Ten games in is often considered to be the stage when the league table starts to take shape but on the evidence of Tuesday’s display at MK Dons, the Cobblers are currently occupying a false position.
It was a game of few chances and even fewer goals – none, to be precise – however whilst familiar problems persist, this was arguably Town’s best and most complete away performance of 2017, suggesting that their reappearance back in the Sky Bet League One relegation zone will only be fleeting.
It admittedly does not require much to improve upon recent away showings given that they have won only once on the road since the turn of the year, but irrespective of the context, there were elements of this game that offer genuine hope that Town’s future under Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink is a bright one.
Of course, to get carried away after a goalless draw in which they created so few clear-cut chances would be premature but the manner of their performance was the clearest indication yet that this team is improving at a rate of knots, all the more so when you realise where they were scarcely four weeks ago.
Humbled, humiliated and hammered by rivals Peterborough exactly a month prior to Tuesday’s trip to MK, the Cobblers are unrecognisable from that sorry outfit which surrendered so meekly in back-to-back 4-1 defeats.
They are far more disciplined and robust, playing with a sense of purpose, direction and identity, all of which is being built on hard work and organisation.
What was also noticeable on Tuesday was the composed, accomplished nature of their play as they demonstrated a new-found ability to control a game while remaining disciplined out of possession.
All they needed was a cutting edge in front of goal as, for the fifth time in 10 games this season, Town failed to find the net.
There were chances. Most attempts on goal came from range but Matt Crooks fired into the side-netting after Matt Grimes’ cutting run and pass, Dean Bowditch was denied by a flying Lee Nicholls and Ash Taylor headed wide from a corner.
Dons, meanwhile, were even more toothless than their visitors, restricted to pot shots as they barely ever worked Matt Ingram who was again decisive and commanding between the sticks.
For all the positives, it was a familiar problem that let Northampton down: no killer instinct.
Town have only netted eight goals in 10 outings this season and it’s no wonder when you take a look at the stats
They’ve had fewer shots than any other side in Sky Bet League One, averaging just over seven a game. The reason for that is more down to personnel rather than approach. The muddled thinking in the summer, when Town recruited quality but not balance, has left them short of genuine creative quality in wide areas, and you fear that will continue to hurt them until January comes around.
It’s a bit like making a pizza without the topping; they have the base but not the flair.
Whilst familiar problems persist, this was arguably Town’s best and most complete away performance of 2017, suggesting that their reappearance back in the Sky Bet League One relegation zone will only be fleeting.
But one thing at a time. Before Hasselbaink sets about fixing his side’s goal shortage, it must be remembered just how badly they were shipping them at the other end prior to his arrival.
Eight came in the previous two games at a time when Northampton were too open and too charitable. That is not the case anymore and if you are able to keep clean sheets on a regular basis, struggles in the goalscoring department do not become so much of an issue.
It is undeniable is that the new man in charge has already made huge strides in his short time at the helm. Had it not been for two 25-yard screamers, they’d currently be on a run of three successive clean sheets.
And two of those games have come away from home and all three have come against teams tipped to challenge for promotion. That represents a far cry from just a month ago when both Charlton and Peterborough waltzed to 4-1 victories.
Ash Taylor and Aaron Pierre, two man mountains who won virtually every aerial battle on Tuesday, are forming a formidable partnership in central defence, one of the keys behind Town’s recent defensive sturdiness.
Raheem Hanley, back from the cold, put in a tremendous shift down the left side and also showed the odd neat touch in attack while Regan Poole and Matt Grimes complement each other nicely in midfield. One brings energy and tenacity, the other brings quality and attacking thrust.
All in all, Town are three quarters of their way to being a top half, perhaps even top eight, outfit but so often it is that last little bit which makes all the difference.
Nevertheless, despite dropping a place in the table, everything about Tuesday suggested they are heading in the right direction.
How they rated...
Matt Ingram - Will have busier nights, but was decisive in everything he did, something which was underlined when he raced off his line to clear the danger. He brings a sense of calmness and authority to Town’s back four... 7
Brendan Moloney - The tricky Ariyibi caused early problems but the Town full-back quickly got to grips with the task at hand and snuffed him out well. Didn’t offer a great deal going forward... 7
Ash Taylor - A colossus at the heart of Town’s defence, heading and clearing everything away. Always assured even when under pressure, and also went close to netting the winner when heading wide late on. Superb display... 8 CHRON STAR MAN
Aaron Pierre - Partnership with Taylor continues to blossom as the duo played a significant role in keeping a rare clean sheet, just their second of the season. Aerially dominant and decent on the floor too... 7
David Buchanan - Kept things quiet on his side, rarely ever allowing Dons to get in behind and threaten. Wasn’t able to get forward as he may have hoped but picked out some neat threaded passes into the foward players... 7
Regan Poole - Early whack to the head din’t deter him on a night when his stock rose further. A magnificent late block typified his all-action, all-go attitude. He was here, there and everywhere... 8
Matt Grimes - Driving run and pass almost cut open Dons in first-half stoppage time. Knitted together much of his side’s tidy play despite never really carving open the hosts... 7
Matt Crooks - Popped up in pockets of space between Dons’ defence and midfield, causing the hosts problems. Had one of Town’s three best chances when shooting wide, unfortunately injuring himself in the process... 6
Daniel Powell - Saw as much of the ball as anyone in the first-half, shooting off target twice and having one dangerous cross cleared. Final ball needs to improve if Town are to find more goals... 6
Raheem Hanley - Accomplished and impressive, all the more so given this was just his second appearance of 2017. Did his job tactically and defensively and also showed the odd touch of quality in attack. From being cast aside and seemingly out in the cold, he could well become a useful asset for JFH this season... 7
Alex Revell - Never any doubts over his work-rate. Harried and hassled Dons all night long, winning flick-ons and leading the press. Chances were few and far between, most coming from range... 7
Dean Bowditch - On for Crooks at the break and was influential in much of what Town did well after half-time, denied himself by a fine Nicholls save... 7
Sam Hoskins - 6
Marc Richards - 6