COMMENT: Six key areas the Cobblers must address to make 2017/18 a success
So here we are again. Just 84 days after rounding out 2016/17 with a goalless draw to Gillingham, the Cobblers are putting the final pieces in place in preparation of doing it all over again, and with the help of a summer makeover, optimism around Sixfields is in no short supply.
Often pre-season optimism can be misplaced, but not always. It was only this time two years ago when the Cobblers were about to embark on one of the greatest season’s in the club’s history, and already the excitement is tangible around these parts two weeks ahead of their trip to Greenhous Meadow.
A summer of unexpected opportunities off the pitch, as well as an array of new arrivals on it with the promise of more to come, has raised anticipation levels and offered genuine belief that the Cobblers are in for a successful season.
But, for that to be the case, they must right the wrongs from last season, particularly from November onwards when a run of nine defeats in 11 games sent them tumbling down the Sky Bet League One table and culminated in Rob Page’s sacking.
In came Justin Edinburgh who, despite occasionally flirting with relegation, steadied the ship and led the Cobblers to a respectable if somewhat unsatisfactory 16th-placed finish.
Though that represented far from a disaster, it was felt – quite justifiably – that they were capable of much more given the barnstorming nature in which the previous campaign played out.
It also felt a missed opportunity to build on Chris Wilder’s rock-solid foundations that had promise more, however an influx of new faces over the summer – and with more set to come – has offered understandable confidence that Edinburgh’s men are in for better times.
So, what lessons can they learn from their first campaign back in League One and where are the key areas that must be addressed?
Integrate new signings; buy well, use well
As with every club at any level of football, shrewd and astute business in the transfer marker is a necessity if you are to thrive – but that was something Rob Page failed to do last summer. Even his more successful signings had their drawbacks – whether that was through injury or international duty – and that significantly hampered their prospects on the pitch.
So far Edinburgh seems to have bought well, at least on paper with the likes of Billy Waters, Matt Crooks and Regan Poole coming through the door, but the proof will be in pudding, and even then he knows the key will be to get the most out of his new signings.
It’s no good buying a talented player only to then shoehorn him into the side and stick him out of position, thus wasting his potential. That was sometimes the case under Page who put square pegs in round holes and ultimately paid the price.
In terms of from an attacking viewpoint, this was arguably the area which most hampered Town on the pitch last season, especially when it came to breaking teams down and creating chances. Their play was often one-dimensional, predictable and easy to defend against. Width was occasionally provided by attacking full-backs in Brendan Moloney or Aaron Phillips, but otherwise they lacked genuine pace and threat in wide positions.
The squad was made up of too many similar players who were best suited to either playing centrally or to cut inside if they were positioned out wide. You could count on one hand the amount of times a Northampton winger went on the outside and beat an opposition defender with raw pace or skill. There was a general lack of directness in most games.
The recent signings of Daniel Powell, Leon Lobjoit and Billy Waters, coupled with Sam Hoskins’ imminent return to fitness, should rectify that somewhat, though one might argue another option out wide is required to give Northampton an extra attacking outlet when confronted by a well-organised defence.
Take points off teams at the top
One of the most disappointing aspects of last term was the way the Cobblers frequently surrendered in such feeble fashion against teams in the top half, and those in chasing promotion in particular. In fact, they had the worst record of any League One side in games against the top half, and it was the predictable manner in which those matches unfolded that frustrated more than anything.
Guilty of crumbling once behind or punished for late lapses, this will be arguably the most important area of all for Edinburgh to put right if Town are to enjoy a more fruitful season. It’s highly doubtful that they will be able to rely solely on beating the teams near the bottom for a second year running, especially in what promises to be a far more competitive division this time around. If they can adopt a positive mentality and have genuine belief they can match anyone in the league, an upturn in results should follow – and maybe even help them become a top-half team in the process.
Cut out late goals
Once again this is a category where the Cobblers ranked lowly in 2016/17, conceding more goals in the last 15 minutes of matches than every other team bar Gillingham. It was their negative mindset and tendency to drop deep in an attempt to protect slender leads or precarious draws that led to their downfall.
Edinburgh will be keen to engrain a more front-foot, proactive approach this term and encourage his team to go the hunt for late strikes and winning goals, instead leaking them at the other end.
It was felt by many that lack of fitness also played a part in Northampton’s inability to see games out, so Edinburgh’s tougher pre-season regime, including last week’s trip to Spain, will hopefully ensure that is not the case again this time. What’s more, the Cobblers boss has evidently placed an emphasis on recruiting younger, fitter legs this summer which will surely only help freshen up what had been an ageing squad – in fact it was the second oldest in the division last term.
Be tactically adaptable
Another notable problem for Northampton last season was how limited they were tactically due to a lack of versatility and squad depth. They often had to play with two big men up front in some kind of 4-4-2, which in turn caused structural problems in midfield and meant they were regularly overrun by opponents.
Greater strength in depth, balance and general quality throughout the squad will allow Edinburgh to be more versatile with his systems and formations, both during and between matches, making the Cobblers less predictable and more difficult for opponents to prepare for.
Having more than one trick up your sleeve also makes it easier to combat different teams and different styles of play which you will inevitably come up against over the course of a season.
Match-winners and game-changers
A significant number of matches are decided by what happens in the second-half when players tire and the bench is utilised, but the Cobblers rarely had the luxury of calling upon a wealth of match-winners last season.
In fact their use of substitutions was often a hindrance rather than a help, with games regularly left to drift away and replacements used too late to influence the result.
In fairness, this was also tied in with the poor recruitment process in the summer; the lack of strength in depth meant a shortage of game-changers on the bench. So when they were in need of some inspiration to change the course of 90 minutes, Page or Edinburgh had few options to call upon.
Being proactive and decisive during matches will help the Cobblers win more than they lose – and perhaps even help them come from behind every so often, something else they failed to do once throughout the entirety of last season.
In general the Cobblers appear in a good place heading into the new season. Spirits are high and the squad is shaping up well, while early signs in pre-season have offered some encouragement. Ultimately, however, only time will tell. The question is: what thrills and spills does 2017/18 have in store?