At the scene where Karl Robinson shaped a reputation as a forward-thinking boss, instilling a passing philosophy on his MK Dons side that attempted to play attractive football, a performance in some contrast to those principles was required by his group of Addicks to come away from Stadium MK with victory.
A performance required as a consequence of his Charlton Athletic side still struggling to adapt to a style of football that requires fluency, creativity and intensity. A performance needed to give Robinson his first win in charge of the Addicks at his sixth attempt. A performance that, was quite simply, needed.
Fortune undoubtedly playing a part in this single-goal victory, with the hosts dominant in the opening stages. The Addicks performing in a tired and error-prone manner that reflected the efforts seen in defeat against Peterborough United and Millwall. The hosts wasting several excellent openings to inflict deserved punishment on Robinson’s dysfunctional men.
But while MK Dons wasted the numerous openings they were largely gifted, the first real sight of goal that Charlton were given concluded in the visitors taking the lead with seven minutes remaining until the half-time.
An excellent ball through from Andrew Crofts finding Ademola Lookman, and the teenager finishing emphatically into the far corner. A moment of quality to break the deadlock, and give the Addicks a lead that, on the overall balance of play, they probably didn’t deserve.
Having that lead, however, an ideal situation for the Addicks. The search for attacking fluency abandoned, and protecting what was already theirs the focus of the second period.
It not exactly an attractive and enterprising period of football, with this a battle between two underperforming sides. But this a gritty battle that Robinson’s men showed enough fight and resolve to win.
Always on the back foot, but rarely tested, and thrown into a state of characteristic panic on even fewer occasions. Dons left frustrated not only by Dillon Phillips’ timewasting, but so too their inability to break down a backline who had finally discovered some stubbornness. The most un-Robinson-like of victories secured.
As such, this not the base from which the promised brand of football is built, but it is a base from which improvement under Robinson’s leadership can be made.
If nothing else, this a victory that shows some resolve remains in a group of Addicks who had appeared weak and characterless in the previous week. Enough resolve to win while quality remains minimal.
An early sense that this was an afternoon where resolve and determination would be required to be found in Robinson’s team selection. Not a great deal of creativity to be found in a central midfield three of Fredrik Ulvestad, replacing Adam Chicksen having recovered from injury, Johnnie Jackson, making his 250th appearance for the Addicks, and Crofts.
That trio seemingly part of a 4-3-3 formation, with Nicky Ajose and Lookman either side of Josh Magennis in attack, but it soon became quite apparent that both wide forwards would spend a great deal of time inside their own half assisting with the defensive efforts. The Addicks immediately on the back foot.
The early pressure a considerable concern given that improvement on the horrific performance at The Den on Wednesday not only needed to be seen in the way Robinson’s side retained possession and attacked, but in their defensive structure and resolve. Just four minutes played when Nicky Maynard shrugged off Ezri Konsa’s presence and got in behind, with Charlton thankful to see the forward fire across the face of goal and behind.
Quite tamely allowing the opposition into a promising position not the catalyst for the Addicks to settle and discover some composure. A real struggle to maintain possession inside MK’s half, pace and intensity almost completely lacking, and the tally of wayward passes building at a steady rate.
Not a great deal of composure off the ball, either, as Ben Reeves cut inside far too easily only to blast horribly wide. Frustration already growing among the visiting supporters.
Frustration that was released by the singing of “we’ve had a shot” after some uncharacteristically impressive passing play resulted in Magennis firing straight at David Martin from the edge of the box. The goalkeeper needing a second attempt to claim the ball, but there was certainly a feeling that a shot on goal was about as much as the Addicks would have to celebrate over the course of these 90 minutes.
A feeling reinforced as MK again got in behind far too easily, with Reeves ghosting past Konsa, only for the resulting ball across the face of goal to be diverted wide by Dean Bowditch. A glorious opportunity wasted, with the forward needing only to turn the ball over the line from no more than two yards, and a huge let-off for the struggling Addicks.
