The notion of a side 21st in the Championship going into any game with confidence is a little odd. That relegation threatened club having some sort of confidence for the visit of the division’s second place team is probably a little delusional.
Alas, with Charlton three games unbeaten under new manager Jose Riga, including a last minute victory against Bournemouth in the week, and Burnley travelling to The Valley without top scorer Danny Ings and serial assister Kieran Trippier, the fans of the South East London club were hopeful their somewhat resurgent side could pull off a shock.
Even those, arguably the sensible ones, who were adamant defeat was a forgone conclusion didn’t state their negative beliefs with any conviction. A ‘bonus game’, but a bonus that wasn’t totally out of reach.
And for half an hour, the Ings and Trippier-less Burnley appeared to be there for the taking. This was by no means the most exhilarating period of football, nor were the Addicks dominant, but the Clarets didn’t exhibit the threat a side in their league table position is expected to.
You could also accuse them of being somewhat sloppy at the back, and when a slip from the usually unflappable Michael Duff allowed Simon Church through midway through the first half, it appeared as if the Addicks would be taking an unlikely lead.
It’s on these moments that games are won and lost; reputations are enhanced and destroyed; confidence is enhanced or sapped. So when Church could only tamely direct his effort towards goal, giving Tom Heaton little cause for concern, you feared for the worst.
It’s a story that has been told on so many occasions this season; the Addicks holding their own before a wasted opportunity changes the tide of the game.
Possibly thrown into life by the scare they were given, Sean Dyche’s men almost immediately came alive.
By the 38th minute, Ashely Barnes had headed the visitors in front. By the 55th, a Sam Vokes penalty had sucked the belief, and fight, out of Charlton. By stoppage time, a deflected third from Michael Kightly had given his dominant side a convincing victory.
But, despite the apparent quality the Premier League bound side possessed, you couldn’t help but feel they didn’t have to get out of second gear. You could almost say they were a little lethargic as the poor hosts posed little threat, not helped by a managerial decision that completely destroyed Charlton’s shape with some odd substitutions and alterations.
And it’s that, the lacklustre display and Riga’s tactical errors, which makes this defeat a hard one to take. Losing to Burnley was to be expected; performing to such a disappointing standard was not.
Pre-game hopes dashed with a punishing defeat, players up for criticism after a poor display and a manager’s decision making coming into question, all after an inexcusable miss; I feel like I’ve sat through this game plenty of times before today.
Amidst the pre-game atmosphere of cautious if not wild optimism, Riga’s team selection appeased those hopeful of the Addicks taking the game to Burnley.
The Belgian ditched the 4-5-1 formation that had won his new side five points from a possible nine in favour of a traditional 4-4-2. Jon Obika, who had a positive impact after coming off the bench in midweek, replaced Callum Harriott and joined Church up top in Charlton’s only change.
For someone who has championed the benefits of any variation of a five in midfield formation, especially against opposition of Burnley’s calibre, who were relying on Barnes and debutant Chris Baird to cover for Ings and Trippier, this appeared both a needless and risky change.
However, the Addicks started very brightly; the visitors rarely getting a touch on the ball in the opening five minutes as Riga’s men knocked the ball around with interest. Even when possession was given up, the impressive Diego Poyet was there to win it back, and more often than not in some style.
But, for all the impressive passing play and Poyet’s brilliance, there was little to shout about in and around Burnley’s box. Obika won his headers and forced a few mistakes out of centre back pairing Jason Shackell and Duff, but they weren’t capitalised upon; Danny Green’s deliveries from the right had a certain amount of fizz, but were unable to find a red shirt; Church made a nuisance of himself, as he always does, but, like his teammates, lacked an end product and all too often lost the ball with a heavy touch or a weak pass.
In fact, it took 25 minutes for either side to threaten; the slightly better home side in a rather dull first quarter of the afternoon had the honour.
But, unlike the hopeful efforts from range that often begin the shots on goal tally in a game, Charlton’s chance was a glorious one from which to take the lead. Under pressure from Church, Duff gave possession away in his own half, allowing the Welshman to race through on goal. But the forward’s finish was a poor one; the ball lacking any pace as it rolled into the palms of Heaton.
With Church still cutting the figure of a man who wanted the ground to swallow him up, and his supporters wishing the ground would oblige, Burnley immediately mounted their first meaningful attack of the afternoon. Vokes’ cut back to Scott Arfield presented the Scot with a chance as equally great as the one just missed down the other end, but he too could only tamely direct his effort into awaiting hands of the opposition ‘keeper.
Both sides were feeling somewhat disappointed not to be ahead, but at least the chances had provided the catalyst for a more open game after a stale opening period. Barnes curled an effort wide that Ben Hamer calmly watched glide past his goal, whilst a corner routine clearly created by Riga resulted in Johnnie Jackson laying the ball back to Green, whose effort was blocked.
But that was to be Charlton’s final attempt of the half as the errors began to creep and Burnley started to play with the quality expected of them.
A horrible mix-up between Rhoys Wiggins and Dorian Dervite gifted Vokes with the chance to shoot, but his effort took a deflection and looped wide. From the resulting corner, a motionless Hamer could only watch on as an unmarked Duff headed over.
But it would take just another three minutes for Charlton’s luck to run out. Junior Stanislas was given the opportunity to cross, and the West Ham academy graduate’s delivery was turned in at the near post by Barnes, sending the well large Claret following into jubilant scenes of celebration.
It was something of a soft goal, but a clear indication of the difference in quality between the two sides; where Charlton had found themselves in wide positions, the delivery had been poor.
With seven minutes remaining of the first 45, there was little time for the Addicks to get back into the game, and you hoped they would recover after the interval. But Burnley laid siege on Charlton’s goal for the remainder of the half, and really should have doubled their lead.
