Sunday 12 November 2023

Plenty To Be Pleased About

Time for us to be the underdog yesterday, despite the record of recent years. Portsmouth, having done what every club says it intends/wants to do and got the bulk of its transfer dealings done early, appear capable of dominating the league this season in a similar fashion to Sir Chris’ side. Of course the wheels could come off (and for them have done before), but unbeaten in 15, 10 of those won tells its own story. And we’ve already been beaten by the three teams currently below them, most recently falling some way short against Bolton. The bookies had Portsmouth odds-on to win and no question we would have viewed coming away with a point as a good result.

Indeed, for most of the game coming away with a point looked less than likely and very welcome. In spells – such as the opening 10 minutes and following their two goals – Portsmouth upped their intensity and threatened to blow us away. That they didn’t can be attributed to some sterling defending, with Hector and Jones both giving all they had, an outstanding display of goalkeeping from Maynard-Brewer, albeit blotted by the rash decision which resulted in their penalty, and sometimes less than clinical finishing. They were always dangerous from set-pieces but seemed to lack the pace to catch us unawares and between the lines, as others have done. Crucially, they were never able to get more than a goal ahead.

But this was no plucky underdog performance from us. We created our own chances, especially in the second half, and in a crazy finish might have scored a winner (and might have conceded again). Portsmouth dominated in spells but so too did we. In the end we just about deserved our point. Appleton previously described one of our games as a great advert for League One. I didn’t agree that time, but the words would be apt for yesterday’s game, which left all of us breathless at the finish. In that context, mixing it up with the team at the top and coming away with something, the game was very encouraging for us. Hopefully it will have impressed on the players the degree of intensity and effort required to succeed and that this will be applied not just to the cup replay.

The team was, ahem, expected to show some changes from Sunday’s FA Cup tie, basically to revert to the one which had taken the field against Wigan, with a replacement for the injured Camara. In the event there were two changes from that starting X1, with Edun coming in for Asiimwe, getting the nod over Thomas with Watson switching back to his usual right side, while Campbell(T) came in for Camara, with May taking the No.10 slot and Blackett-Taylor and Campbell either side of Leaburn, rather than Fraser coming in. To the surprise of some no doubt McGrandles was given one of the slots on the bench, with less surprisingly Kirk back out of the squad.

I don’t know if it’s Portsmouth’s way to try to come out of the traps very fast; yesterday they did. We were hanging on in that early spell but managed to come through it without conceding, and in the following 15 minutes or so began even to get the upper hand. Leaburn blasted over from a tight angle when a ball across the box might have found an unmarked Blackett-Taylor. Then after good passing May shot across goal, the ball going just wide and replays showing that their keeper did indeed get a touch on it. And a Campbell cross almost reached May as their keeper this time failed to cut it out.

Consequently it was a tad harsh for us to go behind on the half-hour. I remember thinking Portsmouth were allowed to play the ball out of defence down their left side far too easily and win a soft corner. That proved costly. The ball into a packed six-yard box was headed out but fell invitingly for their guy just outside the area in acres of space. He decided to take it on the volley and controlled the effort well, sending it over the bodies in front of Maynard-Brewer but with the dip to find the far corner of the net. Very well taken for sure, but we were too complacent in the build-up to the corner and had nobody on the edge of the box to close down their guy.

We were a little stunned and Portsmouth put in another burst. From another corner cleared but played back in, a far post downward header was well gathered by Maynard-Brewer. If we had conceded again in that spell the game may have gone beyond us. Instead we made it to the break with no further setback – and might even have levelled things up as a blocked Campbell shot dropped for Watson(L), who was able to put it onto his left foot but the shot tamely from the good position.

The second half saw chances at both ends. May sent a cross to the far post back across the face, but Leaburn wasn’t alive to the possibility, another Portsmouth corner (played short) produced a powerful header from close range turned over the bar well by Maynard-Brewer, we so nearly had May in for a one-on-one after their defender slipped, but so too did Campbell, delaying his pass forward, by which time May had run offside. Then probably the closest Portsmouth came to extending their lead as from yet another corner the guy who scored worked some space and sent in a shot. Maynard-Brewer reacted well to divert the ball onto the woodwork and their guy hooked the rebound against the bar. And then a May shot from just outside the box was blocked clearly by the outstretched arm of their defender. Would undoubtedly have been given by VAR, although whether it was inside or outside the box was unclear.

