The loud and collective cry of encouragement, drowning out an initial smattering of groans and boos, that met the half-time whistle was telling.
Karl Robinson’s Charlton Athletic had been second best by a considerable enough margin in those opening 45 minutes. A margin considerable enough to mean the single-goal deficit they now faced, inflicted by Wigan Athletic’s Gavin Massey with a minute of regular time remaining in the half, was warranted punishment. But punishment that the Addicks would surely respond positively to, and not simply return for the second period to have their first home defeat of the campaign confirmed.
Or at least that was the thinking among The Valley crowd, silencing their own frustrations to issue a rallying cry to those in red as they departed down the tunnel come the interval. Too much in the bank for this Charlton side to earn immediate crucifixion; too much in the bank for this Charlton side to return after the break without greater defensive resolve, composure in possession, and fluidity going forward. It no so much a rallying cry made out of desperation, in the hope the Addicks would prevent their promotion rivals getting away from them in the second half, but on the basis of an expectation born out of what has already been seen.
Alas, the unrelenting faith placed in the strength of this Charlton unit would show signs of bruising come full-time. Where a valiant response was expected, and as such demanded, the Addicks instead capitulated in the face of a strong rival. Defeat confirmed not by Massey’s 70th-minute second, converting having been teed up by former Charlton loanee Nathan Byrne, but by the manner in which Robinson’s men performed after the break.
In attempting to play their natural game – a patient, passing one that exploits the attacking threat of a creative attacking midfield trio – too many individuals were too slow on the ball or too wayward in possession. In simply attempting to exploit Tariq Fosu, Ricky Holmes and Billy Clarke, Wigan’s midfield and defensive line offered no room, and the trio continuously blunted their own attacks by making poor decisions. In attempting to get a foot back into the game, they found a strong and intelligent Latics side that prevented them from playing.
Becoming more direct not before all composure had been lost while in possession, there was little to be achieved in playing the ball long to an isolated, exhausted and silenced Josh Magennis. Robinson’s men unable to recover from their disappointing start to the game, and unable to offer a functional ‘Plan B’ once Paul Cook’s side had gained total control. A third Latics goal, as skipper Sam Morsy finished coolly from close range with three minutes to play, merely making sure the scoreline reflected the actual difference between the two sides.
The earlier rallying cry replaced by glum acceptance, with home supporters aware their side had been second best some distance. Robinson apologetic to the fans that have offered unrelenting support this season. His players flat.
A setting that might have depicted all the previously created positivity, the consequence of five wins from six League One games, being sucked away. But in losing The Valley’s 100% record, the inspired beliefs that existed and were expressed during the half-time rallying cry were not lost. Merely hidden in the temporary sorrow.
But a repeat of that rallying cry might not have been so blindly expectant, for those making it have now been further educated on the faults of this side. Faults that are in the mind of manager and players as much as they are supporters.
An awareness that such weak performances against sides also looking to achieve promotion will be punished. That sides of such quality will demand more from you, and repeating what has worked previously might not always be possible. That, for all the quality this side has, if Charlton are to achieve promotion come May, they need to develop an alternative way of playing.
In truth, there was a degree of trepidation in the pre-game expectation. Just a touch of concern forming around how Robinson’s men would respond to a test of this nature, having come out positively from a very tough slog with Southend United at the weekend. The Addicks, unchanged from their victory over the Shrimpers, facing a Wigan side of obvious quality, and desperate to bounce back having suffered defeat at Shrewsbury Town on Saturday.
But it trepidation that had grown into genuine fear before five minutes had passed at The Valley. With Charlton struggling to get going, and particularly sluggish in possession, the high-intensity that the Latics were playing at meant they were looking to punish. It through good fortune that the hosts escaped through those opening moments without conceding.
Less than 20 seconds had been played when Michael Jacobs’ strode unchallenged down the left, subsequently delivering for Massey at the back stick, only to see his cross skewed wide by the head of the forward. And it a similar scenario of frustration for crosser and man in the centre three minutes later as Byrne’s centre picked out Nick Powell, but the former Manchester United man glanced a glorious opening just off-target. Powell’s head straight into his hands; the heads of Charlton fans retreating into hands, wondering when it would be safe to come up.
