Sheffield United 1 Northampton Town 0 - match review, player ratings and highlights

LAST-GASP: Sheffield United celebrate as Cobblers despair after Freeman's 88th minute winner. Pictures: Kirsty Edmonds
LAST-GASP: Sheffield United celebrate as Cobblers despair after Freeman's 88th minute winner. Pictures: Kirsty Edmonds
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Though it goes down as another defeat, their seventh in nine games, there were enough positives to take from Northampton's battling showing at Bramall Lane on Saturday to believe that an upturn in results is not far away.

However, in the end, this day, as have many throughout 2016, belonged to Chris Wilder, who signed off a memorable year in typical Chris Wilder fashion. Not only was his team victorious, they did it in classic show-stopping fashion.

Cobblers fans grew accustomed to that winning feeling under Wilder in the first half of 2016, something which supporters of the table-topping Blades are now getting used to.

Whether it's with Northampton or Sheffield United, he always finds a way to win and he did so again here, albeit only in the nick of time and only via a stroke of luck.

This was a big test for Northampton, a chance to gauge where they rank among the best this level has to offer.

Because for many, United are the division's outstanding side.

They proved that on Saturday when moving a point clear at the League One summit, but they only achieved that after being the second team in five days to be held at arm's-length by an impressively robust and sturdy Cobblers rearguard.

There's been a distinct change of tack from Page since the home loss to Rochdale two weeks ago.

The three goals in that game took their tally at the time to 25 conceded in a run of 11 league games. Unable to compensate for that leakage at the back with goals in attack, something had to change.

And that's been evident over the past five days. For large portions of Saturday's game as well as the entirety of the win over Oxford, it was a throwback to the opening five games of the season.

Cobblers react to United's late winner

Cobblers react to United's late winner

Back then, the Cobblers were well-organised, difficult to break down and looked hard to beat. With two wins, five draws and five goals conceded in the opening seven games, it seemed Page had developed a solid base to build from.

But as their attacking play grew more expansive, the defence became increasingly vulnerable, to the point where they conceded two or more goals seven times in the following 10 games.

Saturday, like at Oxford, was a return to their early-season defensive sturdiness. And given the quality of opposition they were up against, it was impressive how they nullified and blunted the home side, restricting them to so few clear openings.

The key to this game going into it was always going to hinge on how Page deployed his troops to deal with and negate United’s rampant attack, spearheaded by League One’s top scorer Billy Sharp whose 16 goals have played a major role in catapulting the Blades up to second, within a point of leaders Scunthorpe United, prior to kick-off.

Thumbs up: Chris Wilder acknowledges the away fans at Bramall Lane

Thumbs up: Chris Wilder acknowledges the away fans at Bramall Lane

With that in mind, it was no surprise that the Cobblers boss opted for the cautious yet pragmatic approach, setting his team to defend deep and in numbers whilst looking to hit their hosts on the counter.

For 88 minutes, the game plan worked, and it wasn't just a case of defence v attack. Northampton actually began positively and threatened as much of their hosts in a cagey yet intriguing first-half before retreating further and further back as the game wore on.

For the first-half, Page got the balance just right and if either Sam Hoskins or Paul Anderson had showed more composure when well-placed in the final third, maybe they'd have taken a lead into the break.

It wasn't to be and United's pressure inevitably grew and grew, although for all their dominance of possession, Adam Smith was a bystander for much of the game, his only work being to gather comfortable long-range shots.

With the help of inside information, Wilder had all the tools required to unlock his former club but, in the end, he had to rely on luck as Lewin Nyatanga's missed header left David Buchanan unable to react, with the ball falling kindly for the lurking Kieron Freeman who gleefully lashed home.

It was heartbreak for the Cobblers but they should not be totally downhearted because there was enough in their performance, from a defensive viewpoint at least, to be encouraged.

Adam Smith

Adam Smith

For Page, it's the same old problem. How can he get more from his attack without leaving them exposed in defence? At present, it seems either one or the other. Perhaps the signings of Gregg Wylde and Hiram Boateng will help him find the right formula.

For the 1,600 Northampton fans in attendance at Bramall Lane, United's attack-minded and front-foot style of play was a familiar sight and how they must long for that to return to Sixfields, although Town's 30 points from 24 games is a perfectly respectable return for their first season back in League One.

Deploying a slightly different 3-5-2 formation with attacking wing-backs, it wasn't hard to see why Wilder's Blades have made such a strong start to the season, even if they were off-colour here, with their relentless willingness to attack eventually yielding results.

In the end, then, the Blades deservedly signed off 2016 with a victory, three points and another reminder of why Wilder has enjoyed such a stunning year. Just three defeats and 105 points racked up, Wilder will not forget 2016 in a hurry.

The Cobblers, meanwhile, have much to ponder going into 2017.

How they rated...

Adam Smith - Most of his work was to collect comfortable long-range shots before being helpless to stop Freeman's rasping shot. Prevented a second by denying Scougall in stoppage-time... 7

Aaron Phillips - Didn't look out of place against such strong opposition in a very solid performance. Quick to anticipate the danger, particularly when denying Clarke a clear chance, and once or twice threatened at the other end... 8 CHRON STAR MAN

Gabriel Zakuani - Another no-nonsene, all-action defensive display from Town's main man at the back who will be sorely missed over the next month... 8

Lewin Nyatanga - Was in for a busy day but coped with most of what United could throw at him. Always positions himself well to intervene when needed, either with head or feet... 8

David Buchanan - Unable to react quick enough to clear the cross which led to Freeman's winner but that was the only unfortunate blot in an otherwise terrific, gritty performance.... 8

Sam Hoskins - A blocked shot and a trademark driving run was the highlight. Needed to look after the ball better given how deep his side were sitting at times... 6

John-Joe O'Toole - Busy and industrious game, especially from a defensive viewpoint. Was workmanlike and provided plenty of bite in midfield, getting in and around United's midfielders trying to break up play and initiate counters... 7

Matty Taylor - So close to winning it for Town with a superb free-kick, only denied by an equally fine save. His set-pieces were perhaps the most likely source of a goal. Worked hard and did well to stifle United... 7

Paul Anderson - For the first half-hour he was as involved and as lively as he's been in any game in recent weeks. Tracked back defensively and always looked a threat down the left. The final ball yet again proved elusive, however, and his place must be under threat with the signing of Wylde... 7

Alex Revell - Nothing seemed to come off for him in the latest of a string of frustrating games... 6

Marc Richards - Showed good strength and awareness to hold the ball up well and link play in the opening 45 minutes. Barely saw any of the ball after that... 7

Substitutes

Alfie Potter - 6

Harry Beautyman - 6

Joe Iaciofano - 6

Bramall Lane

Bramall Lane

Sam Hoskins

Sam Hoskins