Northampton Town 1 Gillingham 2 – match review, player ratings and highlights

MISERY COMPLETE: Northampton's nightmare evening against Gillingham was compounded after full-time when Hildeberto Pereira was sent off. Pictures: Kirsty Edmonds
MISERY COMPLETE: Northampton's nightmare evening against Gillingham was compounded after full-time when Hildeberto Pereira was sent off. Pictures: Kirsty Edmonds

Do not let the closeness of the final scoreline deceive you, there was no hard luck story here. For most of this game – bar a brief period in the second-half – it was anything but close.

The Cobblers may have lost games by bigger margins and taken heavier beatings this season but not once have they been outplayed to the extent they were for 45 painstaking, bewildering minutes on Tuesday as visitors Gillingham threatened to rack up a cricket score. If this was a boxing contest, it would have been stopped with just 18 minutes on the clock when Tom Eaves, Town’s tormentor-in-chief, landed the second significant blow on an evening that was in danger of turning ugly early.

Pointing to a more even second-half would only paper over some pretty alarming cracks. Northampton’s improvement owed as much to Gillingham’s conscious decision to drop off as it did to anything else, and besides, had the visitors taken their chances, they’d have been out of sight by the time the clock ticked over to 35 minutes.

Gillingham were so dominant, so in control for 40 minutes, that it was scarcely believable. They cut through the hosts with remarkable ease, finding space and time to launch attack after attack, sending balls into the Northampton penalty box from wide positions and putting constant pressure on the Town defence.

While home fans inside Sixfields were trying to work out if they were more angry or more bemused by what was unfolding in front of their very eyes, the players almost looked in as much of a daze as they were run horribly ragged.

It’s not immediately obvious to know where to start when it comes to dissecting and analysing a game like this. To start with, this was the second home match running that an opposition manager and his team came to Sixfields with a plan to stifle Town’s strengths and exploit their weaknesses and again, like Rochdale 10 days earlier, the hosts were worryingly ineffective with little sign of a way to reverse the tide back in their favour.

Northampton have become specialists in going from one extreme to the other this season but even by their lofty standards, this was taking the biscuit. After dispatching Wimbledon with such ease on Saturday, here they outwitted, outsmarted and spectacularly outplayed. It was indescribably bad.

It started pretty much from the word go, too. Six minutes is rarely long enough to claim that ‘a goal had been coming’ but no one inside Sixfields could deny Parker’s fizzing strike into the top corner was the least Gills deserved for a blistering start, with Town still in the starting blocks.

Parker and strike partner Eaves went on to torment the home back line for the next 40 minutes. Behind them, their team-mates controlled midfield, out wide the two wing-backs found acres of space to send in crosses galore and in defence, an isolated Chris Long came up against three centre-backs who strolled through the opening 45 minutes.

The visitors were direct in their play, often looking to find one of their front two as quickly as possible, but to say it was all about long balls would be overly simplistic. Gills were also slicker, quicker, more fluid and far more incisive. Steve Lovell’s decision to go 3-5-2 had baffled some fans on social media but it took just 18 minutes for him to be justified, Eaves slotting in one of many crosses to double the lead.

From a Cobblers viewpoint, it was worrying that there was no reaction and no obvious solution to the problem, neither from the players nor manager Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink. He attempted to switch things up and tinker with his formation but nothing he tried could turn the tables, instead his players just looked increasingly exasperated.

It would not be so much of a concern if Rochdale hadn’t come to Sixfields and controlled the game in similar fashion earlier in the month as they also had too much nous and too much quality for the hosts.

Aside from the goals, Parker and Eaves continued to threaten. The latter had a header ruled out for a tight offside call while Eaves conspired to clear the crossbar from five yards. This was a battering. It’s unlikely you will witness a more one-sided half of football all season.

The sound of the half-time whistle came as a relief for the Cobblers who were able to at last retreat to the comfort of the dressing room and regroup. They could count themselves fortunate to only be 2-0 down and still in with a sniff.

Of all the defeats the Cobblers have suffered this season and of all the poor performances they have turned in, this might just be the most alarming, for no other reason than, at home and supposedly in good form against a mid-table team – and with new signings now settling in – they were so emphatically second best.

Thankfully, Town were vastly improved in the second period and almost snatched an unlikely point after Ash Taylor’s neat header 10 minutes in, but it should not be forgotten that, after Eaves’ earlier miss from close-range, Parker spurned an even more glaring chance, heading wide from two yards. So while this might have ended as a draw on another night, it may also have have ended in a much bigger Gillingham win.

