The theme of recent months has been one of club officials attempting to assure unconvinced supporters that previous mistakes are being learnt from at Charlton Athletic. Namely Katrien Meire, without a great deal of evidence, suggesting this regime have learnt how to run a football club over the summer and now have good intentions.
Those suggestions, of course, laughed off. Seen as porkies among supporters, still firmly opposed to this regime.
But it’s not only in the boardroom where there is a reluctance to learn from previous mistakes. Not for the first time this season, Russell Slade’s substitutions and insistence on his side dropping deeper in a game they controlled was partly to blame for his side throwing away two points.
An 85th minute Port Vale equaliser, with Alex Jones converting from the spot having been brainlessly hauled down by Harry Lennon, largely the consequence of Charlton sacrificing the dominance they had maintained for much of the game and inviting pressure.
“Russell Slade, he ain’t got a clue,” sung by the majority of Charlton’s travelling contingent, with the decision to substitute Ricky Holmes, the main forward threat, and Josh Magennis, a real handful for Vale’s backline, a particular cause for frustration. The hosts allowed back into a game they should have been out of.
Of course, the Addicks, who had taken the lead when Frederik Ulvestad turned in Holmes’ flat cross with half an hour played, would not have had to worry about late equalisers if they had made the most of their earlier dominance. Magennis constantly causing problems and close on several occasions, while Ulvestad wasted two glorious chances to double his and Charlton’s tally.
But it was the decision to withdraw Charlton’s presence in attack, with Slade already deploying a resilient enough 4-5-1, which bore the brunt of supporter anger as Jones, via a desperate Declan Rudd fingertip, drew Vale level. The threat on the counter lost, allowing the hosts to attack with greater freedom, and the Addicks without an out ball, pegging them firmly inside their own half.
And though there were half chances for Charlton to regain their lead in the remaining minutes of the game, as Brandan Hanlan fired off-target and Ulvestad dragged an effort wide, momentum was lost. Roars of encouragement from the previously quiet home supporters as their side moved forward with greater intensity and intent. The visiting supporters ultimately thankful their side were determined in their efforts to defend deliveries into the box.
That an equaliser and the resulting moments of discomfort occurred, however, was almost entirely self-inflicted. The inability to kill the game off with the chances created, followed by Slade’s incredibly frustrating tactical change ups.
In fact, an incredibly frustrating evening in general at Vale Park. A need for Slade to start leaning from his mistakes.
Questions raised before kick-off with regards to Slade’s tactical set-up, as the 4-4-2 deployed for much of the victory over Coventry City at the weekend was replaced by what has so far been a largely unpopular 4-5-1 formation.
Lee Novak, having struggled to make an impression on Saturday, benched in favour of skipper Johnnie Jackson making a return to the side, while the injured Jason Pearce was replaced in defence by Harry Lennon.
It appeared an unnecessarily cautious approach against a side who had lost 4-0 to Sheffield United at the weekend, and were slowly slipping out of the early impressive form they began the season with. A defence that was surely there to be got at, while inviting them to control the game ran the risk of reigniting their forward threat.
The early signs weren’t exactly calming. Sam Hart finding himself in space down Vale’s left, Rudd flapping at his resulting cross, and Morgan Fox needed to put the ball behind.
But, to Charlton’s credit, ten minutes were barely on the clock before they began to settle, showing a certain amount of attacking intent that exploited the pace of Ademola Lookman and the rampant Holmes. The latter’s run beating black and white shirts in front of him, his cross parried by Jak Alnwick, and the Vale defence just about dealing with the danger.
And while Bruno Ribeiro’s side still carried a certain amount of threat, as Jones worked himself into a pocket of space on the edge of the box and fired straight at Rudd after Magennis, winning every ball sent his way, had turned in a similar position at the other end and flashed an effort just wide, it was with just over 15 minutes played that Slade’s side took total control of the game.
Not only exploiting the pace available to them in wide positions and utilising the physicality of Magennis, but affording the opposition no time in possession whatsoever. A frustrated Anthony Grant, holding the ball inside his own half with nowhere to go, became a regular picture. What was, on paper, quite the defensive set-up now appeared one instilled with energy and intensity.
Such energy and intensity, of course, was almost meaningless without a goal. Puzzled looks all around as Holmes met Fox’s delivery, Alnwick somehow clawed the ball away from close to the line, and a hack clear saved Vale’s blushes.