Regardless, you feared the goal wasn’t too far away. Kieron Agard played into an excellent position, his resulting effort blocked, and a headed follow-up from Reeves lacked the power to properly test even an out of position Phillips. Chaos inside Charlton’s poorly protected penalty area.
There no release, with the Addicks still struggling to find any sort of quality or fluency in their efforts to get forward, and so MK continued to apply quite a concerning level of pressure. A half-cleared free-kick falling kindly to Bowditch, and his first-time strike was deflected narrowly wide, while the same man went close again after Robinson’s men failed to properly deal with the resulting corner, seeing an effort from a promising position float over the bar.
It quite understandable therefore, with Charlton showing little composure at the back and even less quality going forward, that grumbles had turned to boos by the time an unchallenged Maynard had glanced a Reeves free-kick into Phillips’ palms with 30 minutes played. This simply not good enough.
A feeling seemingly shared by Robinson. The entire side called over to the technical area during a break in play caused by an injury to Bowditch. Words spoken, which if they were reflecting the views of supporters, then they would be hammering home the importance of making it through to half-time without the punishment that was so clearly deserved.
So, as half-time drew nearer, it was quite the shock to see Crofts surge through the middle, deliver an inch perfect ball through MK’s backline, and feed Lookman into a position where he was one-on-one with goalkeeper Martin.
The angle relatively tight, and this not a simply finish, but the teenager made light work of an opening more difficult to take than many of the chances those representing the hosts had wasted. The ball blasted beyond Martin, and nestling in the far corner. Against the run of play, out of almost nothing, and realistically undeserved, the Addicks had the lead.
But this was the sort of lead that didn’t suddenly feel you with confidence that victory was on the horizon. It merely changed the concern from worries about falling behind, to worries about losing the lead. That the remaining seven minutes of the half were played with minimal incident, and Robinson’s men could retire to the dressing room with their rather unwarranted advantage intact, provided as big a feeling of relief as any of MK’s missed opportunities.
The need for a second-half improvement, therefore, obvious. If not the discovery of fluent and persistent attacking play, then at least the showing of more composure in defence, and some greater care for the ball in possession.
The required improvement, however, not quite being shown in the half’s opening moments. A wonderful opportunity presented to Reeves, with the ball falling kindly to him on the edge of the box, and Charlton fortunate that he struck wide, while an injury to the calming influence of Jackson, to be replaced by youngster Joe Aribo, didn’t exactly help control the nerves that were flooding the away end.
And though Aribo’s presence, energetic and attack-minded, contributed towards the Addicks briefly experimenting with the idea of getting themselves in and around MK’s final third, it quickly became apparent that the second period would feature unrelenting nervousness and plenty of clock watching. The nature of the game meaning there was an acceptance that Robinson’s men needed to sit deep and desperately defend what they had.
But, within this unbreakable pattern of Dons building attacks and Charlton attempting to stop them, there were some positive signs. Maybe not positive enough to be reassured that victory was to follow, but encouraging all the same.
A stubbornness growing among the Addicks, with the midfield working tirelessly, Konsa and Morgan Fox dealing with MK’s wide threat much more effectively than they were in the first half, and Patrick Bauer and Jorge Teixeira cleaning up anything that hadn’t already been cleaned up. The hosts still getting into decent positions, but Charlton denying them the opportunity to make anything of them.
Greater composure on the ball, too, with the need for the end result of possession to be an effort goal almost completely abandoned. The ball simply passed to the next free purple shirt, regardless of where they were on the pitch, in an attempt to slow the game down and frustrate the opposition.
The opposition also frustrated by Phillips’ antics when preparing to take a goal kick. The goalkeeper inducing the fury of the home crowd as he time wasted quite obviously without the match officials taking any major objection to his conduct. This the complete opposite of the attractive football promised rather boldly by Robinson, and some supporters were to be heard voicing frustrations, but it there was no denying it was practical.
