As Russell Slade approached the Kassam Stadium away end, doing so with a slight hesitation and an uncharacteristically emotionless expression occupying his face, the Charlton Athletic boss was given a definitive notice that improvement is desperately required.
For while the boos that responded to his attempts to applaud the travelling supporters were neither poisonous nor signalling that fans want the bald-headed gaffer removed nine league games into his tenure, they told an important message nonetheless.
The message being that Slade warrants his share of the blame for a disappointing start to the season, and certainly criticism for the approach taken in a frustrating draw with Oxford United. A sluggish, disjointed, and overly cautious effort against the U’s seeing the Addicks failing to record victory for the fifth consecutive game.
In truth, there was a brief period at the beginning of the second period which suggested a poor first-half effort was to prove meaningless. Charlton unable to match the intensity of Michael Appleton’s Oxford in the opening 45, who found themselves first to loose balls and often breaking purposefully, while a combination of Slade’s questionable tactical set-up and midfield mistakes stifled forward moves.
But a loose hand from Oxford defender Phil Edwards, who had moments before nodded over at the other end when unmarked, gave the Addicks the softest of penalties and an opportunity to take a lead that had not appeared forthcoming. The spot-kick, Charlton’s first since the end of the 2014/15 season, converted in cool fashion by Johnnie Jackson, with a tumbling knee-slide to follow.
Alas, the 54th minute lead did not inject hidden intensity into those in red, while Appleton’s men maintained a certain amount of threat in their pacey forward drives. Yellow shirts manoeuvring the ball through midfield with relative ease, and constantly asking questions of an uneasy Charlton backline.
It was, therefore, to the surprise of few that Oxford’s 67th minute equaliser came as a consequence of a fluid forward move that left the Addicks spectating. The pace of substitute Kane Hemmings too much for Patrick Bauer, his through ball perfect for the impressive Chris Maguire, and the Scot’s finish emphatic.
No less than Oxford deserved, reinforced by the fact Maguire abandoned celebration and instead carried the ball back to the centre-circle. The U’s positive, aware of the uncertainty in Charlton’s side, and sensing victory.
A belief halted by Josh Magennis almost immediately seeing a header superbly saved by Simon Eastwood, and the hosts becoming cautious, but there rarely a moment beyond where this disjointed group of Addicks looked genuinely threatening. An opposition sitting deeper, and inviting them to dictate the game, but still they stuttered.
That they were to end the game with ten men, with Harry Lennon receiving a second yellow card for a reckless challenge on Liam Sercombe, quite reflective of a performance that, in addition to attacking intensity, lacked sensible decision making and composure.
But more importantly, it lacked a coherent tactical set-up and a philosophy that allowed a group of talented individuals, or at least talented individuals at League One level, to control a game they had the potential to.
Another game where disappointment, from periods of sluggishness, and frustration, born out of those moments where seemingly encouraging moves were stifled, overruled any positives. Slade yet to find a way to get the best out of a side that should be doing better, and can no longer deny that improvement is required.
In truth, there was a concern pre-match that the desired improvement would not be shown at the Kassam, or at least the encouraging signs seen during the second half of Tuesday’s draw with Scunthorpe United would not be built upon, as Slade named a side that appeared unbalanced and cautious.
For the only change to Charlton’s starting XI was an enforced one, as the concussed Jason Pearce was replaced by Lennon, making his first appearance of the season. The midfield still containing too many slow central figures, and Magennis left to battle on his own up to, though the return of Ricky Holmes and Lee Novak to the bench did at least provide alternatives should the Addicks struggle.
But it a frustration nonetheless that Slade had not opted to use the momentum created at Glanford Park, and field an XI that had genuine attacking intent. It vital his side made a positive start to dispel unrest.
And, as a sold out away end made their voices heard, that they did. A hope that the desperate defending required by Oxford to prevent Jackson turning in Ademola Lookman’s early corner would set the tempo of the game. The visiting supporters loud, the Addicks threatening, and the U’s on the back foot.
Such a delirious image of delight, however, barely lasted for three minutes, as Charlton’s defending from an Oxford corner was not desperate, but completely non-existent. Chey Dunkley left unmarked just a few yards from goal, with only the most incredible of saves from Declan Rudd preventing the defender from giving his side the lead.
