Portsmouth 3 Northampton Town 1 – match review, player ratings and highlights

Cobblers had no response once Portsmouth equalised. Pictures: Kirsty Edmonds
Cobblers had no response once Portsmouth equalised. Pictures: Kirsty Edmonds

The copy and paste function has become a rather useful tool while covering the Cobblers this season and once again it came in handy on this grim Saturday afternoon on the south coast after another performance and result that, on the final outing of 2017, was in keeping with their year as a whole.

The only change on this occasion was that Northampton at least decided to make a game of it for 40 minutes, even leading through a slick breakaway goal, otherwise the same negative adjectives that have been used to describe previous efforts against the likes of Doncaster and Oldham apply again as they served up another dose of disappointment for their increasingly exasperated fan base.

From 1-0 up to 3-1 down in barely no time at all, there was a small period of this game that perfectly encapsulated Northampton’s season as a whole and demonstrated why they face an almighty battle to avoid a return to League Two.

The Cobblers have made a habit of turning potential encouragement into alarming setbacks and they did so again in an eight-minute period here. Leading 1-0 on 41 minutes through Chris Long, and having more than matched Portsmouth, one goal was all it took for the wheels to come off.

Matty Kennedy’s fine one-two and finish brought Pompey level and then Oliver Hawkins, who utilised his strength and height to torment Town’s back four all game, Regan Poole in particular, somehow evaded his markers to exquisitely nod Christian Burgess’ hopeful long ball over Matt Ingram and into the same bottom corner that Kennedy had just found.

Anyone who is familiar with Town’s campaign does not need to be told what happened next. Not able to mount any kind of response, Pompey proceeded to dominate and Hawkins’ second should have been the first of at least three second-half goals. As it turned out, wayward finishing and Ingram’s reflexes limited the damage to three.

From being right in the game to trying to prevent another hammering in double quick time, the Cobblers did not have the confidence – nor the leadership or character – to respond once they suffered a setback. It’s a familiar tale this season.

They have fallen a long way since their last league game at Fratton Park. It was only 18 months ago when they crowned the most glorious of seasons with a polished and deserved 2-1 win over Portsmouth, and now at the same place against the same opposition, they were abject in a defeat that leaves them odds-on favourites to undo all of Chris Wilder’s good work and return to League Two only two seasons later.

The other real concern for the rest of the season is that Northampton remain such an easy team to play against when behind. They often hold their own when ahead or on level terms but, the moment they go behind, they do not possess the quality going forward to sustain attacks and their attempts to do so leave them vulnerable at the other end.

From being rigid and organised, the need for Town to show more attacking adventure in trying to get back into games only results in the other team dominating even more and creating a shedload of chances, as demonstrated by Portsmouth on Saturday and Doncaster four days earlier.

Pompey cut apart their visitors with remarkable ease in the second-half, goalkeeper Ingram forced into at least five saves while Pompey also cracked the crossbar and hit the side-netting with presentable opportunities.

Only Bury have scored fewer goals than Northampton and only Oldham have conceded more, but those defensive problems are directly linked to their attacking woes because it’s that aforementioned inability to sustain attacks and apply prolonged periods of pressure on opposition teams which subsequently means their defence is under constant strain and eventually wilts.

The absence of a tough-tackling, ball-winning midfielder was also apparent on Saturday. At times it seemed like John-Joe O’Toole was the only man capable of putting in a tackle, and while Matt Grimes and Matt Crooks evidently have plenty of talent, it’s doubtful that they can thrive as a combination in central midfield.

Both are good on the ball and both will work hard but neither are the sort of in-your-face, rough-you-up midfielder that the Cobblers are crying out for. At the moment, it’s all too easy for the opponents to keep possession and build attacks, again putting Town’s defence under relentless strain.

The other real concern for the rest of the season is that Northampton remain such an easy team to play against when behind. They often hold their own when ahead or on level terms but, the moment they go behind, they do not possess the quality going forward to sustain attacks and their attempts to do so leave them vulnerable at the other end.

It would be easy to blame their poor defensive record on the defence alone, and it’s true that neither the back four nor goalkeeper Matt Ingram – despite making a string of second-half saves – had an especially good game at Fratton Park, but they receive so little protection from those in front, particularly the full-backs, that you cannot hold them solely responsible for leaking so many goals. It’s a collective effort and something Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink must rectify with positive signings in January. The best form of defence, as they say, is attack, something which Town do so little of.

The doom and gloom surrounding Northampton’s season will only increase with this defeat and it’s unlikely to improve on Monday when league leaders Wigan Athletic, unbeaten in nine, come to Sixfields.

The thing is, though, it can all change so quickly. A couple of exciting signings over the next few days coupled with a good win and a good performance would transform the atmosphere. The problem, of course, is achieving that.

How they rated...

Matt Ingram - Stuck out an early right boot to thwart Hawkins when one-on-one but was caught in no man’s land later in the half. Made a string of second-half saves to keep the scoreline respectable... 6

Brendan Moloney - Failed to stem the supply from Portsmouth’s left, and in particular from Kennedy who tricked and teased Town’s right-back all afternoon, cutting inside for the equaliser and also playing a part in the third... 5

Regan Poole - Endured a torrid afternoon. Looks a little too rash to be playing centre-back at this level. Tried and failed to step in front of his man and intercept on numerous occasions, and found Hawkins’ physical presence too much to handle throughout... 4

Ash Taylor - Pompey’s crossing tactic should have played to his strength but instead they won far too many free headers in Town’s box, both from open play and set-pieces, a couple of which led to goals and others might have done too had it not been for Ingram... 5

David Buchanan - Mismatch at the back post gave him little chance of stopping Hawkins from effectively ending the game, and he hardly featured in an attacking sense due to Portsmouth’s dominance... 5

Matt Grimes - He’s a good player but doesn’t show it often enough. Too many days where he floats around and lets the game pass him by. Any flashes of promise, such as his role in the opener here, are too few and far between. Probably needs a tough-tackling, ball-winning player next to him to really thrive... 5

Matt Crooks - See above. Clearly has talent but that talent has only been produced in glimpses, which encapsulates the team in general. Did at least win the tackle to set Town on their way for Long’s opener but that was about it... 5

Lewis McGugan - Wonderfully exquisite through pass released Long for Town’s opening goal. Worked hard on the left side and was the most likely to make something happen but he rarely got into the position to do so... 6

Sam Hoskins - Embarked on a couple of bursting runs forward but there was no end product once he reached the final third, not that he was aided by the referee’s failure to spot at least two obvious fouls on him. Still working his way back to full fitness... 5

John-Joe O’Toole - Was up for the battle and at times seemed the only Northampton player capable of making a tackle. But his frustrations with how the game was unfolding grew and almost boiled over before wisely being withdrawn... 6

Chris Long - Assured run and finish took his goal tally to six for the season but his decision to goad the home fans with his celebration was unwise as his every touch thereafter was met by boos. Remains by far Town’s most likely man to put the ball in the net... 6

Substitutes

Sam Foley - 6

Daniel Powell - 6

Marc Richards - 6