chances (a Stockley shot parried by their keeper’s arm, Rak-Sakyi hitting a dropping ball on the turn just over the bar). And while Forest Green may have been happy with their point, they came by far the closer to grabbing a winner. One low cross looked for all the world as though it would be converted at the far post, only for a small deflection on it seemingly putting their guy off.

So it proved to be another game – like so many already - we might easily have won comfortably, could easily have lost it despite the first half. Garner talked of it being a frustrating night, but in truth it was worse than that. We had failed to make our advantages count and when those advantages were neutered couldn’t muster enough to overcome fresh challenges. And we can’t write it off as one of those nights as last time at The Valley we failed to see off Cambridge.

It's hard to avoid the conclusion that last season we had good players for this level underperforming as a team, giving the feeling that if we just got things in order – as JJ did when taking over – we were better than most. This time around we haven’t collectively adapted properly to the style Garner wants to play, perhaps don’t have the players best suited to that style, are being outgunned by the stronger teams and are failing to put away what on paper are weaker ones. Garner may have just been being honest when he agreed that a top-six finish this season would represent over-achievement but, while that may tally with what we have seen on the pitch, the thought of a fourth consecutive season in this awful division is not going to get the crowds back.

Is there anything BG can do about it? I think there is. If we want to play with a single central striker both the wider players and midfielders have to adjust, including adjusting to the strengths of that striker. It isn’t rocket science that if the wide men hug the touchline (and Kirk especially was guilty of that) the striker is going to be isolated, requiring that if play develops down one flank the guy on the other has to tuck in. If the wider players are going to stay out wide (in general), they need to focus on supplying good crosses for the forward to get onto – and one or two of the central midfielders have to get into the box in support – as Fraser has done a couple of times to good effect.

We seem to be falling between two stools on that front. It doesn’t help that Stockley is out of form and looks low on confidence, that Aneke is simply unavailable. We are asking an awful lot of the central striker whoever it is. And while we all hope that Leaburn will continue to develop and enjoy a great career with us, it is unfair to expect him to play the central role as things stand; up against a couple of seasoned pros effectively on his own he is going to struggle (as Stockley has done when it comes to balls hit in his direction with back to goal). And on that front, I think Garner missed a trick when it came to making changes. I would have brought on Stockley and – assuming his legs were still good – moved Leaburn out right, switching Rak-Sakyi to the left. In that position Leaburn can often find himself up against a full-back and odds-on to beat him in an arial context (vis our second against Accrington).

If the central striker is Stockley, play to his strengths, which means crosses he can get on the end of inside the box. Sure, if CBT and Rak-Sakyi are scoring goals, midfielders chipping in, we have no problem. But take away Plymouth and we’ve scored seven goals in seven games, simply not enough. Change doesn’t have to involve ditching the system, just tweaking it – and making sure that those involved know what’s required. After all, there’s no single way of playing 4-5-1/4-3-3. I remember Spurs with Hoddle, Ardilles, Galvin etc. They played with Clive Allen up top and if memory serves his only job was to get on the end of balls into the box; in build-up play they just ignored him.

With CBT and Rak-Sakyi fresh at the start, we have a considerable attacking threat. But if one is a little off, or runs out of steam, the replacements are not the same type of player. Kirk is more likely to deliver a telling cross but less likely to offer a real goal threat; Jaiyesimi is also less of a goalscorer (and understandably looked rusty on Tuesday night when he came on). Leaburn is the other option, again a different type of player and requiring as and when he comes on others to adapt their game accordingly.

There were positives from Tuesday night. Chin made an impressive debut and Payne was lively and effective in the first half, ably supporting the forward players. And again, it could have been worse. I just hope that following the reported comments from Leo Rifkind and the reaction of the Trust we’re not going to embark on an extended discussion of what is (reasonably) expected of owners and supporters. The fact is that in this division The Valley is not going to be full and rocking on a consistent basis (unless tickets are given away), we need to be in the Championship. Getting into the Championship requires investment. Comments like “financial stability in football means money going out = money going in” are at best inane; and this one just isn’t true. If an owner is prepared to accept a level of loss and cover that loss as an investment, that is also stability, as it is in any business. If losses need to be reduced, even eliminated, fair enough. But Duchatelet's stated goals were to break even and get us into the Premiership and they were always incompatible - and he ended up failing on both counts. 


Sunday, 4 September 2022

Sobering Defeat

After missing the Wycombe game (weekend away in Paris), glossing over the Papa Thingy in midweek, and having (I thought) got over the disappointment at the transfer window closing with no more additions, I was really looking forward to yesterday game. Another stern real test of where we are – and where we can have realistic hopes of getting to. We ended up getting several abrupt lessons, largely as a decent Bolton side were able to neutralise most of our threats, Rak-Sakyi being the obvious exception, largely control midfield, and use their shape in a fashion which caused us problems through the game. There were of course turning points, there always are; but we conceded three poor goals – and as we saw too often last season you usually don’t get anything from a game when you give up goals so easily.

