Charlie Kirk swaps CAFC for...CAFC. Goodbye and thanks to Crewe's chief creator

In this article, I go through Charlie Kirk’s strengths, weaknesses and fit at Charlton.

Not a surprise but still a frustration, Charlie Kirk is swapping a League One club who play in red and go by CAFC…for another League One club who play in red and go by CAFC. It may seem like a sideways move to some, but it doesn’t come as a surprise. Crewe’s recent golden generation has been broken up, and one of its finest talents is moving to bigger and more reputable club.

Charlie Kirk started in Crewe’s first team early and came with a big reputation, as a skilful operator on the wing. Senior figures within the club dubbed Kirk their next ‘million-pound player’ when he was barely out of school. Though he leaves for a fee of around £500,000, his rumoured release clause, Kirk has certainly shown the quality to command a 7-figure fee in the future.

Kirk, as an 18- and 19-year-old, started 20 league games before scoring his first goal for Crewe. His first assist came four games later. Ever since, he has averaged a goal every 5 games, and an assist every 4 games. Something clicked, and Kirk looked like a different player. The player he became was one of the most talented to put on a Crewe shirt.

Sometimes derided, mostly excellent and always entertaining, Kirk wears his heart on his sleeve on the pitch and has the end product to back up his attitude. In truth I’m annoyed he’s moved to Charlton because he should be playing in the Championship, but I’m sure it won’t be long before he is.

In this article, I go through Charlie Kirk’s strengths, weaknesses and fit at Charlton. SPOILER ALERT: Charlton have done well.

Kirk, at his best, is one of the best wingers in League One

Kirk has racked up a huge amount of experience in a short space of time. Still just 23 years old, Kirk has played over 180 first team games for Crewe Alexandra, with over 150 starts.

He has been almost ever present in the last couple of seasons, rarely rotating, resting or leaving a game early. As shown below, he played a tonne of minutes for Crewe last season:

As a right footed player playing high on the left-hand side, he is nifty and skilful operator outside, as well as cutting into the half spaces between the lines of the opposition. Recently he has worn the number 10 shirt for Crewe, and this is the best way to think about Kirk. He is a floaty creative player, who can disappear for an hour and then change a game in an instant with an incisive through ball or cross.

Charlie Kirk proved himself as one of the best creators in League One last season. Kirk had the highest Expected Assists (xA) in League One, and the 3rd highest per 90 minutes (0.25). 30 of the chances Kirk created were directly after he’d dribbled past an opponent, which was 2nd highest in League One. A map of the chances he created, from Opta/The Analyst, is below:

Kirk and his partner in crime on the left Harry Pickering were key to Crewe’s attack last season. The team skewed towards the left both in terms of entering the opponents final third (39% of entries) and shots (23% came from left, 2nd highest in League). Their partnership was the most consistent aspect of Crewe’s attacking threat, particularly in the first half of the season.

Kirk also led League Two with 14 assists in the 2019/20 season. I’ve mapped them below:

The key thing to note is how Kirk puts chances on a plate for attackers. Most of these assists were low passes to players within 10 yards of goal. Kirk’s assist record is far from a fluke. He makes attackers lives’ so much easier.

Kirk also provides goal threat, but he is a streakier scorer than assister, and can sometimes go missing in front of goal.

The graph below shows how each of Crewe’s main goal threats accumulated Expected Goals (the line) and Goals (the ball symbols) through the 2020/21 season. As you can see, Kirk (the yellow line) provided a decent amount of goal threat in the first half of the League One season, before a less consistent second half of the season:

Kirk is an effective and smart dribbler, which is down to both excellent technique and his springy athleticism. He doesn’t dribble much, but he does it well. While Kirk is right footed, he is comfortable on his left, which means opposing defenders cannot simply steer him to one side.

Further, while he isn’t lightening quick, Kirk has excellent acceleration, particularly from a standing start. This means he is unpredictable in one-on-one situations, and means teams often must help out their full back when Kirk is in full flow.