The home side had their ‘keeper to thank for keeping them in the contest as the bearded stopper pulled off a superb save from Baird’s driven effort, before outrageously keeping out Barnes’ close range header with a block that earned a standing ovation from most inside The Valley.
The danger wasn’t quite clear yet, however, as Green attempted to carry the ball forward and ended up losing possession in a costly area. The move finally ended when Dean Marney’s effort flew just wide, but the Charlton supporters were growing restless with their side’s performance.
Half-time really couldn’t have come soon enough for Riga’s men, and they returned to the dressing room just a goal down still with a chance, despite Burnley growing into a ferocious force, of salvaging in something from the game.
Astrit Ajdaveric, replacing Danny Green, was thrown on for the start of the second half as Riga reshuffled his troops into the 4-3-3/4-5-1 formation that proved fruitful in the victory over Bournemouth. The Swede occupied the central position, with Obika and Church either side.
A stunning block from Dervite prevented Arfield from taking the game beyond Charlton, before Ajdaveric was given the chance to show the confidence he has in his own ability. His ambitious long range volley, however, was fired well off-target.
But there weren’t really any signs to suggest the Addicks were capable of getting back into the contest, and Riga hauled off Church in order to give Reza Ghoochannejhad the opportunity to make an impact.
Barely a minute after entering the field of play, the Iranian was standing just outside the area as Vokes prepared to take a penalty he had won himself. The Welsh international’s drive into the box saw him needless chopped down by Dervite and, although the red-shirted players suggested contact might have been made outside the box, you couldn’t really argue with referee Langford’s decision.
The prolific forward, an alien concept to Charlton supporters, stepped up and coolly slotted the penalty down the middle to a chorus of boos from the Covered End. It was difficult to see a way back into the game for the home side.
There was hardly a whisper from the disgruntled home fans for the rest of the afternoon, but Ajdaveric’s dripping free-kick that forced Heaton into action at least drew a few ‘ooooh’s and a smattering of applause.
But that was probably the peak of enjoyment in the second half for the Addicks, who had to endure a performance void of ideas and spark for the remainder of the afternoon.
There appeared to be no viable way for the home side to venture forward, with a lack of shape proving a hindrance, and this was only made worse when Poyet, at least preventing Burnley from having a field day, was taken off by Riga in favour of Marvin Sordell, another striker.
On several occasions, Obika, Ajdaveric, Sordell and Jackson, popping up everywhere and seemingly without a position, were so close together they could have feasibly held hands. The clustered forward line provided no creativity, not helped by players who looked as beaten as the fans felt.
Ajdaveric flashed a couple of efforts wide, but the game appeared to be petering out with Charlton unable to make anything happen in the final passage of the game and Burnley not needing too.
However, from the game’s final corner two minutes into three minutes of stoppage time, the home side’s misery was compounded.
Substitute Michael Kightly drove into the box after collecting it short and his effort on goal took a huge deflection off Jackson’s thigh, causing the ball to loop over Hamer and into the net. The unfortunate goal summed up a poor afternoon for Charlton’s skipper, and for his side.
There might have been a larger boo from the home crowd had most of it not already left come full-time; I struggle to remember a time before today where The Valley has been so empty with at least some part of the game still to play.
But you couldn’t blame anyone for leaving a minute or so early; a performance which lacked fight, creativity or cohesion hardly warranted over 90 minutes of supportive viewing.
First, credit must be given to Burnley. Even without Ings and Trippier, it’s not hard to see why they’re up there. I don’t feel we saw the best of the Clarets but, even so, they were a well drilled unit who had that little bit of creative spark when going forward.
The visit of Burnley, after playing three sides who failed to perform, was arguably Riga’s first real test. I don’t think it’s harsh to say he failed it pretty emphatically.
I’m not suggesting for a second that I was demanding all three points today. In fact, I was part of the camp that had written this game off as a defeat. But that isn’t to say I expected such a lifeless capitulation, poor individual performances and, arguably most frustrating of all, Riga’s idea that creativity would come by decimating the midfield and lobbing on anything resembling a forward.
Riga has suggested taking Poyet off, ergo Charlton’s best player, was in order to rest him for Tuesday night. Personally, I’d rather gamble and have a player on the pitch that could make a difference with 15 minutes still to play. Against Bournemouth, Poyet’s drives forward in the final few minutes increased the pressure the Addicks piled on Bournemouth. Although not much was happing with the youngster on the pitch, there was surely no rational harm in keeping him on in the hope that he might provide some spark?
And, of course, pilling men forward is bound to happen in chase of a goal, but there’s a limit. With Jackson, who had a very poor game by his standards, roaming wherever he fancied, Cousins was left alone in the centre of midfield for a period, and neither a decreasingly effective Obika nor a weak Ghoochannejhad could make a difference on the wing.
But Riga can’t take all the blame; a handyman is only as good as his tools. In fact, I doubt I’d have needed to write the previous few paragraphs had Church finished his early chance. You could argue that after a 3-0 defeat, one goal wouldn’t have made a difference, but Charlton were playing with some sort of confidence before that point, and Burnley looked a little off the pace. The miss changed the game.
From that point, as individuals, the players in red were outclassed; a flat performance lacking both fight and quality. Whilst some won’t agree when I suggest the decision to alienate a manager to the point where he was prime for the sack was a bad one, few can argue when I say that selling the club’s best two players looks increasingly suicidal, as does not keeping an excellent winger.
Thankfully, results went the way of the Addicks, meaning today’s poor performance can just about be forgotten about. However, a response is needed.
An out of form Forest wait on Tuesday. Both sets of fans will be expecting their players to be fired up after poor results for both clubs. If today was a test for Riga, Tuesday promises to be a thorough examination.