It was therefore seen by the man whose composure is untested in any scenario as his role to calm the fret inside The Valley. A corner for the hosts worked to Ahmed Kashi on the edge of the Wigan box, his initial shot blocked, and his almost effortless attempt on the rebound flashing narrowly wide of the post. Time for the Addicks to get their foot into this contest.
But it became quite obvious that this, on two counts, was an exception to the rules of this encounter. In the first instance, Wigan immediately regained the confident stride they had previously, dominating the ball in the centre and earning themselves a free-kick as a result that Jacobs curled comfortably into Amos’ clutches. In the second, Kashi was appearing frantic and rushed in possession, as the Latics pressed the Algerian and made sure he couldn’t settle on the ball.
A frantic, panicked nature in possession that spread throughout the side. The Addicks not building from the back, but knocking the ball around like a hot potato, all too uncomfortable to hold it but equally unwilling to go long. Merely placing pressure on themselves as Wigan’s relentless pressing continued, with Amos required to save well from Jacobs after the lively winger had danced into the box.
It certainly a truth, however, that there is enough individual quality in this Charlton side for them to steal an advantage at any point while the scores remain level regardless of the context of the game. A marvellous delivery from Fosu inches away from the tirelessly working Magennis in the centre, before the young winger saw a fierce drive just about palmed away by visiting stopper Jamie Jones. Hardly displays of fluidity, or even signs that the Addicks were getting back into the game as they should be, but more than enough to keep the Latics on their toes.
And by the time half-an-hour had been played, despite still having control of the game’s overall pattern of play, it was Wigan’s turn to feel a touch fortunate to not find themselves behind. Jake Forster-Caskey getting a clear sight of goal on the edge of the area, his shot hit sweetly, and the ball rebounding back off the underside of the crossbar in such a way that most of The Valley were preparing to celebrate. Premature celebrations cut short for a second time in seconds as Magennis latched onto the rebound, but managed only to nod wide and leave home supporters perplexed as to how the ball hadn’t found its way over the line.
If nothing else, such an opening meant an already relatively healthy Valley atmosphere in the context increased. At least, while the performance remained a poor one, there was no doubting the application and effort on show from those in red. There had to be the belief that Forster-Caskey connecting with the bar would the catalyst for things clicking.
But still, as half-time approached, the fear that had been instilled in the game’s opening moments had not yet died. Not only were the Addicks still struggling to form fluent attacking moves, but there remained an uncomfortable, frantic and nervy nature to their defensive efforts. Powell dragging an effort off-target, before an important block from Forster-Caskey was required to prevent the attacking midfielder’s strike from testing Amos.
And so, in the circumstances, getting through to half-time with parity still intact seemed a relative success. A relative success that would not be celebrated. For, with one minute remaining until the break, the Latics took the lead that their first-half pressure had threatened.
A fairly simple one at that. Reece James gliding inside from the left, his ball across goal perfect for Massey, and the forward gleefully accepting the gift. The Addicks inviting Wigan forward, and subsequently defending in statuesque manner when they threatened.
The frustration of the late goal, the performance, and a referee who seemed keen to stop play as frequently as possible all contributing to the initial collective groan and boo that met the half-time whistle. The noise of disappointment perfectly reasonable, but it one that was replaced rather emphatically by the noise of hope. A rallying cry from the Covered End to those in red as they left field, that shared the message “we know you can offer more, and we believe you can show it”.
Nonetheless, there was pressuring in that encouragement. It of vital importance that Robinson’s men emerged for the second period and immediately displayed their qualities, repaying the support shown and preventing this game from getting away from them. Immediately display those qualities, however, they did not.
For it Wigan, as was the case at the start of the first half, who played with all the intensity and drive, along with the fluidity and quality in possession to make it worthwhile. Lost souls in red covering The Valley turf as Powell drove forward within the half’s first minute, and saw his shot from distance pushed wide by Amos, before the goalkeeper was required to block a Massey strike after the forward worked his way into the box. The Latics allowed to pick up from where they left off.
The struggle to blunt opposition attacks continuing, and the struggle to create meaningful ones of their own also showing few signs of being overcome. Still no answer to Wigan’s pressing game, with the Addicks having no time to settle in possession inside their own half, and the threat of Holmes, Clarke and Fosu was being almost entirely nullified whenever the ball did find its way to the attacking midfield three by the visitors’ defensive strength. Robinson’s men continued to repeat the same processes, processes at a level much lower than they normally are, and get the same rewards.