Lastly, Kirk brings flair and imagination to his game. Wherever there is a clever short corner routine or a chance to nutmeg an opponent, Kirk will be there. There is a playfulness to his game when things click that is especially enjoyable when he’s on song. It will probably take some time for him to bring this out at Charlton, but it was fun when it clicked at Crewe.

When things go wrong, Kirk’s head can drop

Kirk has been accused of being lazy which I mainly put down to Crewe’s tactic of leaving him upfield as a counter attacking threat. He is also such a natural technician that he looks like he isn’t working as hard, similar to someone like Ozil or Eriksen – people wrongly hold that against him.

But he can certainly get frustrated in game and can disappear for spells. Kirk’s body language and exasperation with teammates means he can rub people up the wrong way, and has always been highlighted as a downside of his game. It’s probably this aspect of his game and character that put bigger clubs off taking a chance on him.

When he tracks back, he isn’t strong physically and is unlikely to ever dominant in duels. Kirk lacks bulk and desire in both his ground and aerial duels, which shows up more in his lack of contested duels rather than his success in them. He is quite tall for a winger and has a good leap, so his heading isn’t a write off by any means – it just isn’t a strength.

Overall Kirk profiles as an ideal winger to create in a 433 front line, but lacks the defensive instincts to play as a wide midfielder in a 442 or similar shapes. This inflexibility may be a knock against him.

Lastly, while this isn’t exactly a weakness, Kirk has enormously benefited from Crewe’s tactical set-up and his connection with his teammates. The clearest example of this is Kirk’s almost kinetic relationship with Harry Pickerking, who played behind him on the left. This is something I wrote about a couple of years ago and has only continued to improve over the last 2 seasons.

Their partnership was key to Crewe’s attacking shape last season, as shown in the GIF below:

His fit at Charlton looks good, though he might need time to adapt

Firstly, Nigel Adkins is 100% the right manager for Kirk. He has had difficult news in his personal life recently, and will have to adjust to moving to a club where he isn’t as much of a focal point. He’ll need an arm around his shoulder, especially early on.

Adkin’s positivity, as well as his extensive experience with talented technical players, means Charlton is a smart fit for Kirk.

Tactically, Kirk is also a strong fit. He’ll slot it nicely on the left wing of Charlton’s favoured 433 formation. Still, Charlton would do well to get a mobile left back behind him who is willing to overlap and provide width on the left; Chris Gunter (for all his strengths) isn’t this.

An alternative use for Kirk could be as a number 10, which is a great fit for his skillset. However, you would need an industrious midfield behind him to provide runners ahead of the ball, and to do some of Kirk’s dirty work.

Adkin’s short time at Charlton has seen his team willing to cede possession rather than dominate play. While this will be an adjustment for Kirk, who has come from a Crewe side who love to dominate possession and build up patiently, Charlie is adept on the counter-attack and may actually suit this type of team more. As you see from his goals and assists below, a lot of them come from quick breaks:

Jayden Stockley should be licking his lips. Kirk thrives when he has a physical focal point up front to work off; in build-up play, counter attacks, and from crosses. Kirk -> Stockley is an assister and scorer pairing that I would expect to tear up League One in the second half of the season, once Kirk has settled.

Charlton will be hoping that things click for Kirk sooner than that, but they are clearly willing to give him time. I was surprised to see them give Kirk a 4 year deal but if he succeeds, they have tied him down for his peak years.

While Kirk maybe has a lower ceiling than a few of recent Crewe teammates – Harry Pickering and Owen Dale especially, Kirk is already one of the best wingers in League One, and he easily has the potential to play in the Championship. Charlton will be hoping they’re back in the second tier sooner rather than later, and this signing may well make the difference for them doing so.

It’s with a heavy heart that I say goodbye and good luck to Charlie Kirk. There are a lot of good memories from his time with The Railwaymen, and I’m sure he’ll be a memorable player for Charlton fans in years to come.

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