Northampton Town 0 Rochdale 1 – match review, player ratings and highlights

QUIET DAY: Dale's goal rarely came under threat as Matt Grimes' free-kick here lands on the roof of the net. Pictures: Sharon Lucey
QUIET DAY: Dale's goal rarely came under threat as Matt Grimes' free-kick here lands on the roof of the net. Pictures: Sharon Lucey

The Cobblers have not had the need for many reality checks during their troubles over recent months but this woefully below-par performance and fully deserved defeat against a well-drilled and tactically-astute Rochdale outfit was most definitely that: a reality check.

For all the talk of new signings, and for all the encouragement of recent results and improved performances, this was a stark reminder that Town’s battle for survival this season remains very much on a knife-edge as they produced a disjointed, out-of-sorts display that was an untimely throwback to the August-to-December Cobblers.

They have played worse this season, of that there is no doubt, but when you consider all of the factors at play and the circumstances going into the game, there is a case to be made that this was the most disappointing and dispiriting day of the entire campaign as Town undid so much of their recent good work with 90 deeply lacklustre minutes.

Heading into Saturday, every single stat you looked at pointed towards a home win. On one side, you had a Northampton side unbeaten in four, coming off an excellent result at Blackburn Rovers, in decent home form and buoyed by fresh new faces who brought quality and excitement to both the team and the fans.

On the other, you had a Rochdale, a team second-from-bottom, without an away league win all season and without a league win of any kind since November, that coming at the expense of Peterborough United over two months ago.

And yet none of that was apparent at Sixfields. Looks can sometimes be deceptive and though it is often said that the league table never lies, there was no evidence of it here. While the Cobblers looked every inch a side battling relegation, Rochdale certainly did not as they delivered a superb performance that belied their struggles..

It was not quite the collapse against Bristol Rovers, nor the nightmare at Oldham, but Town, toothless in attack and sloppy everywhere else, were still comprehensively outplayed and left their fans wondering if their spending splurge in January will all be for nothing.

All of the optimism and positivity was gradually sucked away as the home side began sluggishly and gradually deteriorated with their attacking threat actually diminishing as their need became greater. Going behind is usually the cue for teams to wake from their slumber and up the ante. On Saturday, the Cobblers must have missed that particular memo.

They were out-smarted, out-manoeuvred and, perhaps most worryingly, out-fought by Keith Hill’s men who coupled hard-work, energy and tactical nous to boss the play at both ends off the pitch, snuffing out Town as an attacking force while testing home goalkeeper Richard O’Donnell on numerous occasions.

Indeed, it’s not immediately obvious to recall Northampton having a shot from open play. Matt Grimes caused problems from set-pieces, teeing up Jordan Turnbull and John-Joe O’Toole and also twice going close with direct free-kicks, but when it came to other sources of creativity, Town were out of ideas.

The way Rochdale nullified and snuffed out O’Toole was both impressive on their part and worrying for Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink. Every time the ball came into the midfielder, they got bodies around him and quickly won back possession, thus significantly restricting his influence and effectively robbing Town of their best player.

Without O’Toole being allowed to do his thing, they lacked bite, aggression and someone to link the play between midfield and attack, leaving an exasperated Chris Long as isolated as he’s been for some time. If other opposing teams follow Dale’s lead, Hasselbaink will need to find a solution – and quickly – while other players must also step up.

While the Cobblers failed to find any kind of rhythm, Rochdale were slick, fluid and played with impressive energy and understanding as they hunted in packs, not giving their hosts any time or space to play in the middle of the park.

Matt Grimes and Matt Crooks were completely overrun in midfield against Dale’s high pressing and the visitors also overloaded the wide areas and, rather predictably, it was from there that the only goal came, fittingly scored by Calvin Andrew who had tormented and bullied the home back four, or three, all afternoon.

Football is not as straightforward as just buying a load of good players and throwing them on the pitch. To stay up, the Cobblers must play their best players in their best positions and in a system that brings the best out of them. On Saturday, they didn’t do enough of those things.

