The ground on which Charlton Athletic played their game against Plymouth Argyle provided an image to almost perfectly represent the position Karl Robinson’s side finds itself in, with supporters previously driven by a seemingly unstoppable sense of optimism enlightened by a sense of realism following this display in the West Country.
For surrounding three quarters of Argyle’s Home Park pitch stands a modern structure to house supporters. Imposing and incredible it is not, but comfortable and with few faults it is. From a certain angle, Plymouth’s home appears an arena to match, if not better, many in League One.
Behind the dugouts, however, is a stand belonging in the 1970s, seemingly left without a great deal of attention since then. Some might suggest it has character, which in some ways it does, but the deteriorating areas on either side, loose electric cables, and the area of unused terracing make it something of an eyesore. If Home Park wants to be a modern arena, it is far from the finished product.
And if Charlton want to be a promotion contender, which this summer and the first week of the campaign has suggested might be possible, then they too are far from the finished product. A turgid second-half performance, combined with a clear indicator that the depth in Robinson’s squad is not yet at the level required, meant Argyle were able to capitalise on the Addicks’ sluggishness and leave them licking the wounds of defeat for the first time this season. Jake Jervis striking twice without reply to give the hosts a two-goal victory.
A victory that, given that nature of Charlton’s efforts after the interval, was ultimately made far too comfortable for the Pilgrims. But it a victory, given that Robinson’s men displayed the qualities that have convinced many they are promotion contenders, that didn’t appear entirely likely at one point. The Addicks could have, and probably should have, been ahead at half-time.
Plymouth goalkeeper Luke McCormick making a sensational save to push Josh Magennis’ strike onto the crossbar, Ryan Edwards heading off the line to prevent Jake Forster-Caskey from scoring, and Magennis, a surprise inclusion following injury, nodding agonisingly wide from a Tariqe Fosu delivery. Chances created as a consequence of the Addicks enjoying most of the play, moving the ball around swiftly, and coming forward with intent. But chances that were being wasted criminally.
But it was not total domination, with the pace and strength of Argyle’s forward line causing a constant threat on the break throughout the opening period. So it would be unreasonable to suggest it was against the run of play when, with eight second-half minutes played, static defending from a corner allowed the hosts to take the lead. Edwards nodding back into the centre, allowing Jarvis to force the ball over the line as those in Charlton colours stood bemused.
And while possession largely belonged to the visitors thereafter, it would be a statistic that doesn’t reflect their drop in intensity, lack of movement, and regular repetitive sideways passing that infuriated the visiting supporters behind the goal they attacked. Creativity lacking, chances non-existent, and Robinson able only to turn to teenagers Karlan Ahearne-Grant and Reeco Hackett-Fairchild as his side rather tamely chased a game that increasingly got further away for them.
A game that was out of sight with two minutes to play, as Jarvis drove forward on the break, and his resulting strike was parried into the net by Amos. A goalkeeper who had looked as uncomfortable for 90 minutes as his teammates had looked frustrated. Those emotions now overridden by sorrow, as Argyle celebrated their first victory of the season.
Ultimately, Plymouth’s second goal was a statistic. The Addicks never showing enough purpose to recover having fallen behind, and unable to properly test their opponents. But more about this side was learnt in these 90 minutes than the previous 180.
Every sideways pass, horribly misplaced cross, and look of anguish told something new. The potential of the side has been show, but now have the faults, and the factors that requiring fixing. An impressive side this can be, but the finished article this is not.
Being forcibly drowned in realism wasn’t the anticipated consequence of this afternoon in Devon, not least with an unexpected piece of positive team news that increased hope the performance and result would provide a further dosage of optimism.
Despite scheduled to be sidelined for another week at least, forward Magennis was named in Charlton’s starting XI. Not only a vital figure in Robinson’s system, with the Norther Ireland international ideal for the lone striker role, but a particularly timely return to fitness with the Addicks desperately short on strikers. Lee Novak suspended, Tony Watt pushing a move away from the club, and Billy Clarke unable to push forward with Ben Reeves nursing a calf injury.
It meant that, at the very least, the Addicks boasted a strong starting XI. One that needed to take control against a Plymouth side still finding their feet following promotion from League Two, and not allow them to settle in their first home game of the campaign. The early signs promising, as the visitors moved the ball around at a tempo, and strikes from Fosu and Ahmed Kashi required an already retreating Argyle backline to stick bodies in the way of the ball.
But the threat the hosts would cause soon became apparent, with balls delivered over the top to utilise the pace and strength of Jervis and Joel Grant on either flank. In strong enough positions in the opening few minutes to raise the voices of the home supporters in expectation, but unable to deliver anything particularly dangerous.
