The one statistic Cobblers must improve to avoid falling off the pace in League Two promotion race

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For all the impressive progress the Cobblers have made this season, there remains one area of concern which could yet derail their promotion challenge.

Now, before anyone starts going overboard, it is well worth remembering that Northampton are fifth in Sky Bet League Two and remain very much in the mix, both for automatic promotion and the play-offs.

But Cobblers’ success this season has largely been founded on two things: a resilient defence and a regular source of goals from set-pieces.

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When their defence is breached, and when opponents stand firm at corners, free-kicks and long throws, Jon Brady’s men have, at times, struggled to come up with answers.

Shaun McWilliams strides forward. Picture: Pete Norton.Shaun McWilliams strides forward. Picture: Pete Norton.
Shaun McWilliams strides forward. Picture: Pete Norton.

In open play, they have mustered just 14 goals in 27 games this season. Only two teams in the whole league – 22nd-placed Carlisle and rock-bottom Scunthorpe – have scored fewer. Colchester (21st) have also scored 14 and Oldham (23rd) have one more. Promotion rivals Newport, Exeter and Swindon all have over 30.

The lack of open-play creativity is somewhat compensated by a consistent threat at set-pieces - their 16 goals from such situations is the highest in League Two - but nonetheless, it has been and remains a concern and could yet undo the good work that has got them into such a strong position.

Take Tuesday’s deeply disappointing home defeat to out-of-form Barrow.

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Faced with a well-organised defence, the Cobblers failed to fire and were unable to create a single clear-cut chance all evening. Although Barrow rarely threatened themselves, all it took was one lapse at the back to decide the game.

All the positivity generated by an influx of new faces either side of Saturday's win over Salford City was washed away in 90 dismal minutes at Sixfields.

One defeat is not the end of the world but the nature of it was as alarming as it was frustrating.

“I think you’re spot on with the word ‘frustrating’ there,” said Shaun McWilliams, who was comfortably Town’s brightest spark on the night.

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“First and foremost, we didn’t do enough to win the game. I’m not sure they did either but they had one chance and took it and they managed the game well.

“We said at half-time that one goal would probably win it and it’s proven that way.

“It’s a sloppy goal to concede and we will have to look back at it because it’s easily avoidable.”

Cobblers remain an excellent defensive side and they are the most productive team from set-pieces in the league but whether those ingredients are enough to sustain a promotion challenge until the end of the season remains to be seen.

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“We had a lot of possession but didn’t create too much so it’s very annoying,” McWilliams admitted.

“I had a few chances to shoot myself, I think had a couple of efforts but I couldn’t hit the target.

“It’s about decision-making on the ball and I thought I would lay one off to Sammy (Hoskins) in the first-half.

“I want to hit the target and I want to score more but you also have to look at your team-mates sometimes as well because if it’s not on to shoot, you pass it.

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“It was a battle out there and they came out on top. You can give them credit for that but we’re at home, this is our place and we don’t want it to be easy for teams.

“We have to look at ourselves because we weren’t up to scratch.”

The January arrivals, specifically Bez Lubala who looked bright during his short cameo in midweek, should help Cobblers in their search for a creative spark in the final third.

They certainly cannot afford a repeat performance at Walsall on Saturday.

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“It’s always hard to put your finger on it when you have a flat performance like that,” McWilliams added.

“We will have to watch the game again but you have to back up results in a league like this because that’s the only way you’re going to get promoted and achieve the things that you want to achieve.

“You have to be consistent. If you’re going to win one, lose one, you won’t do too much.

“We have new faces and they will be fresh and I think we all need to bounce back.

“We need to come back with a spark on Saturday. If we turn up like we did on Tuesday, we won’t get a result. “

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