It would be wrong, under normal circumstances, to over-analyse certain aspects of non-competitive games.
But the circumstances that Charlton Athletic find themselves in are not quite normal circumstances. They’re circumstances which are, unfortunately, a tad concerning.
And there is no denying that the goalless draw with Leyton Orient increased the growing sense of unease ahead of the new season among supporters. A sense that Russell Slade’s side is nowhere near ready for the rigours of League One.
For with two weeks to go until Charlton’s campaign begins, it is not normal for a squad to lack numbers to such an extent that only six substitutes can be named. It is normal for a side to lack quality to such an extent that both youngsters and questionably performing senior professionals were required to occupy important positions. It is not normal to lack cohesion and fluidity to such an extent that it’s difficult to see whether Slade has been able to instil a system upon the side he has available
The trip to Brisbane Road reaffirming the need for quite drastic improvement in several departments. You can ignore an underwhelming friendly performance, sluggish but for the occasional moment of life more often than not inspired by Callum Harriott, against League Two opposition if you please, but you cannot disregard the current state of the squad.
And many have not, for optimism is draining.
Optimism, which existed following the appointment of Slade in addition to the signings of Ricky Holmes, Lee Novak and Nicky Ajose, replaced by a legitimate fear that owner Roland Duchatelet is again allowing the Addicks to enter a season understocked. A host of sales sanctioned in recent weeks, with further incomings restricted to Andrew Crofts earning a contract having been on trial with the club.
At the very least, for the squad to have been dismantled so close to the season without replacements already at the club or immediately lined up is an inexcusable position to be in. A reminder that Chris Powel’s title-winning squad, Yann Kermorgant aside, was in place as pre-season began. Time provided to gel individuals into a successful unit.
In the fifth game of this Charlton pre-season campaign, with just two more to follow, Slade has some individuals, but no squad. Certainly not one that can challenge at the top end of the division, as he himself as admitted. The XI that started against Orient worryingly weak.
A part of that, of course, the consequence of injuries. Chris Solly, Nicky Ajose and Crofts will make the side that features against Ipswich on Tuesday appear a tad more competitive, with Harry Lennon and Patrick Bauer in the process of recovering from their issues. Not forgetting Alou Diarra and Ahmed Kashi, who won’t return in time for the start of the campaign.
But not only are injuries to be expected throughout the season, the absence of certain individuals is not the reason why Charlton’s squad feels undercooked with two weeks until the trip to Bury.
It better explained by the fact Dilon Phillips, a goalkeeper without any Football League appearances to his name, played the full 90 minutes. Not because Slade was offering him an opportunity, but because there are no senior goalkeepers at the club following the departures of Nick Pope and Stephen Henderson.
Weakness shown elsewhere, too, with no replacement right-back meaning youngster Ezri Konsa, a natural centre-back, was forced to fill in, while the centre-back pairing of Jorge Teixeira, likely to leave at the end of the season, and Roger Johnson, a player than many Addicks wish would leave, isn’t a great one to be fielding at this stage of pre-season.
Olly Muldoon, who struggled while on loan at Dagenham, thrown into the centre of midfield, while young forward Brandon Hanlan began in attack.
Morgan Fox, Johnnie Jackson, Ricky Holmes, Harriott and Novak the only players that Slade will want to be a part of his starting XI come the beginning of the season that started at Brisbane Road, with options in reserve for all but Fox (Tareiq Holmes-Dennis) lacking. The unfilled bench formed of youngsters and, in the shape of El Hadji-Ba and Cristian Ceballos, players that have yet to impress in Charlton colours. It unquestionably a concern.
The game itself, probably unsurprisingly given the cobbled together state of the side, not providing any real reassurance. A slow state, brightened only by the need for referee Darren Deadman to change from black to yellow as he clashed with Charlton’s new third kit, for both sides that saw Jordan Bowry slice an effort wide and the lively Harriott’s ambitious strike sail into the stand occupied by visiting supporters.
It was, however, Orient that settled much the quicker. Their passing composed in the middle, while wide men Gavin Massey and Sandro Semedo were posing very genuine threats to Konsa and Fox. The Addicks undoubtedly on the back foot.
Reaffirmed by the fact their efforts to get on the front foot were rather tame. Promising breaks breaking down before they had really begun, and punts in the general direction of Charlton’s forwards became increasingly frequent. The battle between Hanlan, whose robust strength was obvious but his technical ability less so, and Orient defender Yvan Erichot quite the physical one.
It was, therefore, the hosts who created the better early chances. A quite delicious cross from Sean Clohessy probably should have been converted by Jay Simpson, after the forward got away from Johnson, but he was only able to head over. “Fucking get our shape back,” followed from the Charlton centre-back.
