Frustration has been the buzz word of the season so far and for the third Saturday in a row it was again the overriding emotion following this 2-2 draw against Cambridge United when three points needlessly became one, extending Town’s increasingly anxious wait for a first win.
On a day when Kevin van Veen provided a finishing masterclass for his team-mates, the only people to take note were on the opposition as George Maris and Gary Deegan picked their spots to perfection to send Cambridge away happy and leave home fans wondering if they’ll ever taste the winning feeling again.
But while Cobblers’ winless start to the campaign continued amid another flurry of missed chances and slapdash defending, there were two ways of assessing and analysing this performance and result. Which way you go depends on the fullness of our glass.
Without wanting to dwell on the events of last season, there’s unquestionably some edginess and anxiety that still lingers in the air. Patience is wearing a little thin and it therefore becomes harder to focus on the positives and easier to worry about the negatives, especially when wins remain so elusive.
The first way to look at Saturday’s game would be to pick holes and point out the flaws, ignoring the vast improvement made in an attacking sense. And it’s true, to say Town’s display here was one without any deficiencies would be an inaccurate assessment.
Until mistakes are cut out and defensive sloppiness eradicated, points will continue to be needlessly drift and increase the ongoing frustration. At present, the back four are undoing the front players’ good work and it must be of great annoyance for manager Dean Austin.
Credit goes to Deegan for his fine late strike but, prior to that, Town had chances to clear their lines. For Maris’ goal, again it was an excellent finish but Hakeem Odoffin’s decision to head back into the danger area was typical of a defence that continues to make careless mistakes.
Odoffin otherwise enjoyed a good game and, at just 20, he’s young enough to learn and improve. This was only his fourth game at professional level, although it may do him good to sit out for the next few weeks and learn from Shay Facey, whose return should make a positive difference to the back four.
Defensive frailties, in theory, can be rectified either on the training pitch or through changes of personnel. What is far harder to achieve, however, is getting a team to play with such purpose and positivity as the Cobblers did at times on Saturday.
As an attacking force, they are a team transformed. There was a 10-minute spell in the first-half when chances arrived in abundance – van Veen, Andy Williams, Sam Foley and Matt Crooks all going close – before they cranked it up another gear in the second period.
While van Veen had few problems in locating the net, others endured more difficulty in attempting to do likewise, particularly Crooks whose missed header from three yards out at 1-0 proved decisive. Score that and it’s game over. Two goals, though, should still have been enough.
It is also the way the chances are being created which is so refreshing: quick, fast football; incisive passing through the thirds; and high pressing from the front men. All of those features were evident in the two goals. The first all stemmed from a Cambridge corner following great play by Daniel Powell and Sam Hoskins; the second was an example of defending from the front.
That attacking verve comes at a price. To play with such positivity, you naturally have to sacrifice a certain amount of defensive solidity and that can leave you vulnerable. But it is surely better to lean a little too far that way than the other, especially on the back of an overly cautious approach last season when watching paint dry was preferable.
The contrast to some of the football under previous managers is night and day and that Austin has managed to get this team playing this way n a relatively short space of time suggests there’s more to come.
It is also the way the chances are being created which is so refreshing: quick, fast football; incisive passing through the thirds; and high pressing from the front men
It also helps to have a goalscorer when so many chances are being carved out and that’s exactly what the Cobblers have in a resurgent, re-focused and now fully confident van Veen.
No-one personifies Northampton’s attacking transformation more than the Dutchman. His two goals were of a natural finisher: one hammered into the top corner and the other lashed home via the underside of the crossbar.
He had been good before scoring too; making smart runs, holding the ball up effectively and working hard for the team. There were also more signs of him and Williams clicking. If the latter can find his scoring boots, the goals will flow twice as much. This season might end up being a case of you score three, we’ll score four.
While van Veen will rightly steal the headlines, the performances of midfield duo Crooks and Foley should not be overlooked. The two were superb in the centre of the park, wrestling control of the midfield battle and constantly providing the platform for Town to play their attacking football.
All in all, you can sense there is a good team trying to get out and that, if Cobblers can put all the pieces together, one side will soon be on the end of a hiding. They are creating too many chances and playing too well not to start winning.
The question now is whether or not Austin can shore up his defence without compromising the attacking play. For all the positive talk from players, the manager and indeed in this piece, it’s dangerous to assume everything will automatically come together and wins are only a matter of time. They must keep working on the shortcomings and doing the hard yards on the training pitch.
The talk of good performances and easy-on-the-eye football matters until victorious arrive, of course, but the season is still young and there are many, many points up for grabs in this open League Two campaign. If Town can win one, they might well get on a roll.
Deegan’s late heartbreaker does place extra pressure on Tuesday’s trip to a Morecambe side who are pointless and goalless from three games. Rationally-speaking, there should be no pressure. We’re not even out of August and there’s a long campaign ahead.
But football is rarely rational. Win that and everyone can calm down. Lose and all the talk of positives and good performances will be of little consolation.
How they rated...
David Cornell - Slight question mark over his involvement in United’s two goals which both stemmed from balls into the box. His defence needs him to take control from crosses and ease the pressure. Two well-taken finishes meant he didn’t get close to either strike... 5
Hakeem Odoffin - Was having an excellent game up until his costly error for Untied’s first equaliser. Headed the ball back into a dangerous area and Maris made him pay with a cool finish. Should have just put it behind for a corner. He’s still so young though and will hopefully learn... 5
Ash Taylor - An uncharacteristically sloppy display that lacked his usual conviction and assurance. Not directly at fault for either goal but he forms an important part of a defence that looks vulnerable. Sometimes needs to look for the simple pass instead of prematurely going long... 5
Aaron Pierre - A strike partnership of Azeez and Ibehre would be a handful for any defence and he coped with the physical side of it well, but again there was never the feeling of complete secureness when the visitors attacked... 5
David Buchanan - Didn’t always get the best of Cambridge’s tricky right winger but limited the supply line. Superb goal-line clearance prevented his side from being hit by a sucker-punch just before half-time... 6
Sam Foley - Excellent display in and out of possession just when he needed it in the battle for midfield places. Worked tirelessly and his industry in doing the ugly side of the game was accompanied by plenty of nifty touches on the ball. Deserves to keep his place even when O’Toole and McWilliams are fully fit... 8
Matt Crooks - Van Veen will rightly take all the headlines but the midfielder’s outstanding display should not be overlooked. Dictated everything from midfield where he pulled the strings with his range of passing, strength on the ball and powerful running. Only blot was two costly misses, the second in particular which would have made it 2-0 and likely put the game to bed... 8
Daniel Powell - Subdued first-half was followed by a much better second, picked out van Veen superbly for the first and may have had one himself. Cobblers require more consistency from him... 6
Sam Hoskins - Good movement and awareness to regularly find space but crowd got on his back as he failed to make the most of various attacking opportunities, constantly finding defenders with his passes and crosses. Improved in the second-half and played a key role in the opener, brilliantly setting Powell away for the counter-attack... 6
Andy Williams - Still waiting for his first Town goal, denied by a flying Mitov on this occasion, but works hard for the team and his style complements van Veen. You feel the goals will come for him at some point... 6
Kevin van Veen - A man with confidence flowing through his veins. Two superb finishes to take his tally for the season to three in just two starts, lashing beyond a helpless Mitov both times. The difference between a decent season and a great season may well hinge on his form and fitness as goalscorers at this level are like gold dust... 8 CHRON STAR MAN
Junior Morias - 6
Dean Bowditch - 6