Oxford United 1 Northampton Town 2 '“ match review, player ratings and highlights
The name and stature of the competition are almost irrelevant. For the Cobblers, any victory of any nature against any opposition is one worth savouring and celebrating in the current circumstances.
And Tuesday’s overdue success at Grenoble Road wasn’t just a run-of-the-mill win. It was a win achieved in assured and deserved style, it came away from home at a club from the division above and it was done the hard way, recovering from a perilous position having fallen behind in unfortunate fashion, making it all the more impressive and all the more priceless. For Northampton, this had been an awful long time coming.
OK, opponents Oxford United are enduring their own troubles this term, propping up the League One table with just six points from 12 games, and the Checkatrade Trophy is a competition that carries little significance in the wider context of the season, but this is no time to be fussy.
None of that really matters anyway. The Cobblers, now under the guidance of Keith Curle, are undergoing the process of relearning and remastering the knack of winning games. Tuesday night was as good a place to start as any.
It helps that Oxford have become their go-to team when they most require a win. Chris Wilder, twice, Rob Page, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and now Curle have all overseen crucial and timely wins at the expense of the U’s. The latest might be the least important in terms of the competition but it could be the spark Town need to kick-start their campaign.
The Cobblers, again playing 3-5-2 with five personnel changes, started brightly but when James Henry’s speculative strike flicked off Aaron Pierre and beyond goalkeeper Lewis Ward to take the sting out of the visitors 24 minutes in, they were facing the gloomy prospect of another long evening and another defeat.
After all, Town have won from a losing position just once – at home to Walsall last December – since the title-winning season. The odds were stacked against them here, even more so when Henry’s fortunate opener breathed confidence into a previously laboured United team, who had half chances to extend the advantage but found Lewis Ward in good form.
Their failure to do would prove costly. Curle’s men regrouped at half-time and came out with purpose in the second-half, levelling through Kevin van Veen’s wonder strike as he won possession back himself and pinged a 25-yard screamer into the top corner.
Pierre completed the turnaround 10 minutes later when he produced a deft touch to bring down Sam Foley’s high cross and then a calm finish to poke through Simon Eastwood. From there, the Cobblers were relatively comfortable in seeing out the victory, troubled only by long-range shots that either whistled wide or cracked the woodwork.
The win was the biggest positive but there were many other bright spots. Sam Foley continues to be a revelation in his scampering midfield role, Jordan Turnbull is developing into a leader at the back and the new formation again looked well-balanced and well-suited to the strengths of Town’s current players.
A little over 12 months on from when Justin Edinburgh’s failure to make 3-5-2 work cost him his job, Curle has required only eight days and three games to illustrate just what an effective system it can be.
Strictly speaking, it’s less 3-5-2 and more 3-4-1-2. The two wing-backs are more wide midfielders, the tireless Foley acts as a shield in midfield, John-Joe O’Toole does much of the dirty work alongside him and Dean Bowditch or Matt Crooks provide the link between midfield and attack. With two up top, opposing defences rarely get much peace.
The formation, and the way it’s being used, is giving the Cobblers balance across the pitch. They’re more solid at the back and are able to get plenty of bodies in attacking positions when they break forward. On Tuesday, they started confidently and recovered admirably to going behind, culminating in deserved and potentially invaluable victory.
Of course, it will count for little if the Cobblers do not use it as a springboard going forward. Curle has ticked many boxes in just short time at the helm but it’s a precarious process. Next on the to-do list: win at home.
How they rated...
Lewis Ward - Got away with a misjudgement when Henry’s cross eluded him and hit the post but produced terrific stops from Baptiste and Hanson before demonstrating secure handling to deal with long-range efforts in the second-half. Deflection left him beaten for Oxford’s opener... 7
Shay Facey - Guilty of dropping too deep and losing his position at times, which is perhaps to be expected given his unfamiliarity with playing at centre-back, but got out well to close down the space and was a warrior in the air... 7
Jordan Turnbull - Developing into a real leader as the middle man of the back three. He always seemed to be in control of the situation whenever United attacked, constantly well-positioned to clear crosses and make important tackles... 8 CHRON STAR MAN
Aaron Pierre - Unfortunate to see Henry’s shot deflect off him and beyond Ward but more than made amends with his deft touch and fine finish that completed the comeback in the second-half. Defended solidly and without fuss... 7
Billy Waters - Surprisingly lined-up at wing-back and he took a little time to ease himself into the game but, like his team, improved in the second-half and was a livewire on the right flank... 7
David Buchanan - Positioned himself well to deal with defensive situations but wasn’t able to provide the Cobblers with the type of attacking thrust that the wing-back role requires... 6
Sam Foley - Never gives the opposition a moment’s rest with his scurrying around. Gets through so much work in midfield, covering miles and miles of ground in his attempts to break up play and win possession. Rarely misplaces a pass once he does get the ball back... 8
John-Joe O’Toole - Played on the edge in the first-half and was the instigator of an ugly brawl, resulting in his first booking. Hit the post after some nimble footwork and did the ugly stuff well before picking up a needless late red card... 6
Dean Bowditch - Stationed in the free role behind Town’s front two where he drifted into pockets and provided the link for much of his side’s play. Final pass and decision-making on the ball can improve... 7
Daniel Powell - You could see the logic behind Curle’s decision to play him up front. His physical attributes were a handful for Oxford’s back four although nothing really fell his way. Forced off injured in the second-half... 6
Kevin van Veen - Forced Eastwood into a smart stop at his near post shortly before half-time but that was only a sighter. Showed great tenacity and wonderful technique to win possession back and then find the top corner from 25 yards... 7
Jack Bridge - Added real impetus when he came on at left wing-back, giving Town an extra dimension in attack... 7
Hakeem Odoffin - Become the latest in a long line of players to be trailed at wing-back... 6
Andy Williams - 6