Or at least practical while Robbie Nielson’s men hadn’t equalised. An event that Charlton were not only doing their best to prevent, but so too were the Dons. Wayward passes, horrendously weak deliveries into the box, and overall attempts to build moves in the final third increasingly ending in frustration. MK were struggling, and those wasted first-half openings were looking even more costly than they did at the time of Charlton’s goal.
Struggling to the extent that the next reasonable effort on goal didn’t occur until a little over five minutes were remaining, and that effort on goal was from an Addick. Ajose breaking, and an error from Paul Downing leaving him one-on-one with Martin, but the goalkeeper was out well to block the forward’s effort. The little nagging voice at the back of your mind immediately telling you that would be costly.
The little nagging voice becoming one that screamed and shouted as Roger Johnson, replacing Ajose, was introduced in an attempt to see out four minutes of stoppage-time. “You’re not fit to wear the shirt,” accompanying an away end-wide series of boos as the supporter-hating defender made his way onto the pitch. Not a popular substitution, it must be said.
Though it was one of those keeping him company in the centre of defence that left visiting supporters with hears in mouths for just a moment. Substitute Chucs Aneke bundling his way into the box, only to seemingly be hauled down by Bauer. The immediate thought from my very distant perspective was penalty, so the crossing of the referee’s hands to signal he was disregarding MK’s appeals was a beautiful sight.
As was Ulvestad leading a break, flanked by both those in white and purple, with those four minutes of additional time almost up. The Burnley loanee cynically taken out on the edge of MK’s box by Joe Walsh, and the resulting free-kick, though in a perfect shooting position, used merely to take more time out of the game.
A game that, somehow, would soon have its final whistle with Charlton still clinging onto their advantage.
An advantage they didn’t deserve to have in the first place, and one they protected in rather desperate fashion at times.
But an advantage, and as such a victory, that was celebrated without any of those thoughts tainting the joy. Robinson and his men returning the applause of the visiting supporters, as a first win under Charlton’s new boss, and a first win in seven games in total, was embraced.
The win, in spite of how it was achieved, to be celebrated and enjoyed more as a consequence of the grim events of the previous nine days. More than anything else, it a relief to celebrate victory again after those horror efforts against Peterborough and Millwall.
Though, of course, to completely rid those games from both mind and memory would be naïve, particularly given that, in terms of overall quality, there wasn’t much between the Charlton that turned up in those games, and the Charlton that turned up at Stadium MK.
For there is, unfortunately, little getting away from the fact that the Addicks were rather unimpressive for the majority of the game. Particularly in the dire effort that occurred prior to taking the lead, which rivalled the Millwall performance for shoddiness, and really should have been punished by a MK side creating endless chances. At the very least, they were incredibly fortunate not to have fallen behind before Lookman put them in front.
A moment of quality in a game of little providing the difference that might not have been a reflection of the overall pattern of the game. Crofts’ ball through, and Lookman’s finish, probably the first moment of attacking quality seen for some weeks.
But the difference was also provided in Charlton showing some determination and some steel. In a week where they have shown little character whatsoever, a degree of fight, regardless of how unconvincing and scrappy it was at times, was pleasing to see.
Phillips cool and clever, the backline rarely making any sort of misjudgement after the break, and the midfield driven. Enough to suggest that this was a win achieved in more than just one moment, and that relentless hard work played a part.
It not, however, quite enough to build excitement and optimism for the remaining fixtures of the festive period on its own. Not least given that these are coming against two sides, in the shape of Southend United and Bristol Rovers, who are in decent shape and, most importantly, scoring goals. Improvement in terms of actual quality, fluency and structure required for those two fixtures.
We’re still a long way from being a competent and quality side under Robinson’s leadership. This barely a starting point, given the amount of improvement that remains.
It not a win that downplays the amount of improvement that is required in performance levels, and the improvement that needs to be made to the squad in terms of signings that will hopefully be sanctioned in January.
It a win, after this torrid run of performances, to be celebrated and enjoyed on its own. To build confidence, and to remind supporters that, hiding underneath the weak and wilted bodies that were seen at The Den, there are some hard-working characters in this side.