Praising a team for their defensive resolve has not been a luxury afforded to many of Northampton’s several managers in post-match interviews during recent times but, just six days into the job, Keith Curle’s already had the opportunity to do it twice.
With just three clean sheets throughout the entirety of 2018 prior to his arrival last Monday afternoon, finding a solution to Town’s ongoing defensive woes was always going to play a potentially decisive role in determining whether or not Curle’s tenure at the Cobblers will be deemed a successful one.
And had it not been for the brilliance of Matt Taylor’s left boot during Saturday’s hard-fought 1-1 draw at Swindon Town, the former Carlisle United boss would have started with two clean sheets in successive league games, a feat not achieved by Northampton since August 2016 when they drew 0-0 with both Oldham Athletic and AFC Wimbledon under Rob Page.
Curle’s decision to switch systems and play 3-5-2 has helped. Even with a makeshift line-up and some square pegs in round holes on Saturday, the early signs bode well as the three central defenders look more assured and the three-man midfield make opposition teams work harder to find space and move the ball into dangerous areas.
It is still a work-in-progress, of course, with only the sharp, instinctive reactions of David Cornell keeping Cobblers in the game on Saturday as he superbly denied James Dunne and former team-mate Marc Richards in the first 20 minutes.
But in similar vein to the previous Tuesday’s goalless draw against Bury, the visitors overcame a shaky start to end the first-half and start the second on top, denied three points only by Taylor’s magnificent free-kick 17 minutes from time after John-Joe O’Toole had broken Town’s four-game duck with his first goal of the season.
Our entries into the final third will improve with confidence and understanding and that little bit of belief and goals will come from that.
While Curle praised a collective effort at full-time, the performances of Cornell in goal and the returning Jordan Turnbull, on his first league start of the campaign, at centre-back were key in containing Swindon’s front line.
“Jordan is a professional, he conditions himself very well and looks after himself physically,” said Curle afterwards.
“He’s a very attentive individual. When I talk I know that he’s listening, which I think is important, and he’s not afraid to ask questions.
“It was pleasing to have a dismantled back three, back five, and look solid, and then within that we had Shay Facey come in and play the Kyle Walker role on the right of the three centre-backs.
“We were robust and up for the challenge. I don’t believe in isolated departments. As a team we defend and likewise we all try to be in positions to score goals and be creative.
“Whether that’s from a set-piece or open play, the defending starts from the front and it’s aided by the midfielders, then aided by the defenders and then aided by the goalkeeper as well so it’s about working with units within a team frame and that’s important to us.
“Cornell earned his money. He was brave, dynamic and aware of what was needed and he can be very proud of his performance, as can a large number of the squad.”
In addition to their defensive problems, Northampton also require an improvement in the goalscoring department. Saturday’s second-half opener against Swindon was just their second goal in seven games.
Curle added: “As we evolve as a team we will get better and better and our decision-making with the ball will improve and our final delivery will improve.
“Our entries into the final third will improve with confidence and understanding and that little bit of belief and goals will come from that.
“But as a competitive edge and what we’re looking for, we’ve ticked a lot of boxes.”