In fact, the biggest danger to the Addicks in the opening ten minutes was a self-inflicted one. An uncharacteristic error from Kashi, as he under-hit a back pass, required a desperate intervention from Amos to prevent Antonio Sarcevic from stealing in, before the goalkeeper was thankfully first to react after parrying a low but relatively tame Grant cross straight into the heart of the box. A Magennis nod towards goal, connecting with Ricky Holmes’ cross but seeing his attempt bounce across the face of goal and wide, splitting those two moments of panic suggesting an open game might well be on the cards.
But as Charlton’s composure grew, and with it a greater attacking threat, it became more apparent that the advantage in the game was theirs. The Addicks going from back to front not only with pace, but with control and threat. A stunning counter ending with Magennis being sent through on goal, though from a slightly tight angle the returning striker saw his drive blocked away by McCormick in the Argyle goal.
And while chances were exchanged with Holmes, never afraid to attempt an effort from distance, curling into the hands of McCormick having cut inside, and Plymouth’s Nathan Blissett doing well to get away from the Charlton shirts in the middle to nod a Graham Carey delivery just off target, it appeared with 22 minutes played that the overall control the Addicks had had would see some reward.
Another swift move forward from Robinson’s side resulting in Clarke having a poke towards goal, which McCormick could only deal with by palming the ball straight into the path of Magennis a matter of yards away. Somehow, however, the goalkeeper displayed incredible reactions to push the Northern Ireland international’s strike onto the underside of the crossbar, and his defence were able to hack it away. Heads in hands among players and supporters as those of a Charlton persuasion tried to make sense of just how McCormick had pulled that off, and they weren’t celebrating an opening goal.
But at least heads weren’t in hands, mourning the conceding of an opening goal. For as so often seems to be the case in these situations, a chance that seemed impossible not to take was followed by openings for the visitors. Gary Sawyer getting space on the edge of the box, and Amos just doing enough to tip his curling effort wide, while the goalkeeper not getting much help from his defence at the resulting corner, as they left Jervis free to fire towards goal and the Bolton loanee required to block the effort.
Such openings for the visitors felt like reminders that this Charlton defence was fragile, and there remained reason for caution. But certainly not catalysts to change the pattern of play, or halt the Addicks in their efforts going forward. At least while they remained at just openings.
And with half an hour played, Charlton’s pressure might well have told again. McCormick out of position having come off his line to punch clear a delivery into the box, the ball falling straight to Forster-Caskey, but Edwards positioning himself perfectly to nod the goalbound strike away. That sense of frustration, and the sense that these might well be costly, that comes with wasted chances beginning to build.
But those Plymouth openings, easy to turn a blind eye to while the Addicks continued to show threat in their attacking play, only increased the sense that there was very immediate pressure on the visitors to convert an opportunity. Carey curling over the bar from a free-kick, and a driven cross from the same man flashing across the face of goal with Jarvis and Blissett both stretching a leg but unable to make contact. Charlton still in control, but certainly not dominant, and they needed something to show for it.
Further frustration, therefore the consequence when Fosu’s cross found Magennis in a fantastic position, but the forward was able only to head wide. Holmes curling a free-kick over the wall but failing to beat McCormick ending a very positive half for the Addicks, but failing to ease the tension that was growing as a consequence of not taking these opportunities. A bright start, and a clinical edge, required after the interval to control such nerves.
That wish, however, was not granted. Robinson’s side struggling to find their feet in the opening moments of the second period, or at least not playing to the same tempo with which they did for much of the first. That Magennis, the man meant to be leading a surge towards goal, was required to firmly block a David Fox volley following an Argyle corner possibly summed up Charlton’s sluggish start to the half.
But, following the next corner swung into the box by the hosts, it was a sluggish start for the Addicks that became a suicidal one. Robinson’s side switching off at the back, and gifting the game’s opening goal to Plymouth with 53 minutes played. The simplest of routines, as Edwards peeled away from his man to head back into the heart of the box, but Charlton’s defence stood motionless as Jervis converted.
A mix of confused glances and bowed heads among those in Robinson’s side. Maybe replays of wasted chances were flashing through minds. But as much as this was a situation that could have been avoided, by taking one of those first-half chances, this was a goal that should have been avoided.
Nonetheless, with time still to play, suffering could be avoided if the response from the Addicks was a positive one. The tempo and attacking promise from the first period returning, combined with greater potency. Without energy, passing sideways on a consistent basis, and ending lacklustre moves with over-hit crosses, Robinson’s men were far from finding the rhythm required to get themselves back into the game in the immediate aftermath of going behind.