Finally, with around 20 minutes left on the clock, the game had another goal. Fraser had come off the bench for Campbell, taking the position in the hole with May moving to the right. By accident or design it paid off as Watson(L) found him. May played it back to him and from a tight position Watson managed to play a reverse pass inside to the advancing May. He made the ball his, beating a couple of defenders to it, and from a very tight angle blasted the ball low between the keeper and the post (yes, a cardinal sin from their perspective).

Portsmouth responded immediately and Maynard-Brewer was called on to keep us level, then just a few minutes after our goal made his one mistake. A Portsmouth one-two on their right played their guy in. Maynard-Brewer was alert to the danger but decided to speed out of his goal for a ball he was never going to make. Their guy clipped it over his outstretched arms and gleefully accepted getting clattered by MB’s follow-through. Hard to argue that one. And it was duly converted.

For a while it was hard to see us coming back again. Signs of fatigue across the pitch and Portsmouth threatening a third. Only a desperate block from a low cross by Watson(T) prevented that. Inside the final 10 minutes Atkinson did bring on fresh legs, with Asiimwe and McGrandles replacing both Watsons. But as we entered seven minutes of stoppage time – the first couple of which were spent with a farcical display of timewasting by their keeper – it did seem the game was up for us. It wasn’t. Fraser played a square ball to Edun, who sent a lofted ball in to the far post. It cleared the defenders and McGrandles got his head to it well, doing all he could. That the ball went into the net, beating their keeper again at the near post, was an error for sure, but who cared?

In the final few minutes both sides came close yet again. Hector had to take a yellow for the team to stop one dangerous move, Blackett-Taylor – who had had a strangely quiet game – had a shot saved, as did Edun. Then right at the death their keeper conspired to hand us another opportunity, playing a ball out to a defender under pressure. He was robbed and Dobson was able to advance unchallenged into the box. It seemed either a May-style drive for the near post or a pull-back for any one of a few of ours and a tap-in would send us into ecstasy. Instead Dobson took a heavy touch and lost control, allowing their defender to slide in and put the ball behind. That was, finally, it.

So plenty of good stuff for Appleton to take on board. Maynard-Brewer would have been by a distance MotM but for his rash moment, Edun lasted the full game, Hector and Jones both put in a shift despite knocks and by the end very tired legs, and May was irrepressible and scored again. On the downside, the front three if you like of CBT, Leaburn and Campbell were generally kept out of the picture. Finally, there’s McGrandles. Fair to say his time with us has been difficult, we’ve seen so little of him on the pitch that it’s been impossible to draw any conclusions. But Appleton has and if his appearance and goal can be a springboard for McGrandles to start afresh with us, it would be like a new signing. Let’s hope that proves the case, for us as well as him.

Thursday 9 November 2023

In Defence Of Team Selection

I appreciate that these sentiments are not likely to be shared by too many Addicks. Perhaps they are influenced by not having had to watch the game itself (or shell out for a ticket), or to be around in London for the fall-out (although I’ve not been able to protect myself against the jibes of friends). But I’d make a defence of Appleton’s team selection for the Cray Valley Paper Mills cup game – which is of course not to say the performance or the result were OK. No question we are rightly embarrassed that we failed to win the game – and will be mortified if we lose the replay, with no disrespect to Cray Valley, who deserve all the plaudits. We expected better, even from what was – with one or two exceptions – the current back-up team. 

While acknowledging the pros of progress in the FA Cup (we are not obliged to give the modern title), including helping foster that desired ‘winning mentality’, I don’t really care about progressing in it, when set against the overriding goal of promotion. The FA Cup has a great history but no real future. It is irreversibly diminished in importance. The final was once a showpiece event for the season but is now an afterthought mixed in with play-offs. The glory days for the competition are not going to come back, which just leaves the enjoyment (present ties excepted) of upsets and for some teams the opportunity to measure progress against higher opposition.

I don’t really even care at present about the possibility of making the Third Round and getting one of the ‘big boys’, unless it provided more cash for the transfer kitty. That position may be influenced by the fact that I’ve seen us compete, and beat, the top teams over a number of years (others I appreciate have not had that pleasure). I want to see those times again, not some plucky, isolated performance against what would probably be a second-string team from leagues above. If we were in the Championship and progressing well, a good cup run and/or the chance to go up against a Premiership team would be appealing, an opportunity to pit ourselves against a top team. We are not. We are currently mid-table in the third flight and all that we do as a club surely has to be geared around maximising our chances of promotion.

