Northampton’s worryingly steep descent down the League One table took another turn for the worse on Saturday, but one thing is for certain: if they can reproduce this type of performance on a weekly basis, the only way is up.
Bolton Wanderers may have left Sixfields with the spoils to claim outright second but they only did so after calling upon all of their fighting qualities to withstand a second-half barrage as the league’s best defence just about held firm.
The Cobblers huffed, puffed and did almost everything apart from score, although their failure to create true clear openings and force Ben Alnwick intro strenuous action should be noted because, ultimately, it was their downfall.
After taking a while to warm up in a first-half that was both intriguing and entertaining in equal measure, Bolton gradually clicked into gear and improved to the extent that they just about deserved the half-time lead given to them by Zach Clough’s smart movement and cool finish.
Clough, with his quick feet, direct running and intelligent movement, was the game’s outstanding player and it was apt that his goal turned out to be the match-winner.
It condemned the Cobblers to a third 1-0 loss in the space of eight days and a fourth straight league defeat in all – the first time that has happened in almost two years – but with three of those coming in tight games against three of the current top six, it’s not time to sound the panic bells just yet.
Nevertheless, Saturday’s result will only encourage the murmurous of discontent to grow louder and understandably so because this is a results-based business and unless Northampton turn the corner sharply, they will find themselves in a relegation scrap that they should be nowhere near.
And in truth, the bare facts do not reflect kindly on Rob Page or his team, and when all is said and done, performances are irrelevant if the results do not follow.
It’s now 330 minutes since their last goal and 11 league games since their last clean sheet, and Saturday also became the ninth time already this season that Northampton have gone on to lose after conceding first.
So that’s a struggle for goals, a failure to keep clean sheets and an ability to come from behind. Three fundamental aspects of football that are imperative for any team worth their salt, let alone a successful one.
The problem Page has it that he’s almost working from scratch.
The key of making a success out of promotion is continuity; using and harnessing momentum from the previous season into the next one and continuing that upward curve.
But, whether it’s been forced or out of choice, Page has not had that luxury, and the upheaval at Northampton over the last six months can be highlighted in the fact that only one player who started against Bolton on Saturday was part of the team that played at Portsmouth on the last day of last season.
Not only did Northampton lose their manager, they also lost two key players in Nicky Adams and Ricky Holmes, as well as the likes of Danny Rose, James Collins and John Marquis.
It’s now 330 minutes since Northampton’s last goal and 11 league games since their last clean sheet, and Saturday also became the ninth time already this season that the Cobblers have gone on to lose after conceding first.
So it’s been a case of revolution not evolution under Page who’s almost wiped the slate clean and started from scratch which, naturally, will take time and he must be given that time to mould his own team because whilst results continue to agitate fans, the performances, in the main, should not.
And performances, more often than not, are a better gauge of a team’s long-term future because a team which is consistently performing well will eventually be rewarded, whereas it’s not sustainable to keep playing badly and grinding out 1-0 wins
Saturday was another display, like the one at Gillingham or against Peterborough, that deserved more.
The final scoreline often doesn’t tell the full story and that was certainly the case here.
But against the meanest defence in the league, one which has conceded a miserly 12 goals in 19 games prior to Saturday, Northampton could ill-afford to fall a goal down, especially as they themselves have yet to come from behind and win this season.
Yet the impressive Clough ensured that was the case, and despite throwing everything at their visitors thereafter, Bolton’s resilient rearguard action just about won the day and thwarted the battling efforts off Northampton.
The improvement in Town’s play stemmed from giving more support to Alex Revell in the lone front role, which in turn allowed the Cobblers to play higher up the pitch and push more bodies forward.
The absence of Brendan Moloney’s attacking influence from right-back was keenly felt despite Aaron Phillips’ decent performance, while Sam Hoskins impressed when moved to the right side of midfield after half-time.
Page has often been criticised for his mid-game changes – or lack of changes – since taking the reins but here his decision to introduce Marc Richards and go to 4-4-2 was a wise one.
It meant Northampton could spend more time on the attack as they pinned Bolton back for large spells, and but for a tight offside decision, Page might have been rewarded for his gamble.
In the end, Bolton’s superior physicality and aerial prowess ultimately kept Northampton at bay but perform like that on a consistent basis and there’s no doubt that the Cobblers will soon head back up the table.
How they rated...
David Cornell - Give no chance by Clough for the goal but, that aside, was only ever called upon to make routine saves from long-range shots... 6
Aaron Phillips - Moloney’s injury presented him with a rare opportunity to impress and he had a good game in the main. Carried out his defensive duties competently but lacks the attacking threat of his fellow full-back... 7
Gabriel Zakuani - Clough’s clever movement left him in a daze for the game’s only goal, and had a good running battle with Madine throughout.... 7
Lewin Nyatanga - Another stylish display from the Welshman whose timely interventions negated Bolton’s threat for much of this game as he mopped up any potential danger... 8 CHRON STAR MAN
David Buchanan - Terrific performance. Had his hands full against Ameobi but nullified him for large periods, and endeavored to get forward whenever he could.... 8
Jak McCourt - Struggled to keep tabs on Clough who found pockets of space in his area of the pitch, including for the goal. Perhaps squandered his side’s best chance when failing to play in an unmarked Revell... 6
Matty Taylor - Hit the post prior to Bolton’s opener but not his best day, especially his set-piece delivery which was consistently disappointing... 6
Sam Hoskins - Quiet first-half was followed by an excellent second during which he presented a constant threat, particularly on the right where he put in some wicked crosses that could very easily have brought a goal or two on another day... 7
Paul Anderson - Has a knack of getting into good areas with his smart movement but doesn’t always make the most of the space he finds... 6
Kenji Gorre - First league start in over two months and started brightly, his nimble footwork almost set up Taylor for the opener. Rather typified the overall team performance by finding decent positions but then wasting it. Became a peripheral figure as the game progressed... 6
Alex Revell - Enjoyed more support from his team-mates which helped no end. Chances still not flowing for him though as his narrow failure to meet McCourt’s cross was the closest he came to scoring a first goal in 10... 6
Marc Richards - 6
John-Joe O’Toole - 6
Alfie Potter - 6