The absence of those away on international duty, all players with attributes that Charlton Athletic desperately missed during their pathetic 3-0 defeat to Swindon Town, provides a convenient excuse for a catastrophic performance at the County Ground. The Addicks could have had the game postponed, and avoided total embarrassment, if it were not being broadcast by Sky Sports.
But the absence of those representing their countries not an excuse for the absence of quality, cohesion and effort among those representing Charlton in Wiltshire. For the complete absence of defensive composure and attacking fluidity. For the complete absence of a coherent game plan from Russell Slade, whose reliance on a handful of individuals to cover both the cracks in his system and his squad was exposed.
Maybe if defeat had been suffered in a manner that meant the Addicks maintained some degree of pride, that saw them compete with their 21st placed opponents and ultimately come up short by the narrowest of margins, then you could feel a sense of injustice.
The only injustice to feel was that the effort of those supporters who had travelled to the Country Ground for a midday kick-off had been insulted.
For having witnessed a first half littered with sideways passing, players too afraid to carry the ball forward, and directionless hoofs to isolated forwards, those in the away end were left enraged as their side conceded in pathetic fashion two minutes before half-time. Sean Murray allowed space, his shot deflecting off Morgan Fox as he made a half-hearted attempt to block the effort, and Declan Rudd motionless in the Charlton goal as the ball trickled into the far corner.
In truth, though a dire game lacking any real excitement or quality, this a lead that Swindon’s more dynamic play deserved. The contrast in energy, the drive of those in wide positions, and the pace of passing moves as wide as the view Katrien Meire has of herself in comparison with reality.
The contrast, and the deficit, made greater by Charlton’s comical defensive efforts. It effectively game over five minutes after the break as all in purple stood motionless while a defendable delivery from a corner found its way to the back post, and Lloyd Jones was able to convert.
A response from the Addicks that showed both a lack of endeavour, and frustration with a dysfunctional game plan, followed. Slade as motionless on the sidelines as many of his players, while Luke Williams’ men continued to dominate with relative ease. Those in the away end turning their attentions to the regime, when not sarcastically celebrating the retention of possession.
The anti-regime chants determined, full of emotion, and full of desperate hope that they would contribute towards forcing the required result. The half-hearted Addicks, meanwhile, fortunate not to have their weak efforts capitalised upon and be further behind.
A third Swindon goal, creating a scoreline with a truer reflection of the game, not coming until the 86th minute. The Robins breaking beyond Charlton’s stationary back-line, with the move ultimately finished by the impressive John Goddard.
Understandable anger in the away end, expressed for a final time as head-bowed players retreated down the tunnel come full-time.
But there no bemoaning Sky’s stubbornness to prevent the postponement of this fixture, nor simply the absence of important players. Merely the pathetic performance of a side completely outplayed. This embarrassing in any circumstance.
There undoubtedly a level of concern that the Addicks would find the trip to the County Ground a testing one, and not because Swindon were benefiting from the wisdoms of new director of football Tim Sherwood for the first time.
Without Josh Magennis (Northern Ireland), there was no talismanic figure in attack. Without Ademola Lookman (England U20s), there was no individual talent capable of deciding a game on his own. Without Jordan Botaka (DR Congo), there was no pace, skill and creativity to utilise from the bench.
All three away on international duty, with injury to Ricky Holmes hindering Charlton’s resources further. Returns for Jason Pearce and Chris Solly barely noted in an XI that reflected this depleted and understocked side.
Lee Novak replacing Magennis not too demoralising, but the sight of four central midfielders lacking pace or creativity on the teamsheet certainly was. It a struggle to pair Johnnie Jackson, Kevin Foley, Fredrik Ulvestad and Andrew Crofts, such is their similarity as deep-lying and conservative midfielders, so using all four in a narrow centre seemed to do Swindon’s job for them and prevent Slade’s side from being an attacking threat.
The early signs hardly providing much reassurance to suggest otherwise, as the Addicks looked slow, sluggish, and without any means to carry the ball from back to front. The Robins undoubtedly the brighter of the two sides, providing testing deliveries from wide positions, one of which was narrowly headed over by the lively Michael Doughty.
It quite alarming to see just how simple It was for an energetic group of Swindon players to string a few passes together and subsequently find themselves in a promising position, while Charlton knew only how to make passes that kept them in their own half of the pitch. It took a mere 15 minutes for cautious passing moves, and the subsequent directionless punt in the general direction of Novak or Nicky Ajose, to become frustrating.
