COMMENT: Improving performances but worsening results - Cobblers are being undermined by a familiar problem

Reporter James Heneghan looks into Town's recent woes after frustrating defeat at Hartlepool United

Monday, 11th October 2021, 1:50 pm
Only five teams have scored fewer goals in League Two than the Cobblers this season.

It's somewhat ironic that the Cobblers are arguably playing better, more positive football at present - bar last week's defeat to Sutton United - than they were at the start of the season and yet their results now are significantly worse.

Town won four of their opening seven fixtures and at one point sat as high as third in Sky Bet League Two, but three of those victories were dogged and hard-fought and came in tight, even encounters that could have swung in either direction.

Since beating Newport County 1-0 in mid-September, it's been far more of a struggle, collecting just two points from four games and slipping to 14th in the standings. But the performances, in terms of their attacking play, have been improving. They dominated against Swindon Town and led going into stoppage-time at Salford City.

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Their display against Sutton was an aberration but it remains the only time this season that they have fallen below the accepted standard. They improved against Walsall in midweek and improved further at Hartlepool United on Saturday in a game they really should have won, let alone lost.

Hartlepool boast the best home record in League Two but barely got a kick for 20 minutes and even when they did grab a foothold, Cobblers continued to look the more dangerous side, eventually going ahead through Sam Hoskins early in the second-half.

But it turned into an afternoon that perfectly encapsulated why Cobblers returned to the fourth tier last season and why they have failed to build on their strong start to the campaign. They did a lot of good things between both boxes at Victoria Park but were devoid of invention and quality in one penalty area and defended poorly in the other.

As Chris Wilder always used to say, what happens in the middle third of the pitch is irrelevant if you're not ruthless in the two penalty boxes.

The defence is not so much of a concern because we saw earlier in the season that this team is capable of defending well and keeping clean sheets.

But what is undermining the Cobblers at the moment has undermined them for several seasons: a lack of goals. The club's four strikers - Benny Ashley-Seal, Danny Rose, Kion Etete and Nicke Kabamba - have managed just two in 11 league games between them this season.

They need to do better, clearly. Whilst Etete's work ethic and attitude cannot be called into question, Town need him to score goals and at the moment it's not quite happening. Kabamba is struggling to adjust since moving from Scotland and at the moment Ashley-Seal is not even getting a look in.

However, it would be unfair and inaccurate to solely blame the forward men for Town's goal shortage. Perhaps their most pressing issue is the service into those players from the midfielders and wide men.

Against Hartlepool they attacked in numbers and found many good areas down both flanks and through the middle but crosses and final passes so seldom hit their targets. That was no better illustrated than in the 83rd minute when Etete and Dylan Connolly had a two-on-two but failed to even get a shot off. Within seconds, the ball was in the back of Town's net.

According to WhoScored, Cobblers rank in mid-table for both shots and shots on target per game this season. Those stats will have to improve if a promotion challenge is to materialise.

Of course, we are only 11 games into the season and you would expect a newly-assembled squad to still be improving at this early stage. Although, to counter that, you could point to Swindon Town who hastily put together a new squad in the space of about three weeks before the season started and are flying high in third playing a pleasing brand of passing football.

It feels as if the Cobblers are still discovering their identity and, as Jon Brady often says, finding those connections, particularly in open play. Whilst their set-piece threat remains strong, that alone will not be enough.

They can take heart from their performances though and know that it doesn't take much for the goals to start flowing. A bit of luck, one good win and suddenly things will look a lot rosier.