To believe that questions of sides can be answered based on the evidence seen within the first week of the season is, of course, naïve. Not least for those sides, to themselves as much as their supporters and a wider football watching public, who have points to prove. But the evidence that Karl Robinson’s Charlton has delivered is mightily encouraging.
Does this group of Addicks have the structural resolve and mental determination to overcome testing circumstances, as hasn’t been the case with those that have worn Charlton colours in recent years? Some will suggest the circumstances of their victory over Bristol Rovers in their first league game of the season, in which Patrick Bauer’s winning goal may not have crossed the line, had an element of fortune about it, but they certainly displayed the characteristics demanded of them. A man light, having had Lee Novak dismissed just six minutes into the contest, the Addicks fought valiantly to record an opening-day win.
Does this Charlton squad have enough depth to cope with injuries and players losing form? Well, while a hard-fought League Cup victory over League Two Exeter City might not be the most reflective indicator, a completely changed XI were able to collect a positive result in midweek. A completely changed XI that featured several promising individual performances.
Does Karl Robinson have what it takes to recover from what was a disastrous managerial year for himself personally, and from an unimpressive start to life as Charlton boss, in order to succeed in the environment that Roland Duchatelet’s regime has created in SE7? Robinson continues to talk irrationally and in riddles, but more of his words have become sensible, and there is greater justification to the positivity he displays. If nothing else, a sense that he believes in himself and his side.
And yet, before each of Charlton’s remaining 45 league games, and the cup games in between, questions of similar nature will be asked and a positive response expected. When so much suffering has been experienced and failure witnessed, there little room for encouraging signs and positive signals if they don’t become something more substantial. Above all else, there is a very simple question to be answered– does this group have enough to provide the minimum expectation of promotion?
Particularly while the season remains new and the league table unsettled, with Robinson’s side needing to reaffirm they will be among those competing this season, the pressure going into every game is particularly high. An expectation on the Addicks to deliver as they make another West Country trip to face Plymouth Argyle. A hope that, having suffered two defeats this week, a side low on confidence will face Charlton at Home Park.
Though it an expectation not born out of arrogance, impossible after the previous campaign, or that simply exists on the back of a positive week. Argyle, a side capable of fluid counter-attacking football having been promoted from League Two under Derek Adams’ management, will pose questions of their own. It an expectation that wants to see, for the first time since 2013, a group of Addicks perform to a standard they can be proud of on a consistent basis.
At the very least, Robinson’s men have created a touch of belief in the previous week.
LAST MEETING – CHARLTON ATHLETIC 2-0 PLYMOUTH ARGYLE (22/01/2011)
It might not have been a victory that would set the tone for the remainder of the season, but Chris Powell set the tone for his time in charge of the Addicks with victory over Plymouth in his first game as Charlton boss in January 2011.
Club legend Powell, appointed after Phil Parkinson had been dismissed with Charlton’s promotion push from League One stuttering and new chairman Michael Slater unimpressed, saw his side take the lead at The Valley ten minutes after the interval.
Marcel Seip, who had been on loan in SE7 previously in the campaign without making an appearance, contributed more for the Charlton cause than he did while part of the squad, as his weak back pass towards goalkeeper allowed Scott Wagstaff to steal in. The academy graduate converting coolly to score the first goal of Powell’s tenure.
And while the Addicks rarely looked like losing their advantage, it wasn’t until stoppage-time that the win was secured. Loanee Nathan Eccleston embarking on a magnificent run, bamboozling two Plymouth defenders as he drove forward from just inside the opposition’s half and cut inside, before curling into the far corner of the goal. A stunning way to end the start of what would ultimately become a very enjoyable period under Powell’s stewardship.
Not that the confidence and momentum gained from an impressive promotion campaign has already been lost, but the opening week of this season will have slightly dented the self-belief of Argyle supporters. At the very least, they could do with a bit of reassurance.
A reassurance that the impressive counter-attacking football, played without sacrificing a structured backline, seen under Adams in the fourth tier will be played in League One. And ultimately a reassurance that they’ll compete over the course of the season. For Plymouth have started the season in, at best, frustrating fashion.
Maybe a touch of misfortune in their opening day defeat to Peterborough United, and most certainly in the opposition’s opening goal. Leo Da Silva Lopes’ cross deflecting off Gary Sawyer, and Luke McCormick powerless to prevent it from heading goalwards. Complaints too about Peterborough’s second, with suggestions of a foul in the build-up as Jack Marriott teed up Junior Morias, that ultimately meant Gregg Wylde’s response for the visitors with 14 minutes to play was relatively meaningless.
And while there can obviously be sympathy for suffering defeat to side in the division above with a weakened team, the way Adams’ men capitulated at Ashton Gate in midweek can’t really be ignored. Argyle conceding three goals by the 19th minute, four by half-time, and ultimately losing 5-0 in their First Round League Cup tie with Bristol City. Defeat probably to be expected, but greater resolve equally demanded.