The goalkeeper, brother of former Addick Ben, called upon again twice in quick succession to deny Holmes and Ulvestad from distance in relatively comfortable fashion, but there was certainly nothing comfortable about the way his defence were dealing with Charlton’s growing forward threat.
In fact, even Alnwick himself looked uncomfortable as the unstoppable Holmes picked out the uncontainable Magennis in the centre. The Northern Ireland international’s header bouncing off the underside of the crossbar in such a way that there were celebrations in the away end, before Alnwick pounced on the loose ball and the Addicks were left to rue another missed opportunity.
These missed opportunities were stacking up, but at least Slade’s side were continuing to push forward with threat and intent. Those low crosses from either flank continuing to cause concern, as Magennis challenging for a Jackson delivery sparked another scramble that Vale came out of the better, before a bizarre tussle inside the box concluded with an old-fashioned drop ball, which came to nothing.
Nonetheless, maybe a reminder that Charlton couldn’t afford to get complacent was useful, as Port Vale enjoyed a rare moment in the opposition’s final third just before the half hour. The hosts breaking forward with relative ease, Quentin Pereira delivering an inviting cross, but the alert Rudd able to scramble across goal and collect Jones’ relatively tame header.
But before those supporting the Addicks had started to imagine a gruesome ending where their side’s dominance goes to waste and Vale steal an undeserved win, their side were on the attack again.
Or at least Holmes was on the attack with half an hour on the clock. Powering down the right, with those in black and white merely watching him as he sprinted past. The former Northampton man getting right to the byline, before delivering for Ulvestad, who just about managed to bundle the ball beyond Alnwick and give the Addicks the lead they had long deserved.
Joy in the celebrations, most certainly, but an element of relief in them, too. The fear that, in quite typical Charlton fashion, the dominance would count for nothing momentarily pushed to the back of the few hundred Addicks shivering to death in the away end.
Encouraging signs, in fact, that there might be more as Patrick Bauer’s dominant figure met a Lookman corner, only to head narrowly wide, before Jackson, linking the play up quite nicely but largely staying away from goal, saw an effort form range curl back in a fraction too late to challenge Alnwick.
But such was Charlton’s dominance, amidst the applause of appreciation that those in purple most definitely deserved, there’s was a touch of regret come the half-time whistle.
Regret that the Addicks hadn’t moved the game beyond the reach of Port Vale, and now the hosts would have a chance to regroup and offer something more threatening. Sam Kelly replacing Martin Paterson before the second period got underway, hoping to contribute towards that.
The second half, however, began how the first concluded, with Slade’s side looking much the more competent and threatening.
But replicating the first half also meant that the Addicks continued to show an alarming degree of wastefulness in front of goal. There little that could be done about Alnwick denying Magennis, flicking on Lookman’s free-kick, from point-blank range, but the embarrassed expression on Ulvestad’s face said it all as he pushed the rebound wide.
Charlton continued to cause a threat, as Magennis ran into a tight angle and shot tamely across the face of goal, but Vale were seemingly growing in confidence. Where they had previously stood motionless, uncertain what to do, they were now looking for a wide man or allowing Grant to bomb forward. A greater willingness to get forward on show.
And here, on the hour mark, was the first sign of the Addicks looking a little uncomfortable and dropping questionably deep. The threat dealt with well, with a succession of corners beaten away and Bauer and Lennon standing firm in the centre, but there definitely a sense that second goal could have been done with ten minutes earlier.
In fact, the pattern of play began to change slightly. The hosts in control of the ball, attempting to build attacks at their own pace with Charlton bodies sitting deeper and deeper, while the Addicks were reliant on exploiting the pace they had available on the counter.
With that pace still there to be exploited, it certainly wasn’t the case that Slade’s side were simply clinging on for dear life. Holmes again delivering, Ulvestad again meeting, but Alnwick able to make a point-blank save. The Norwegian would have doubled Charlton’s lead if he’d diverted the ball either side of the stopper.
At least the Bauer-led backline was standing firm, even if the midfield was now non-existent and these chances continued to be wasted. A loopy header from Rigino Cicilia, comfortably clearing Rudd’s crossbar, about as good as it got for Vale in terms of real chances with 15 minutes to play.
