It’s rather odd. It had been suggested by many that if one player were to be lost from the favoured starting XI, Dale Stephens would be that man. He missed a large chunk of last term with injuries, during which The Addicks played some of their best football with Danny Hollands taking a more attacking role in the guidance of either Andy Hughes, Darrel Russell or newly converted winger Bradley Pritchard in a holding position. It was generally accepted that the rumoured sum being offered by Aston Villa for Stephens was for more exciting than actually keeping him.
It was the midfield though, lacking the 22 year old midfielder, that played the most crucial part in Charlton being thoroughly outplayed by Nottingham Forest. It was obvious that without the calming, metronomic like approach from Stephens, the midfield struggled to keep possession, build meaningful attacks and were forced to chase the shadows of the slick Forest side for much of the game. The replacements failed to cover his absence.
The easiest approach would have been to bring Pritchard back inside and pair him with Hollands in the centre whilst bringing in Scott Wagstaff or Danny Green to fill the vacant slot on the right of midfield. Instead, and it pains me to criticise, Powell made a terrible mistake in placing you Jordan Cook, a winger by trade, in the middle. Not only did he fail to keep possession with his passing but he was often bullied off the ball by the dominant Forest midfield and on numerous occasions found himself wondering out wide to his natural position on the wing, leaving a gap in the centre. On the wings, Jackson and Pritchard caused no concern at all for the Forest defence with an obvious lack of pace, Prichard in particular was dominated by his midfield counterpart Andy Reid who took the ball from his feet time and time again.
Forest on the other hand were exceptional in midfield. Reid and Lewis Mcgugan caused constant problems, especially with Jackson and Pritchard leaving Wiggins and Solly exposed time and time again. In the middle, the calm Stephens like passing from Guedioura and man of the match Gillet kept the ball ticking over and gave little opportunity for The Addicks to win it back. It was a lesson in how to play through the midfield with the ball on the deck.
The goals themselves came from defensive mistakes. A free-kick, which in all fairness shouldn’t have been given, from Mcgugan avoided everyone, including the flapping hands of Ben Hamer, and somehow found itself buried in the bottom corner of the net. Hamer, who had been Charlton’s start performer up to then, was the only man to blame despite his attempts to pass it on to anyone in a black shirt within 20 yards of his goal.
The second goal was a perfect example of the midfield weaknesses, with Jackson being easily pushed off the ball, before some neat passing play saw a good finish from Chelsea loany Sam Hutchinson. It may have been a goal that was warranted for the home side, but just two minutes earlier substitute Danny Haynes failed to control a ball put through by Solly that would have seen him one on one with Lee Camp in the Forest goal.
Camp looked uncomfortable all game, the only Forest player not to perform, and continued to spill the ball. The one bright spark for Charlton was the introduction of Ricardo Fuller and Salim Kerkar that gave The Addicks 10 minutes of dominance at the end of the game. Fuller, who showed unbelievable control and great skill, forced the Charlton goal after seeing his header hit the post only for it to rebound and scramble though Camp’s feet for an own goal. In the dying moments, Fuller bamboozled the Forest defence out wide and pulled the ball back for Kerkar, who’s shot looked like it may have been blocked by the hands of Daniel Ayala. A goal and point though would not have been deserved, as Forest controlled the game for start to finish. Even in Charlton’s brief spell of pressure their calm passing game remained.
The first defeat of many, but plenty of teams will come away empty from The City Ground. Powell will have to shuffle his cards for Palace and fix the issues in midfield though; it wasn’t just a dominant Forest, it was a poor Charlton.