His cries, however, not enough to change the pattern of the game. The Addicks very deep, and Orient pushing. A tidy passing move from the O’s concluded with Robbie Weir striking wide, before Phillips was called upon to deny the lively Semedo.
Semedo’s liveliness would have undoubtedly counted for a bit more were it not for the composure of Konsa. Two smart tackles denying the winger in full flow, with the teenage defender appearing the most resilient member of Charlton’s back line.
Youth also proving useful in attack, as Hanlan robbed an Orient man in possession to move through on goal, but seemingly panicked. His shot taken far too early, and tamely scuffed wide.
And Hanlan was involved again as the Addicks produced their first genuinely threatening move for quite some time. Tenacity and strength shown from the young forward to keep possession, with the ball ultimately supplied to Fox, whose cross was head goalwards by Harriott but volleyed away by the impressive Clohessy.
It was, however, an exception rather than a sign that Charlton were beginning to find some cohesion and fluidity. A genuinely excellent block from Johnson, horribly uncomfortable prior to it, denying Simpson from the edge of the box and making sure the sides went in at the break level.
Nonetheless, it was Orient who would have been the side happiest with their first-half efforts. A reasonable amount of defensive composure, with a purpose to their passing play that was helped by good pace out wide. The Addicks, meanwhile, were reliant on Harriott, who had looked good with the ball but struggled to produce any sort of end product, and hopeful that either Novak or Hanlan, battling relentlessly but not winning too much, would do something with one of the desperate balls delivered up-field.
So given the uninspiring display in the first 45, it was particularly pleasing to see Slade’s men begin the second half in promising fashion. Muldoon benefitting from Harriott’s liveliness, as the winger drove into space and fed his fellow academy graduate through, but the resulting shot-cum-cross dribbled agonisingly wide, before Harriott decided to take a matters into his own hands with an outrageous effort from distance that required an excellent save from Alex Cisak to be kept out.
And Cisak, who had had to deal with little more with mocking from the Charlton fans behind his goal as he took goal kicks in the first half, was called upon again moments later. A mix up between himself and his centre-backs almost allowed Hanlan the chance to shoot into any empty goal, but the goalkeeper recovered well and just about managed to hook the ball away from the edge of his box.
So too did Orient appear to regain their relative control of the game thereafter, helped by the introduction of Paul McCallum. The physical forward providing a real test for the unusually clumsy Teixeira, though his attempts to bundle both ball and Phillips into Charlton’s goal were rightfully penalised.
The constant substitutions made by the home side, however, did disrupt the flow of the game to a point where the final 15 minutes or so were played at a very sluggish tempo. A slight frustration that the Addicks, still lacking any sort of obvious cohesion and fluidity to their play, couldn’t capitalise on the disruption caused to Orient’s XI, though Novak did at least force a save out of replacement goalkeeper Sam Sargeant.
Nothing that Phillips could have done at the other end, though, as Ollie Palmer was given plenty of time on the ball and allowed to curl an effort agonisingly wide. Another moment where Charlton’s back line sat too deep, and failed to close down an opponent.
That the last genuine opening of the game, though the Addicks did their best to ensure Orient would have a few more. Johnson horribly failing to connect with a cross, but both McCallum and Palmer couldn’t get the ball out their feet in the middle, substitute Terrell Thomas and Novak jumped for the same ball, ultimately allowing Dean Cox to stab a volley wide, before an under hot pass back from Johnson required Holmes-Dennis to desperately intervene in order to prevent McCallum having a clear run on goal.
And so Slade’s men were forced to settle for a goalless draw against League Two opposition. The largely irrelevant result, however, the absolute least of Charlton’s concerns. The combination of a rather concerning display and a certainly concerning squad drawing the greatest attention.
There might well be a suggestion that fear and panic is unnecessary until the season begins, or even the transfer window closes. Maybe some might suggest it’ll all be okay once those who are injured return. But both thoughts are naïve.
For not only will there remain a lack of depth once those who are injured return, but Slade, through no fault of his own, is already limited in the amount of time he will have to gel a competent unit together. That side that played today, in terms of both individual quality and cohesion, was not a competent unit.
Unquestionably, even with Duchatelet in charge, there will be arrivals before the season begins, and the squad will be in a healthier position as it travels to Gigg Lane. But I can’t help but fear we’ve left the forming of a side until too late in pre-season.
A real frustration and disappointment, particularly after the positivity felt after Slade and his trio of early signings arrived. An opportunity for a Charlton side under this regime to have some relative strength, and for a boss to be given a bit of time in pre-season to put it into a functioning unit, horrendously wasted.