As such, even with the second-half in its infancy, the signs were suggesting that a second Wigan goal would kill the game. A second goal they were continuing to strive for. Powell firing off-target, before a breaking Jacobs saw an effort flash agonisingly wide and the ever-influential Powell forced another strong save out of Amos.
The nature of the advantage the visitors held made greater by the way in which the game continued to be officiated. Constant stoppages and minimal contact earning free-kicks, though the same for both sides, considerably more beneficial for a Wigan side who could frustrate the Addicks further, and simultaneously nullify the threat of Magennis by drawing fouls out of him. The game becoming incredibly scrappy and stop-start, and that ideal for Cook’s men.
So it rather ironic that, as The Valley crowd grew increasingly frustrated with both referee and opposition, Charlton’s best opportunity to equalise came following a stoppage of play. Alex Bruce horrendously scything down Holmes in a wide left position, and his subsequent free-kick delivery flicked on at the near post by Clarke. The ball bouncing across the face of goal and narrowly wide.
A flicker of life in this Charlton beast, and some belief and purpose back into the cries of encouragement, but just a flicker. For it would take just five further minutes for defeat to be all but confirmed. The simplicity Wigan had been striving to achieve for much of the contest achieved for a second time, as Byrne set the ball back to Massey and the forward, with space and time to consider his options, finished clinically.
It no less than a dominant group of Latics deserved, who now had the dominance in the scoreline to match their overall efforts. A margin that the Addicks, so tame in their attacking efforts, would be unlikely to halve let alone eradicate in the remaining 20 minutes. As if to prove the point, Holmes responded by running forward and firing horribly off-target from 25 yards.
It here, as an overworked and incredibly isolated Magennis challenged for another ball he could do nothing with, that it appeared the fight to fend off the frustration had been lost. The Valley’s mood not one of anger, but certainly low and disappointed. Expressions on player faces told that they too were feeling the frustration, and weren’t simply disconnecting themselves from the defeat and performance.
They didn’t need a third Wigan goal to be told they had been completely outplayed, but a three-goal defeat was probably more befitting of the performance. The Latics continuing to flirt with Charlton’s box even after doubling their advantage, able to do so with the Addicks offering nothing at the other end, and further reward coming as Morsy controlled the ball by the penalty spot and converted via the post’s paint. Deflated Addicks leaving The Valley as the 87th-minute strike found the back of the net, while elated Wigan supporters and players made the most of their moment.
One moment of many during 90 minutes that had shown the Latics were far and above the better side. The full-time whistle that was to follow bringing with it the sad confirmation and realisation of a first home defeat of the season, but so too the relief that this defeat would not become any more crushing.
Charlton quite emphatically outplayed, and left inflicted with wounds by a promotion rival who looked far greater equipped for a promotion challenge.
Wounds that, in the isolation of a heavy defeat to a promotion rival, sting. The Latics arriving in SE7, playing a high intensity brand of football that completely nullified Charlton’s threat, and subsequently taking control of the game. There periods during the contest where the Addicks looked like the lost group of individuals they had done for much of the second half of last season, and not the determined and fluent group they have performed like during this term.
The performance raising serval concerns, but most notably with regards to a lack of ‘Plan B’. Or, in other words, a way of getting the ball from back to front in a fluid manner when the opposition midfield presses high and prevents us from having plenty of time in possession inside our own half. Aside from pump up to Magennis and hope he can perform a minor miracle, we seemed rather lost as to just how we should go about forming attacks once Wigan had unsettled us.
And so too did we appear lost for ideas as to how to prevent the Latics from causing attacking problems of their own. The defensive efforts have been so resolute this season, but the visitors continuously broke forward at will and created enough genuine openings to have scored many more than the three they did. Far too open, far too weak, and in general far too lost once the initial game plan had seemingly gone out the window.
But, at this stage of the campaign, you would hope that events like this one act as a learning process. That the defeat and performance aren’t simply forgotten and seen as one offs, but looked at in great detail as the base from which a Charlton side that has made an impressive start to the season can improve. Undoubtedly, this has to be the point where we find a way to respond when a team plays in the intense manner that Wigan did.
There is certainly much more for Robinson’s men, even after five wins in seven games, to learn.
(Apologies for the lack of/quality of photos. Camera needs to spend some time at the camera hospital, and captured images only in periods)