For the third time in as many Saturdays, Charlton faced a game against a side in the division’s top six after a positive result on the Tuesday before. Whilst those midweek victories, admittedly against poor opposition, have been full of sturdiness and grit, the Addicks have capitulated with barely a whimper in the 3-0 defeats to Burnley and Derby.
But for the first 60 minutes at The Valley against Reading, Jose Riga’s side looked comfortable. Roysten Drenthe had been kept quiet, Dorian Dervite had dealt with the threat of Pavel Pogrebnyak with ease and the prolific Adam Le Fondre had barely had a sniff.
The home side wasn’t particularly impressive, especially in the final third, but neither were they in those dogged wins under the floodlights. The Addicks merely had to remain disciplined, keep their shape and stay patient and a point, at least, would have surely come their way.
However, Riga was clearly viewing this contest differently. Off went Johnnie Jackson, having done little wrong and quietly gone about his business in Charlton’s solid midfield, and on came the more forward minded Davide Petrucci.
Immediately the Addicks looked weaker; that shape was no longer solid and structured. It was shockingly apparent as Petrucci lost the ball just outside Reading’s box and Danny Guthrie was allowed to storm towards Charlton’s goal. Not only had their shape vanished, but so had the point they were holding onto; Danny Williams lashed the ball past Ben Hamer following Guthrie’s run.
There were few openings for the Addicks in the final 17 minutes, not helped by Riga’s decision to leave a number of poorly performing forward players on the pitch and take off the excellent Jordan Cousins. An already damaged shape had been ripped to pieces, with the equally as impressive Diego Poyet left to effectively battle on his own.
Where you were left bemoaning the overall performance in those dire defeats in the previous two Saturdays, you felt proud after this ‘anything’s a bonus fixture that players had dug in for so long and not been overawed.
But, whilst the 1-0 scoreline doesn’t suggest a capitulation occurred, one did. Riga’s tactical tweaks and substitutions did a lot to condemn his side to a defeat that would have looked harsh on them with an hour gone.
That the Addicks matched their opponents for so long, only to effectively throw in the towel, was made all the more frustrating when the team sheets are compared.
Despite his excellent performance and stunning goal in the 1-0 win over Leeds United on Tuesday, Reza Ghoochannejhad was dropped to the bench, with Callum Harriott coming into the side for his first start since picking up an injury in the win over Bournemouth. That was one of two changes, with Joe Pigott out of the squad altogether and Simon Church, back into the 18 for the first time since the Burnley defeat, starting up top.
With Ghoochannejhad’s absence, along with the inclusion of the heavily criticised Harriott and Church, Charlton looked incredibly weak in attack. By contrast, Reading’s forward options were frightening. There are few sides in this division who wouldn’t want Jobi McAnuff and Drenthe on their flanks, whilst Pogrebnyak and Le Fondre are a formidable pair upfront.
But, for the entirety of the opening 45 minutes, it was difficult to tell which side had scored 60 goals this season, and which had just 27 to their name.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t because the first half was filled with exciting attacking play from both sides, despite Astrit Ajdaveric’s early attempt to cross by putting one foot behind the other. It had more to do with Charlton’s back four and central midfield three being on top, which kept Reading’s threat down to little more than what the tame Addicks attackers could muster down the other end.
The first strike of the game, however, was by a Reading player and found its target. But the target wasn’t Charlton’s goal, and the missile wasn’t the ball. Cousins was doing a superb job to maintain possession in a tight area, such a fine job that Guthrie couldn’t dispossess him without cynically lashing the leg of the academy graduate with his boot. Referee Madley, setting himself up for an afternoon during which he made no friends on either side, failed to even caution the Reading midfielder.
But Cousins, undeterred by Guthrie’s underhand tactics, quickly found his stride. He was impressive, along with Jackson and Poyet, but the central midfield three were left frustrated by their good work continuously being undone once the final third was entered.
So, with his passes to Harriott, lining up on the right and seriously struggling, all too often wasted, the youngster opted to drive forward himself. His run into the box was excellent but he couldn’t provide the finish to match, poking the ball tamely into the hands of Royals ‘keeper Alex McCarthy.