Though Town did indeed edge the second-half and almost levelled, once a strong 15-minute spell fizzled out, there was little left as they lost their way and chances dried up. Lovell made changes to his team and the system and that took the sting out of the game.

Of all the defeats the Cobblers have suffered this season and of all the poor performances they have turned in, this might just be the most alarming, for no other reason than, at home and supposedly in good form against a mid-table team – and with new signings now settling in – they were so emphatically second best.

Just when you think you have this team figured out, and just when you feel they’ve finally found a winning formula, they throw in a performance like this one.

When the post-match inquest began, much of the criticism was directed towards Hasselbaink and his selection decisions, both in terms of personnel and tactically. The decision to play John-Joe O’Toole, so effective in an advanced role of late, in a deep position backfired as Sam Foley, instead preferred to play higher up, struggled to make the same impression and was easily nullified by Gillingham’s back three.

In midfield, O’Toole and Matt Grimes were overrun and had rings ran around them, but the biggest concern must be that, for the second home game running, the Cobblers were outsmarted and outwitted and pressed off the park by an energetic, well-drilled visiting outfit.

Now might be the time to keep things simple and go back to basics. Play the best players in the best positions. Gboly Ariyibi’s vibrant cameo on Tuesday should earn him a first start at Scunthorpe on Saturday while O’Toole must be pushed further forward again to support Chris Long and give Town extra physicality in the final third.

Joe Bunney, though excellent going forward since signing, was another weak link on Tuesday so perhaps, as he has done twice already, Hasselbaink should tighten things up by moving Jordan Turnbull, who also toiled against Gills, to left-back and bring in Regan Poole or Leon Barnett.

How the opposition line-up should not matter. While of course the strengths and weaknesses of opposing sides must be taken into account, the Cobblers have enough good players and boast enough quality to cause headaches of their own.

Whether they stay up or not now looks set to go down to the wire but, despite what occurred on Tuesday, if Northampton can keep things simple, focus on themselves and utilise their strengths, there’s absolutely no reason why they can’t be on the right side of the dotted line come May.

How they rated...

Richard O’Donnell - Left with no chance by the precision of Parker and Eaves. Made a handful of decent saves thereafter which prevented the final score from being an embarrassment... 6

Brendan Moloney - Was partially spared the torrent of Gillingham attacks as the visitors mostly surged forward through the middle and down the opposite flank. Relatively solid, certainly in the context of his fellow defenders... 5

Ash Taylor - Hasn’t often been bullied by opposition strikers this season but the duo of Eaves and Parker were too much of a handful for 45 torrid minutes. Got Town back in the game with a deft header but it wasn’t enough to salvage a point... 5

Jordan Turnbull - Run ragged by Gillingham’s front two. Started slowly with a poor header that led to the opener and never recovered on a difficult evening, though admittedly not helped by regularly having to cover for his left-back. He’s another new signing who’s struggling for consistency... 4

Joe Bunney - Ninety minutes that he won’t want to remember in a hurry. Positioning was all over the place in the first-half especially as Gillingham targeted his side and attacked at will, sending in a flurry of crosses one of which Eaves poked in. Understandably lost confidence from then on. He’s clearly got something about him but this was not his night... 3.5

Matt Grimes - Couldn’t get his foot on the ball in the first-half when Gillingham ran rings around Town’s midfield. Better after the break and set up Taylor’s goal but faded out of the game again... 4

John-Joe O’Toole - Moved to a deeper role and was far less influential than he has been of late. The distances between him and Grimes were too big and subsequently that allowed Gillingham’s midfield trio to run the show... 4

Sam Foley - Initially it appeared he was to start in his natural central midfield position but was instead played further forward. Was ineffective both there and when shunted out wide. Paid the price for the team’s display by being hooked at half-time but in fairness it could have been anyone... 4

Sam Hoskins - Another one to be moved about, starting on the wing before moving central. Failed to have the desired impact in either position and was duly withdrawn before the hour-mark... 4

Daniel Powell - A tale of two ends. Didn’t give the struggling Bunney much protection in defence but looked the most likely to create something prior to Ariyibi’s arrival, though that’s not saying much. Missed a great chance with his head late in the first-half... 5

Chris Long - Didn’t get the slightest sniff of goal. Had very little chance against Gillingham’s three centre-backs who kept him on a tight leash, particularly Zakuani. Could at least have challenged for more headers and put the away defence under more pressure... 5

Substitutions

Hildeberto Pereria - Did some good things but all went wrong after full-time when he was given the most needless of red cards... 4

Gboly Ariyibi - A very rare bright spark. Surely has done enough to merit a starting place on Saturday... 7 CHRON STAR MAN

Boris Mathis - 6