To question Karl Robinson’s decision to name a rotated XI for Charlton Athletic’s FA Cup second round replay against MK Dons would be incredibly short-sighted.
The Charlton boss, on his first return to his former club, protecting a squad already plagued by injuries in justifiable fashion. The risk involved in fielding fatigued regular starters for this midweek trip to Stadium MK too great when the League One schedule presents what could potentially be a season-defining few weeks.
But that, of course, is not at all to suggest that this extra-time defeat to the Dons is one that Robinson was effectively inviting. A place in the 2016/17 FA Cup not surrendered by the manager making sensible selections. At the very least, there was an Ademola Lookman for every Joe Aribo.
This extra-time defeat to the Dons, however, is not one that is justified by the circumstances that meant fielding a weakened line-up was wise. Not one that can simply be ignored on the basis that the likes of Fredrik Ulvestad, Josh Magennis and the suspended Patrick Bauer were not involved.
For a Charlton side, containing a reasonable mix of proven quality and those with points to prove, proved only that the depth in Robinson’s squad remains a concern. Two goals, scored by Ben Reeves and Dean Bowditch, at the start of the first period of extra-time required to knock the Addicks out of the FA Cup, but their performance was such that a two-goal gap in the scoreline would have been warranted at any stage of the game.
Robinson’s men, lacking fluency and showing the cohesion of a side that was somewhat mashed together, second best from the moment that Aribo was dispossessed in midfield and Daniel Powell was fed through to give the hosts a sixth minute lead.
And though Adam Chicksen’s sublime 24th minute strike drew the visitors level, an effort in complete contrast to the collective sluggishness as the former Dons man cut inside from the left and drilled beyond Lee Nicholls, the goal against the run of play was not a catalyst for the Addicks to find their stride.
There certainly improvement as the game went on, not least with Robinson’s men more frequently entering the final third in the latter stages of the second half, but an underlying sluggishness and a lack of decisive quality meant the Dons were never truly threatened.
And when they were, a regular starter who still has a point to prove wasted a wonderful opportunity. Nicky Ajose, on as a sub, firing straight at Nicholls from close range as extra-time approached.
Instead, the Addicks suffered a seven-minute capitulation at the start of additional time. Reeves curling superbly beyond Dillon Phillips, before Bowditch was allowed to race through and double MK’s advantage.
The response to those goals particularly disappointing, with the steep drop in energy and effort hardly helping a group of individuals attempting to show their value. Maybe best summed up by the fact that members of the squad had to be beckoned over to applaud the visiting supporters by Johnnie Jackson at full-time. The body language not great; heads dropped.
And while many of those who wilted in additional time will not feature as Peterborough United visit The Valley on Saturday, with those rested returning, they remain on the fringes of Robinson’s extremely small and stretched squad.
As a collective unit and as individuals, not enough was shown to have faith in the layer beneath the strongest available XI. And not enough to keep the Addicks in the FA Cup.
The XI that would do battle with the Dons for a second time, after a 1-1 draw at The Valley in the original tie, was not actually as weak and inexperienced as was initially hinted. And not simply because Robinson made six changes to the side that drew with Bradford City, rather than the eight that were promised.
For among those coming into the side were skipper Jackson, wonderkid Lookman, and dependable defensive figure Jorge Teixeira, who played for 86 minutes at Valley Parade. A start also for Kevin Foley, with Ezri Konsa moving into the centre of defence.
In fact, it really only 20-year-old Aribo and 19-year-old Brandon Hanlan that fitted the description of the sort of youngster it seemed would be flooding Robinson’s side. The former making his first non-EFL Trophy appearance for the club, and the latter making a rare start after eight substitute appearances in the league this season.
It not, therefore, a total shock that the Addicks managed to start brightly. Lookman, on the day where rumours of a move to Everton increased, drove forward in typical fashion and flashed an effort from distance just beyond the post with less than ten seconds played.
That positive start stretched until at least the fifth minute, with the visitors looking comfortable in possession, moving the ball around quite nicely, and benefiting from the liveliness that Lookman and Jordan Botaka provide.
So it was against the run of play that Robbie Nielson’s men capitalised on the first sign of Charlton sloppiness to take the lead.