The main team news was that Inniss would not be featuring, Lavelle replacing him in an otherwise predictable starting X1. With Sessegnon and Egbo still not available, there were places on the bench for Ness and Chin, which with no disrespect to them and their potential gave the impression that we are stretched pretty thin regarding defensive options. McGrandles and Blackett-Taylor returned to the squad, with Jaiyesimi and Henry missing out, which with Forster-Caskey still with us but also not involved indicated that despite Gilbey’s departure we are not short of numbers there. Up front it was as you were with CBT and Leaburn the options from the bench.

I’ll not dwell on the details of the game, it is Sunday afternoon after all (being on French time doesn’t help when it comes to squeezing in a match report before it’s aperitif time). The turning points were clear enough. First, having taken the lead in the third minute we only held it for five, with Bolton seemingly threatening with every attack. Nevertheless, surely there’s no doubt that their equaliser should have been ruled out for handball. The cross in from the left was inviting for sure, although it only made it to the back stick as a result of confusion between Lavelle and Wollacott, with the former leaving it (was there call?) and the latter unable to get to it. That left their guy with the simple task of tapping it into an empty net. He made a hash of it, the ball came up off his leg, hit one or both of his outstretched arms, and tamely bounced over the line. You could understand the ref not being able to see it, you expect a decent linesman to. May have been no intent, but the ball would not have gone in the net without his use of his hands. Who knows where the game would have gone if we’d held the lead longer? Probably the same way, but can’t be sure.

Second, we had a chance to retake the lead when Morgan broke in the clear, delivering a decent shot at the end of a drive forward only to be foiled by their keeper. Get into the break with a second and the game is different. Third, in the second half, having gone behind before the break to a disappointing goal (mishit shot falls to another guy but all our defenders rooted to the spot), we had the chances to level it when for a period of time we did more than match them. All three fell to Rak-Sakyi, in pretty quick succession. First two times he cut inside and put in decent shots saved by their keeper, the third and best one saw him switch to the outside and beat his marker ends-up but send the shot just wide of the far post. We didn’t score when we were on top, then it was game over when Bolton added a third, a result of more rabbits-in-the-headlights.

None of these turning points alter the overall story, which is that Bolton by and large outplayed us. My notes at half-time were something like ‘Stockley well shackled (as Curbs pointed out after the game he won’t come up against many tougher opponents than Santos), Kirk hugging the touchline, Rak-Sakyi often being crowded out (they’d done their homework), all leaving us with little threat, while we’re being outgunned in midfield and our defence is getting pulled around by their guys dropping deep; and without Inniss we don't look threatening from set pieces’. What was most worrying was that there was little we seemed able to do about it, by making changes from the bench and/or changing the formation. We got back into the game in the second half, for a while, largely through extra determination and managing to feed Rak-Sakyi in good positions. We did later change personnel (Leaburn for Kirk, Blackett-Taylor for Morgan) and with that also the formation, to a kind of 4-2-4 (or 4-4-2 if you prefer). But Bolton had scored their third two minutes after the first change and then it was all over.

We ended up, as against Sheff Wed, looking tired and rather dispirited. We can’t get away from two factors. First, we might have signed seven new players but we are currently without Sessignon, Egbo, Inniss and Aneke while Blackett-Taylor is just coming back from injury. In a small squad we just can’t cover for these absences. Second, two of the new signings, Payne and MacGrandles, have so far failed to make even a marginal contribution. We need more from them, could use JFC being brought back into the picture. Third, there’s no doubt we badly needed another signing or two before the window closed. The manager knew it, so did all the supporters. For perhaps good reasons that didn’t happen, it’s left everyone a little deflated (and some more than that).

The positives, for me, are that when Sessegnon is back hopefully he and Blackett-Taylor can combine on the left side, Rak-Sakyi has been outstanding (but he’s going to need a rest sooner or later), and Stockley may be struggling but remains a good central figure. There may be doubts about whether he is perfect for the way BG wants us to play but we need him – and need those either side of him to work to get the best out of him. Throwing Leaburn in from the start in a central position, on his own, is asking a great deal, and without Aneke and no Bonne there simply is no alternative. And while yesterday was a tough one for him, and he can't be unaffected by all the talk of bringing in another striker, he also played another game when not well, while in other games he has been pretty decent, has made runs to pull defenders away to allow others (especially Fraser) to benefit, just developed a bad habit of heading straight at the keeper. Nothing a few goals won’t cure, perhaps also an arm around the shoulder and a reminder of how important he is to the team. After all, he can't be blamed for the goals we let in yesterday. 


 

Passable Contest To Round Things Off

It is done and finally tenth place it is to be. As end-of-season affairs go the game itself was passably diverting, with four goals, a strea...