There have been noises from several Charlton players in the media that they and their teammates are perfectly in tune with the way Guy Luzon wants his side to play.
The evidence for that has been there for several weeks, but the second half performance in the 3-2 victory over Reading provided arguably the greatest example of a side executing the head coach’s plans to perfection.
For the Addicks were extremely sluggish in the opening 45. Lacking the pace and tempo to their game that had been so crucial to recent success, as well as an end product when the final third was entered, their often calm possession proved meaningless.
And before the half was up, the Royals had taken advantage of a Charlton side with some huff, but absolutely no puff. Steve Clarke’s men allowed to knock the ball around at their leisure, before it finally came through to Pavel Pogrebnyak, who finished smartly.
But Luzon, who did not have it, and justifiably so, from players and supporters upon his arrival in SE7, now has an abundance of respect from his team and the Valley crowd. Calls were made for changes, but the boss, it would appear, merely drilled into the Addicks what he wanted from them.
It certainly showed. Right from the off after the break there was attacking intent, a high tempo and a bit of creative spark. While their route back into the game, through Yoni Buyens converting his seventh penalty of the season after a rather harsh hand ball call, was generous, their overall play meant the turnaround that followed was deserved.
The net may have rippled five or six times, with several glorious openings wasted as Reading’s back line were put under unrelenting pressure, but three was enough for the hosts. Buyens’ knee gave Charlton the lead, and an outstanding run and cross from Tony Watt allowed Simon Church to double it against his former side.
And, despite Danny Williams petulantly earning himself a second yellow after coming together with chief tormentor Watt, Church’s goal proved crucial. Comical defending allowed Pogrebnyak to halve the deficit in stoppage time, but it was merely false hope for Reading.
The pattern of the game suggests a dogged, gritty win. But labelling it as such does not do complete justice to the quality involved in a turnaround inspired by head coach and performed by players.
Nonetheless, there were some questions over Luzon’s initial team selection.
Given the success Charlton have had with a definite 4-4-2, it not only seemed harsh to drop Church after his goal in midweek, but odd to fill the forward spot with Chris Eagles, a player more naturally suited to playing out wide. The absence of Igor Vetokele somewhat restricting Luzon.
Eagles pushing further forward meant a return to the side for Frederic Bulot, as there was for Buyens, who came back into midfield ahead of Alou Diarra.
But Diarra, named originally on the bench, was thrusted back into the starting XI at the eleventh hour. An injury to stand-in skipper Chris Solly meant the former France international was forced to start at centre-back, with Joe Gomez heading to the right and Stephen Henderson claiming the armband.
The disruption, however, did not seem to negatively impact upon the Addicks in the opening exchanges. A pre-planned corner routine resulted in Johann Berg Gudmundsson flashing just wide of the post, and Eagles sliced an effort over the bar as Charlton started on the front foot.
But the warning signs were there from as early as the tenth minute. A momentary loss of concentration from Roger Johnson allowed Pogrebnyak in behind, only for Diarra to block the Russian’s effort.
And the robust striker continued to cause problems. His header forced Henderson into his first save of the afternoon, while his superb link-up play was vital to a Reading side who were beginning to enjoy more possession in Charlton’s final third.
The Addicks attempted to counter the visitors’ growing threat by getting forward themselves. They had no trouble in moving into the opposition’s half, but it was from there that they appeared a little lost for ideas. The passing too cautious, the runs with the ball likewise, and crosses persistently misdirected.
It allowed Reading, their confidence boosted by the resolve they were being allowed to show at the back, to gradually become dominant.
In fact, you could almost accuse the Royals of overplaying. Their insistence on passing when a sight of goal had seemingly opened up, often resulting in an overhit through ball running out of play, prevented a real opening from being created and sent the game into an almost unbearable lull.
Seeing Morgan Fox, duelling constantly with Gareth McCleary, slam a clearance onto the East Stand roof was the only reward for those committed enough to stay awake throughout the heart of the first half.
There could, however, be comfort taken in the hosts not conspiring to concede. The punishment just a lack of entertainment, and not a deficit.
Or at least that was the case until the 40th minute. Questionable, if not catastrophic, Charlton defending saw several opportunities to stop a Reading attack wasted, before Jordan Obita’s drive across goal fell at Pogrebnyak’s feet.
The player of the half made no mistake. Half-turning and calmly slotting beyond Henderson with ease. An avoidable and scrappy goal to concede that summed up Charlton’s overall lethargic performance.
In truth, although themselves contributing to a first half that led to home supporters providing their own source of fun by laughing at Millwall and chanting ‘Churchinho’ as the Welsh forward warmed up, Reading were marginally the better side. But it was more of a case of Clarke’s men capitalising upon their opposition’s struggles, and not them blowing the Addicks away.
It meant all was not lost for a side who trudged towards the tunnel to a collection of groans at half-time. The performance very much a disappointment, but even the slightest of improvements would give Charlton a real chance.
So the first foray forward from Luzon’s men in the second period, after McCleary had lashed a strike from distance wildly off-target, was promising.
Fox, outperforming many of his more experienced teammates, delivered an inviting cross for the unmarked Watt. But the ball bounced up just before it reached the Scot, meaning his connection sent it soaring over the bar.
