If you wanted a game to underline all of Northampton’s current issues – a lopsided squad, an over-reliance on one player and their ongoing battle for consistency – it came in 90 curious minutes against Suncthorpe United on Saturday.
For the first 45 minutes here, the Cobblers were excellent. So much so they deserved more than to go into half-time goalless having bettered their in-form, promotion-chasing visitors for most of an intriguing and very watchable opening period.
But missed chances came back to haunt them when that promising first-half made way for a terrible second as, inexplicably and bizarrely, Northampton completely lost their way and fell to pieces, resulting in them deservedly being blown away.
From disaster to encouragement followed by setback and then further improvement, the concept of consistency is unlikely to ever be associated with this current campaign if it continues to unfold in the same manner.
And having followed their best performance with arguably their worst 45 minutes, it turns out the longer this season goes on, the trickier it is to make sense of.
It seemed Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink had solved the puzzle and found the winning formula when overseeing a series of improved performances and positive results, but just when you thought they had got back on track, his side throw in a second-half like this.
A game of two halves is a tired and overused cliche but there was no better way of describing Saturday’s somewhat bizarre and unexplainable 3-0 defeat that was totally out of keeping with their recent improvement. It was a game that firmly belonged in the peculiar context of Northampton’s campaign.
Initially, Town backed up last week’s impressively assured win at Oxford United with another strong, commanding 45 minutes at home to Scunthorpe.
The visitors had come out flying but Town weathered the storm, reversed the tide and made most of the first-half running. Two crosses from the right, sent in by Billy Waters and Brendan Moloney, saw Matt Crooks and John-Joe O’Toole head the best two chances fractionally wide.
But after the first-half promised so much, the second delivered precious little. A brilliant David Buchanan block, which denied Duane Holmes after he had been superbly picked out by Hakeeb Adelakun, on the stroke of half-time should have acted as a lifeline and a warning as to what Scunthorpe are capable of.
Alas, it did not and the same combination would link up again and this time it was to devastating effect. First, though, Cameron Burgess stabbed in from close-range – Adelakun with the first of his hat-trick of assists – to get them going as he applied the finishing touch to a sustained spell of United pressure for a goal that can most definitely be filed under the ‘it was coming’ category.
Then Holmes got in on the act.
Implementing a high-line can be a risk-reward strategy. It’s a tactic that has played a key role in Northampton’s recent turnaround. It has allowed them to press high and remain compact but, conversely, it can also be asking for trouble against a side who possess nippy forwards like Scunthorpe and, on Saturday, Holmes was the beneficiary.
He scored two goals of similar style, twice springing Town’s offside trap to latch onto Adelakun’s inch-perfect through ball before nonchalantly beating Matt Ingram.
Once again, Northampton’s imbalanced squad and poorly thought out recruitment process was laid bare by the team selection. Sure, the absence of Daniel Powell and Sam Hoskins did not help, but a team with four central midfielders and not a single natural wide man was always going to struggle for cohesion. Not that Hasselbaink had much choice with the limited options available to him.
Though Holmes got on the score sheet, Adelakun was Town’s real tormentor-in-chief, as he had been in midweek in the FA Cup. The 21-year-old, with his mazy running, silky skills and fantastic vision, looks destined for bigger and better things and Northampton’s defence will be glad to see the back of him having been given the run around twice in a week.
There was no way back once Holmes had his say and Northampton inevitably drifted to defeat.
What has not been mentioned here is how the hosts struggled so desperately once O’Toole was forced off through injury shortly before half-time.
Of the four games O’Toole has played more than 45 minutes of this season, Northampton have won three and drawn the other. In the remaining 19 games, they’ve won just two.
Now, that is an admittedly small sample size but it is no coincidence that their chances of victory drastically diminish when he is not on the pitch.
All teams have their talisman and O’Toole is that man for the Cobblers. He makes them tick and his physical presence and willingness to throw himself about gives opposition midfielders and defenders a headache, but they still have enough good players and enough quality to handle his departure.
On Saturday, O’Toole’s ability to win headers and get into good positions created space for others, especially Lewis McGugan and Matt Grimes, to do their thing.
Once he departed for Sam Foley, they lost that edge to their game.
Perhaps, in hindsight, Shaun McWilliams or Regan Poole would have been better bets. They’d have brought the same kind of bite and steal as O’Toole, and while McGugan and Grimes are wonderfully gifted players, they both boast different attributes that are better used in an attacking sense rather than when the tide is going the other way.
But it was not only O’Toole’s absence that was the problem on Saturday.
Once again, Northampton’s imbalanced squad and poorly thought out recruitment process was laid bare by the team selection. Sure, the absence of Daniel Powell and Sam Hoskins did not help, but a team with four central midfielders and not a single natural wide man was always going to struggle for cohesion. Not that Hasselbaink had much choice with the options available to him.
With that in mind, they actually performed with impressive fluidity in a first-half when they played some good stuff but with Billy Waters and Matt Crooks on the flanks, both more central players by nature, it was never going to be easy to sustain that threat.
But as poor as the second-half was, Saturday should act as no more than a reminder for something we already knew: Northampton are not the finished article.
After all, Scunthorpe are a good team who will be right in the promotion mix come May and, like all good teams do, they stepped on the throttle and turned the screw when in the ascendancy.
That is something the Cobblers are still learning, but with two games against the current bottom two to come over the next six days, they must learn quickly.
How they rated...
Matt Ingram - Unfair to lay the blame purely at his door given he was so badly exposed by the defence but, even so, might have done better for Holmes’ two goals, caught in no man’s land for both... 5
Brendan Moloney - Ventured forward more often than in recent games, with one of his several crosses almost leading to a goal. Second-half became all about defending, something which his side struggled with... 6
Ash Taylor - Seemed so at ease in the first 45 minutes, making a couple of well-timed clearances, but it all went to pieces thereafter. Was pulled left, right and centre by United’s nimble forwards... 5
Aaron Pierre - Followed his excellent first-half display with a crucial tackle on Novak early in the second, however he had no answer once Burgress prodded the visitors ahead... 6
David Buchanan - Wonderful piece of anticipation and awareness to block Holmes’ goal-bound effort, only for that to ultimately prove immaterial. Could not prevent Town’s slide to defeat despite his best efforts... 6 CHRON STAR MAN
Matt Grimes - Recovered from a sluggish start to get more on the ball and dictate the play first-half. Almost caught out Gilks with a well-struck shot. Barely got a kick after half-time... 5
Lewis McGugan - Not the type of game he thrives on, was neither given the time nor space to showcase his quality and get Town up the pitch. Would benefit from having a ball-winner next to him... 5
John-Joe O’Toole - Everything unravelled following his withdrawal, such is his influence on this team. His physical attributes help Town play further up the pitch and get others on the ball in dangerous areas. Headed wide during Town’s strong spell... 6
Billy Waters - Lovely early cross for Crooks, who headed wide, before fading out of the game almost completely. Lacked the physicality and raw pace to really trouble the visitors... 5
Matt Crooks - Started on the left and drifted centrally, heading Northampton’s best opportunity fractionally wide. Gave away the contentious free-kick which led to United’s first goal and, from there, it was no way back... 5
Chris Long - Snatched at a very decent chance when Town were desperate for something and that summed his, and the team’s, afternoon up. Hardly featured in the second-half... 5
Sam Foley - 5
Dean Bowditch - 6