It was the result many expected, and there is certainly no shame in losing to arguably the division’s most fearsome side, but there were expectations for a better performance.
For Charlton, despite coming into the game with the confidence two dominant victories provides, were unable to make Derby County work for their two goal victory at the iPro.
In fact, the Rams had been gifted their three points before the 17 minute mark had been reached. The shape, organisation and determination that had stood the Addicks so well in their wins over Brentford and Wigan completely lacking as the hosts carved them open with an unnerving ease.
The first saw Derby waltz past Charlton’s non-existent midfield, before former Addick Darren Bent squared to Jeff Hendrick to tap in. The second equally tame from a Charlton point of view, with Hendrick able to play a simple ball through the heart of the back four for Jesse Lingard to convert.
Resilience was needed against such a strong attacking force, and a painfully poor side were unable to offer it. If the Rams had gone in at the break three or four to the good, it wouldn’t have been unjust.
And while there was an improvement from Guy Luzon’s side in the second half, helped by the composure Alou Diarra provided in midfield and Johann Berg Gudmundsson’s spirited efforts to make something happen, there was hardly a moment where Steve McClaren’s men were not in complete control of proceedings.
Derby able to knock the ball around without the need to be dynamic in the game’s final period, with the Addicks, whose attitude was seemingly in the right place but the execution far from it, unable to exploit their opponents’ casual play.
A score line that is neither alarming nor disgraceful, but the way in which the faults that remain in this Charlton side were exploited with such ease is a cause for concern.
There was a cause for concern for the visiting Addicks before the fixture had even got underway at the ground formerly known as Pride Park.
For a player who had shown pride all season was absent from the team sheet. The injured Jordan Cousins, who had been particularly impressive in recent weeks, missing his first Charlton league game since September 2013.
It meant the horrendously out-of-form Yoni Buyens, only on nine yellow cards despite some reports suggesting he was on ten, kept his place in the centre of midfield, with Luzon opting to play Lawrie Wilson out of position instead of replacing Cousins with Christophe Lepoint or new signing Diarra.
With Derby’s midfield boasting Will Hughes, George Thorne and Hendrick, what was already likely to be a tough night for the Addicks had seemingly become an impossible one.
But the opening minutes were relatively promising. Derby, as you might expect, moving the ball around at a pace, but Luzon’s two banks of four and defiant defence were holding firm. There was a sense the Rams would need patience and perseverance to break down Charlton.
That notion, however, lasted just nine minutes. As did Luzon’s game plan, seemingly to frustrate and fight hard for a point, with Derby taking an early lead.
With neither Buyens nor Wilson pressing Hughes in possession, the fair-haired playmaker was able to slide through Bent with alarming ease. So too was the Valley great able to do as he pleased, driving to the goal line before drilling a ball across the face of goal that Hendrick was only too happy to slide in and meet.
The Rams’ attacking threat meant they were always likely to score, but to allow them such a soft goal in the opening stages was a cause of great frustration for the travelling Addicks.
So too was Charlton’s response to going behind. You hoped for an obvious attempt to prohibit Derby’s forward passing play, a regroup at the back and some intent going forward. Instead, heads dropped, the Addicks looked more disfigured and the Rams’ own pressing meant those in black frequently panicked in possession.
In fact, such was Derby’s dominance and Charlton’s incompetence, the Rams had two chances to double their lead before a quarter of an hour was played.
No one shut down the in-form Tom Ince, and the Hull loanee curled an effort agonisingly wide of Stephen Henderson’s post, while Bent, evidently out of respect for the club who gave him his Premier League chance, failed to connect properly after a pull-back from the right.
But Charlton, behaving like rabbits in the glare of Derby’s forward play, couldn’t keep their deficit to one for much longer.
The midfield again conspicuous by its absence, allowing Hendrick to drive forward and slot a ball through a hole in Charlton’s back four so big even Buyens could have directed a pass through it.
With Tal Ben Haim and Roger Johnson desperately back-tracking, it prevented Lingard with an excellent opening, and the Manchester United loanee finished with all the class and composure the Addicks were lacking.
While Derby were impressive, this was a level of ineptitude from Charlton that had seemingly been lost in recent weeks. Uncertainty and a lack of communication at the back, passes picking out the advertising hoardings with regularity and even Tony Watt was struggling.
So much so that when a Charlton corner was awarded just before the half hour, a section of the away support celebrated it like a goal. Buyens brought them back down to earth by poking the half-cleared set-piece somewhere in the general direction of the goal, but at such a pace that meant the ball didn’t quite reach its intended target.
Derby, however, were more forceful in their efforts. Will Hughes’ self-assisted volley hit with such power that Henderson would have stood no chance had it been an inch the other side of his far post. The Addicks again fortunate not to concede.
