For any Northampton fans harbouring hopes of hopes of a promotion challenge this season, Saturday’s dispiriting defeat to Plymouth Argyle will be serious cause for concern.
For all the positives and optimism over the opening three games, this performance, coupled with the defeat to Barnet four days earlier, is a reality check.
Take nothing away from Plymouth, a well-drilled side who executed their gameplan to perfection, but the Cobblers struggled badly to break the visitors down in a cagey and largely uneventful first half half with Luke McCormick barely breaking sweat in the away goal.
The home side had most of the ball but their possession was tepid and unthreatening and they looked vulnerable when Argyle countered.
A goalless first half would have been a fair reflection of the opening 45 minutes, but a poor error by the returning Ryan Watson allowed Graham Carey to nip in and he was given the freedom of Sixfields to cruise through and slot past Adam Smith.
Although you cannot blame the defeat solely on Watson, this proved to be the decisive moment of the game as it allowed Plymouth to seize control in the second half and the Cobblers were unable to wrestle back the initiative and the final result would have been far more one-sided had it not been for the once again excellent Smith, who made several fine saves to keep the scoreline respectable.
The seemingly bewildered and perplexed manner in which Northampton went about the second half will be of great concern for Chris Wilder. Once they fell behind, the Cobblers seemed unable to build any momentum and struggled to even get beyond the halfway line without lumping the ball forward.
Wilder and his team pride themselves on being a passing side who patiently probe for an opening with Nicky Adams, Lawson D’Ath and Alfie Potter interchanging behind Marc Richards.
However, after a toothless first half display, Wilder opted to shake things up by bringing on Dominic Calvert-Lewin for Alfie Potter and shifting towards 4-4-2.
It didn’t have the desired impact, though, and instead of persisting with their usual style of play, Northampton seemed to lose patience and resorted to long balls, which played into Plymouth’s hands.
Credit must go to the visitors who, on this evidence at least, should challenge for promotion with Graham Carey particularly impressive.
Prior to kick-off, Wilder once again wasn’t afraid to ring the changes with five made – one enforced – as he looks to keep players fresh during this early season rush of fixtures, but, as on Tuesday against Barnet, it didn’t pay off and with games continuing to come thick and fast, Wilder will have to quickly find the right combination to get his side back on track.
How they rated...
Adam Smith - Not for the first time this season the Cobblers keeper rescued his side on several occasions with excellent saves. Could do little about the two goals... 7 CHRON STAR MAN
Josh Lelan - Despite obvious potential, rash at times and often goes charging up the pitch which leaves the defence exposed. Did make one superb last-ditch tackle but was needlessly sent off for a second yellow card in the dying seconds... 4
Zander Diamond - The lack of pace between him and his centre-back partner was again evident and exploited by Plymouth… 5
Ryan Cresswell - Not his usual commanding presence and won’t be happy that the second goal came from a poorly defended corner... 5
David Buchanan - Reliable as ever and, like Tuesday, was the best of the back four. Sound defensively, though could have offered more of a threat going forward... 6.5
Joel Byrom - Started well but faded badly as the game wore on to the detriment of the team... 5
Ryan Watson - Dallied on the ball in a dangerous position and was pickpocketed by Carey for the first goal. Perhaps still building up match sharpness following his serious injury… 5
Alfie Potter - Game passed him by before being taken off at half-time... 5
Nicky Adams - Most of Northampton’s play went through him but little end product on this occasion... 6
Lawson D’Ath - Another quiet game. Saw little of the ball especially when his team-mates went so direct in the second half… 6
Marc Richards - Didn’t get much service in the first half. Tried to get himself involved by dropping deep and linking up the play but didn’t have much luck... 6
Dominic Calvert-Lewin - Fed off scraps when brought on at half-time. Barely had any service aside from long aimless punts forward… 6
Sam Hoskins - On for Adams after 63 minutes. Plenty of endeavour and effort with no end product to show for it… 6
Paul Corry - Had little impact as a late sub… 6