For any outsider who would like a brief snapshot of what it’s been like to follow the fluctuating fortunes of the Cobblers in this unpredictable season, these past eight days would be a good place to start.
From an excellent win at AFC Wimbledon to a dismal home defeat to Gillingham and now a creditable and deserved draw at fifth-placed, if out of form, Scunthorpe United, Northampton have showcased every possible side to them in the space of a week.
The good news is that their bad performances have, seemingly, become the outliers. They’re less frequent and more sporadic than earlier in the season – only two of their past nine displays were universally considered not up to scratch – and if that remains the case until May, Town should have enough in the tank to stay up. They’re also scoring more goals, netting at least once in seven of their last eight games.
On the flip side, the less good news is that when they’re bad, they’re exceptionally bad. Tuesday’s defeat to Gillingham was an extreme version of the loss to Rochdale. However, that said, if they keep producing positive reactions to those setbacks, as they did on Saturday, it’ll be enough to survive.
This point at Glanford Park, coupled with the gritty nature of Town’s display, goes down as one gained rather than two lost. Chris Long could not miss from inches out on 13 minutes and John-Joe O’Toole crashed home a bullet header on the hour-mark as the Cobblers twice had the lead and twice lost it.
The main frustration for Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink will not necessarily be the fact his team surrendered the advantage on two occasions, rather the manner of United’s equalisers. Having restricted the home side to so few clear chances, Town backed off and Funso Ojo was given the freedom of Glanford Park to cancel out Long’s early opener before a poorly-defended free-kick saw Murray Wallace head in from virtually the same spot Long had done earlier on.
The final result came with a tinge of frustration but a point at Scunthorpe represents a positive outcome in any season, let alone this one and in the context of this week when Town were so off-colour in defeat to Gillingham just four days earlier.
Though the Cobblers are now scoring more goals, adding a further two here, they still remain worryingly one-dimensional in attack, often relying on Long or O’Toole to combine in both creating and scoring goals. Aside from those strikes at Glanford Park, both of which came from set-pieces, Town were devoid of creativity and spark in the final third.
Gboly Ariyibi produced flashes and could be a source of goals if used properly while Daniel Powell has showcased his threat already this season but it’s getting players like those two in advanced, dangerous positions that must be the priority if the Cobblers are to create more and score more. On Saturday, they spent too much time defending.
The week’s three results have also continued Northampton’s curious recent trend of improved away form – now unbeaten in four – and a worsening home record – three wins in nine. In one respect, though, those statistics should not be particularly surprising.
The major difference between home and away games is the approach. Northampton, when they set their collective mind to it, have shown us they are more than capable of being well-organised, hard to break down and therefore hard to beat, attributes which are conducive to playing away from home. When you allay that to a greater goal output, as well as a threat from set-pieces, they are a dangerous team on the road. The fact they’ve gone to promotion-chasing trio Blackburn Rovers, Bradford City and Scunthorpe United, all in the past month, and haven’t lost any of them, winning one and drawing two, is testament to that.
Their most recent game was a perfect illustration of how the Cobblers are tough to play against for home teams. Yes, Scunthorpe had a stranglehold of possession and applied far more pressure but they were regularly blunted by the visitors, even their two goals were hardly of an orthodox manner (a breakaway and a poorly-defended set-piece), and while Town didn’t create much, they occasionally threatened on the break and scored from two set-pieces.
Conversely, when the onus is on Northampton to force the issue and take the game to the other team, essentially any time they play a team in mid-table or lower at Sixfields, problems begin to arise. Striking the right balance between carrying an attacking threat and remaining tight at the other end has been an issue all season and whether or not Hasselbaink can find the right formula might ultimately be the difference between survival and relegation.
With a huge home game against badly out-of-form Oxford United next, time is running out.
The week’s three results have also continued Northampton’s curious recent trend of improved away form – now unbeaten in four – and a worsening home record - three wins in nine. In one respect, though, those statistics should not be particularly surprising.
How they rated...
Richard O’Donnell - Was having a solid game up until United’s second equaliser. Seemed to mistime or misjudge his punch, and with his goal unguarded, Wallace headed in. Successfully wasted time though, so much so he was booked, and pulled off a fine flying save late on to keep out Morris and preserve a point. Was seldom troubled other than that... 7
Brendan Moloney - Had a very steady game at right-back. Restricted the flow of traffic coming in from United’s left and tried to get forward, though not always successfully. Helped stave off the late pressure... 7
Ash Taylor - Skipper was back to his commanding self here after a rare off-night. Always competes well and is strong in the air, but his ability to read and cut out crosses was key to keeping his goalkeeper quiet and restricting the amount of clear chances Town coughed up... 7
Jordan Turnbull - Handled Toney well. The ex-Town man was lively and caused problems with his movement but he was kept in check by the Cobblers centre-back, who edged their one-on-one battle which in turn helped nullify the home side’s main threat... 7
Joe Bunney - Holmes proved a tricky customer but he kept him at arm’s-length for the majority, bar the odd burst into the box. Hardly ventured forward as Scunthorpe pinned both full-backs back... 6
Matt Grimes - Busy and industrious in midfield, though vacated his position for Ojo’s barnstorming run forward. His 97th minute free-kick nearly won it... 6
Matt Crooks - His bustling runs from one half to the other were again a regular occurrence, albeit less so than at Wimbledon. Got about the pitch well and popped up all over the place, also broke up play and was often the man to lead Town’s attacks... 7 CHRON STAR MAN
Daniel Powell - Was the nearest man to Ojo and had to close him down instead of retreating, ultimately allowing the United player a free run before equalising. Did more defending than attacking, negating his strengths and meaning he was only ever n the edges of the game.. 6
Gboly Ariyibi - Displayed quick feet and neat skills and was the main threat from open play for most of the game, though didn’t get as much of the ball as he’d have liked. Should remain in the team... 7
John-Joe O’Toole - His typical feisty self back in a more advanced role where he battled with several home defenders throughout. Clever play won the free-kick which led to Long’s opener and his bullet header restored the lead, his fifth goal in eight games... 7
Chris Long - Right place, right time to net his ninth of the season. Was a willing runner which, combined with Scunthorpe’s persistence of passing it out from the back, almost paid off and led to chances... 7
Leon Barnett - 6
Sam Hoskins - 6
Sam Foley - 6