Aribo just taking a moment too long on the ball inside his own half, allowing Darren Potter to close the youngster down and gain possession. The experienced midfielder stretching to slide Powell through on goal, and the forward finishing with composure. An unfortunate moment for Aribo, and for the Addicks as a whole.
But, to Aribo’s credit, his response was that of a much more experienced professional. Calmness and quality on show as he first of all fed Lookman to shoot comfortably wide, before going on a run of his own and lifting a cross-cum-shot over the bar. The 19-year-old certainly not overwhelmed by the situation.
It would have been nice, however, if Charlton’s backline had shown a similar increase in composure following the conceding of the opening goal. Bowditch inches from getting a touch on George Baldock’s low cross, before only the assistant’s flag prevented Powell from rounding off a superb Dons passing move that the Addicks had no answer to. The groans beginning to increase among those in the away end.
In fact, there was a little bit of frustration as Botaka gave the ball to Chicksen on the left flank, for it seemed the Addicks had simply played themselves into a dead end. Botaka not overlapping, and Chicksen’s route forward blocked by Baldock.
Certainly, therefore, some surprise as Chicksen found a way to beat Baldock, cut inside, and strike a superb effort on his weaker foot into the far bottom corner. It somewhat undeserved, but this goal out of nothing was a sublime effort from the former MK Dons full-back.
If nothing else, the equaliser provided a lift to a rather glum away end, and seemingly a lift for those on the pitch. Lookman driving forward, frustratingly ignoring the space that the overlapping Chicksen was in, and dragging an effort wide. Some encouragement to be had, after a period where there was very little at all.
Nonetheless, the Dons continued to pose enough attacking threat to feel some concern. Baldock getting forward really well from full-back, Chuks Aneke in a battle of strength with Konsa, and Powell lively. Aneke heading a Potter free-kick over the bar.
And if the attacking threat of the Dons wasn’t of particular concern, then yet another injury to an Addick most certainly was. Any momentum gained from the goal definitely extinguished as Lee Novak was forced to hobble off five minutes before the break. Morgan Fox on to replace him, and both supporters and Robinson left to once again curse the club’s current lack of lucky with injuries.
Though they might have also been cursing defensive qualities as half-time approached, with both Aneke and Ryan Colclough given far too much time on the ball, as the former teed up the latter to curl an effort just over the bar. No real threat to Phillips, but a timely reminder that intensity, cohesion, and overall quality needed to increase in the second period if the Addicks were to progress.
For it probably fair to suggest that, after a half of misplaced passes and overall sloppiness, Charlton were a touch fortunate to be going in level at the break.
A touch fortunate, too, that the energy in MK’s attacking play appeared to have taken a hit at the start of the second period. Baldock and Jackson exchanged wayward strikes from distance, but the opening stages of the second half were largely characterised by uninventive forward moves from each side being easily cut out by the opposition defence. The hosts’ backline comfortable, and Charlton’s now settled, with neither being tested to any real degree.
But, with an hour played, it was the Dons defence that was the first to crack in this rather tedious passage of play. Lookman creating space for himself inside the box, getting a clear sight of goal, but denied by the body of Nicholls. An excellent opening in any situation, but more so given the stalemate this game was in.
What followed, however, was arguably the most positive spell the Addicks had during the entire game. A ten minute period where they persistently found ways to get into the final third, supported by Foley and Fox driving forward from full-back and the quality of Aribo starting to show in the centre. Possession maintained nicely, and regular attempts made to threaten down either flank.
Effort that could not be faulted, but a complete lack of end product rendered it meaningless. Crosses wayward, Hanlan struggling to have any impact whatsoever, and frustration growing as promising positions were wasted with backwards passes.
In fact, such was Charlton’s inability to create anything meaningful, it was the Dons who would next threaten. The lively Reeves on as a substitute, and his strike from distance moving considerably in the air, making Phillips’ subsequent save all the more impressive.
Robinson responded by withdrawing the ineffective Hanlan in favour of Ajose, but he too seemingly struggled to have the effect that was required. Someone needed in the centre to hold the ball up and provide a genuine test to the untroubled Dons defence when the ball was in the air. The presence of Josh Magennis so desperately missed.
Nonetheless, that a substitution more respected than the one that saw club captain and icon Jackson replaced by the widely despised Roger Johnson. It bad enough having the fan-hating centre-back on the pitch in any circumstances, let alone coming on in place of the skipper.
