The relative ease with which Northampton took all three points against Crewe Alexandra on Saturday said a lot for their growing maturity under Keith Curle.
It also said a lot for the tepid approach of their lacklustre, toothless opponents who hardly laid a glove on the Cobblers throughout a poor game that will not live long in the memory. It was low on quality and even lower on excitement, but that suited Town just fine. Winning ugly, as Curle put it, is an art form.
Northampton may not have an easier afternoon this season but the ineptitude of the visitors should not take anything away their own performance and subsequent victory because it was still a fine demonstration of just how far they’ve come in a short space of time under Curle.
They are playing with greater nous and knowhow, focusing on the basics and doing the simple things correctly to minimise errors and maximise results. It is no coincidence that the defence looks so much more assured now they are not being told to worry about playing possession football. Defenders can concentrate on defending and the attacking can be left to everyone else. It’s a case of substance over style and while it’s not rocket science, it sure is effective at this level.
Home fans at the PTS have regularly been put through the ringer in games like Saturday’s but though it wasn’t exactly a breeze to the finish line for their side, Crewe’s blunt attack coupled with Town’s new-found resilience meant a fourth clean sheet of the season rarely looked in jeopardy.
It was not pretty and there was little to get excited about for much of the contest but style and method are not always important when points are up for grabs and there is lost ground to be made up.
Crewe’s insistence on passing the ball out from the back would be admirable if it didn’t carry so many risks. That approach does more harm than good in this division and while there were times when they successfully passed through Town’s press, the lack of quality beyond halfway meant it all went to waste.
It is simply not worth the risk given what can happen when a defender loses the ball, as we saw on 18 minutes when a loose pass allowed Kevin van Veen to pounce and tee up Andy Williams’ scruffy finish.
That was one of many examples of when Crewe lost possession in dangerous areas. They were fortunate not to be further behind at the break, though by the time Daniel Powell fired in a second, they had hardly peppered David Cornell’s mostly untroubled goal.
Curle hit the nail on the head with the line ‘Crewe played the football, we won the game’ during his post-match interview. It neatly summarised the afternoon. The visitors did indeed play most of the football but they played it in all the wrong areas of the pitch. Northampton, meanwhile, cantered to one of their most comfortable victories of the season.
What will please Curle as much as anything is ease with which his side kept a clean sheet. The Cobblers have now managed three in eight games since he arrived compared to three in the previous 33.
This win, their third on the spin and fifth in total under Curle, takes Northampton up to 15th, closer to the play-offs than the relegation zone. They will need to play better to continue that ascent but, at long last, the Cobblers are resembling a competitive, streetwise and hard-to-beat League Two outfit.
How they rated...
David Cornell - His games have gradually become easier and easier this season and Saturday was about as simple as it gets for a goalkeeper. Safe handling from long-range shots and took up a good starting position the one time Crewe threatened on the counter... 7
The visitors did indeed play most of the football but they played it in all the wrong areas of the pitch. Northampton, meanwhile, cantered to one of their most comfortable victories of the season.
Hakeem Odoffin - Faultless from the right-back who now looks settled and confident after a shaky start to the season. Always up for the physical challenge and can play a bit too... 8
Jordan Turnbull - Never looked in any danger as he cruised through an error-free afternoon. Won his headers, made his interceptions and successfully snuffed out Crewe’s limited amount of troubling attacks... 8 CHRON STAR MAN
Aaron Pierre - Has really come into his own of late and was again impressive here as he never missed a beat. Marshalled the defence excellently and ensured his goalkeeper enjoyed a stress-free 90 minutes... 8
David Buchanan - Nicholls gave him a few issues when on as a late substitute but was solid as a rock before that, playing his part in a fourth clean sheet of the season... 7
Shaun McWilliams - Impresses wherever he plays but especially in his favoured central midfield position. Got through plenty of dirty work and quickly atoned for any small errors, smashing the bar with a wonderful curling effort... 7
John-Joe O’Toole - So unlucky to hit the post with a header before he showed great anticipation to set up Powell’s game-clinching second. Controlled things from midfield where he had too much nous and muscle for the visitors... 7
Matt Crooks - Started brightly but afternoon was cut short by an ankle injury. Cobblers will hope it’s not serious given his recent form... 6
Sam Hoskins - A typical performance from the forward who throws up the same conundrum every time he plays. Worked hard and provided defensive cover from the right side but his decision-making on the ball was disappointing... 6
Kevin van Veen - Instrumental in Town’s brighter moments in the first-half, highlighted by his work for the opening goal. Looked the most likely man to create something, though tailed off in the second 45 minutes... 7
Andy Williams - Scruffy finish but he won’t care as he netted his second of the season. Could have had one or two more. Always guaranteed to put in a good shift up top and did again here as he led the press from the front to regularly disrupt Crewe’s passing game... 8
Billy Waters - 6
Daniel Powell - Fabulous finish with his first touch of the game, settling any nerves... 7
Jay Williams - Only a brief cameo but still enough time for him to catch the eye with some neat touches... 6