Toothless in attack, unable to keep clean sheets and now tumbling down the League One table after three defeats on the spin, these are unsettling times for a team that has not been accustomed to losing football matches over the last 12 months.
After the agony of Gillingham and the torment of Peterborough, title-chasing Bradford City were hardly the ideal team for Northampton to face as they looked to rectify recent mistakes and put their season back on track.
And so it proved. But it wasn’t just the fact that the Cobblers were beaten by City, who won it thanks to James Hanson’s second-half header, it was the frustratingly passive manner of their performance, a familiar theme in away games this season, that was the overriding disappointment.
Though the final scoreline suggests a tight game, in truth the Bantams were much the better team and the final margin of victory would have been more reflective of a largely one-sided encounter had the home side been awarded penalties when they had two strong cases and not squandered several excellent chances.
From sixth two weeks ago to 15th at the present time, Northampton’s worrying slide down League One is showing no sign of abating, and with the fixtures coming up, this is a potentially defining period of the season for Rob Page and his squad.
Panic will inevitably set in from some quarters but it’s not quite reached that stage yet, after all the Cobblers are still closer to the play-offs than relegation and there remains ample time to learn from mistakes and rediscover the winning formula.
But their season remains at a crossroads and what is of real concern is their inability to win tight games or respond to a setback; they are yet to win from a losing position this season and of the eight times they have fallen behind, only once have they come back to claim a point, going on to lose the other seven.
That suggests they are unable to change the flow of games, either through upping their performance level or making proactive, match-winning changes, whether that’s tactically or in terms of personnel.
It also suggests that once an opposing team hits the front, the Cobblers don’t possess the necessary guile or quality to break down sides who are then happy to sit back and put men behind the ball.
The match at Valley Parade was a prime example.
Often on the retreat and with 11 men behind the ball, Northampton, despite defending manfully, frequently found themselves penned in and almost waiting for the inevitable prior to Hanson’s 55th minute strike, which ensured it became 10 league games without a clean sheet.
Then, once Bradford finally did turn their pressure into a lead and the onus switched on Northampton to make something happen, their threat was often easily rebuffed by City, with Alex Revell’s header, which drew a fine save from Colin Doyle, and John-Joe O’Toole’s disallowed goal the best they could manage as five incident-free minutes of injury-time came and went in a flash.
It wasn’t a terrible performance by any means. Northampton put in a shift and worked hard defensively to keep David Cornell’s workload to a minimum, and the fact they kept themselves in the game until the final minute away at one of the hot favourites for promotion is a positive sign.
It’s encouraging that the Cobblers are yet to be completely outplayed or blown by an opposing team this season, and they have developed this knack of staying in games for the full 90 minutes, but it’s no coincidence that the fine margins are continuing to go against them given the lack of cohesion or consistency in their play.
What is of real concern for Northampton is their inability to win tight games or respond to a setback; they are yet to win from a losing position this season and of the eight times they have fallen behind, only once have they come back to claim a point, going on to lose the other seven.
They have also lost their ruthless edge at the other end with defensive lapses, especially from crosses, becoming a regular occurrence, such as the one which allowed Hanson, a player known for his aerial prowess, all the time in the world to nod the Bantams ahead on Tuesday.
Page made a brave call prior to kick-off when opting to drop Adam Smith and start with Cornell, who had a difficult game but seemed to improve as it wore on and surely he will only get better with more game-time.
Rod McDonald also made a first league appearance of the season and he impressed as much as anyone in a Cobblers shirt.
Again Northampton competed well in the opening exchanges on Tuesday, standing toe-to-toe with Bradford in an even, cagey start, before they gradually retreated further and further back as the first-half wore on.
The half ended goalless but it wasn’t without incident as Bradford, who made most of the running without creating too many scoring opportunities, saw two vehement penalty appeals turned down which sparked furious protests from the disbelieving home faithful.
But their frustration soon turned to elation when Hanson headed home 10 minutes after the restart and from thereafter the destiny of the three points was only heading in one direction despite a late rally from Northampton.
The Bantams deserved their victory. They didn’t create tons of gilt-edged chances but they carried a perpetual threat throughout the 90 minutes, something Northampton only managed in parts.
For the Cobblers, it’s back to the drawing board. With third-placed Bolton Wanderers next up at Sixfields, Page has much to ponder as he tries to turn it around and ensure their current slump is nohing but a blip.
How they rated...
David Cornell - Thrown into the deep end and calamity almost struck when spilling a simple cross early cross. Didn’t overly convince and flapped on more than one occasion, but would be unfair to judge his ability purely on one game, especially given his lack of playing time... 6
Brendan Moloney - Almost as if he was identified as a weakness by Bradford who got at him at every available opportunity. Initially struggled against the tricky Marshall but did improve. Attacking threat, which has been key in recent weeks, was nullified until the latter stages... 6
Gabriel Zakuani - Fortunate to get away with a mistimed lunge on McNulty which appeared at the time a cast iron penalty. Was in the wars a few times but came through unscathed... 7
Rod McDonald - First league start and coped admirably considering the fact he’s spent so long twiddling his thumbs. Composed and assured and will hope to establish himself as first-choice if given the opportunity... 7 CHRON STAR MAN
David Buchanan - City’s tactic of getting it wide and crossing at the first avaliable moment meant he was in for a busy evening, and he may feel he could have done better in stopping the second cross that eventually led to Hanson’s winner... 6
Paul Anderson - Offered little help to the struggling Moloney and had next to no influence in an attacking sense, almost completely ineffectual until the final 10 minutes when he finally delivered a couple of dangerous crosses... 6
Jak McCourt - Started off well in midfield but seemed to lose his way as the match wore on, potentially due to tiredness, before being replaced... 6
John-Joe O’Toole - Doesn’t have the pace or mobility to get his side up the pitch when they’re on the back foot. Unlucky to see his header ruled out, but he remains well below the standards of last season... 6
Matty Taylor - Stationed out wide on the left and had some early joy when whipping in a couple of dangerous crosses, but faded out of the game badly... 6
Sam Hoskins - Back down through the middle and was able to get on the ball more and utilise his pace more effectively. Only played well up to a point, though, before injury cut short his evening... 7
Alex Revell - Scuffed an early volley straight at Doyle, who then produced an excellent save to deny the same man late on. Not sure how or why, but just doesn’t seem the same player he was at the start of the season... 6
Raheem Hanley - 6
Marc Richards - 6
Alfie Potter - 6