It is five league games and a little over a month since Charlton Athletic last celebrated victory in the Championship. A relatively lengthy time to go without three points, and the contrast in mood between the last win and the latest defeat makes the gap between the two events appear like a chasm.
From a feeling of invisibility, brought about by high intensity and well organised performances against strong opposition, to worry about where the next win will come from, as mediocre opponents have capitalised upon tame and error-prone efforts from the Addicks.
An unquestionable and unifying spirit, displayed in the dramatic scenes up to and following Johann Berg Gudmundsson’s late winner against Hull City, replaced by justifiable accusations that the side lacks character, with them looking beaten long before full-time in several of their defeats.
The suggestion that Guy Luzon had won over Charlton supporters no longer made as adamantly, with a small handful of fans beginning to question once again whether the head coach is really the right man to lead the Addicks forward.
A disaster or a crisis this is not, but to be performing to such a low standard, and losing in such gutless fashion, is incredibly disappointing after the manner in which the season began.
As such, there are several issues that are facing Luzon and his side at present, and issues that desperately require solutions.
1: Injuries to key players
The most obvious issue, and the easiest excuse for the current lack of form. As was the case last season, Charlton’s small squad has been unable to cope with a number of players being crocked.
Nick Pope has, after his pretty unimpressive night against Huddersfield, been one of few players who can be proud of his performances in recent weeks, but it is hard to argue that both the leadership and goalkeeping ability of Stephen Henderson is not missed.
And at the other end of the pitch, an inability to keep Tony Watt, Simon Makienok and Igor Vetokele fit has proved costly. Without a fully firing Watt, the Addicks have lacked penetration in the final third, there is no Plan B without Makienok’s presence, and Vetokele is yet to return to anything like the potent goalscorer he was at the start of last season. You could even make an argument that Reza Ghoochannejhad’s absence, having looked lively before suffering injury against Nottingham Forest, has been a hindrance.
Then there’s the continued unavailability of Cristian Ceballos, the knocks that have kept Johnnie Jackson out of several matchday squads, and the need to occasionally rest Alou Diarra, leaving the Addicks a complete shambles at the back. At least Franck Moussa, having come off the bench against Cardiff City, is on his way back.
It’s left the Addicks seriously short on numbers, and persuaded Luzon to effectively concede the game against Crystal Palace by fielding a weakened team. The kids that are filling the holes in the squad, such as Mikhail Kennedy and Karlan Ahearne-Grant, talented, but not yet ready to have pivotal roles in the side.
Solution: Make further alterations to the transfer policy
Every week of every season, every club will have injuries. They’re an unavoidable part of professional football, and it is not the injuries themselves that are the key problem.
Instead, the injuries reveal that an issue that has plagued Charlton under the Roland Duchatelet era remains as detrimental as it ever has. The squad is far too small.
Instead of having the adequate strength in depth that a squad aiming for a top six finish should have, it lacks bodies in almost every area. Players well below the standard of the first choice XI, and academy graduates not quite ready for first team action, relied upon while other sides in the division replace quality with quality.
A particular annoyance both on the basis that lessons have not been learned from last season, and also because there did appear to be some change in the transfer policy over the summer. Not a dramatic rebranding, but the quality of players brought in, such as Bauer and Makienok, seemed higher than in previous seasons.
That, however, has not gone far enough. With the squad evidently short on numbers, only Conor McAleny has arrived on loan since the close of the window, while the excuse the budget has been overstretched has been used to justify not making any further signings.
If the budget has been surpassed, then it is not big enough. The transfer policy seemingly remains focused on profit, signing players with a potentially high resale value irrespective of the contributions they’ll make to the side, rather than primarily improving the Addicks.
As such, further investment in the side needs to be made. You could make a strong argument for a centre-back, a full-back, a winger and a forward being needed at the very least, and that’s while hoping this bizarre decision to look to loan Igor Vetokele out is reversed.
Charlton’s squad, although containing a number of quality players, does not have the required strength in depth to compete to the standard that those in charge at the club seemingly want it to.
2: Defensive naivety and mistakes
Maybe the most frustrating aspect of Charlton’s run of results is that the opposition have rarely had to perform beyond a certain level of competence for their victories.
For the Addicks have been conceding completely avoidable goals with some regularity since a simple Wolves move resulted in defeat at Molineux.
In part, it’s been a collective issue. The structure, shape and resilience that was so vital to the impressive performances at the start of the season, particularly against Derby County, has been replaced by something really rather ill-disciplined. The two banks of four not so obviously there, and the opposition creating opportunities from set-pieces with relative ease.