Nonetheless, the qualities that saw the Pilgrims achieve an impressive promotion remain, and a committed effort to correct a poor first week of the campaign will begin this Saturday.
At this point last season, the Addicks had lost their opening game of the League One season with little fight, and then suffered a humiliating League Cup exit at the hands of a fourth-tier side.
In fact, those in Charlton colours had put more into contesting with their own supporters than they had their opposition at the start of last season, following the pathetic performance in a 2-0 defeat to Bury. Roger Johnson infamously informing a supporter “if you don’t fucking like it, don’t fucking come”.
By contrast, the Addicks were determined and driven last weekend, with Robinson’s ten men battling until the final whistle in order to maintain their slender advantage. Bristol Rovers having most of the ball, launching regular attacks, but rarely able to break down a stubborn Charlton backline. It a victory that, despite the fortune surrounding Bauer’s goal, was warranted.
And it followed by a similarly encouraging display in midweek. Of course, victory should be the minimum expectation against League Two Exeter City, but a rotated side suffered defeat at Cheltenham Town last season. A young group of Addicks responding to going behind, and coming away with a 2-1 win.
Not getting carried away, of course, but it’s an encouraging beginning. And certainly more encouraging than the beginning 12 months ago.
Argyle will be without Ryan Taylor after it was confirmed the forward broke his ankle during the opening day defeat to Peterborough.
Taylor, Plymouth’s main forward option, looks set for three months on the sidelines, and leaves Argyle rather light up top. Nathan Blissett, a January signing from Torquay United, started in attack at Ashton Gate in midweek, and he’ll likely start there again on Saturday as Adams hunts for another forward.
Jamie Ness is also likely to be unavailable despite edging closer to a return to fitness. The Scot, signed in the summer following his release from Scunthorpe United, missed most of pre-season through injury, and hasn’t featured in either of Plymouth’s fixtures at the start of the campaign. And while the midfielder has returned to training this week, he’ll remain some way away from match fitness.
But Oscar Threlkeld should be available for selection, despite limping off injured just 12 minutes after coming during Tuesday’s 5-0 defeat to Bristol City.
Charlton will be lacking a forward suited to playing the lone striker role with both Josh Magennis and Lee Novak unavailable for Saturday’s game against Plymouth.
The importance of Magennis has been repeated throughout pre-season and going into the new campaign, but he’ll sit out the trip to Home Park with the knee injury that kept him out of last weekend’s win over Bristol Rovers, while Novak will serve the second match of his three-game ban having been dismissed six minutes into the game against the Gas.
Billy Clarke, having scored on Tuesday, could be pushed further forward, which would allow Ben Reeves to come into the side, Tony Watt could start up top having done so in midweek, or Karlan Ahearne-Grant could play in a central role despite largely playing out wide during pre-season and at Exeter. But none of that trio are particularly built in the mould of a lone centre forward.
After such an impressive battling performance against Rovers, however, further changes to the side that started the last league game for the Addicks are unlikely. And that despite Robinson making 11 alterations for the League Cup fixture at Exeter, and positive performances to be taken from that in another gritty win.
But Charlton are left without Andrew Crofts as a consequence of that cup tie, with the midfielder dismissed during the second half at St. James Park.
KEY BATTLE – DICTATING WITHOUT A DOMINATING FORWARD
It no coincidence that on several of the occasions that the Addicks were without Magennis last season, they were absolutely woeful.
His goal-scoring important, but more so in Robinson’s system it his ability to lead the line and bring others into play that is so crucial. The outlet, offering something that isn’t really seen anywhere else in this side. The Addicks won’t be complete until he returns.
And while Novak failed to impress in the previous campaign, he can at least perform the role that Magennis does. Not anywhere near the same standard, but he’s suited to it. Having both of them unavailable this weekend is far from ideal.
Because within these battling victories there have been signs that this group of Addicks has the attacking potential to dominate opponents. Ricky Holmes and Tariqe Fosu breaking well, and Billy Clarke turning the ball over nicely against Rovers despite being limited in their opportunities to get forward. But the absence of that imposing figure to hold the ball up and build play around could still be seen, and will still hinder.
It will probably be the case at Home Park that Clarke will lead the line, allowing Reeves to make his first league appearance. But that almost feels like we’re playing with two creative midfielders. Lacking an out ball, as much as a figure who can contribute heavily to attacks from the central position.
As such, in addition to creating a slight limitation on what can be done going forward, there’s a side effect of more pressure being placed on yourself defensively. With it being harder to hold up the ball, the opposition are more likely to regain possession. And this an opposition, not least through Graham Carey, who can be very strong on the break.
The full extent of what this Charlton side can do probably won’t be seen until Magennis returns. Which, if we’re winning games, can only be a good thing. But I anticipate a bit of battling may against be required in the West Country this weekend.
Building steadily. Plymouth Argyle 0-1 Charlton Athletic