Much like The Valley’s new ticketing system, Charlton’s new side appeared to be facing teething problems it its first competitive outing.
While many queued outside the ground to pick up undelivered season cards, the Addicks were beginning the season by struggling to deliver against opponents Queens Park Rangers.
Cohesion and organisation questionable until beyond the half hour, individual mistakes rife, and urgency when in possession lacking. QPR unrelenting in their dominance; Charlton not falling behind due to a mix of stubbornness and good fortune.
But, equally like the ticketing system, once settled, this new group of Addicks might well help the club to progress, and make SE7 a more enjoyable place to watch football.
For once all had been given their season cards, and Guy Luzon had given his side a Tony Watt-shaped injection, the hosts were excellent.
In truth, their excellence was partly born out of QPR decreasing in quality has the game progressed. The sharpness they showed early on vanishing shortly after the break as heads began to drop.
But so too was it born out of a moment of brilliance from Watt. The Scot, benched after a training ground incident and introduced at half-time, cutting into the area from the right and drilling through the body of Robert Green.
Providing a suggestion that the harmony of the club remains troubled, conceding dramatically sapped the confidence out of the R’s. By contrast, it kicked the Addicks into another gear. Energetically and effectively pressing, maintaining possessing with greater ease, and allowing the opposition little chance of getting back into their stride.
A stride that they had no hope of rediscovering when Morgan Fox was given an obscene amount of space, and rifled an effort well beyond Green’s desperate dive. Individuals in the QPR side visibly beaten.
Charlton, however, were left to enjoy a stunning start to their season. As they left the ground more comfortably than many managed to enter it, supporters had seen enough to believe any pre-season doubts were misplaced.
There were certainly nerves before kick-off, though, as the inclusion of one forward and the absence of another had home supporters concerned.
Charlie Austin’s move to a Premier League club had not materialised over the summer, and the regular Charlton tormentor started in attack for the R’s. With Matt Phillips, Jamie Mackie and recent signing Tjaronn Chery supplying him, it seemed as if the forward would be scoring his seventh career goal against the Addicks.
Charlton, on the other hand, were without the talismanic Watt. Karlan Ahearne-Grant, starting in his place, had impressed in pre-season, while 6’7 forward Simon Makienok made his competitive debut, but the side still appeared weaker without the Scot.
So too did it appear weaker with Jordan Cousins played out of position. Last season’s Player of the Year forced out wide to accommodate debutants El Hadji-Ba and Ahmed Kashi.
And those concerns were seemingly being vindicated in the game’s opening moments. Charlton’s start reflecting the fact they had four debutants, defender Patrick Bauer the other, a player in an unnatural position, and a key player kept in reserve.
For QPR found themselves camped in the opposition’s half. Chery warming Nick Pope’s hands, while Austin was inches away from connecting with one of a plethora of early corners, many of which were born out of sloppiness among Charlton’s side.
But while they appeared a little unorganised and often frustratingly slow to move the ball up the pitch, something that was almost capitalised upon when Ba was dispossessed by Austin and the forward flashed an effort just wide of Pope’s goal, there remained flashes of brilliance from the Addicks when there was space to be exploited on the break.
A move down the left, preceding Austin’s effort, was only half-cleared, with Kashi volleying the loose ball tamely into Green’s hands, before captain Chris Solly, Ba, and Johann Berg Gudmundsson combined superbly down the right for the Icelandic winger to fizz an effort that forced a decent save out of the former England goalkeeper.
Enough to keep The Valley crowd positive, but such a mood would not have been maintained for long if Austin had not wasted a glorious opening from yet another R’s corner.
Chery’s delivery finding its way to the prolific striker at the back post, but, having flung himself at the ball in order to connect with it, he could only divert an effort wide. The home supporters cheered sarcastically, but they were, in truth, thankful for a moment of good fortune.
It was seemingly the moment that the Addicks required to find their feet. A wake up call that meant a considered effort was made to be more composed and, eventually, grow more organised.
For while Chris Ramsey’s side continued to dominate possession and make quest upon quest in Charlton’s half, they began to be met by two rigid banks of four unwilling to allow them the same freedom they had in the opening 20 minutes.
But there remained a lack of cohesion when Luzon’s men attempted to get forward. Tentative sideways passing born out of a lack of movement and invention, while Nedum Onuoha and Clint Hill beat Ahearne-Grant and Makienok to every ball pumped forward.
At least the Addicks, with the impressive Bauer leading a backline that were now dealing with QPR effectively and efficiently, looked set to be heading in at the break level. A good, somewhat dogged, effort to escape without harm after a testing opening 45 to the season.
With just over five minutes remaining until the interval, however, they were not yet off the hook. The influential Chery allowed the space to unleash an effort with enough swing to rival England’s bowling attack, but Pope was able to read the strike and pulled off an excellent diving save.
It meant the R’s would have been somewhat disappointed not to hold a lead at half-time. Their dominance became less evident in the latter stages of the first period, but they remained the side who had created the better openings.
Nonetheless, their wastefulness had provided Charlton with a platform, strengthened by the greater defensive resolve shown towards the end of the half, which to build upon. The introduction of Watt for the second period, replacing the constantly outmuscled Ahearne-Grant, seemingly the catalyst for that base to become something more substantial.