I don’t think anyone would argue that if we are to be in with a shout of going up this season we have to improve. That can happen as a result of a team/squad gelling, getting the best out of each other, confidence growing etc, or it can happen as a result of changes of players in the January window – or of course both. In that sense, Appleton learning more about the players available on the fringes of the first team surely has value, whether what is learnt is positive or negative. And most of those chosen to start on Sunday seriously needed game-time. We are going to need at least some of them, sooner or later.

For example, we know that currently Hector and Jones are the first-choice centre-backs, with Thomas used as full-back but capable of moving back inside if necessary, including during a game. Ness and Abankwah are the ones waiting in the wings, in the event of injury or suspension (while Elerewe and Mitchell are out on loan). Ahead of January, Appleton has to decide both whether the current pairing are good enough to get us into the promotion mix and whether the back-ups will also be good enough – and by implication whether we need new signings. How else is he to be informed on the capabilities of the back-ups unless he sees them in action? And how can we expect them to step up to fill a gap capably if they haven’t been getting any game-time?

Before the game I sent around to friends my starting team for the cup tie. It ended up that eight of my 11 were chosen – and I hadn’t factored in Edun or McGrandles (I would have chosen them too). The fact that some of those chosen to start (but not all) singularly failed to grasp the opportunity provides Appleton with important, necessary information. Of course we all wish they had looked like world-beaters and given him selection headaches in key areas, but so be it. By the same token, May and Blackett-Taylor need to be kept in cotton wool as we are seriously screwed if they get injured, while I’m assuming that May and Dobson are still in danger of suspension.

Was the team selection a mark of disrespect towards Cray Valley and the FA Cup (and those who bought a ticket)? You can see it that way. I’d rather look at it as a reflection of our current priorities. No complacency but if we win the replay, outside of Addicks circles it will all be forgotten in a couple of weeks. I’d be tempted to punish those who started on Saturday by picking the same X1 for the replay (and if we win that to have to go to Gillingham), but would understand that could be a gamble that Appleton will not be inclined to take with the nation watching.

Wednesday 1 November 2023

Both Impostors To The Fore Of Late

No doubt about it, a win on the road, our first since April and against a team on paper in good form, was just what we needed after back-to-back defeats had wiped out the optimism generated by the win over Reading. And perhaps any assessment of just where we are, and might realistically hope to be, has to encompass that mini-series of four games, arguably the 10-game period since the departure of Holden. And the conclusion has to be, not surprisingly, that neither the post-Reading euphoria nor the post-Bolton gloom is justified.

The bare facts are that of the last 10 games we’ve won five, drawn three, and lost two, securing 18 points. Extend that return over a full season and you end up with 82/83 points and very probably a play-off place. OK, we can’t ignore what went before. We have 21 points from 15 games, so extending the recent return over the remaining 31 matches and adding in what we have you end up with 76/77 points for the full season. Last season that total would have had you on the fringe of sixth place, the season before out of the picture, and the season before that comfortably taking the final play-off spot.

Such calculations are for sure for the birds at this stage. But I’d suggest they are not entirely meaningless. They support the idea that the play-offs are still a realistic objective – automatic promotion quite clearly is not – if we can improve as a team through the remainder of the campaign. After all, we have League One’s joint top scorer and joint top provider (who has also contributed goals), while in many respects the team is still learning how to play together, is incorporating a number of youngsters still learning their craft at the first team level, and has had to adjust to a number of injuries, ones which clearly disrupted the start of the season (Aneke, Leaburn, then Fraser and Campbell) and continue to do so (Aneke again, now it seems Camara, plus Isted, Edun, Taylor and McGrandles).

We have to give a hearty cheer for the play-offs as without them we might be saying our season is already over. The top three are out of reach and if we do steadily improve they will be out of sight by the time we might be on their level, as Bolton taught us. As it is, we can work on improvement, on current form stay in touch with the top six, look to make some changes in the January window, and generate that momentum in the final third of the season to get a play-off spot and go into that contest with a realistic prospect of success.

Nobody of course can say this is going to happen. There are currently seven teams above us outside the top three with similar ambitions. Only that it is possible, perhaps with good fortune from now on with injuries and suspensions and with an inspired signing or two in January (I’m reminded of Curbs’ addition of Youds and Mills at just the right time). In the interim, games against any of those seven teams need to be viewed as six-pointers which, given we have ground to make up, we cannot afford to lose; and on that front we have no such challenges in November – which begins with trip to Portsmouth, where we always win, followed by three games which on paper at least we would be favourites to win (Northampton, Carlisle and Cheltenham).