Losing Shay Facey to injury just 36 minutes in was a blow in itself but it was compounded by the subsequent decision to bring on Regan Poole and switch to 3-5-2. You could see Hasselbaink’s logic: he wanted to match Rochdale up man-for-man and play Poole in his favoured centre-back position.

Unfortunately, it backfired. Players were unsure of their positions, Town’s play became further disjointed and Rochdale, far more accustomed to playing 3-5-2, exploited the space as they squeezed up the pitch and didn’t give them a sniff.

The obvious option was to bring on Shaun McWilliams and play him at right-back. The Cobblers had hardly made a flying start prior to Facey’s injury but they dealt with Dale’s threat far better with four at the back than they did with three.

Hildeberto Pereira never looked sure of where he was playing and it’s unlikely that Sam Foley has ever played wing-back before, or will do again. The three central defenders, particularly Jordan Turnbull, also struggled with their positioning. All in all, it was an afternoon where everything went wrong.

The bad days were meant to be behind the Cobblers this season but, in reality, that was never going to be the case. New players will need time to settle and Hasselbaink will need time to figure out his best and most effective team and formation. Up against a well-oiled outfit like Rochdale, regardless of their league position, and a shrewd manager like Keith Hill, it was never going to be as simple as the form guide suggested.

Football is not as straightforward as just buying a load of good players and throwing them on the pitch. To stay up, the Cobblers must play their best players in their best positions and in a system that brings the best out of them. On Saturday, they didn’t do enough of those things.

But, all of that said, there is a difference between being disappointed and being worried. While this defeat was a huge let down, it’s worth remembering that Northampton remain outside the bottom four and are in a far stronger position now than they were a month ago when five points adrift of safety.

That other teams have games in hand is a concern but the Cobblers only need to worry about themselves and remember that 20 points from their final 15 games, a more than achievable target, will be enough to keep them up.

How they rated...

Richard O’Donnell - Caused his own problems with some miscued clearances but made amends and was the only player to come out of the game with any kind of credit. Pick of his several saves was from Kitching’s close-range effort in the first-half... 7 CHRON STAR MAN

Shay Facey - Participation was frustratingly cut short by a hamstring injury and that was the key moment in the game. With no natural right-back on the bench, Hasselbaink opted to switch the system and Town lost their way completely... 6

Ash Taylor - Made a confident start but even he was below-par. Far from his usual commanding self and didn’t settle when the Cobblers went to three at the back... 5

Jordan Turnbull - From such a solid display at Blackburn, he really struggled here. Couldn’t get to grips with Andrew and was jittery on the ball. Seemed to lose his position even more once Hasselbaink moved to three at the back... 4

Joe Bunney - Spent more time defending than attacking as Dale used their inside knowledge of their former team-mate to pin him back and restrict his forward runs. Never in the game after half-time... 5

Matt Grimes - If the home side were going to score, it would have come from his set-pieces. Set up O’Toole and Turnbull first-half and went close with a free-kick in the second. Unable to wrestle any semblance of control in open play though, overwhelmed by Dale’s high, energetic pressing game... 5

Matt Crooks - Started the game reasonably well, breaking forward from his own half once or twice, but became ragged in possession and had rings ran around him by the visitors whose extra body in midfield made all the difference... 5

Sam Foley - Not one to shirk the ugly side of the game but that wasn’t enough on this occasion. Town required more quality and directness and he couldn’t provide either. His place in the team might come under threat once new signings settle... 5

Hildeberto Pereira - Didn’t play to his strengths at all. Impossible for him to hurt teams when he picks the ball up in such deep positions. Ineffective throughout and totally lost his way once moved to wing-back... 4

John-Joe O’Toole - Really should have given Town the lead with his fifth goal in five games when heading straight at Lillis. Was very much an off day though, didn’t look at the races and couldn’t get in the game at all as the visitors snuffed him out excellently, leading to his early substitution... 5

Chris Long - Cut an increasingly exasperated figure, summed up by his ill-advised decision to boot the ball over the stand after being caught offside, earning him a needless booking. Service up to him was non-existent... 5


Regan Poole - 5

Kevin van Veen - His only meaningful piece of action was to win a free-kick. Will need more support and better quality passes into him to shine... 6

Gboly Ariyibi - 6