But their hard work and resolve both to prevent themselves from going behind and to offer a sterner test to QPR was almost undone just a minute into the second half. The relentless Jamie Mackie getting the better of Solly, his driven cross flashing past red shirts in the centre, and Phillips’ resulting shot saved well by Pope.
It did not set the trend for the remainder of the half, however, with Watt’s presence, pace and skill giving Charlton another, much needed, dimension when going forward.
If Ba’s cross-field ball had found its way through to any other member of this side, then little would have come of it. But Watt’s natural confidence and directness meant he had no issue in attempting to drive past several men in blue and white from the edge of the area with 52 minutes played.
Breaking into the box, then jinking to create space, Watt unleashed an effort so powerful that Green’s intervention counted for little. The Valley sent into wild celebrations as their side bundled on the pitch below them.
Few, however, were getting ahead of themselves. There remained enough quality about this QPR side for them to quickly draw level, as they came close to doing when Austin immediately glanced a header wide.
But the fizz in the visitors’ early adventures forward was long gone, replaced by sluggish and uninventive efforts to test Charlton’s defence.
And so too was their defence somewhat sluggish. Bauer heading over unmarked from a corner, while Watt danced his way into the box once more only for his effort to be heroically blocked by Onuoha.
Nor too were they seemingly willing to press with any sort of energy. When the ball fell to Fox a fair distance from goal, no QPR player followed, and no one got closer as he took a touch and sometime to consider what he was going to do next.
He opted to strike the sweetest of left-footed efforts towards Green’s bottom corner, beating him with both its power and accuracy. For his first professional goal, it was some effort.
And while it gave the Addicks a two goal advantage, not unsurmountable with 18 minutes left to play, it was most certainly the winning goal. Rarely have I seen a side look so devoid of self-belief after seemingly having so much earlier on in the game.
Were it not for Mackie, fighting for everything and unwilling to lose his duels with Solly, there would have been no energy at all in the R’s side. The Addicks passing round statues as Cousins concluded a move with an effort over the bar.
And Watt was running round them, lazily hauled back by Hill as the Scot looked to once again bomb into the area.
It almost proved a costly tug, however, as Gudmundsson’s resulting free-kick, struck to near-perfection, canned back off the top of the crossbar. Charlton supporters, who had just finished cheering an out-of-sorts Austin’s substitution, inches away from a fourth celebration of the half.
And while Bauer’s clearance from the half-way line almost embarrassed Green, forcing him to make a slightly uncomfortable catch, the Addicks were forced to settle for just a two-goal victory.
A statement that no one would have imagined making 45 minutes earlier, but one that reflects the dominance Charlton enjoyed over a demoralised QPR side for the vast majority of the second half. Luzon and is side making the most of the opportunity to celebrate a superb, and somewhat unexpected, victory to begin the campaign.
The QPR angle would be less complimentary of Charlton’s victory. They might suggest good fortune was required, and that the game would have had a different outcome if the R’s had made the most of their early pressure.
At the very least, it’s hard to imagine that they would have slumped so dramatically in the second half after the boost that a goal provides.
But that, nor the extremely poor nature of QPR’s efforts, takes little away from the brilliance of Charlton’s second half display. Compact at the back but expansive going forward. Pressing high but without losing position. Playing with the confidence a newly formed squad should not yet have.
To deliver such a superb team performance while questions about the need for the side to gel were being asked is of huge credit to Luzon.
His system is so simple. In a world of innovation, he merely opts for a very structured 4-4-2, with two banks of four frustrating the opposition. Bauer, taking Tal Ben Haim’s reading of the game and adding unflappable composure, the perfect leader of a formation that requires a solid base.
With a strong foundation, those beyond the back four have freedom, both with and without the ball. Watt’s introduction spread confidence to all, with greater intensity seen from the Addicks as they began to come forward with more regularity, while the pressure he was applying allowed the likes of the superb Kashi and Ba to break out of the mould and press the R’s into submission.
The slow start, however, does provide the Addicks with things to work on, of which there was always going to be with the season just a game old and a new side coming together.
One of those is easily resolved. The tentativeness going forward early on, which invited pressure, was seemingly the product of a number of things.
The first is that the outlet of Watt, which pushes the opposition back, was not there.
The second, is that too very similar midfielders were playing in the centre. I feel that Cousins will ultimately have to come back inside, which would see one of Ba or Kashi dropped to the bench. Both were impressive but, on that showing, it’s Kashi, whose energy and defensive work was sublime, who would keep his place.
And the third is that there wasn’t a proper outlet on the left, like Gudmundsson is on the right. In time, you would hope Cristian Ceballos, or even fellow debutant from the bench Zakarya Bergdich, will provide that.
Elsewhere, you would like greater composure from Alou Diarra, who made a few too many individual errors, and you hope Makienok’s strength will eventually be supplemented by greater ability on the ball once he adapts to the English game.
But this was a performance that exceeded all expectations. I’d advise caution, but with that second half performance in mind, it’s hard not to feel high levels of optimism.