A season that started with so much promise is in danger of petering out. At the very least, the evidence points to a painful slog towards mid-table obscurity come May.
But should Charlton replicate their performance in the defeat to Blackburn Rovers on a regular basis, half an eye will have to be kept on the bottom three.
For Bob Peeters’ side, one that showed signs it could realistically challenge for a place in the top ten in the campaign’s early months, looked more like one that was caught up in a relegation battle.
Peeters, too, no longer making decisions belonging to a man who could potentially take the Addicks back to the Premier League. Of course, injuries to key players in an already small squad ties his hands, but naming an unchanged XI from a dismal display against Blackpool seven days ago was the start of an inexcusably poor day for Charlton.
In a first-half that featured more misplaced pass, lost aerial duels and defensive errors than there were visiting supporters, the Addicks were simply embarrassing. With the midfield non-existent, Andre Bikey and Tal Ben Haim uncharacteristically atrocious and Nick Pope handing gifts to the opposition five days too early, Blackburn were allowed to run riot without having to reach anything like their top level.
And running riot in particular were Rudy Gestede and Jordan Rhodes. The former a constant menace to a woeful Charlton defence, the latter capitalising on the visitors’ mistakes to help himself him to two of the easiest goals he’ll ever score. Game over before half-time.
Not that it could have been any worse, but the second period was slightly better for Charlton. Passes were strung together, there was an improvement upon the energy levels, which were zero in the first period, and, low and behold, there were even a couple of shots.
But the improvement was so slight, and helped by a Blackburn side that had taken their foot of a pedal they were only tentatively pressing before, that it never threatened to make a difference to the scoreline nor the overall view of the afternoon in the away end.
In fact, defensive calamities remained and two could have easily been three or four before the weary souls who had travelled up north were put out of their misery.
Leadership lacking, effort lacking and application lacking. It’s like August and September didn’t happen.
There was, at least, no lack in volume as the game got underway; Charlton cheered on by 319 supporters attempting to make the noise of treble that despite the worry in Ewood Park’s away end.
It was worry brought on not only by the irrational belief that making a trip to Lancashire so close to Christmas had disaster written all over, but that Peeters had trusted the disjoined XI that disappointed seven days ago to put things right. A strange call, made even more so by the fact Chris Solly started on the right of midfield with Lawrie Wilson and Frederic Bulot in reserve.
And the game’s early exchanges offered little hope that those worries were misguided. An opening three minute spell in which Charlton only touched the ball in order to give it back to the opposition concluded with Ben Marshall, having gained possession from a misplaced pass, sending Rhodes through on goal.
Pope blocked the effort on this occasion, but Charlton’s defence being cut open by a relatively simple ball was a worrying sign of things to come.
And just three minutes later, another opportunity was gifted to Rovers to send their prolific forward through on goal.
Pope, intent on sticking to Peeters’ ideology of playing out from the back, knocked a goal kick along the ground to the centrally based Jordan Cousins, with the midfielder immediately put under pressure.
He might have done a bit better in keeping the ball, but Cousins’ task to maintain possession was made almost impossible by the situation Pope had put him in, allowing Jason Lowe to steal in and give Blackburn the chance to break.
With Charlton’s central pairing not reacting quickly enough, Rhodes had all the space in the world to be fed through by Marshall, and this time he made no mistake. One-on-one with Pope from an angle that suited the striker, the Scotland international finished coolly beyond the young ‘keeper, who received the brunt of the angered response from the visiting supporters behind his goal.
And but for those grumbles, the Addicks were already silenced. The atmosphere as flat as the performance was unacceptable. Confidence lacking on the pitch and off it.
No one more so than the under fire Pope, who really needed to collect a few crosses and make a couple of saves to regain the self-belief in his undoubted ability. Alas, when the simplest of balls looped up for an unchallenged Pope to collect, the former York loanee somehow conspired to drop the ball into the path of Gestede. Only a desperate block from Morgan Fox kept the deficit at one.
The resulting corner saw some more uncomfortable Addicks defending eventually resulting in Shane Duffy slicing an effort wide, but the more important misjudged strikes of the ball were coming from Charlton feet. To call the majority of their passes hit and hope would be incorrect; the majority were simply hits with little hope of finding a man.
The minimal possession, lack of composure and organisation meant the groans grew louder and Blackburn continued to come forward with intent. Crosses were blocked away and passes forward intercepted, but never convincingly.
So it came as no surprise when Blackburn doubled their lead with 19 minutes gone.
The goal, however, was again an inexcusable gift to the opposition. A simple long ball forward was flicked on by Gestede into the direction of Rhodes.
But Ben Haim stood between Rhodes and Pope’s goal, with no obvious route for the forward to take. In fact, Ben Haim had a good three or four seconds where he had such an advantage over his opponent that he very easily could have cleared the ball away.
Instead, he dithered, allowing Rhodes to steal in and poke a ball he should never have been able to win past an indecisive Pope. To give Rovers a seemingly unassailable lead, Rhodes still had to chase after the ball and tap it round the post, but those in the away end had already started to express their displeasure. This was a disgrace.
Outmuscled in every physical duel, beaten to every loose ball and losing out time and time again in the air, Charlton were probably closer to being third than they were second in this. The sarcastic cheer when the Addicks finally got the ball inside Blackburn’s box, half an hour into the game, said it all. The anonymous Igor Vetokele mis-controlling.
Something had to change quickly if this was to avoid becoming a 90-minute long embarrassment, and Peeters brought on Wilson to replace Fox, sending Solly to left-back. Square pegs in round holes still, but at least a recognised winger was playing on the right.