But ten minutes remained and, while dedicating time to wishing all the world’s suffering upon Johnson is rather fun, the focus had to be on Charlton’s attempts to find a route into the third round. Colclough’s wayward effort for the Dons drawing extra-time ever closer.
It effectively accepted that 180 minutes of football would not separate these two sides as stoppage-time approached, with neither set of supporter roaring in encouragement as the final minute was entered, but then Ajose suddenly appeared in front of goal with the ball at his feet.
Out of nothing, the striker had been fed through into the box, and a clever fake shot had beaten his man, leaving just Nicholls between him and the goal. But the composure shown in that piece of trickery was not to be seen in his shot, firing straight at the goalkeeper, and Botaka’s tame follow-up easily collected. A horrendous piece of finishing.
A horrendous piece of finishing that might have been immediately made costly, as Ed Upson saw an effort deflect just wide deep into stoppage-time. The resulting corner sent behind for another, before Dean Lewington headed back across the face of goal, but the Addicks able to clear their lines.
And so extra-time was required. A huddle from Robinson’s men suggested the intent and desire remained, and that the Addicks would be offering their all in this period of 30 minutes in order to progress to the third round of the FA Cup.
A notion crushed just three minutes into the additional period. Johnson standing off Agard, the forward able to tee up Reeves, and his finish from the edge of the box quite spectacular. It hard to see how this Charlton side, tame and toothless during the parts of the 90 minutes where they weren’t misplacing passes, would be able to respond.
But, to their credit, they almost did. A Chicksen delivery from a free-kick not properly dealt with my Nicholls, with the ball bouncing back off Teixeira’s head, and Ajose unable to apply the finishing touch required as he slid in at the far post. Maybe this wasn’t quite yet game over.
It just that, less than a minute after coming close to equalising, the deficit was made even greater. Men committed forward, Bowditch in plenty of space, and the forward fed through by Agard to convert with all the composure that Ajose had previously lacked. Seven additional minutes all that was required for Dons to seal their place in the third round.
There few inside the ground not on board with the notion that the outcome of this game was now settled, but that did not justify a rather weak and lifeless response from the Addicks. Tiredness may have played a part, but the lack of effort, energy and fight that followed falling two goals behind was extremely disappointing. It almost as if the visitors were going through the motions, desperate for the full-time whistle.
Ajose’s effort of particular frustration for supporters, as he failed to challenge for winnable deliveries, and was easily dispossessed after being fed the ball with a chance to run at goal.
Phillips required to collect an effort from Agard, and Upson firing wide, but the second period of extra-time little more than a necessary formality. The Dons in control, and Charlton seemingly without anything left to give.
And so, as Jackson pulled members of a rather demoralised side over to the away end, there could be no complaints with the outcome. It might have taken until the start of extra-time, but Charlton’s overall tame effort suitably punished.
This a tame effort by Robinson’s side in many ways. The misplaced passes and constant sluggishness making it a disappointing collective performance, the individuals with the greatest attacking spark unable to provide any real moments of quality, and both the deliveries and standard of finishing when chances did arrive was incredibly weak.
Overall, it a performance that lacked both the fluency and fight of Saturday’s effort during the draw with Bradford. A side assembled without structure and cohesion, and not a great deal of quality on show.
For those that were in with a point to prove largely frustrated. Botaka hasn’t impressed despite being given a starting role under Robinson, and his decision making was incredibly infuriating at Stadium MK. Teixeira, as you would expect, perfectly fine defensively, but guiltier than many of sending horribly wayward passes to his teammates. Hanlan having no impact whatsoever, and looking a little out of his depth.
Even Aribo, whose talent and potential was made obvious with a combination of both composed and aggressive play, had his performance tainted by the error for the first goal. A real shame, as he otherwise looked at ease in midfield, always wanting the ball, and wanting to do something with it.
Nonetheless, a reminder offered, if it were needed, of the importance of the likes of Bauer, Ulvestad and Magennis. As individuals that piece the side together, and as individuals with their own qualities, the absence of their presences was glaringly obvious. A reminder of how concerning an injury to those key men would be, and a reminder of the lack of depth in the squad.
If nothing else, both the collective and individual efforts show the importance of strengthening in January. This on a day where it has been suggested that Konsa and Lookman may depart.