There was little else for the highly rated stopper to do for the rest of the half, although the Addicks were providing a test to Reading’s back four through their set-pieces. One Jackson corner looked to have too much on it, but Dervite’s header sent it back into the goal mouth only for both Michael Morrison and Church to get their bearings wrong and McCarthy to collect.
A former Reading ‘keeper in the other goal was intent on making things a little bit more interesting. A free-kick was unconvincingly punched away, with Hamer having to defend himself from his critics in the Covered End, a sliced clearance almost allowed Pogrebnyak in and a flat cross from the right was just about dealt with by the bearded stopper. After his heroics in midweek, a few pieces of erratic goalkeeping failed to prevent a chorus of ‘he’s Charlton’s number one’ from the somewhat subdued home fans.
But as the half neared its conclusion, you could certainly argue the Addicks were the better side. Solid at the back, patient and comfortable in possession in midfield and occasionally getting in promising positions down either flank, especially through Rhoys Wiggins’ excellent runs forward, they were certainly no worse than the Royals.
All that made their lack of a real threat in the final third doubly infuriating. The ironic cheers for Church as he won a pair of headers towards the end of the opening 45 told a story, little was coming from the right side of midfield with Harriott’s decision making diabolical, whilst the left side was often vacant with Ajdaveric, although doing it well, wondering all over The Valley’s turf.
Nonetheless, the Addicks were applauded off at half-time with the home fans hopeful that a repeat second half performance would bring their side an unlikely point or three in their battle to avoid the drop.
But Reading, as you might have expected for a side in the division’s top six, weren’t going to let their heads drop after a slightly under par first half performance. They quickly looked to make amends in the second period.
A superb ball over the top of Charlton’s backline had Le Fondre racing towards goal after just two second half minutes. Dervite and Wiggins did well to force the poacher slightly wide, but they failed to stop the cut back that found Williams unmarked in the centre of Charlton’s box. His first time shot, however, was sliced horribly wide, much to the amusement of the Covered End.
It didn’t take long for the USA international to have the opportunity to redeem himself, but the midfielder again blasted horribly off target after Chris Gunter’s cross was only half cleared. Nonetheless, this was a bright start from the Royals, and the Addicks had to settle into their stride again quickly.
But there was little they could do as Reading continued to create chances. A corner saw a number of players in blue white attack the delivery, but none of them could make a connection, whilst Le Fondre’s excellent swivel and shot inside the area hit the goal’s stanchion. Deep breaths.
By no means were the Addicks a shambles at the start of the second half, Reading had just woken up. They continued to attempt to pass the ball around and get it forward, and one such move ended in Ajdaveric’s first time effort flying well over the bar.
The Swede, despite making something of an impact, had looked a little weary from half an hour onwards, and was replaced soon after his wayward shot by Ghoochannejhad. With the Iranian’s pace and energy now part of Charlton’s equation, they immediately looked more of a threat. Another passing move, with Ghoochannejhad at the heart of it, resulted in a fine drive from Wiggins that forced McCarthy into action.
McCarthy’s save was relatively trouble free, but only a fully stretching Hamer prevented the visitors taking the lead in their next attack. Drenthe created a threat for the first time in the hour that had passed, and was hauled down on the edge of Charlton’s box. Guthrie’s resulting effort looked to be heading for the top corner, with that momentary silence of fear filling the home ends, but the ‘keeper repeated his heroics of Tuesday night with an outstanding save to keep the scores level.
It was Drenthe’s last meaningful impact on the game, as Garath McCleary replaced him, and the winger had a glorious chance to give the Royals the lead a minute after coming on. His one-two with Le Fondre sent him clear on goal, but the ball run away from him slightly and he could only prod the ball at Hamer.
