Energy, urgency and sheer determination have given Guy Luzon’s Charlton Athletic some spectacular moments in the previous nine months. Points salvaged from certain defeats and winning goals scored in games that were seemingly petering out.
It is, therefore, no wonder that those Addicks in the Cardiff City Stadium away end – many of who had seen their side complete a comeback victory against the Bluebirds in March and seal a dramatic 98th minute win against Hull City a little over a month ago – responded to a flat, characterless and unimaginative attempt to draw level with the hosts with frustrated boos.
In theory, given that they were 2-1 down, Charlton were chasing the game in its final ten minutes. But to refer to their effort as a chase would not be an adequate reflection of the energy exerted in the attempts to draw level.
For instead of throwing bodies, and ball, forward, the Addicks were tentative. The ball passed from the backline into midfield, and back into defence again. Possession kept as if Charlton’s goal was to see out a win; those in attack moving in a manner that would have been more fitting of a side whose job was done.
And Charlton were only in such a position, where their lack of attacking intensity proved so crucial, because their defensive efforts were uncharacteristic of the disciplined and structured displays that have been at the heart of the best performances under Luzon.
Poor finishing, desperate goalline clearances, and Nick Pope prevented Cardiff from taking advantage of a shambolic defensive performance from those in red until after Karlan Ahearne-Grant had given the Addicks a somewhat undeserved lead after the break.
But Charlton were not to be so fortunate thereafter. Joe Mason able to convert from close range after the Addicks failed to clear, and an unmarked Sean Morrison heading the simplest of winners with 14 minutes to play. The game over as soon as Pope’s net rippled for a second time.
It leaves Luzon’s side without a win in six, and with issues that need addressing in all departments. Pressure starting to build, and will only continue to if such inept performances are repeated.
The defeat is made even more frustrating when the importance Luzon placed on the trip to Wales is considered. The opposite of a performance lacking organisation, intensity and energy demanded after several of Charlton’s key men were questionably rested for the South East London derby defeat at Selhurst Park on Wednesday.
While they returned to the side – with Patrick Bauer, Ahmed Kashi, Johann Berg Gudmundsson and Tony Watt all starting – any pre-game optimism was quickly quelled by a disastrous opening ten minutes for the Addicks, which they somehow escaped without conceding.
Cardiff’s start, although confident and composed, was not one that belonged to a side who should have been able to leave their opponents in complete disarray. But Charlton offered little resistance to the Bluebirds relatively simple passing play and cross-field balls.
And it was dealing with set-pieces delivered into the box that those in red had most trouble with. Something that would be seen after Pope flung himself across goal to save Anthony Pilkington’s drive, and the unconvincing Naby Sarr nervously turned the follow-up over his own bar.
For organisation was clearly lacking as Peter Whittingham’s corner came into the box. Morrison left unmarked, and only an incredible goalline clearance from Jordan Cousins, diving backwards and hooking the ball away, kept the scores level.
A lesson, however, had not been learned as the Addicks set up for the resulting corner. Charlton bodies static as Whittingham’s delivery floated across to the back post.
And they remained static as pinball ensued, with the ball eventually nodded across to an open Kenwyne Jones. Sarcastic cheers emerging from the away end as the robust forward could only pick out the side netting, but they were merely masking the panic and fury among supporters of the Addicks.
Appropriately marking the chap winning every header in Charlton’s box would have at least calmed the angst in the away end, but those in red seemed unwilling to comply. Morrison again allowed to wander as a free-kick was swung into the box, and the former Reading man headed over Pope’s crossbar.
The issue in addition to Charlton’s failure to defend with any organisation or resistance was that they could not buy themselves even a moment’s relief by getting forward. Decision making, particularly from the struggling Zakarya Bergdich, incredibly poor.
So the sight of Johann Berg Gudmundsson driving forward and cutting inside in trademark fashion was most welcome, irrespective of the fact his shot was blocked behind for a corner. The winning of the set-piece met by a roar from the away end, which only built as Cardiff cleared for another.
And so it might have done, as Russell Slade’s men also saw no reason to mark giant centre-backs. Patrick Bauer’s unchallenged header only prevented from crossing the line by a timely intervention from Scott Malone.
The attack, however, was not yet over, and Gudmundsson was able to deliver another ball in the direction of Bauer’s head. The German rose highest to nod towards goal, but a reaction save from goalkeeper Simon Moore stopped the Addicks from taking a lead that, for much of the afternoon, had looked unlikely.
This period of positive play, though, was not enough to completely relax those in the away end. Songs from yesteryear sung in order to distract as Patrick Bauer exchanged a wayward header with Kagisho Dikgacoi, and indecisiveness meant a potent-looking break at each end, led by Joe Ralls and Tony Watt, amounted to nothing.
Fear still existed that Cardiff would be able to capitalise upon the faults in Charlton’s backline, and the Addicks gradually growing back into the game would prove meaningless.
Chances, therefore, needed to be taken. A rare piece of effective play from Bergdich, beating Malone and delivery an excellent cross to an unmarked Watt, creating a superb one, but Moore’s stop from the Scot’s downward header was sublime.