But so too are players committing horrendous individual mistakes. In addition to a failure to mark properly from corners, as was seen both at Blackburn and Cardiff, a lack of composure was previously resolute defenders has seen the opposition gifted openings. Diarra a shambles against Blackburn, Morgan Fox struggling against Cardiff, and even Chris Solly has struggled in recent weeks.
As such, the Addicks are being put on the back foot. The defence no longer able to offer a firm barrier, and keep Charlton in control of the game, and instead nervously attempting to fend off the opposition without great success.
Solution: A focus on shape and structure
After the defeat to Huddersfield, Luzon demanded that his side returned to basics. A comment that, although a little light on true meaning, was encouraging.
For it was with a very basic and simple approach that the Addicks returned to winning ways under the Israeli last season. Two rigid banks of four when out of possession, with that solid base allowing a forward four to play with directness and freedom when attacking.
So too did individuals within the side play with an incredible amount of composure. This a time before Roger Johnson imploded, and also one where Fox was improving with each and every week. Charlton resilient in defence.
And it’s that sort of structured and disciplined defensive effort that must return. At the very least, a gritty result gained through determined defensive efforts, where the opposition are not given the opportunity to score the simplest of goals, may be the catalyst for the Addicks getting out of this rut.
3: A lack of threat out wide
In addition to that resolute defensive shape, the wide men were pivotal to Charlton’s transformation in form under Luzon last season. Without Frederic Bulot and Gudmundsson, the counter-attacking football that gave the Addicks seven wins from nine would not have been possible.
So it is no surprise that Luzon’s side have struggled while those playing in the wide positions have been unable to make a positive contribution.
Jordan Cousins, as we’ve sort of known since the beginning of time, is not a winger, Mikhail Kennedy, for all his youthful endeavour, is not yet good enough to fulfil the role of ball-carrying and counter-attacking winger, and McAleny, primarily a forward anyway, has failed to make any sort of impression in his handful of minutes on the pitch.
Zakarya Bergdich has also failed to impress, despite the suggestion that he turned down Premier League clubs to join the Addicks in the summer. His first touch, strength and crossing ability indicates he might have meant the Scottish Premier League.
And with Gudmundsson having to fill in centrally in recent weeks, both up front and in the number 10 role, the direct drive down the flanks that was so crucial last season has been almost completely absent.
The opposition, therefore, have constantly been able to push Charlton onto the back foot. Without facing genuine threat, they can afford to be more adventurous, penning the Addicks in and putting increased amounts of pressure on Fox and Solly, who haven’t been able to get forward as much as they usually do in recent week.
Solution: Play players in their proper positions, recall Harriott
The first step to addressing the lack of threat from wide positions is a fairly simple one – play the best winger this club has had for some time, Bradley Pritchard aside, in his proper position.
For Gudmundsson is wasted in a central position. Playing there prevents him from doing what he does best – collecting the ball out wide, cutting forward inside and creating a chance out of nothing.
Seldom do those moves result in goals, but they do push the Addicks forward, inject a bit of confidence, and give the opposition something to think about. Time and time again a dull affair has come to life after a signature and drive inside from the Iceland international.
Pushing Gudmundsson back out wide, however, only resolves the issues on one flank. As was seen in partnership with Bulot last season, the Addicks are at their best under Luzon with an effective and direct winger on either flank.
So maybe there is some value in recalling Callum Harriott from his loan spell at Colchester United. A different Callum Harriott to the one that was sent there, with two goals, several assists and an appearance in the Football League Team of the Week a sign of his new found confidence.
Of course, Harriott is performing at a lower level, and he was sent to a League One club having struggled in a Charlton shirt for some time. His performance against Peterborough in the League Cup absolutely abysmal, and the feeling you got from Luzon was that he wanted rid of the winger permanently.
But Harriott has long needed this loan move. A player who has occasionally shown flashes of talent, but almost always let down by horrendous decision making and a lack of confidence that has grown and grown since his efforts in keeping the Addicks up in 2013/14.
It would certainly be no hindrance to have available a player who probably has more self-belief at present than the rest of the Charlton side combined.
4: Tony Watt
Charlton have not been a one man team under Luzon at any point, with the best performances built upon a strong collective effort. But the overall decline since Tony Watt has started to misfire shows how vital the Scot playing at his best is to this side.
No longer is there a roar of expectation as Watt collects the ball and drives forward. Instead, an expectation that he will eventually run into a dead end, or find some sort of other frustrating way to lose the ball.
His performance against Huddersfield was probably his worst in a Charlton shirt, and while he was livelier against Blackburn and Cardiff, he was still unable to contribute as positively as he normally does.