Not least with Swindon continuing to find the task of getting the ball into their attacking third quite a simple one. A certain tameness in their end product at least letting the Addicks off the hook, and allowing the game to maintain its tag as quite a dire one, as Goddard dragged wide with little threat to Rudd’s goal before Jones could only fire into a sea of bodies having been left unattended at the far post following a corner.
The Robins also restricted by the determined efforts of Patrick Bauer. A series of well-won headers and superbly timed tackles, with forward Luke Norris often the beaten party, earning a the centre-back a loud chant of “we’ve got a big fucking German”. Quite possibly the only time throughout the 90 minutes that the name of a player was sung with any real meaning.
In truth, there was at least a reasonable amount of effort being given by Ajose, with the attacker facing his former club. Success in his attempts to chase down directionless punts that appeared to be running out of play, with possession won for the Addicks high up the pitch. The resulting Johnnie Jackson, testing but not quite threatening enough, at least meaning Swindon’s backline needed to work for their wages.
But these brief moments of distraction from a performance lacking any sort of attacking movement, creative passing or dynamic energy were not all enough to be encouraging. The continuation of this dreadful play while in possession, and rather static efforts without the ball, increasing the frustration among visiting supporters.
There only groans, and growing sense of concern, as Rudd calmly collected a Murray shot from the edge of the box, before responding to a Norris drive in rather less convincing fashion. Fox allowing the forward to waltz past him, with Charlton’s goalkeeper only able to parry the resulting effort, and some rather desperate defending required to prevent a player in red pouncing on the rebound.
At least Fox soon made some attempt to redeem himself, as the left-back, opting against the sideways passes available, carried the ball forward and delivered an inviting ball towards Novak. The forward nodding over, and having the honour of claiming his side’s first reasonable effort on goal of the game 37 minutes into it.
A second attempt followed, as Ulvestad’s drive from a half-cleared set-piece was hit in the general direction of the corner flag, but the excitement of seeing a Charlton player do something reasonably positive produced an “ooo” and some applause from an away end starved of encouragement.
Alas, such starvation was to be reaffirmed before the break, and to such an extent that not even a half-time pie would address it. There no reason to feel encouraged when trailing a side in the bottom four while performing so poorly.
Some degree of misfortune involved, as Murray’s off-target effort found the bottom corner via a deflection off Fox that wrong-footed Rudd, but the reality is that this was the moment where Charlton’s sloppy and static defending was finally punished.
Jackson’s ambitious strike attempted to restore parity, while Bauer might have done better having headed comfortably over from a corner, but a goal deficit was the very least this lifeless performance from the Addicks deserved. Boos from the away end an indication of just how disgraceful an effort this was, and hopefully a message to both Slade and his players that desperate improvement was required.
It probably a sign of how limited his resources are that Slade’s response was to replace Foley with the inexperienced Brandon Hanlan. The forward forced out wide, with Ajose edging more towards the left flank, in the hope of injecting more attacking output into dire performance.
The result, however, was for Charlton to lose any sort of structure and shape they might have had without gaining anything going forward. Not the fault of Hanlan, who battled, but this now a side completely clueless, led by a completely clueless tactician.
Reaffirmed as, just five minutes into the second period, comedic defending from the Addicks was suitably punished. No reasonable challenge to Goddard’s corner, the ball ultimately falling to an unmarked Jones, and the ball finding the back of Rudd’s net in rather emphatic fashion. Game over.
Not only a feeling born out of the dire efforts of Slade’s men, but one that increased as a consequence to their dispirited response to falling further behind. There an acceptance among those in purple that the game was lost, or at least that the mentality that was expressed.
If ever there was justification that the attention of Charlton supporters should be elsewhere, this was it. The lifeless Addicks reflecting the overall mood that has been instilled upon the club by the regime, and has paralysed the club. It was said that Sky were apologetic, but the passionate singing of “just sell the club, our famous football club” suggested that those in the away end were anything but.
The game, however, did unfortunately continue, and there might have been a glimmer of undeserved hope for the Addicks had an obvious shirt pull on Hanlan as he attempted to connect with Novak’s cross-cum-shot had been spotted by the referee. Appeals and protests minimal among both players and supporters.
But with just over an hour played, there was celebration in the away end. Celebration of the fact, through Ajose, the Addicks had finally managed an attempt on target. That Lawrence Vigouroux made a comfortable save irrelevant.
As was the fact that sideways and uninventive passing continued while supporters sarcastically sung “we’ve got the ball”. There only so much of such a dreadful performance, in a time when the club’s ownership continues to cripple, that can be taken before you must pretend it isn’t really happening.