As Alex Pearce headed wide from a Guthrie free-kick, you could certainly argue a change was needed. Reading had enjoyed a 20 minute spell of domination, and were unlucky not be ahead, so you couldn’t begrudge Riga for wanting to bring Petrucci on in the hope he would make a difference. The poorly performing pair of Church and Harriott seemed like the ideal candidates to take off, but, to the surprise of most inside The Valley, Jackson’s number 4 was illuminated in red on the fourth official’s board.
Taking off a player crucial to the spine of the team, and the leader you’d desperately want on the pitch in these situations, and replacing him with a young loanee making his home debut seemed suicidal. After Pogrebnyak’s first time effort crashed into the side netting, it proved to be the case.
Ghoochannejhad teed up Petrucci, who had the perfect chance to shoot first time from the edge of the D. Instead, the Italian opted to take a touch, and another, before he was dispossessed and Reading broke with ease.
Where Jackson might have been there, Poyet was alone in the middle as Guthrie raced away unchallenged despite the desperate attempts of Petrucci’s to recover the ball he gave away. On the edge of Charlton’s box, Guthrie spotted the run of Williams, whose finish was stunning, rifling the ball past a faultless Hamer.
Normally after a goal is conceded at The Valley, there’s a roar from the Covered End; a roar of encouragement. There was only silence as the Addicks trudged back to their positions and prepared to kick-off again. Not only was there a flat response from the fans, the players failed to pick themselves up.
Obika’s name had been sung from the 60th minute, but only with ten minutes to play did the Spurs loanee come on. Instead of replacing either Church or Harriott, who might as well have been manikins in Charlton kit, Cousins was replaced with Church moving to the right flank. Utterly bemusing.
However, there were a few half chances for the Addicks with full-time approaching. Ghoochannejhad fired a free-kick well over the bar, whilst Charlton’s regular free-kick taker sat on the bench, and a first time effort from the Iranian a minute later led to heckles from the home fans when he had time to bring the ball under his control.
Four minutes of additional time brought hope, but they weren’t capitalised on, and Reading held onto their slender lead until Madley’s full-time whistle. It was met with boos and only the smallest smattering of claps; a third capitulation in as many Saturdays and arguably the most frustrating.
In fairness, Reading’s start to the second half after their poor first half display was excellent. They drove forward with speed and power, and were unlucky not to apply the finishing touch on several occasions. You can see why they’re up there; certainly not the overall package that Burnley and Derby are, but sensational in attack when they get going.
It’s easy to attempt to suggest the result is insignificant, and that no points were realistically going to be collected from a fixture against the Royals. But Charlton’s failure to capitalise on Reading’s slightly off colour first half performance, and the way in which Riga’s substitutions and tactical changes handed the victory to the visitors make for an incredibly frustrating defeat.
Apart from the opening 30 minutes against Huddersfield, the first half today was the most comfortable I’ve seen Jose Riga’s men look. Hamer, despite his little mishaps, distributed the ball unbelievably well, Wiggins looked sharp, as did the rest of the back four, whilst the midfield trio were nothing short of outstanding, especially up against an impressive Reading side.
However, it was also one of the most ineffective forward displays. Church was hopeless, Harriott clueless, Ajdaveric too often out of position and the impressive unable to carve out chances from deep by themselves.
Changes were needed in attack and on the wings, not further back. Brining on Ghoochannejhad was fine, bringing on Petrucci, despite his error and his headless chicken-like play, was fine at the time and brining on Obika, although a little too late, was fine. Taking off Jackson and Cousins was not. The spine was completely destroyed.
Riga seems capable of setting up his side to hold onto leads, but appears unable to react when they’re coming under pressure or behind. The last thing the Addicks needed was a solid, defensive midfielder off for a loose cannon of an attacking midfielder when they were coming under pressure. Meanwhile, the utterly abysmal Church and Harriott remained on the pitch for 90 minutes.
Riga talks of ‘one mistake’ costing Charlton the game. I’m sure he means Petrucci’s role in the goal, but I’d like to think he realises his decision to take off Jackson was just as, if not more, costly.
With results going against the Addicks, this could be a costly dropped point. Yeovil Town come to The Valley on Tuesday, and three points are an absolute must.