It’s often said that you’d rather have the points in the bag than games in hand, and as we enter the business end of the season, Charlton are beginning to see the relevance of the phrase.
Despite the Addicks’ lowly position in the league, fans have been reassuring themselves that the games in hand will steer them out of the drop and towards safety. With games coming thick and fast (Charlton will play twice a week every week until the end of the season) the reality of so many games in such a short time is beginning to seem a chore.
Even prior to the arrival of Jose Riga, the Addicks have coped well with the congested fixture list. The run to the FA Cup quarter finals was coupled with continuing league fixtures. They beat QPR and Sheffield Wednesday back to back, whilst defeat to Leicester was almost inevitable.
Riga then arrived, and still the congestion didn’t seem to be the Addicks’ main problem. They started with a draw against Huddersfield, followed it up with another draw against Millwall, and then best Bournemouth.
Part of the reason behind the positive results has been Riga’s arrival. Keen to test all areas of his (admittedly small) squad, players have had the opportunity to rest when needed. We’ve seen both Green and Pritchard trialed on the right of midfield, whilst Reza, Jackson, Harriott, Tudgay, Sordell, Obika, Ajdarević and Church have all had opportunities in midfield or up front. The result has been twofold, giving players a rest, whilst also assisting Riga in learning the limitations of his squad.
However, there is only so long that constant changing will help a side. Riga’s side succumbed to their first loss as they were beaten by a clinical and efficient Burnley side.
This may have just been a blip though, as the Addicks then travelled to Forest on Tuesday night. Showing all of the character, desire, passion and fight that epitomised them under Powell, Charlton secured a vital three points with Jordan Cousins’ late goal. The result saw the Addicks build up a three-point gap over the relegation zone, and saw a performance full of everything any fan could ask for from the players that wear the shirt.
During pre-season, managers have opportunities to experiment with different personnel and formations, working out the best way to utilise his squad. With very few games left, and a relegation battle on his hands, Riga just doesn’t have the time to be doing this. It’s important he knows who to pick, but at such a delicate stage of the season, he’ll have to rely on the knowledge of the likes of Alex Dyer than chopping and changing his side.
In addition, Charlton’s problem (as well as a small squad) is that the back-up players just aren’t good enough. Behind Poyet and Cousins, there are Gower, Pritchard and Hughes. Behind Wiggins, there’s Evina. The ideal right side would be Solly behind Wilson, but with Solly injured, Wilson has had to fill in at right back. This has lead to Green starting most recently, but both Cousins and Reza have had opportunities there, but neither are up to the challenge. Cousins is not a right-winger, and his talent is completely nullified by playing him there. Meanwhile, Reza just looks too lightweight at this stage.
The final issue is the age and experience of some of the key players in the squad. Poyet and Cousins have been nothing short of outstanding in the centre, but with a combined age of under 40, they’re going to be tired. The expectations on such young shoulders are phenomenal, and whilst they are currently handling the pressure well, the fixtures are not abating. On the other hand, Jackson has been given the daunting task of leading this team through such a tough passage. True, in recent games he has rolled back the years and looked as good as previous seasons, but age may become an issue with two games every week, and again someone else needs to take part of the responsibility.
All of this pales into insignificance however, because the real issue remains goals. Charlton’s defence remains one of the most solid in the Championship, but they have also scored one of the least in the whole of the football league. Church works tirelessly, whilst Obika’s return to SE7 has been met with a messiah-like reaction. He’s another youngster however, and he won’t be the answer to all of Charlton’s goal scoring requirements.
The Addicks are down at the foot of the table for a reason. The squad was never improved, there has been a lack of investment, contracts are up in the air, and they can’t score. Add in selling the best striker and most creative midfielder, and combine that with a takeover and managerial change, and it’s a club very much in transition. Powell gave the fans their Charlton back, and Duchâtelet could potentially take it away again. However, if Riga can keep the Addicks up, the new owner has a real chance to make Charlton a forced next season.
Whether they like it or not, games will continue to come thick and fast for Riga and his squad. If someone can start scoring goals, and the side begins to perform more fluidly, the fixture congestion will seem easier. Confidence will improve, players will be more eager to play, and Riga won’t have any need to chop and change in order to improve the performances. However, if losses start to pile up on a regular basis, the games in hand will no longer feel like a benefit, and Charlton could find themselves in real trouble.
The Forest result may be huge. Charlton have gone to a team whose confidence is at rock bottom, and they took advantage of that. It wasn’t pretty, and they rode their luck at times, but rarely does English football see a team that put so much desire into performances on such a consistent basis. Powell bred that mentality, and now it continues under Riga. Charlton are defying everything that has gone against them this season, the pitch, the contracts, the behind-the-scenes turmoil, the lack of investment, the managerial change, and the players are refusing to give up. The fans cannot give up either. We’re all in this together.
Whatever happens, everyone needs to be ready…and together. With two months left, it’s going to be one hell of a ride.#
By Tom Wallin