Nonetheless, it lifted the spirits of a previously somber Valley crowd, and proved the catalyst to lift Charlton’s overall efforts.
For two excellent and direct attacking moves, the sort seen so often in recent weeks, followed. The first concluding with a sea of blue and white shirts desperately diving in front of a Buyens strike that was destined for goal, while the second saw a fabulous turn and shot from Eagles fail to result in the equaliser it deserved courtesy of Adam Federici’s superb reaction save.
The equaliser, however, was not far off. That despite a Reading break threatening to burst Charlton’s bubble, with Chris Gunter’s effort crucial blocked away inside the area.
With the increasingly lively Watt lurking, Bulot’s cross had to be dealt with, and Michael Hector had seemingly done just that, heading the delivery away. But the defender succeeded only in nodding down onto his outstretched arm. Arguably a harsh call, as Reading argued, but referee Deadman immediately pointed to the spot with some authority.
And with the Addicks possessing such a composed penalty taker, the premature celebrations as the spot kick was awarded were not misguided. Buyens, who had once again struggled in open play, stepped up and converted with no fuss whatsoever. The momentum now with the hosts with 32 minutes to play.
Inspired by the roar of the Covered End, Charlton showed no intention of settling down after their equaliser, and immediately pressed forward in search of the goal that would put them ahead.
In fact, heads were in hands just beyond the hour mark as Eagles wasted the most glorious of chances to put his side ahead. The recent signing unmarked at the back post, but could only nod Gudmundsson’s pinpoint delivery over.
Gudmundsson then had an effort of his own, curling a strike comfortably into Federici’s hands, before Watt, in typical fashion, drove through and forced the Reading stopper into a slightly more demanding save. The intent, tempo and flair was all there, but the finishing was ever so slightly eluding the Addicks.
So maybe, with Charlton trying absolutely everything to score and not succeeding, it was fitting that the 70th minute goal that put the hosts ahead game from an unconventional body part.
It was also, to an extent, an unconventional goal scorer. Gomez’s cross turned in by the knee of Buyens, his first goal from open play for the Addicks, sparking excellent celebratory scenes in the Covered End. The season may be all but over for Charlton, but to find the reward for their brilliant second half efforts felt marvellous.
Such was the level of a joy that yet another horrendous miss could be laughed off as Reading remained unable to counteract the unrelenting dominance of Luzon’s side. Cries of “he scores when he wants” followed as substitute Church, receiving Buyens’ cut back, struck his effort straight at Federici.
But the Covered End were not laughing for long. Instead, with eleven minutes to play, they were lauding the previously heavily criticised Welsh forward and celebrating a third.
Absolutely outstanding work from Watt, dancing past several Reading men as he drove into the box, made Church’s chance a simple one. But his tap-in from the Scot’s ball across goal was a special personal moment nonetheless. His first goal at The Valley in 16 months, and well appreciated by the home support.
However, a game that had long been so dull that the players themselves would have fallen asleep had they not been standing up still had action left. The frustration of falling further behind evidently getting the better of Williams, who clashed with Watt and received a second yellow card as punishment.
But Reading, to their credit, did not give up any point. At times, they were outplayed and outclassed, but their attitude was always correct.
And despite Charlton, especially Gomez, defending superbly for much of the final ten minutes, the Royals’ intent was rewarded three minutes into five added on. Comical defending, with Johnson failing to cut out a ball across the face of goal, resulted in Pogrebnyak giving Reading some genuine hope.
It set up a nervy conclusion, and those nerves evidently got the better of Johnson. A needless foul on the edge of the box giving the Royals a free-kick in a good position.
Relief, however, followed. Henderson claimed the delivery with ease and the full-time whistle was blown almost immediately. In a manner more stressful than was necessary, the Addicks had hung on for their seventh win in nine.
Regardless, the feeling of relief was minuscule compared to the one of pride in Charlton’s overall second half performance.
The character shown to respond to not only falling behind, but a rather flat and disappointing first half performance, was outstanding. It’s another to add to the list of games the Addicks would have lost just over a month ago.
But the turn around, in attitude as well as ability, continues to become increasingly incredible with each passing victory. For that, Luzon and his troops deserve substantial praise.
This is, of course, a team effort. Fox and Gomez, while Johnson and Diarra were uncomfortable, were outstanding at the back, Buyens recovered substantially from a horrendous first half performance to not only score twice but look more comfortable in possession, and Church worked hard for his goal.
But special praise must once again go to Watt. Without his direct attacks that set the tempo for the entire side and eases pressure on a defence that still has its cracks, in addition to his individual brilliance, a run of this nature would simply not be possible.
And it’s a run we take into the fixture at the Den in just less than two weeks. Have we ever faced Millwall in such a rich vein of form?
I just pray this two week break doesn’t kill our momentum. Surely, with such character, confidence and quality in the side at this moment in time, especially when compared to the Lions, it’s time to regain some derby pride.
Knowing Charlton, it’ll be the only game we lose between now and the end of the season.
(Apologies for the rather naff photos. I might have accidentally left my camera at home)