Plymouth Argyle 2 Northampton Town 0 – match review, player ratings and highlights

Action from Tuesday night's game at Home Park. Pictures: Kirsty Edmonds
Action from Tuesday night's game at Home Park. Pictures: Kirsty Edmonds

For anyone in need of a case study to demonstrate how football is so much more than simply having a collection of good individual players, look no further than the floundering Cobblers and their ongoing woes.

Rudderless, directionless and totally bereft of any cohesion or attacking threat, Tuesday night at Home Park was an alarming return to the Northampton of a few weeks ago as all of their problems were laid painfully bare on a desperate, forlorn evening that does not bode well for their immediate future.

Not only that, but a new problem cropped up. Defending set-pieces has been one of Town’s strengths this season, yet on Tuesday they took the unwise and untimely step of gifting their hosts two of the simplest and easiest goals they will score all season.

Sonny Bradley won almost every ball that was thrown into the Cobblers penalty box and, unlike at Rochdale last month, there was to be no grand comeback once his two simple headers put Plymouth in control, and in truth Town never remotely threatened one.

The Peterborough United defeat was unacceptable, the Bristol Rovers thrashing was a sickener and the second-half collapse to Scunthorpe was inexplicable, but there was something that made Tuesday’s defeat at Plymouth Argyle even more worrying. Perhaps it was the opposition, a team who had just one home win all season and who had also scored two goals in the same game on only one previous occasion. Well, that was until Northampton and their generous defending rocked up at Home Park.

But defending set-pieces is not the underlying issue for the Cobblers and it’s not the reason they remain in the bottom four. That owes to something which has become almost ingrained in this team over the last couple of seasons: no natural width, very little genuine pace and almost complete devoid of creativity.

Those are the issues that hampered them on Tuesday and have plagued them all season.

The three players who played on the flanks in this game – Dean Bowditch, Matt Crooks and Billy Waters – illustrated that to a tee. How can Northampton, having bought so many players in a frenzied summer of transfer activity, be left in a situation where those three players are supposedly their best options in wide positions?

You do not need hindsight to see it, either. It’s not even a recent issue, in fact their distinct lack of pace and width can be traced all the way back to the start of last summer when Chris Wilder was followed out of the door by Ricky Holmes and Nicky Adams. The failure to replace those players with ones similar in style, let alone quality, remains a huge problem to this day.

It’s incredible, really, that this situation still exists, and the nadir of it all came at Home Park on Tuesday when what happened around the hour-mark perfectly encapsulated Northampton’s current woes.

Desperate to get back into the game at 2-0 down, manager Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink put on Dean Bowditch and Marc Richards and moved to a 4-4-2. That meant the two wide players for the remaining time were Crooks, on the right, and Bowditch, on the left. If that doesn’t highlight the shortcomings in this squad, nothing else will.

Believe it nor not, the Cobblers do have a lot of good players. But you need more than that to be successful; it’s about being the sum of your parts and having the right individuals in the right places, thereby creating an environment and a team structure for those talented players to thrive.

Take Shrewsbury Town. You would not say their squad is significantly superior on paper and yet there they are, riding high at the top of the table with only two defeats all season while Northampton, supposedly stronger in terms of personnel, flounder and stutter their way to what you fear, at the current rate, will be League Two.

At the moment, the best is not being extracted from is clearly a talented bunch of players and it’s immensely frustrating to watch.

Rudderless, directionless and totally bereft of any cohesion or attacking threat, Tuesday night at Home Park was an alarming return to the Northampton of a few weeks ago as all of their problems were laid painfully bare on a desperate, forlorn evening that does not bode well for their immediate future.

There are also question marks over whether the Cobblers have the right blend of players in terms of style. They boast an array of technically gifted players, such as Matt Grimes and Lewis McGugan, but they seem to be short on players who bring aggression and a bit of steal, those who do the ugly side of the game well in order to unleash the full potential of the rest.

It’s not pretty but all good sides, regardless of the level, have those type of players. When John-Joe O’Toole plays, it’s not so much of an issue because he brings enough aggression to compensate for the whole team but without him, and even with young Regan Poole as a replacement, Town just get overrun too easily.

When you go through the squad list, there is so much raw talent there. Grimes, McGugan and Crooks, for example, have not built their reputations on nothing, even Aaron Pierre, who endured a tough night on Tuesday, was highly-rated before his arrival, while Chris Long and Poole are both at Premier League clubs, the latter at Manchester United no less.