In fact, Charlton’s defence was not only led by the big German, but the still rampaging Holmes and the determined Magennis. The winger still allowing the Addicks to break, if only into positions that kept the ball further away from his side’s own goal, while the forward, despite taking a couple of hefty blows, continued to win almost every ball with relative ease. Holmes’ pace and Magennis’ strength crucial outlets for Charlton in the game’s closing moments.
So, having seemingly already instructed his side to sit deeper and allow the hosts greater possession of the ball in midfield, Slade’s decision to take the pair off, replacing them with league debutant Adam Chicksen and forward Novak, who has struggled to impress so far, was incredibly difficult to understand. It seemed to do little but invite pressure upon ourselves, particularly with Lookman already removed.
Pressure that Port Vale almost immediately inflicted, as a neat passing move concluded with Jones breaking into the box and Lennon rather brainlessly hauling the winger down. A penalty that referee Salisbury had little choice but to award.
As Jones, having dusted himself down, stood over the penalty spot, those numerous missed chances replayed themselves in your mind. The game really should have been killed off or, at the very least, there should have still been two players on the pitch that offered an out ball to the Addicks. That the opposition had the chance to equalise didn’t reflect the entire game at all, but this was a moment brought on themselves.
A slight moment of hope that the Addicks would escape as Rudd got a fingertip to Jones’ strike, but the effort too powerful, and not stopped from hitting the roof of the net. With five minutes to play, Vale were level.
It incredibly difficult to see how Slade’s side pick themselves up for the remaining minutes, so it came as quite a shock to see substitute Hanlan bomb into the box with the ball at his feet just a minute later. There nothing wrong with the young forward’s run, but plenty wrong with the finish, as he blasted horribly off-target.
That opening not enough to stop the cries of excitement and encouragement whenever the ball was at the feet of a Vale player. There now a real feeling that the hosts had the momentum with which to win this contest, and that was a fear of similar belief in the away end. Anger expressed in the general direction of Slade as the game continued.
And though Rudd almost presented the hosts with a fantastic opening, dropping a cross inches away from the feet of Grant before just about recovering in time to prevent a goalmouth scramble, Charlton were fortunate that Vale had no real end product to their possession in midfield and on the flanks.
In fact, it was the Addicks who had the final say of the game. Ulvestad, wasteful since opening the scoring, poking wide from a much more forgiving position.
But few were in the mood to forgive come full-time, as murmured boos and general grunts of frustration occupied the away end. Solemn faced players receiving gentle claps, but Slade, the cause of much of this frustration, staying well away from the visiting supporters. There no doubt that this was two points dropped.
And two points dropped largely as a consequence of two factors. A tameness in front of goal, and tactical changes that hindered Charlton’s control of the game and allowed Vale the opportunity to snatch an equaliser.
Of course, with greater potency in front of goal, there probably wouldn’t even need to be a discussion about Slade’s decision making. Ulvestad grabs a second or third, a Vale side that lacked genuine cutting edge are crushed, and the three points are sealed.
And the performance for large parts of the game was enough to warrant a victory by two or three. Holmes marvellous, Magennis winning every last little ball and doing something with it, and Lookman constantly pushing the Vale defence onto the back foot. That attacking trio enjoyed an impressive evening.
But the moment Slade’s side began to sit deeper, and Vale began to enjoy more possession of the ball in the centre, you sensed discomfort and concern. The second wasn’t coming, and the Addicks responded by dropping deeper, inviting more pressure, and ultimately withdrawing their main two outlets.
Taking off Magennis and Holmes dangled the carrot in front of Vale noses, and they gladly accepted it. The decisions making no sense, and reaffirmed as bizarre given the minimal impact Novak and Chicksen had after coming on.
Being cautious is one thing, and many managers would have attempted to simply see the game out in that situation, but Slade taking off Magennis and Holmes wasn’t just an act of caution, but one of self-sabotage. Losing those two took away any sort of out ball, and meant Vale would control the remainder of the game.
And it’s not the first time that Slade’s cautious tactics and bizarre substitutions have caused frustration. AFC Wimbledon and Oxford United for certain, with Scunthorpe a possibility given that we were in a position to win that game if attacking changes had been made. A need for Slade to be more decisive, and certainly more logical.
Or, failing that, some of his players could be a touch more potent in front of goal.