Though the injury to Ricky Holmes was unfortunate, particularly prior to a weekend where Charlton Athletic’s wide options will be depleted by international call-ups, Russell Slade’s decision to avoid resting and rotating his squad for the FA Cup tie with Scunthorpe United on Saturday was a sensible one.
The confidence of this side still incredibly fragile, quality and cohesion only being shown in brief glimpses, and supporters still unconvinced. Heightening the possibility of defeat, and an early cup exit, would have been equivalent to self-harm for Slade.
Consequently, though requiring good fortune and the class of Ademola Lookman more than a complete collective performance, a strong XI achieving cup progression was incredibly pleasing, and prevented the slow and stuttering build of momentum from reversing.
Resisting the urge to rotate not only beneficial to the side as a whole, but also, or at least in theory, individuals within that side. One individual in particular requiring as much game time as possible.
For it hasn’t quite clicked for Nicky Ajose in SE7, despite arriving from Swindon Town in the summer having scored 25 goals in all competitions during the previous season.
To a greater extent than Slade’s side in general, his confidence remains incredibly fragile, quality is only being shown in brief glimpses, and supporters are still unconvinced. Wasted chances and looks of disappointment, rather than the goals and subsequent celebrations that were anticipated, dominating the start to his Charlton career.
In fact, even when a show of confidence from the forward resulted in widespread demand for him to start, Ajose still struggled terribly in front of goal.
A last minute penalty to equalise against Gillingham, followed by a celebration in front of Slade, was supposed to be the turning point, but the wasting of a glorious chance to head the Addicks in front against Chesterfield a week later summed up a disappointing performance that failed to reward supporter backing.
It a performance that continued from where he left off in the opening weeks of the season, and not one that built on the confidence that had seemingly been gained at Priestfield. A frustrated figure cut, as he appeared weak on the ball, and showed few signs of the poacher’s instinct that made him one of the most feared forwards in the division while with Swindon.
That penalty against the Gills and two goals at Walsall in August all he has to his name in a Charlton shirt.
Nonetheless, there remains a belief that there is something there. Not just on the basis of his goal scoring record at the County Ground last season, but also because he’s getting into these positions from which excellent chances can be wasted. There no criticism of his movement and intelligence off the ball, but plenty of his composure, quality and decision making with it.
A hope that more game time, and as such more opportunities to rediscover some self-belief in front of goal, is ultimately all that is required for Ajose to become a potent threat. Personally, I was very pleased to see him start last weekend.
Alas, his performance against Scunthorpe might well have damaged rather than improved confidence. It another frustrating afternoon for Ajose.
You certainly couldn’t fault his effort, and he was unquestionably more involved than he has been in previous appearances. His running tireless, his movement consistently intelligent, and much more of his time was spent facing goal.
But, once again, a lot of the positives came while he wasn’t in possession, and there was a sense of disappointment in his attempts to be more involved when the ball was at his feet.
For so often, both in the tighter first half and the periods in the second where the game was incredibly open, Ajose was the figure that led breakaways. So often, Ajose’s decision making was the reason that breakaways came to nothing and concluded with Scunthorpe regaining possession.
The wrong, or a weak, pass made, a reluctance to drive towards goal, instead cutting wide and ultimately running into dead ends, and shots blocked or tame on the occasions he did manage to find himself in a shooting position.
Given that there was energy and intensity, it is apparent that Ajose himself is desperate to make an impression. Whether that be in the manner he attempted to on Saturday, as a figure that’s more involved in the game as a whole, or his more natural role as a clinical poacher.
At the very least, he wasn’t spending most of his time with his back to goal, attempting to collect the ball from deep and hold it up. Something he was rather oddly doing in the early games of this season, and something he quite obviously isn’t suited.
But whether he be running with the ball or waiting to finish off chances, it’s quite apparent confidence and quality is currently absent. It a rather harsh truth that Ajose was not signed to be applauded for his effort, but to score goals on a consistent basis. Those expectations are far from being lived up to.
Given that the goal against Gillingham has not had the impact many hoped it would, the answer to what he needs to rediscover his best form is unknown. A goal from open play? An uninterrupted run in the side regardless of his performances? A bear hug from Slade twice a day?
All would probably help, but the longer this run of Ajose being a frustrating figure continues, the more people will begin to believe he won’t rediscover his best form.
In general terms, it’s also a frustration that there is no real alternative to Ajose, and so the pressure on him mounts. Katrien Meire might well believe the squad is big enough but it simply isn’t. Not signing another forward in Ajose’s mould one of the regime’s biggest failings in the previous transfer window.
Lee Novak and Josh Magennis are too similar, Brandon Hanlan is trusted only from the bench and again a physical presence rather than a pacey poacher, and Ahearne-Grant’s flirtation with the senior side last season leaving a lot to be desired.
There lots of areas in this squad that need strengthening in January to make it one that can perform consistently, not least in midfield, but competition for Ajose’s role a must. A pacey poacher, who will either provide an alternative, or motivate Ajose to perform.
For, at the moment, he’s a poacher who has lost his poacher’s instinct. Hugely, hugely frustrating, because it’s quite apparent that there is something there, and something he is desperate to show.
But trust in him, and support for his efforts, will unfortunately decrease unless he begins to find his feet, and the back of the net. The trip to former club Swindon, hopefully, coming at the perfect time.