Nonetheless, it did little to stop Blackburn heading towards a rout. The fingertips of Pope, however, did; the goalkeeper’s superb stop from Lowe earning a standing ovation from a section of supporters in the away end who were keen to give the young man the confidence-boosting support he needed.
The save meant, regardless of this dire attempt to be a competent football side, Charlton weren’t out of the contest just yet. But with the hosts still threatening, Duffy and Gestede heading narrowly wide before the interval, a goal was needed to swing the momentum at least slightly towards the Addicks.
And while there were some better moments before the break, with Vetokele turning Johann Berg Gudmundsson’s cross just wide and Callum Harriott horribly slicing wide from a decent position, reducing the deficit never looked likely and would have been undeserved.
Booed off by those not yet frozen and disheartened enough to still care, a turnaround of epic proportions was needed in the second half. Peeters turned to Joe Pigott to deliver such a revival; those in the away end questioned whether turning away and going home would be more sensible.
But there was something resembling an improvement after the break. Charlton’s 4-3-3, with Pigott oddly out wide, allowing them more possession of the ball and composure had improved.
Nonetheless, it was the football equivalent of putting racing stripes and a spoiler on a tatty old car. It looked a bit better on the surface, but deep down it did very little to change anything and remained just as poor.
It led to Blackburn having the best opening at the start of the second period. Corry Evans’ ball across the face of goal met by Gestede, but fired horrendously over the bar under pressure from Ben Haim.
In fact, it took until the hour mark for Charlton to turn their possession into anything meaningful. A shot from distance from Gudmundsson forcing Jason Steele, who probably had a family of spiders making a home on his gloves, into a good save down to his left. A relative victory, of sorts.
But, if it wasn’t already with Blackburn content to settle on their two goal lead, the game felt over with 25 minutes to play. Had Vetokele, unmarked at the back post, turned Gudmundsson’s corner goalwards then it would have been game on, but the Angolan could only nod the ball wide. The little bit of hope that had built up with each successful pass the Addicks had made now gone for good.
Bikey tried to make amends for his poor defensive efforts, but sent his header against the turf and over the bar, and that was the second and last genuine chance the Addicks had to get a goal back with just over 15 minutes left to play.
Instead, Blackburn dominated the closing stages, looking like the side desperate to find a route back into the game, and had several excellent chances to increase their advantage. A trio of excellent saves from Pope, denying Marshall, Ryan Tunnicliffe and Duffy, preventing Rovers’ new found lease of life from being turned into a third goal.
The hosts, however, continued to come forward, helped by the return of some woeful defending and organisation from the Addicks. Joshua King should have done better having been played through by David Dunn.
But, by now, a third would have mattered little to those in the away end. Still supporting their side regardless, most had endured the performance for too long to care whether it was two or twenty; the overall display meant it would have been equally depressing.
Vetokele summed up his and Charlton’s afternoon by firing a shot a fraction wide of the corner flag, which unfortunately isn’t an exaggeration, before Pigott stabbed tamely towards goal with full-time looming.
And the full-time whistle that followed brought to an end a half that had realistically been played because it had to be. Blackburn, but for their spell of dominance towards the end of the game, in no real mood to increase their lead; Charlton, although showing some improvement, never likely to get back into a game they had already lost.
Some players in black were good enough to come over and thank the travelling support, but the reception they received was muted at best. You couldn’t really blame those travelling Addicks for not being in the sort of mood to applaud their side’s effort. In fact, to call it an effort would be a bit generous. This was atrocious.
It’s important to be realistic and rational. With the Addicks currently sitting 12th, you can make an argument that says they’re about par with where they should be. It’s also fair to say that yes, this an improvement on last season.
But that takes nothing away from both how poor Charlton have been of late, with the record now reading just one win in nine and comparisons with the early season performances depressing, but how incredibly poor Peeters’ side were today. There’s no shame in losing to a Blackburn side with arguably the best front two in the division, but there is shame in how the defeat came about.
There is absolutely no excuse for such dire performances. A Charlton side should not be playing without composure, without the ability to pass, without any defensive strength and organisation and without effort, no matter what the circumstances.
Yes, there’s injuries, but injures to a few key players shouldn’t hinder a side to such an extent. There should be players to cover for the loss of Johnnie Jackson’s leadership and off-the-ball work. Players to cover for Rhoys Wiggins at left-back. Players to cover for Stephen Henderson. For all their efforts, Solly is not a captain, nor is he a left-back, nor is Pope ready just yet for Championship football.
There should also be players to cover for when certain individuals aren’t performing. Bikey and Ben Haim, so vital to the team previously and the backbone from which results were achieved, have looked shaky for weeks, and that came to a head today. Their positioning woeful, their inability to track Rhodes and Gestede just as bad while their overall defensive execution was horrendous. There’s logic behind letting Michael Morrison, yes, but having him around still would be ideal.
And while Peeters isn’t excused, his team selection and style of play has been questionable for a few weeks but very much so today, it’s difficult to send the blame all his way. Yes, he’s making mistakes, but so are his players and so are those at the top of the club, with a failure to boost a small squad with loan signings now coming back to haunt Charlton.
Quality must be brought into the squad if the Addicks are to avoid a nervy end to the season. Genuine quality, similar to the better players signed this summer and not the cast-offs from the network like were handed over last January.
Of course, all it takes is a victory to address matters. It would, in truth, simply paper over some cracks that are so obviously there, but it would answer the concern I now have.
There’s a danger this side’s spirit is nowhere near good enough. With the previous Charlton cohort, quality was lacking but the togetherness of the group would mean they always found a way to end even the worst of runs and quickly find form again. This side, although possessing the quality, is clearly devoid of confidence and you worry how and when the next result is coming from.
Unfortunately, the Boxing Day clash against Cardiff City is rather important. A win, and a huge improvement, is needed.