Is it an issue of fitness, as his form has dropped since missing the Wolves game through injury? Is it an issue of confidence, and this is the player that fans of his other clubs saw more often than we have previously? Is it a sign of the general unhappiness, and a sudden lack of motivation shared by the squad?
Whatever the cause, both Luzon and Watt need to work to resolve the forward’s lack of form.
There really isn’t much that can be done, but hope Watt rediscovers his best form as soon as possible. We’re a bit screwed if he doesn’t.
5: A drop in intensity, and a lack of character
If tamely throwing away the lead against Cardiff wasn’t enough to demoralise those supporters unfortunate enough to be spending their afternoon at the CCS, then Charlton’s response to going behind certainly was.
For from the moment Sean Morrison was allowed to head beyond Pope, the Addicks looked beaten. There was no drive, energy nor determination to get back into the game, with effortless sideways passes made, the sort a side attempting to run down the clock would make, and a complete lack of attacking intent.
It appeared as if heads had dropped and confidence diminished to such an extent that Luzon’s side had effectively given up. Character and intensity worryingly absence.
But that hasn’t just been the case when chasing the game. The Addicks, not helped by the struggles out wide and Watt’s form, have looked slow and sluggish with and without the ball for the majority of their recent games.
The high-intensity pressing that saw Luzon’s side completely dominate the second half against QPR and periods of the game against Hull has rarely been seen since. Even Ahmed Kashi, superb since joining in the summer, struggled against Blackburn.
And Luzon’s patient possession football has become a frustration, with the ball retained between those in defence and in the centre of midfield without a clear plan as to how to get the ball forward. It’s all just far too slow.
Solution: Captain Jackson, if Luzon cannot address it
These issues, largely based around motivation and energy, should be ones that Luzon can resolve. It is up to him to get the best out of the individuals lacking confidence and character in his side, and create an environment where there is a high level of intensity.
But, irrespective of whether Luzon can lift his side or not, similar issues will repeat themselves each time the Addicks pick up a handful of poor results owing to the lack of strong and definitive leaders in the side.
It is with guilt that I criticise Solly, but he is not a captain. Certainly someone who merits wearing the armband, given his contribution to the club, but not someone who can uplift, inspire and motivate.
And certainly not like Johnnie Jackson can. It is almost a year to the day since his incredible captain’s performance, involving fight in the middle for 90 minutes and a match-winning strike, against Norwich City, and that sort of character is required again.
Of course, he is currently injured, but once fit, he can play an important role in his side’s fortunes transforming again.
In these moments, where you feel the issues Charlton face are as much mental as they are about footballing ability, Jackson’s presence is greatly missed.
6: General criticism of Luzon’s managerial ability
As Luzon sprinted down the touchline to join in with the dramatic celebrations of Gudmundsson’s last minute winner against Hull City, he appeared to leave behind any remaining baggage that was still attached to him after the controversial manner in which he was appointed.
But despite seemingly doing enough to earn the respect of Charlton supporters, it has not spared him from criticism in recent weeks.
And it is fair to say that, after a near faultless start to the season, Luzon has started to make mistakes. None more frustrating than misjudging the importance of the Crystal Palace game and playing a weakened side, only to suffer a gutless defeat to Cardiff three days later.
So too, as mentioned above, has the structure of his side been lost, are players being played out of position, and such a dramatic drop of energy and motivation developing that you have to question the mood in the camp. An odd thing to say after that incredible moment against Hull.
There is always going to be criticism of a head coach when performances are of such a low standard. You could lay the blame squarely at the feet of the players for one or two poor performances, but a failure to address the issues that have seen six poor performances in a row means Luzon must take a portion of the criticism.
More needed from him, and from his side.
Solution: Stick by him, for all sorts of reasons
Despite this tough period, wanting rid of Luzon is incredibly short-sighted, in more ways than one.
The first being that it merely ignores all the positive work he has done, in tough circumstances, since becoming head coach in January. The transformation after the 14-game winless run, the start of this season and the respect the players have shown for him in the past indicate his managerial ability and that there is unlikely to be chaos in the dressing room.
So too is it hard to see any head coach working as well as Luzon does under Duchatelet. Most head coaches, including the other three that have been at Charlton since the Belgian bought the club, would be unwilling to work under his constraints and reign. But the Israeli appears to have a decent understanding of and happy to work in the environment that he has been placed in. Until Duchatelet changes the way his clubs operate, which won’t be happening, he’s the best we can hope for.
In addition, Luzon deserves and requires a bit of time to build something. Stability desperately required, and a knee-jerk removal of the head coach would only mean another difficult transition period, which can’t keep happening every season.
Improvement required, but that won’t be achieved by ditching the boss.