But it was at that moment that some fight seemed to be injected into a weary Charlton side. Chris Solly, in an unfamiliar patch of the pitch, found some space in the box and forced Lee Grant into his first bit of work of the evening.
And with the visiting supporters encouraged, further hope was offered when a free-kick was awarded on the edge of Derby’s box. Gudmundsson’s effort could not have been stuck any sweeter, but Grant was again equal, pulling off a sensational save.
The resulting corner saw Igor Vetokele’s header blocked, and Solly’s over hit ball into the box almost caught Grant out, but almost wasn’t really enough. A goal was needed before half-time if the Addicks were to have any chance of salvaging something.
However, itt was Derby, seemingly intent on making sure Charlton couldn’t even salvage their pride, who came closest to scoring the game’s next goal just before the interval. Another passing move that the Addicks had no answer to concluded with Hendrick curling an effort against the bar.
That the Rams were still easing their way through left Luzon with little choice but to make a half-time change. Wilson, evidently unable to play in the centre of midfield (although no worse than Buyens), replaced by debutant Diarra.
The Frenchman immediately got amongst it, sticking his boot in were others in black were afraid to and able to do the simple things his teammates were seemingly not. .
Derby, however, remained in complete control. Hughes shot wide and only a telling final ball prevented further chances as Ince and Lingard continued to get in behind Charlton’s back four.
But that lacklustre nature to the hosts’ forward play soon spread throughout their side. It became increasingly evident they were more than happy to settle for a two goal lead, and stopped taking the risks that you might when you play an expansive passing game.
It gave the Addicks a chance to breathe, and then to settle. While passes were rarely anything more than aimless punts up field, the visitors were having more of the ball and being put under less pressure.
A handful of attacking moves were attempted, but without success; a meaningful effort in goal remained elusive in the second half.
That was until just before the hour, when a set-piece almost got the Addicks back into the game. Gudmundsson’s delivery was nodded across goal to Johnson, falling to Diarra. He could seemingly do little but score, or at least he might have done had he shot first time, but the midfielder’s touch gave a Derby defender the chance to block the strike, and the deficit remained at two.
If Diarra had converted, then the remaining half hour would have been interesting. Alas, it was more of a meaningless procession. Derby playing keep ball, never looking like they weren’t in control of their own destiny, and Charlton lacking the creativity and flare to find a way through the hosts’ stubborn defence.
And even when the Addicks found a way in behind, as they did through Buyens late on, there was to be no reward. The midfielder’s hopeless display rounded off by mishitting the ball as he attempted to cross, giving the Rams the chance to clear.
Such a moment summed up Charlton’s second half display. There was something resembling positive intent on show, but so often a rushed or panicked decision making meant their efforts to get forward came to nothing.
Derby, meanwhile, despite frustrated calls from their supporters to show a bit more adventure going forward, remained calm throughout.
In fact, all the travelling Addicks had to cheer about as the full-time whistle blew was the presence of Bent. The goal scoring great coming over to the away end and applauding, which was greeted by a cry of “Darren Bent Bent Bent” about as good as it got for the frustrated Charlton supporters in the away end.
And I think frustrated is probably the best way of describing the feeling having witnessed such a performance. For I’m not disappointed to have lost to Derby, who were exceptional in the first half and professional in the second, nor am I angered or outraged by the performance.
But I do feel the Addicks could have shown a bit more throughout the game, especially having come into the game in such fine form.
It was if those wins, built on solid foundations and containing swift forward play on the break, didn’t occur.
The first half was littered with defensive errors, while the second, if offering some fight, saw the Addicks so timid and tame in their attempts to get forward against a side happy to sit deep. As excellent as Derby were, we didn’t help ourselves at all.
There were issues individually, too, with Buyens performing as if he were deliberately attempting to parody a professional footballer. Ben Haim lacked the composure he so often has, Fox struggled against pacey wingers while those in attack were completely anonymous.
And Luzon’s error of judgement in his team selection was hardly helpful. While the impressive Diarra wouldn’t have been able to start, he must have known starting with a right-back-cum-winger in the centre of midfield with seemingly the most out-of-form footballer in the country was a suicidal move.
The weakness in midfield allowed the Rams to steam roll their way through early on, and adds further doubts to the signing of Lepoint. It can only be assumed that he is simply not up to it.
The most frustrating factor, however, was the response to going behind. Lifeless, lacklustre and disorganised, the game was not lost when Derby took the lead, but in the manner in which the Addicks played following it.
Our biggest problems are seemingly hiding away inside the heads of the players. The quality within this side when players are full of confidence is undoubted. But when quality is lacking, or when we go behind, performances are alarmingly poor.
Of course, we won’t come up against a side as strong as Derby each week. Nor will we, hopefully, have such a makeshift midfield for many more games.
But neither will we catch many sides playing as poorly as Brentford and Wigan did. Nor will we win many more games if our response to adversity is as it was tonight.
There remains plenty to work on.