Yet they remain in desperate trouble after an evening when all of their problems came together as one.

The challenge for the Cobblers on Tuesday was to prove that Saturday’s second-half collapse against Scunthorpe was no more than a brief blip, rather than the start of another downward spiral. It was also a chance to prove that they’re not over-reliant on O’Toole. Needless to say, they failed on both counts.

Instead, the evidence at Home Park points to the pattern of their season – where good patches have offset by prolonged bad streaks – continuing.

All the positivity and optimism created by their performance and victory at Oxford United has been washed away by two bleak showings that give fans very little hope to cling to.

That win at Grenoble Road was meant to be the turning point, the day when it all came together. How misplaced those thoughts seem to be. It’s quickly becoming apparent their excellent display on that occasion was the exception to the norm and now you must wonder, looking back, whether it was Oxford’s unique style that actually played into Town’s hands on that afternoon.

It’s a rarity in this division to be given space and time to play but that’s what the Cobblers had at Oxford, they didn’t need to ruffle any feathers. That has not been the case against Scunthorpe or Plymouth, both of whom were up for the battle and in Northampton’s faces from the word go and the Cobblers simply had no answer.

Given that they have not come from behind to win a game in over 18 months, the situation on Tuesday looked bleak as soon as Bradley escaped Poole from David Fox’s free-kick and nodded past Matt Ingram.

For a team who struggle to create many chances, taking them is a must. Pierre, moments later, did not, nor did Long when through on goal straight after Bradley’s second, this time the Argyle defender holding off the attentions of Pierre.

Long lifted over the onrushing Remi Matthews and wide of the mark while Bowditch also curled narrowly off target late on, but those were the grand total of Town’s attacking efforts.

The home defeat to Scunthorpe could have been excused because it was one bad half against one of the division’s strongest, most in-form teams, but this was 90 disappointing minutes against a side who have struggled even more than Northampton this season.

The one saving grace? They remain close enough to the teams above them and have enough kind fixtures between now and January to limp through to the transfer window relatively intact. Once there, Hasselbaink can set about trying to buy players who will bring goals and pace, though finding those players will not be easy halfway through a season.

But, at the moment, that seems the best the Cobblers can hope for. With Bury to come on Saturday, their need is greater than ever.

How they rated...

Matt Ingram - Barely had anything to do from open play but was hopelessly exposed by his defence for the two goals and Bradley’s well-placed headers gave him no chance... 6

Brendan Moloney - His runs down the right could have created problems for Argyle had he donned his crossing boots. Instead, he was wasteful and disappointing... 5

Ash Taylor - Has been consistently sound this season and was again in the main at Home Park, stepping out of defence to intercept well and head away the danger. Perhaps he should have marked Bradley at set-pieces... 6

Aaron Pierre - Endured a difficult evening, especially guilty of giving away needless free-kicks in dangerous areas which is a risk at any time, let alone when Graham Carey is on the field. Lost Bradley for the second goal moments before his game was cut short by injury... 5

David Buchanan - One of those games where he didn’t do much wrong individually, even coping well with the dangerous Carey down his side, but the team’s problems came from elsewhere... 6

Regan Poole - Reinstated into midfield to provide some tenacity and bite in O’Toole’s absence. Did that in patches, producing one goal-saving interception, but it was all in vain as Town were so lacklustre when in possession. Also got caught under the ball to let Bradley get free for his opener... 5

Matt Grimes - The only one to take it upon himself to grab the game by the scruff of the neck and try to get his side moving in the right direction. Always made himself available for a pass, so much so there was a time when Town’s sole tactic seemed to almost entirely rely on the Swansea loanee... 6 CHRON STAR MAN

Lewis McGugan - The number 10 role is not one which suits his skillset on this evidence. Anonymous for most of the 90 minutes as the game passed him by, even his set-pieces were below-par... 5

Billy Waters - Looked like a striker playing out of position on the right, and a frustrated one at that. Never asserted himself on the game as Plymouth successfully nullified his threat from the right... 5

Matt Crooks - Back out on left again such are Town’s limited options in wide positions and it’s clearly a role that doesn’t suit him. The odd flash but precious little he can do with so few touches of the ball... 5

Chris Long - Cut a forlorn figure up front and grew increasingly exasperated as the night wore on, expending far too much energy chasing aimless long balls. Got to the point where he took it upon himself to make something happen but that didn’t work either, also missed arguably Town’s best chance... 5


Leon Barnett - 6

Marc Richards - 6

Dean Bowditch - 6