Undoubtedly a huge let-off for the Addicks, with most in the away end prematurely bemoaning the conceding of a goal as Dunkley made contact with Maguire’s delivery. Genuine bemoaning to come as this sluggish and structureless midfield struggled to turn sideways possession into anything more threatening, and the early signs suggested that Magennis was going to be enduring a tough afternoon in his lone battle up top.
But there were other concerns on the minds of the visiting supporters. Passionate and definitive chanting against Roland Duchatelet and his poisonous regime belted out from the away end without much pause over a ten minute period, barely stopping to gasp as a rare successful move into the opposition’s final third concluded with Fredrik Ulvestad’s ball across the face of goal just flashing pass Magennis’ outstretched boot.
Not that these chants, by any stretch of the imagination, were creating an uncomfortable atmosphere or distracting from supporting the side. The pro-Charlton cries that followed loud, reaffirming that opposition to the regime did not equate to disregarding the team.
It merely a coincidence that the U’s began to grow into the game, with Maguire lively and Sercombe combative, and create a handful of half-chances. Rudd collecting Maguire’s effort with ease, before the battling Ryan Taylor teed up Marvin Johnson to volley just wide.
And though Lookman, showing greater directness and attacking intent then the rest of his teammates combined, attempted to maintain parity, as he drove forward and unleashed a fizzing drive that Eastwood held at the second attempt, it was most certainly the hosts who looked more lively, were more positive, and were displaying greater intensity. Sercombe at the heart of it, and he the next to test Rudd, though his effort was comfortably saved.
A real need for the Addicks to respond positively to this pressure, particularly with grumblings among the away supporters increasing, but this cautious and rather lacklustre side seemed incapable of turning midfield possession into anything meaningful. A wayward Lennon strike, troubling the corner flag having pulled the trigger from the best part of 30 yards, not having the desired effect.
More greatly appreciated were the efforts of Magennis. An understanding that his task, which left him isolated and, with Dunkley’s use of his hands questionable, without the support of the match officials, was an almost impossible one, but still he continued to battle. For effort alone, he deserved greater than making space for a shot from a tight angle, comfortable collected by Eastwood.
While the Northern Irishman battled with a sense of determination, Oxford continued to look more fluent and threatening. Those in red standing off the ever-lively Johnson, and the winger cutting inside to curl an effort towards goal that required Rudd to make a decent save. For all Oxford’s energy, it probably the first time Charlton’s goalkeeper had been seriously tested since Dunkley’s header.
That inability to turn impressive play into genuine openings meant that, with the Addicks boasting a young match-winner in their side, there was always a chance that this sluggish effort could be rescued, and an arguably undeserved lead gained before the break. Eastwood worthy of immense praise for racing off his line as Lookman found a way through, smothering his effort and denying the teenager when one-on-one.
It left skipper John Lundstram, sitting deep for much of the half and feeding balls to his wide men, to fire the final shot of the opening 45. Another one of those rather weak efforts that failed to take advantage of Charlton’s sluggishness, as the Oxford man drove through a non-existent midfield and fired straight at Rudd from distance, and signalled that improvement could be made by both teams going into the second period.
This lacklustre, somewhat structureless and most certainly cautious group of Addicks in need of greater improvement, and as such the side more likely to be unhappy with their first half efforts. Attacking intent needed, and greater energy to match their opponents in the middle, who could do with showing a bit more composure in the final third, also required.
At least the stalemate in the scoreline meant that, with attacking options on the bench, there was always an opportunity for Slade’s side to put this disappointing first-half display to one side, and push for a goal without needing to chase the game.
Maybe such a thought, however, was being a little too optimistic. The start to the second period slow and tentative, with Lookman guilty of hanging onto the ball for too long when a shooting opportunity presented itself, while the U’s really should have put themselves in front. Edwards unmarked from Johnson’s free-kick, but failing to keep his header down and wasting a glorious opening.
But before Edwards had removed the images of his missed headed from his mind, the full-back had committed an even greater crime. Cries of injustice from the home ends as referee Keith Stroud pointed to the spot, but there no way a clear hand ball, with Edwards arm raised as a cross entered the box, was to go unpunished. Out of nothing, the Addicks suddenly had a chance to go in front.
Jackson immediately claiming the ball, and those in the away end feeling a little more nervous as a result. The skipper’s record from the spot, though having not taken a penalty for some time, a little mixed, and few completely convinced Charlton were about to take the lead.
The skipper, however, had all the confidence his supporters might have lacked. Placed coolly into the centre of the goal, as Eastwood dived the other way, though the least said about Jackson’s flopped knee slide the better. Little taken away from passionate celebrations, and a grand sense of relief.