I guess my conclusion would be that there are still good grounds for optimism but there are bound to be setbacks along the way, we are not at a level (yet) where we can blow away teams in this division with something to spare. We remain fragile at the back, as was still evident last night, and sometimes the opposition can snuff out our attacking threat, even if we have options to mix things up (less so now without Aneke and Camara). And we have yet to forge a strong and reliable spine, while as pointed out on Charlton TV some players are looking world-beaters when they come off the bench but struggle when they start.

That said, the squad itself is very consistent. All Appleton has done so far is make different selections from the same pack, using different players in positions but sticking to the same formation. That’s not a criticism btw. If we go into every game with an 18-man squad you’d say that, when all are fit and available, 15 or 16 places are pretty much taken: two keepers (and Maynard-Brewer has stepped up admirably), in defence Watson(T), Hector, Jones, Thomas and Ness, arguably Asiimwe too; in central midfield Dobson, Watson(L) and Fraser, out wide Blackett-Taylor and Campbell(T), up front May, Leaburn and (just about) Tedic. That leaves Abankwah, Edun (when fit) and Chin to be ready to step in to cover for absentees, Anderson and Kirk to do the same in midfield/out wide (with Camara, Taylor and McGrandles when fit), and Campbell(C) wide or up front, plus Aneke when he returns. Right now you’d say Abankwah, Anderson, Kirk, perhaps McGrandles, and Campbell(C) are competing for the final two squad places each game.  

Come January and nobody will be surprised if Kirk and McGrandles find other clubs, the real issue on departures being whether CBT or Leaburn are prised away. It would be surprising to see any of those currently out on loan - Mitchell, Elerewe, Henry, Jaiyesimi, Payne, Kanu – brought back to play a meaningful role this season at least; perhaps Mitchell or Elerewe and Kanu, depending on whether their development is best served getting gametime elsewhere and whether our needs have changed due to injuries.

As for new signings, in defence that’s surely down to assessments of Hector and Ness, whether the former is our leader in that area and can better organise and direct than to date and whether the latter is ready to step in if needs be (last season the answer would have been ‘yes’). For me Fraser is a No.10 and either plays that role or does not start, him and Dobson in the central positions being too big a risk and asking too much of Dobson. Watson(L) is shaping up well alongside the skipper, but with Anderson currently not involved (surprisingly) and Taylor injured, we look light in that area. Up front, we hope we’ve not yet seen the best from Tedic and if an offer for CBT were to be accepted, given his contract expiry in the summer, he would need to be replaced.

As for last night, with hindsight we can be pleased. I don’t really know whether Wigan were just very much off form in the first half or that was just down to us playing well. They seemed very open at the back and generally lethargic, we took advantage. The three goals we scored were all pretty good in their own way: May finding space between defenders close to goal for a ball back in – and managing to once more bundle the ball home after his header had been very well saved; good build-up and movement creating the space for May to move across the box before shaping up and sending a low shot through bodies and into the corner; and then the pick as Dobson (who was also instrumental in the first) created space with a deft touch, played a good ball forward to Leaburn, whose delightful touch on enabled CBT to shoot straight away past their keeper.

That we came close to giving away two points is undeniable. Wigan’s substitutions made them more of a threat – and they were a threat before we scored our first, not just the free kick which came back off the bar but also another example of a fairly simple ball over the top into space leaving their guy with a run on goal as our advancing back line was torn apart, again. Late on it appeared we had seen off the danger and were coasting to the win, only for Wigan to score. That changed the picture as our substitutions – with Watson(L), Leaburn and Blackett-Taylor by then having departed – had left us rather disjointed, confused, and unable to react. When their second went in – the cross from the left somehow going between several defenders – with still six minutes of stoppage time to play out we did fear the worse. But despite a shot over the bar from their keeper up for a corner we did hold on, to much relief.

We would be feeling very different this morning had Wigan completed a remarkable recovery. Just as we felt very different after Bolton compared with after Reading. As someone once noted, “if you can meet success and failure and treat them both as impostors, then you are a balanced man, my son”. We are still very much a work in progress I suspect we will have more occasions to keep those words in mind.

Very Welcome Point And Performance

It may be a reflection on us, our inflated view of our club, but there are few fixtures in this league where going into it we feel very much...