A Game of Two Halves
Watching a collection of fringe players and new signings trot out onto the pitch at Sixfields this evening, it was clear that Ståle was treating the event as a training outing rather than as a must-win game. If I was at all concerned about the outcome, the team selection would have worried me. Naturally, I was interested in seeing Margreitter and Boukari for the first time and, more intriguingly, to observe how the pairings of Margreitter and Batth in defence and Double and Sigurdarson upfront fared. It was also pleasing to watch a match without the tension of points being at stake.
It was just as well because we were dire in the first half. Most of these players had not played with each other before let alone worked alongside one another in units. And it showed. We had no shape or cohesion either in attack or defence. Northampton looked far more dangerous in attack than we did, their threat magnified by our defensive frailties. To make matters worse, all the players were anxious to impress and therefore tended to perform as individuals rather than as members of a team.
Surprisingly, we went in at half-time 2-1 up, having scored two scrappy goals against a well-engineered one by Northampton. A lovely cross by Hackett in the 39th. minute was headed into the net by Platt in spite of the close attendance of Batth and Stearman.
SS obviously spoke sharply to the players at half-time because they came out with greater resolve and purpose after the break. Passing improved and players started running into space. We looked far more composed on the ball, knocked it around with greater assurance and inexorably took a grip on the game.
Even so, we still could not score. In the 49th. minute young Snedker in the Northampton goal spilled a ball but Boukari`s shot cannoned off a defender. A minute later the goalie dived to his right to turn a shot by Davis round the post. In the 60th. minute Boukari found Davis with a glorious ball over the defence, only for the midfielder to fluff his shot. In the 84th. minute a great cross from Sigurdarson landed at Peszko`s feet but his shot was blocked. Finally in the 91st. minute, Sako latched on to a cross from Peszko and smashed it into the net.
In the equivalent match last year we won 4-0 which suggests that we have gone backwards. That would be an unfair comparison because even professional footballers, earning many £1000s a week cannot instantly operate as an integrated whole. We did improve as the game progressed, partly because the individuals began to work better as a team and partly because we brought on better players.
In the 66th. minute Doumbia replaced Jonsson and immediately transformed the dynamics in midfield. One can only wonder what MM say in Jonsson because, if it weren`t for his fouling, he would have been anonymous. Sako came on for Boukari at the same time and quickly demonstrated why he is so highly rated. What a signing! Boukari, nonetheless, made an impressive debut. He likes to take his man on and made a number of penetrating runs. Both of them were tenancious on the ball and often powered through the opposition. We ought to accommodate both of them in the team.
Most of our attacks in the second half went down the left flank, where Boukari was patrolling, rather than on Forde`s side. As other commentators have reported, the lad needs more time to mature before he can do the job properly. He did not really have the beating of his man and his crossing was often wayward. Once Peszko came on in the 82nd. minute, openings started to appear on the right flank.
Upfront, the partnership between Nouble and Sigurdarson was not very successful. Sigurdarson has potential and his game strengthened as the match progressed. Nouble, however, lacked control and often got tangled up in his feet. He is undoubtedly fast and a willing worker though, constantly chasing lost balls back to the opposition goalie. Improving his skills on the ball is going to be a real test of SS`s coaching ability. At the moment, I see Doyle and Sigurdarson as the two front men.
At the back, Ikeme gave another assured display, without having to indulge in the heroics of the Derby match. In the second half he had little to do, mainly because we dominated the midfield. As a result, the CD partnership between Batth and Margreitter was put under less strain. It had creaked a bit in the first half. Batth was more prominent than Margreitter and, as a result, I find it difficult to assess the latter`s performance. He seemed to gain in confidence the more we controlled the game.
What this match did was to highlight the gulf between the better players in the squad and the ones on the fringe. Once again, SS`s has demonstrated his ability to sign quality players from abroad and this augers well for our campaign. Other players, including Forde, Davis, Stearman and Jonsson, did not enhance their reputations. Stearman, captain for the day, actually did quite well moving the ball out of defence but he is still as vulnerable at RB as he is at CD. Elokobi looked good going forward. We should sell the latter three and buy in replacements. I presume SS knows this and we will learn of the new recruits by 11 pm tomorrow. With the holes filled at the back, I am reasonably confident about the future.