It not so much papering over cracks, but there certainly a hope the goal would give the Addicks a boost, and allow them to stifle Oxford in a more comfortable and composed manner. The lead certainly not secure if Slade’s side continued as they had done.
The response to going ahead, therefore, slightly concerning. Rudd called upon to deal with a Johnson free-kick, a Maguire strike after the forward made space for himself, and a Hemmings effort after the sub broke down the left. Too much space for the U’s, and too easily being allowed to break forward.
A situation not helped by the fact Magennis was struggling more and more on his own up top, and there was no genuine out ball. The away end had previously called for 4-4-2, and the sight of Holmes being readied suggested it might be happening, but Lookman was withdrawn instead of being pushed up top. Frustration, and growing concern.
Frustration and concern that ultimately became despair. Having received several warnings of the threat Oxford posed on the break, the Addicks allowed the U’s to move forward with ease, ultimately concluding with an excellent Maguire finish from a Hemmings pinpoint pass. Nothing to take away from the hosts, but plenty to criticise a disjointed Charlton for.
The sense now that, as they had done last weekend, the Slade’s men would implode. They’d lose confidence, drop deeper, and effectively invite Oxford to win the game.
So Magennis’ powerful header, that caused premature celebrations in the away end, was an ideal response to conceding. The forward picked out at the back post by Holmes, but Eastwood’s reaction save, as great as Rudd’s first-half effort, tipping the ball onto the bar and over. The forward mystified as to how he had been denied his second Charlton goal.
Nonetheless, with just less than 20 minutes to go and Novak introduced, it provided a sense of encouragement. That this game remained winnable.
But with each attempt to get forward, that encouragement decreased. There some intent to win the game, certainly, but not enough equality, composure, or fluency to make it up. Holmes flashing an effort wide, but Oxford otherwise easily able to pick of Charlton’s late forward moves.
Even throwing Botaka on, again with less than ten minutes to play and with not enough time to make a genuine impact, failed to make a real difference. The side still unable to break free of the shackles their first-half efforts had placed them in.
And though there was some excitement as four minutes of stoppage-time was announced, which included the outstanding Dunkley make a marvellous block from a Botaka effort, the Addicks had never done enough to deserve to win this game, nor had they ever looked like doing so.
In fact, it was in stopping an Oxford break, with Sercombe bursting through as he had so often done during the first period, that Lennon received his marching orders. A rather unpleasant tackle that, at the very least, warranted a second yellow.
No difference made to the outcome, but the dismissal reaffirming a feeling of frustration and disappointment. No positives to take or encouragement gained, just a sense that the Addicks had underwhelmed, and Slade’s side remain disjointed and well below where they should be.
The negative post-match reaction, whether justified, most certainly reflective of the performance.
For it not just a frustrating draw at Oxford, a side with a commendable home record and who play a decent style of counter-attacking football, that is the concern, but the fact that same decisions that have previously cost the Addicks points are persistently being repeated.
I cannot, with two fully-fit wingers and two fully-fit strikers, understand Slade’s decision to deploy that cautious, tentative, and non-cohesive starting line-up that he did. There are talented individuals in this squad, who should be able to form a side that can win games, but they are being stifled by these rather bizarre set-ups and lack of attacking intent.
We are capable of taking a game to an opponent, of completely dominating them. It was done against Shrewsbury, and for much of the game against AFC Wimbledon. When we’ve played with a positive, attacking intent, we’ve looked excellent. When we’ve stuttered and been indecisive, we’ve been incredibly poor.
The indecisiveness today the consequence of the ball moved incredibly slowly in midfield, of Magennis battling up top with no around to collect the balls he did win, and Oxford having a bit of energy and pace in the middle. We allowed the U’s, particularly in the first half, to set the tempo, and it seemed we never fully allowed ourselves to escape the fear that they might hurt us on the break.
Why is there a desire to slow the game down, deploy plenty of rugged midfielders, and hope a goal is nicked here or there? Why is the side, nine games into the season, still appearing disjointed and not properly gelled? Why does it seem that Slade won’t be brave and bold with a side that appear at their best when they are given the licence to be brave and bold?
It’s becoming increasingly difficult to understand, and increasingly frustrating. Irrespective of the fact this is a new side, led by a new boss, who must deal with the off-field chaos, this start to the season is not good enough, and largely self-inflicted.
Supporters have every right to feel improvement is required.