Dispiriting and damaging in equal measure, this defeat to Oldham Athletic can no longer disguise the fact that Northampton are firmly in the mire and face an almighty battle to preserve their League One status.
It previously seemed inconceivable that a team who so emphatically romped to the title one season can go on to be relegated the next, but that is now the grim reality facing this Northampton side following Tuesday’s deeply worrying result.
It was worrying for a number of reasons. Partly because of the manner of the defeat, partly because of the close proximity of the opposition, but mostly because of the fact that all of Northampton’s problems seemingly came together as one to create a nightmare of an evening, one only compounded by results elsewhere.
This game may have been against different opposition with different players on a different day, but it told a very familiar tale.
Vulnerable in defence, imbalanced in midfield and wasteful in attack, all on top of the seventh late winner they’ve conceded this season, the Cobblers were deservedly beaten by one of their rivals for relegation.
There is never a good time to lose when you’re battling to beat the drop but this was a particularly bad moment for Northampton to throw in one of their worst performances of the season.
Oldham arrived at Sixfields with an impressive defensive record but a reputation for being toothless in attack, not that you would have guessed from the confident manner in which they stroked the ball around the pristine Sixfields surface.
The Latics, rejuvenated under John Sheridan, played like a team on the up but it must be said they were given a sizable helping hand by their hosts, afforded too much time and space to pick their passes and get their shots off.
From an early stage, it was evident that there was a distinct contrast in the way the two teams were set up.
Oldham were well-organised, well-structured and compact in both defence and attack, especially in a second-half that they largely controlled.
By contrast, there was a noticeable lack of structure to both Northampton’s play and formation which left them overrun in midfield – another recurring theme this season – and exposed in defence.
They were ponderous, directionless and deservedly beaten.
The defence has received plenty of criticism this season but you do have sympathy with the back four because, individually at least, they should be good enough to compete at this level.
Indeed, to blame the heavy leakage of goals solely on poor defending is to miss a much wider issue that has plagued Northampton throughout the campaign.
It previously seemed inconceivable that a team who so emphatically romped to the title one season can go on to be relegated the next, but that is now the grim reality facing this Northampton side following Tuesday’s deeply worrying defeat.
It is collectively where the main issue lies, specifically in the make up of the midfield which has allowed opposition teams to regularly have a free run at the brutally exposed defence.
Whether it was Oliver Banks on Tuesday or another player in another game, opposing players have found so much space between the lines in games at Sixfields, allowed to pick up the ball in space, turn and then drive forward.
At this level, that is something you simply cannot afford to do, and it is something that has cost the Cobblers dear on so many occasions.
The Bristol Rovers home game way back in October was the first time it became apparent that away teams could just stroll through Northampton’s non-existent and wide-open midfield.
Other sides have cottoned on, and when the Cobblers do then tighten up, they have a tendency to drop too deep and invite pressure.
All in all, there is a complete absence of cohesion and identity, highlighted in Tuesday’s defeat.
Let’s not forget, this was not a free-flowing, all-out-attack side up the other end. Oldham had managed a paltry nine goals on their travels prior to Tuesday, yet they were able to score twice and create several other chances at Sixfields.
It was Tope Obedayi and Lee Erwin who earned the victory and took the Latics’ away tally to 11 goals, four of which have now come against teams managed by Justin Edinburgh, two of those last-minute winners
Going forward is not so much of a concern because the Cobblers continue to create chances and at least carry an attacking threat.
However, with Keshi Anderson, John-Joe O’Toole and Michael Smith the latest trio guilty of fluffing their lines, it is imperative they start to find their scoring boots.
The need for more clinical finishing is especially urgent at present given that Town are needing to score at least three goals per game to compensate for the aforementioned problems at the other end.
Again it all boils down to a collective issue rather than an individual one, and it is a concern that neither Rob Page nor Justin Edinburgh have found a system that suits the players and also works on a consistent basis.
The squad is imbalanced, made up of bits and pieces players who are being shoehorned into the team in a system and a position that does not necessarily suit their skill set.
It can all be traced back to the poor recruitment in the summer when Page and co failed to build on the strong foundations of last season, helping to create the mess that we see now.
The other major problem for Northampton is the form of the teams around them. Whilst they continue to toil, rivals continue to tot up points and drag the Cobblers deeper into the mire.
So where do they go next? Personnel changes or a switch in formation? Or both? Whatever Edinburgh opts to do, something has to give because, on current form, the Cobblers are only heading one way.
Jak McCourt could be one option. His energy and drive in midfield alongside Hiram Boateng and O’Toole should, in theory, give more protection to the defence and allow the Cobblers to wrestle back some control in the middle of the park.
Luke Williams is the type of player who can find pockets of space and link the play between midfield and attack, while the most solid Northampton have looked this season is with Zander Diamond and Gabriel Zakuani at the heart of defence.
They must also remember that they still hold a handy if somewhat diminished cushion over the bottom four and there is enough games and enough time to turn it around.
Three wins and two draws will keep them up and with Shrewsbury, Port Vale, Gillingham and Charlton all to visit Sixfields, there is still hope.
But things must change. Playing the way they are, there’s only one outcome.
One thing is for sure; it’s certainly never dull at Sixfields.
How they rated...
Adam Smith - Made a tremendous full-length save seconds prior to O’Toole’s goal that looked to have earned a point. Kicking was horribly wayward all night, especially second-half which hampered his side’s chances and only put them under pressure... 6
Neal Eardley - Wasn’t much of an attacking force but did whip in two excellent crosses, one of which was an absolute peach of a delivery that deserved a better finish. Was far from the worst culprit defensively... 6
Lewin Nyatanga - Many may have expected him to be dropped instead of Diamond but that was not the case and though his side defended poorly, the blame does not lie solely with the Barnsley loanee, rather it was a collective issue... 5
Gabriel Zakuani - Restored to the team for the first time since January 2 and it was hoped his presence would shore up an increasingly leaky defence but it was not to be. Never looked entirely comfortable ... 5
David Buchanan - Beaten by his man more than once as he was again given scandalous little protection from those in front. Did at least make one brilliant and crucial intervention shortly before the equaliser, only to then allow Erwin time and space to win it... 5
Matty Taylor - Loose first touch lost possession and led to Oldham’s first. Whether playing through the middle or out on the left, it’s increasingly difficult to see what he offers when his set-pieces are below-par, as they were here... 5
John-Joe O’Toole - Not for the first time in the last 18 months he was Northampton’s shining light. Found some great positions and after fluffing his lines on several occasions, he finally put one away late on for what should have been a draw-clinching goal... 7 CHRON STAR MAN
Hiram Boateng - Bar the odd flash of class, he struggled to prevent Oldham from taking control in midfield and seemed to go missing for periods of the game... 5
Gregg Wylde - Did well to last as long as he did. Effort was there but unfortunately the quality wasn’t. Offered little in the way of a creative threat... 5
Keshi Anderson - One of several to be denied by Ripley on more than one occasion, including messing up a one-on-one. Lost his way the more the game developed, struggling to get the ball under control by the end... 5
Michael Smith - Can’t buy a goal since his signing, side-footing his best chance wide here. Was a nuisance for the opposition back four but Cobblers need more from him if they are to stay up... 6
Marc Richards - 6
Jak McCourt - Deserves a start ahead of other midfield players... 6
Harry Beautyman - 6