Regardless that such an opening couldn’t be taken, you could almost make an argument for momentum being with the Addicks. At the very least, you could suggest they had as much a right to claim to be ahead as the Bluebirds.
So, with half-time approaching, Cardiff issued a number of timely reminders that improvement was still needed. Pilkington jinking into space, and Pope required to pull off a one-handed diving save.
But it was their next move forward that created the most worry of the half, arguably more than any of their openings in the first ten minutes.
Possession tamely gifted to the Bluebirds in midfield, with Whittingham quickly feeding the run of Mason, who broke into the box and attempted to touch the ball around Pope. The goalkeeper sprung for him as he did, sending the forward sprawling, and immediately attracting the referee’s whistle.
The worst was feared. Pope, sublime up to that point, would surely be sent off, and youngster Dimitor Mitov would have to face a Whittingham penalty. But the referee’s arm pointed away from the penalty spot, and Mason was adjudged to have dived. A collective sigh of relief had in the away end.
It meant that, after Pope had made one last save from a Pilkington drive, the Addicks were able to go in at the break level. A position they were fairly lucky to be in, but one that they could certainly build upon.
Still, however, Luzon’s side were struggling to deal with balls into the box. The first chance of the half falling to Mason, who headed wide by the narrowest of margins.
And while they might have continued to look less than impressive at the back, at least the occasional move forward increased hope. Ahearne-Grant introduced at the break, replacing the awful Bergdich, and his pace immediately making an impact.
Watt, too, started the second period with an injection of pace, and the Scot was able to burst past Malone out on the right as the Addicks broke forward.
So too did he have the composure to look up and pick out Ahearne-Grant in the centre, his driven ball falling perfectly to the unmarked forward with 49 minutes played.
And with calm beyond his 18 years, the substitute took a touch and poked beyond Moore. It seemed an unlikely scenario that the Addicks would take the lead after the start they had, and this was certainly cruel on Cardiff, but that took little away from the pure joy expressed by Ahearne-Grant as he celebrated his first Championship goal.
Nonetheless, the somewhat unmerited position that Charlton found themselves in should have only acted as a reminder that they desperately needed to tighten up at the back in order to maintain their lead. A nervy moment as Mikhail Kennedy appeared to handle inside the box, before Gudmundsson burst forward amidst a sea of boos to test Moore.
But before Cardiff anger had subsided about that hand ball call, and just four minutes after they fell behind, the Bluebirds had drawn level.
There was no feeling of injustice as Mason, allowed to beat a host of red shirts to a bouncing cross at the back post, turned in, for you could not argue that the Bluebirds did not at least deserve parity. Instead, there was anger that Charlton had conceded yet another soft goal, and not addressed the errors of this week or past.
A response, once again, required, with those in the away end hopeful that the introduction of Conor McAleny, whose name was sung by the supporters of the club who he was on loan at last season, would help provide it.
But it was Watt, certainly more lively and threatening than he had been in recent weeks, who looked most likely to carry the Addicks to three points. The Scot dancing forward and unleashing a strike that Moore could only parry, with the goalkeeper able to deny Cousins superbly, who pounced on the rebound.
Watt’s energy, however, was not being replicated throughout the rest of the Charlton side. Especially with Sammy Ameobi and Craig Noone coming on, it was Cardiff who looked the most lively and most likely to score a winner.
That particularly true with Morrison still winning every header inside Charlton’s box. Another corner won by the centre-back, but thankfully sent over the bar.
And with the visual warning, if not the other 3,409, still fresh in their minds, the Addicks were forced to defend another corner just moments later. Whittingham swung the ball in, and there was an unmarked Morrison, this time able to power beyond a blameless Pope. It had long been coming, but to concede a goal like that after so many warnings was unforgivable.
But it could be partly forgiven if Charlton showed a bit of character in the game’s closing moments. If there was energy and drive, and a genuine attempt to draw level.
Instead, the remaining 14 minutes were spent wandering around the pitch without intensity and ideas. It might have even been better had the Bluebirds confirmed their misery when Mason turned Malone’s driven cross over the bar from close range.
For that would not have increased as the anger in the away end as much as Charlton’s attempts to draw level. No potency, and no threat, as sideways passes were made with attacks never looking like materialising.
It allowed Cardiff, after McAleny had ambitionless shot over from distance and Watt had headed well off-target, to see the game out in comfortable fashion. The ball kept in the corner, away from a Charlton side who had long looked beaten.
There can be several excuses made for such a poor performance, and most of them are valid.
The injury list is long, and a fully fit Charlton would have surely given a Cardiff side who were controlled and composed but not spectacular a better game. The return of Franck Moussa, who made an appearance off the bench late on, one positive to take.
You can even argue that, with a bit more luck, the Addicks could have taken something from the game. Moore having to be at his best on a number of occasions to deny Watt, Bauer and Cousins.
But it takes little away from just how poor Luzon’s side were throughout the vast majority of the game.
For even when you consider how much the Addicks are currently hindered by injuries, with their small squad suffering, it does not excuse a performance lacking any sort of defensive organisation and, for large parts, attacking creativity.
The inability to deal with the simplest of balls into the box was incredibly disappointing, while the lack of fight and drive having fallen behind was very poor. At least Luzon has admitted that, because a response is desperately required against Fulham.