In fact, despite the requirement to up the drive in search of an equaliser, the sluggishness only increased as Fox, skewing horribly off-target, and Sarcevic, flashing just wide, showed Argyle weren’t simply going to sit on their single-goal advantage. But they sat in banks when they were without possession, and the Addicks lacked the creativity, energy or quality to break them down. Grumbles growing.
Robinson calling upon the pace of Ahearne-Grant to make a difference for the Addicks, but that the teen was the first player turned to from the bench highlighting the limited options available. Particularly harmful in a situation where a side has lost all intensity and become deflated. Self-belief hardly helped as Fosu drove into the box, then fell over the ball as he attempted to cut inside.
But possibly the greatest sign of desperation was that Kashi, fine-tuned to break-up play and recycle possession, opted to take matters into his own hands. His shot a reminder that he probably shouldn’t, firing horribly wide from distance. In some contrast to the effort from Plymouth’s Carey, criminally left in acres of space by the Addicks and allowed to flash agonisingly wide from the best part of 35 yards.
At least while Argyle were flashing wide and failing to add to their single-goal advantage, their remained a chance Charlton could draw level despite appearing more and more lost once entering the opposition’s half. Even the pace of their wide men had almost vanished, and their ability to deliver a testing final ball most certainly had. The situation, with 15 minutes remaining, seemed grim.
Again, all Robinson could do was turned to a teenager with minimal first-team experience. Hackett-Fairchild on to make his Football League debut. If nothing else, it hardly fair on someone so young to be expected to deliver in such a situation.
But as the final five minutes approached and those occupying the away end, pained by the tedium this second-half effort had caused, were on the verge of giving up, the first genuine chance since falling behind appeared for the Addicks. The first genuinely testing cross, too, and Forster-Caskey delivered from the right for Magennis, who got in front of his man but couldn’t quite make a strong enough connection to turn the ball beyond McCormick. The reaction of the Northern Ireland international, evidently not fit enough to be playing a full 90 but doing so anyway, said it all; he should have done better.
Probably a thought, too, for the chances he should have done better with in the opening 45. A strike from Ahearne-Grant always comfortable for McCormick, as he dived to tip the youngster’s long-range effort wide, but the goalkeeper should have been beaten during the first period. Before this dire response to falling behind appeared.
Regret that could be wallowed in further as, after the Addicks lost possession high up field, Plymouth were able to break with intent with two minutes to play. Jervis’ strike from the edge of the box probably an optimistic drive, but helped goalwards by the weak palms of Amos. Victory confirmed for the Pilgrims and, on the back of a poor second-half effort, a warranted defeat inflicted upon Robinson’s side.
And it probably important, when assessing the overall performance in the context of how this side can fare in the season ahead, that that regret comes as a consequence of Charlton failing to make the most of a period of impressive play.
Foster-Caskey and Kashi controlled the centre, Jay Dasilva and Chris Solly got forward well, Holmes, Fosu and Clarke led the counters, and Magennis evidently not 100% but his figure still important. Pace, intensity and creativity in the forward moves, and Argyle constantly pushed back. It no wonder a threat to Plymouth’s backline was caused, and it no wonder chances were created.
But such encouraging play completely vanished once Argyle had taken the lead. Forster-Caskey, Kashi and the backline became infuriating, passing largely sideways and at such a slow tempo, but they had so little to pass to. There very little movement, energy or creativity in attack, and when those in forward positions did receive the ball the chances of them delivering a testing final ball were minimal.
To a large extent, it comes back to the inability to take those first-half openings. The second-half collapse would probably not have been an issue had we entered the break with an advantage. And, to be honest, maybe our attacking efforts in the first half should have resulted in another clear-cut opening or too.
Nonetheless, it cannot excuse the rather pathetic response to going behind. It so incredibly flat, and in real contrast to the determination and fight seen when defending a lead against Bristol Rovers last weekend. It seemed those in Charlton colours became frustrated very quickly with the system, and the sluggishness that the second half started with just increased with as a result.
Maybe Robinson, in these situations, lacks a definitive ‘plan b’. But it more the case that he lacks options to introduce from the bench to freshen up his side. To ask inexperienced teenagers to perform such a role can, of course, work, but it’s not nearly enough, and that lack of depth needs to be resolved.
There’s obviously a strong starting XI with potential, but today’s a key example of why we can’t simply rely on it, and why just one or two absentees leave us struggling.
Nonetheless, this defeat is no disaster. It’s interesting to see one determined victory, and one rather flat defeat. Interesting to see the promising characteristics of this side, and the concerning ones.
There no question that Robinson’s side is not the finished article. Their response to this defeat at The Valley against Northampton Town next weekend will give a greater indication as to just how far away they are.