Though there was no ignoring the collectively pathetic efforts of Charlton’s backline as Swindon almost added a third. Darnell Furlong allowed through in a wide area, and able to cross to a completely unmarked Norris, but the forward failed to connect with the delivery and wasted what seemed like the simplest of chances to score.
The situation effectively repeated just over ten minutes from time as the Robins were able to cut through a static backline and create an excellent opening for themselves. Yaser Kasim the recipient, but Rudd superbly denied the playmaker when one-on-one, before a desperate block from Jason Pearce prevented Doughty from converting the loose ball. Rudd ultimately claiming possession, while Charlton supporters continued to wish they didn’t have to claim to support this side.
With no improvement to the forward efforts, the passing still lacklustre, and the defensive composure worsening, there no doubt that Slade’s side deserved to concede a third. Another chance for the Robins to inflict such suffering as substitute Nathan Delfouneso fired straight at Rudd having, like so many before him, got in behind Charlton’s backline.
But there wasn’t to be a similar reprieve when a heavily weighted Swindon break with four minutes to play concluded with Kasim perfectly playing in Goddard. His finish excellent, and there no reason to take anything away from an impressive Swindon move, but this static, structureless and gutless defending from the Addicks was an embarrassment.
An embarrassment that, after Anton Rodgers had fired a free-kick off-target deep into stoppage-time, would thankfully come to an end. Half-hearted attempts made by those who had just delivered a completely half-hearted performance to applaud the away fans, but heads were bowed, and supporters were too enraged to care.
There no excuse for this. A performance without effort, quality or structure. A performance full of insult.
In fact, there would have been further insult inflicted if Slade had attempted to defend this on the fact players were absent. It no solace that he has apologised for such a dreadful display, but doing otherwise would have increased anger beyond measurable levels.
For though Magennis might have made a few of those punts up field a bit less directionless, Lookman might have created a chance out of nothing, and Botaka might have injected some life into the game during its closing stages, you cannot use their absence to defend a performance that will be remembered for just how pathetic it was.
Even if you believe they could have made a genuine difference, there is no avoiding the abysmal defensive performance that became more calamitous throughout the game. The Addicks not even chasing shadows, simply watching as a Swindon side possessing the ability to move the ball quickly got themselves into decent positions. The Robins themselves probably couldn’t believe how simply it was for them to break forward, particularly in the latter stages of the second half.
A time by which all structure had gone, and all effort had been lost. The general criticism of Fox undeserved, but this quite possibly his worst performance in Charlton colours, Solly contributing very little and struggling defensively, while the partnership of Bauer and Pearce declined as the game went on. Williams’ men could have helped themselves to any score they wanted.
But it the performance going forward that really enraged supporters, and that created a situation where all energy and effort was seemly sucked out of the Addicks.
There not a single moment in the game where a competent attacking move was made, where you sensed energy and intent in Charlton’s play, or where a player made a genuine attempt to run at an opponent. It devoid of any sort of structure, system or skill.
The sideways passing a chore to watch, and seemingly a chore to be a part of judging by the demeanour of those representing the Addicks. There no a single individual in the side capable of bucking this trend, and the individual meant to instil a collective quality appeared powerless from minute one.
This, in addition to the general lack of quality and poor mentality of those involved in performance, is principally the result of two things. A manager lacking tactical creativity, overly reliant on certain individuals to make his cautious set-up effective, and a squad that has no depth whatsoever, which is a reality the ownership have ignored.
Slade is a stubborn and defensive manger, who lacks the ability to be creative or flexible, and has relied so heavily on the attacking threat his wide options provide this season to collect points. Starting the game with a 4-4-2, and with a narrow midfield, completely destroyed any chance Charlton have of having an attacking influence on the game. It not the first time he’s played a narrow or unbalanced midfield, and it’s not the first time we’ve performed without any attacking quality.
But, of course, some sort of 4-4-2 formation might have had greater impact if there was a reasonable amount of depth in the wide positions. Being without three wingers is tough, but not having more than three wingers in a squad is incredibly naïve. Having to shove an inexperienced forward out wide, and up top being another area where we lack options and have become reliant on one figure, reflective of that.
And then you remember that the club apparently has a top six budget, and the play-offs were the absolute minimum. It would seem that avoiding embarrassment is the new absolute minimum, and I’m not totally convinced we’re capable of achieving that on a consistent basis.
The bleak feeling that today has provided overall, evidently among players and supporters, reaffirming the desperate requirement for change at this football club. That something a few players coming back from international duty can’t solve.