Charlton continued their perfect return to the Championship with a 3-1 victory against out of form Stoke at The Valley on Saturday.
Following relatively surprising opening day results for both sides (Charlton enjoying a 2-1 triumph at Blackburn, Stoke succumbing to a slack defeat of the same score line at home to QPR), Saturday saw divergent spirits surrounding the two clubs polarise further, with Potters boss Nathan Jones’ record, since January appointment, worryingly still reading a poor three wins.
By contrast, it’s now an impressive 14 successes from 18 games for Lee Bowyer’s Addicks, a sensational run encompassing the final three months of last season (including the trilogy of play-off fixtures) and a step-up in division.
Jones set up again with the same midfield diamond which laboured to loss against QPR (a performance which “lacked tempo” according to the Welshman), adjusting personnel slightly by replacing Jordan Cousins with Ryan Woods at the base, as well as handing first starts to Liam Lindsay, Stephen Ward, Lee Gregory and on-loan Aston Villa striker Scott Hogan.
Jones’ philosophy, championing forward-thinking full-backs, dominance of possession and nomadic strike duos is clear enough to see, though his Potters sides have so far proven way too easy to defend against, infamously playing out four successive goalless draws in March.
Still, they looked to start sharply: Tom Ince striding straight forward from kick-off, immediately finding left wing-back Ward, who whipped in a dangerous cross which was eventually dealt with by a slightly shaken Charlton backline.
But it was the home side who struck first: Lyle Taylor working an opening on the left-hand corner of the box, before unleashing a powerful strike into the right of Jack Butland’s goal (25’).
A fine hit by Ince to level on 37’, beating Dillon Phillips from outside the box not long after Hogan had struck the bar, may have pointed to improvement from the visitors, who, like on matchday one, hogged much of the ball throughout (54%) without being able to dispense of a generally ponderous tempo.
On the flipside, Bowyer structured his team superbly, opting for two strong banks of four (with attacking midfielder Conor Gallagher dropping, in the turnover, to compose a five in front of defence) to nullify City’s endeavours to utilise width.
Just simply man-marking Stoke seems to cancel out the multitude of their threat, as Athletic wide-men Jonny Williams (left) and on-loan (West Brom) debutant Jonathan Leko (right) tracked Tommy Smith and Ward respectively.
Whilst, going the other way, by committing their (Stoke) full-backs so high up the field, the two mentioned Charlton players (Leko possessing a significant turn of pace) were pivotal in counter-attacking springs, as Addicks transitions embodied an effective directness.
Returning to analysis of Stoke’s impotence, Darren Pratley, returning West Ham loan star Josh Cullen and the aforementioned Gallagher (also on loan, Chelsea) alternated in regard to monitoring of Ince’s runs into the eighteen-yard area, meaning that with each visiting player marked (including strikers Gregory and Hogan, touch-tight throughout the first-half to Tom Lockyer and Jason Pearce), the Potters’ midfield appeared overtaxed for creativity.
Gregory did also hit the woodwork before the break, though it was a Bowyer change in the last twenty minutes that made all the difference: Gallagher moved out to the left, Williams switched to the right and Chuks Aneke came on (69’), replacing an duly worn out Leko, for his debut; and to partner Taylor up top.
Six minutes later, Charlton retook the lead: Aneke coolly finishing just in front of the penalty spot (75′).
Meanwhile, Jones’ changes, opting for further attacking width with the introductions of Mark Duffy (69’) and Thibaud Verlinden (78’), operating either side of lone forward Tyrese Campbell (brought on 61’), did not trouble the home side.
On 83’ it was 3-1, with industrious yet classy midfielder Gallagher finding the net for his first professional goal. Again, for Charlton, one dispatched from within the box.
An extremely encouraging start for Charlton
All in all, Charlton’s high energy approach, enhanced by a particular directness on the break, yet aided too by an effective mix of pace, creativity (notably through Williams) and, crucially, ruthlessness will give them a great chance in the majority of Championship games this season.
There’s a good 20+ goals in Taylor, and starts to a season like these really build early momentum; the kind which, in a number of the division’s previous years, including on a handful of occasions for promoted sides sustaining their previous campaign’s spirit, can initiate top-six or even top-two charges. Compatible with this, Bowyer said afterwards that “the lads are gaining confidence from these results”.
The loss of Anfernee Dijksteel to Middlesbrough in the final days of the transfer window may however prove damaging, with long-serving right-back Chris Solly, as reliable as he is and has been, now the only orthodox option in the position.
Moreover, in trying to play out from defence, the Addicks do occasionally get caught out. Namely, goalkeeper Phillips (jointly left red-faced with Naby Sarr for similar reasons at Wembley during the play-off final in May) being pressed right the way back to his byline at one point on Saturday. Solly did also seem to have been identified by Stoke for potential weakness on the ball.
An overriding positive though for Charlton is the remarkable spirit around The Valley, an atmosphere which has not always been forthcoming in recent years:
Having been relegated from the Championship at the end of the 2015/16 season, following a turbulent campaign consisting of three managers, supporters’ much publicised discontent with owner Roland Duchatelet reached toxic levels, with many holding the Belgian owner accountable for upsetting the club’s harmony and progress at the time of his January 2014 takeover: first sacking club legend Chris Powell, then proceeding to rather haphazardly appoint a string of managers with no English football experience (including three Belgian compatriots and Israeli Guy Luzon), all whilst providing little to no explanation as to any measured strategy.
Today however, though Duchatelet’s poor communication with the fanbase continues to bitterly frustrate the loyal Addicks following, the feel-good factor around manager Lee Bowyer is, for the time being, seemingly numbing widespread desperation for a change of ownership.
Yet more disappointment for Jones
For Stoke, it’s been a difficult period since relegation from the Premier League in May 2018, and having replaced Gary Rowett in January, Nathan Jones’ waves at Luton (notably League Two promotion in 2018, responsibility for the first half of the club’s 2019 League One championship, and a points per game ratio of 1.8, the highest of any Hatters boss) have not followed through into The Potteries. Indeed, the Welshman’s revolution has yet to take shape, and looks a long way off doing so based on Saturday’s toothless display.
Speaking to BBC Radio Stoke on Saturday evening, Jones maintained that his side are “creating enough chances”, but conceded that “goals win games” and “that’s what we’re [they’re] not doing”.