It’s difficult not to sound like a broken record when dissecting Northampton’s latest forgettable afternoon because this alarming 4-0 defeat to Colchester United conjured up all-too familiar feelings and showed old habits die hard for some.
The Cobblers began brightly enough against out-of-form Colchester at the PTS on Saturday but they followed an acceptable first-half display with an inept second that ranked somewhere between Bristol Rovers and Charlton Athletic on the incompetency scale.
While Town have hardly pulled up trees of late, it was still a surprise to witness the extent of their troubles against United – a team, let’s not forget, that had just one victory in seven games prior to kick-off and were tumbling away from the promotion race in League Two.
Even in the first-half, there were few signs of what was to follow. While Colchester nudged themselves in front thanks to Frank Nouble’s poorly-defended opener – Shay Facey guilty of switching off and playing him onside – Marvin Sordell and Ash Taylor had decent chances as Northampton more than held their own.
But then followed a disastrous second-half when the wheels well and truly came crashing off.
It was unnerving just how easily and how often Town were sliced open, albeit by an admittedly slick Colchester outfit who had the game’s standout player in Sammie Szmodics.
Despite having ample time to get back into the contest, the home side were too eager and too desperate, recklessly throwing men forward and subsequently leaving themselves vulnerable on the counter-attack.
As a result, they completely lost their shape and discipline and Colchester were equipped with all the tools to ruthlessly take advantage; electric pace on the counter, the superb link-up play of Szmodics and clinical finishing once they worked a shooting opportunity.
Szmodics turned Town’s defence inside out to set up Abobaker Eisa to net a second five minutes into his debut, Eisa then combined with Kane Vincent-Young for the latter to smash in a third and Szmodics got a deserved goal himself, slotting home Brennan Dickenson’s low cross.
It must be said though, this game wasn’t necessarily as one-sided as the final scoreline suggests. Even when United led by three goals after 60 minutes, chances were about even. Indeed, had Sordell taken either of his gilt-edged opportunities at the start of each half, things may have been very different.
But that goes no way to excusing or explaining Town’s subsequent capitulation as they were simply torn apart.
The absence of Sam Foley’s industry in midfield continues to be keenly felt, and that was further compounded on Saturday by an injury to Jordan Turnbull, one of Town’s better performers this season.
He seems to transmit a sense of calmness across the defence when he plays. Without him, they were all at sea against Colchester’s fleet-footed forward line that ran rings around Ash Taylor, Aaron Pierre and debutant Charlie Goode.
The three centre-backs were not helped by a lack of protection in wide areas as Shay Facey struggled positionally on the right and Jack Bridge’s attempts to be the team’s creative spark in attack left gaps for United to exploit down the left.
Even if Town do survive this season, you feel it will owe more to the inadequacies of others rather than their own good play
It is surely time to move Bridge back to a central role where he thrived against Carlisle United only last month. He is arguably Northampton’s most creative player and would surely do greater damage through the middle where he can have more influence on proceedings.
That assured and convincing win over Carlisle just three weeks ago feels a lifetime ago. The last three games since then have all seen Town play well in the first-half and then fall apart in the second, as if they lose their nerve and can’t sustain their level of performance.
Saturday’s most recent collapse can’t be dismissed as an aberration. Not since October have the Cobblers strung together two good performances in a row and that startling lack of consistency is hurting their season.
This Northampton squad does have talent, certainly enough talent to be a top-half League Two side at the very least. But talent only thrives when it is aligned to hard work, discipline and a willingness to do the basics. Without those, talent is futile, as they are proving at present.
The Cobblers gambled with their Football League future during January. It was a calculated gamble but, having sold their best two players in Matt Crooks and Kevin van Veen in addition to four other outgoing, a gamble nonetheless. If it backfires, those who make the decisions can expect an almighty backlash.
I wrote earlier in the season about the dangers of apathy and it appears little has changed. When anger and frustration are replaced by indifference among supporters, you have a real problem.
It’s no surprise it’s happening with the Cobblers given they’ve sunk from mid-table in League One to the lower reaches of League Two in double-quick time. Selling their best and most exciting two players in in the process has hardly helped and now the remaining 16 fixtures are likely to be an unpleasant grind to the finish line.
And even if Town do survive this season, you feel it will owe more to the inadequacies of others rather than their own good play. It is impressive, in a strange kind of way, that they have won just two of their last 13 league games and yet still have a healthy seven-point advantage over the bottom two. That does not reflect well on teams below them.
But they are unlikely to get away with a similarly poor run of form over the final 16 games of the season. With at least four wins and four draws required to guarantee survival, Town have plenty of work to do.
For player ratings, check out the following link: Northampton 0 Colchester 4: Player ratings gallery.