If last week’s opening-day defeat to Lincoln City was encouraging rather than concerning, this enjoyable yet error-strewn 2-2 draw at Carlisle United was a mixture of both.
Within the space of 90 minutes, the Cobblers went from one extreme to the other but that is nothing unusual at this early stage of the campaign when players are still getting up to full speed and managers are working out their most effective system and best starting line-up.
The encouragement for Town fans stemmed from an excellent passage of play either side of half-time when, boosted by Kevin van Veen’s terrific header that came out of the blue, Town played with fluency and purpose, creating a host of decent, if not clear-cut, opportunities.
That period was capped off by Matt Crooks who started, continued and finished off a terrific team goal as he drove forward from inside in own half, picked off passes and then swept in Sam Hoskins’ low cross.
At that stage, Town were heading for three points and they’d have been full value for victory.
But then we must dissect what should cause some concern, and most of that came in the form of a wobbly first-half performance when the visitors were never at ease.
Carlisle had shaded the opening half-hour before Jamie Devitt’s wonder strike had Town very much on the back foot and hanging on. The balance of the team looked out of kilter, the defence was exposed, neither Crooks nor midfield partner John-Joe O’Toole had any options when in possession, the front two were isolated and the wingers struggled to get into the game.
At times, the Cobblers were playing 4-2-4 with Daniel Powell and Sam Hoskins positioned high up the pitch, which in turn left O’Toole and Crooks with too much space to cover in and out of possession.
Out of possession was a particular problem. Neither Crooks nor O’Toole are particularly defence-minded and, without the running and tenacity of Shaun McWilliams, that meant Town’s back four had little protection and United exploited the gaps.
The space between midfield and defence was where most of Carlisle’s chances stemmed from and it was also where Devitt let rip, albeit Town fell asleep from a free-kick with Crooks temporarily off the field.
Van Veen’s goal, then, was an extremely timely one, both for the team and personally. It’s been a highly-frustrating first seven months for the Dutchman since signing from Scunthorpe but his well-taken header at Brunton Park was one of a natural goalscorer.
It was brilliantly placed and lifted him and his team. From then on, van Veen was at the centre of an excellent period of play. He worked hard and linked play effectively to create chances for others as Hoskins, Williams and Crooks almost put Town ahead at the break.
There were also some promising signs of a partnership blossoming between him and Williams, who was particularly impressive at Brunton Park. The two are quite similar in their style and could well cause untold headaches for many opposing defences this term if they build on Saturday’s platform.
Williams might not have scored against Carlisle but he did everything else. His hard work and general play allowed the Cobblers to get up the pitch as he created chances for himself and his team-mates, including the cross for van Veen’s equaliser.
The balance of the team looked out of kilter in the first-half; the defence was exposed, neither Crooks nor midfield partner John-Joe O’Toole had any options when in possession, the front two were isolated and the wingers struggled to get into the game.
Cobblers continued their improvement into the second-half and deserved a second goal when Crooks popped up, however they say you’re most vulnerable after scoring and that rung true here as Hallam Hope immediately slammed in a leveller.
You feel that, had Town held on for just five minutes, they’d have won. As it was, Hope’s crisp finish, again the product of slack defending, gave Carlisle the momentum and they were several times close to winning it before the full-time whistle.
Austin made no attempt to dress up this result in his post-match interview. There was little talk of a good, hard-earned point away from home because he knew his side had frittered away two points.
The fluctuation in performance level within the space of 90 minutes on Saturday, coupled with last week’s frustrating defeat to Lincoln, makes it tricky to assess exactly how Austin and his Cobblers team are shaping up two games into the new season.
In general, there are more positives than negatives and anyone wanting more entertainment this season should not be disappointed given the attacking approach Austin favours and the defensive frailties his side have so far displayed, but one point from a possible six represents a slow start.
It’s early days though. Given time and patience, the Cobblers have the makings of a very good side. The key is putting all the pieces together.
How they rated…
David Cornell – Called into early action when smartly tipping Hope’s low shot onto the post but was comfortably beaten by the same man later on and also had no chance for Devitt’s screamer. Did the basics well and handling was assured… 7
Hakeem Odoffin – Little shaky and ragged after last week’s solid debut. Positioning was suspect which occasionally allowed Carlisle in down their left and was indebted to Cornell after he made it far too easy for Hope to get an early shot off. Still early though and should only improve… 5
Ash Taylor – So often the last line of defence and his team needed him to be here, producing two potentially goal-saving interventions one of which came just prior to the equaliser. Won most things in the air and even took a free-kick, though not a successful one… 7
Aaron Pierre – Part of a back four that never looked secure, however played a key role in repelling Carlisle’s late bombardment as he headed away numerous threatening crosses and set-pieces… 6
David Buchanan – Commitment to the cause was underlined by a brilliant late block, albeit perhaps with the aid of his arm. United’s chief threat came from the other flank as he kept things in check down his side… 7
Matt Crooks – Type of display we’ve grown accustomed to from the midfielder; moments of frustration allied to moments of real class. At the centre of Town’s tremendous second goal, starting, continuing and finishing the move. Picked up a silly early booking but kept his discipline well thereafter… 7
John-Joe O’Toole – Not often as effective in central midfield where he’s shackled by defensive responsibility and doesn’t have the freedom to get forward as much. Tidy enough on the ball but his partnership with Crooks can leave the defence exposed… 6
Daniel Powell – Came more into the game in the second-half after a quiet first but even then, his threat was mostly nullified by Carlisle’s back four. Side-footed a good early chance wide… 6
Sam Hoskins – A livewire for an hour on the right-wing. His nimble footwork and fancy skills had Carlisle’s left-back regularly running back towards goal, and having created two earlier chances and missed another himself, it was his low cross that found Crooks for Town’s second… 7
Kevin van Veen – Seven months into his Cobblers career and finally he’s off the mark. His performance merited a goal too as he worked hard, won battles against United’s defenders and created chances for others. Made his header look a lot easier than it was and there were signs of a promising partnership with his new strike partner… 7
Andy Williams – His terrific work for van Veen’s goal was just one of many examples of some impressive link play in and around the penalty box. Didn’t score – though he deserved to – but did everything else as his movement, touch under pressure and physicality caused problems for the home back four throughout… 7 CHRON STAR MAN
Dean Bowditch – Austin is a fan of his and it’s easy to see why; clever movement and finds space well. Just needs to use the ball better… 7
Billy Waters – 6
Sam Foley – 6
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