Northampton Town are in League Two’s top-seven after a 4-1 victory over Morecambe.
The Cobblers are in fine form, having won three games in a row, while they’ve only lost two of their last 14 games.
What has Keith Curle done to change the club’s fortunes? Gabriel Sutton takes a look...
Recruited strong characters
After March’s 2-1 home defeat to Port Vale, in which Northampton were defeated by 10-man opposition, Curle was critical of the mentality of his group.
“The players can’t do the simple and basic things, but they think they are too good to do those things. There are certain things in certain players that I can change but in the players that I can’t, I will change those players.” He vowed.
“Some people say we play ugly but I don't trust this group to pass the ball so what choice do we have? The personnel we’ve got in the changing room isn’t right and the representation of this football club today was poor. I’m out shopping for the summer and we are already out looking for improvement.”
It is therefore no surprise that in the summer, he added a born leader in Alan McCormack, who runs the show when fit with his presence, power and technical ability.
Chris Lines, another veteran who, like McCormack, has also won promotion from this level, joined from Bristol Rovers and in Harry Smith, Curle added the target man he needed to facilitate his direct methods.
Nicky Adams has brought further charisma to the group and attacking midfielder Matty Warburton, who is used to showing his talent in the gritty world of lower league football, signed from Stockport.
If these deals made financial sense to the club, then credit must be given to chairman Kelvin Thomas for giving Curle the backing to do the deals he needed.
Keith Curle has overseen a superb
Charlie Goode had impressed last season after joining on loan from Scunthorpe and can play either at centre-back or as a conservative right-back, so it was a no brainer to add him on a permanent deal to play on the right of the back-three.
Having played at ninth-tier Harefield United at the start of his senior career, then various other non-league clubs including Hendon, Goode is not shy to the physical side of the game and can produce a decent long throw.
Scott Wharton, who has excelled in previous stints at Cambridge, Lincoln and Bury without ever quite carving out a home anywhere, joined from Blackburn to bring a wide range of qualities to the defence along with Jordan Turnbull.
Goode, Wharton and Turnbull have all started at least 24 of the 27 league games and the continuity may explain why the Cobblers have conceded more than once on just eight occasions this season.
Despite possessing on paper one of the better squads in the division, Northampton employ a lot of the tactics that we would ordinarily expect from an underdog.
The Cobblers average 88 long balls per game, which is the joint-second most in the division.
That is the way Curle tends to like to play, as we saw in his time at Carlisle United.
In some ways, it is difficult to argue with the 56-year-old’s methods, because they have delivered roundly positive results and allow the team to get the ball into forward areas quickly, enabling their best players to do damage high up the pitch.
Curle’s critics, though, would say that low ball retention means the team must put in a lot of work off the ball, which means there tends to be spells in which they drop off and allow their opponents to dictate terms.
Smith replaced well
When employing Curle’s methods, it is so important to have the right focal point.
Because so much of the play will go through the team’s target man, that player will carry the weight of responsibility for the collective performance because, if he does not do his job properly, the whole system can break down.
Charlie Wyke left Carlisle mid-way through the 2016-17 campaign, for example, Curle’s side went from being a side that lost three games in 28, to one that lost eight in 18 – mainly because their ‘focal point’ was Jamie Proctor, who is a different type of player.
That is why, when Smith picked up an injury in December’s 4-0 loss at Crawley, fans were worried about how that would affect the makeup of the team.
It is credit to Vadaine Oliver that the team has won four in five in all competitions since he came into the starting XI, scoring 12 goals.
The former Morecambe striker puts an excellent shift in every week and loves to contest an aerial duel, possessing a good spring to account for being a touch shorter than Smith.
Even if the 28-year-old has only bagged one league goal himself, his work helps the team collectively – Oliver is somebody of whom fans want to see more.
💬 Vadaine Oliver gives credit to Keith Curle for his fine form of late 👊 pic.twitter.com/JJk63yd0mS— Northampton Town (@ntfc) January 17, 2020
Hoskins and Adams
The situation at Bury was ultimately incredibly sad but in on-field terms, manager Ryan Lowe did set several League Two trends last season.
Lowe used Nicky Adams, conventionally a winger, as a right wing-back; Adams, himself, admitted that his responsibilities did not change unduly in that new position, because he was granted a lot of attacking freedom.
Had Lowe not done that first, it is difficult to imagine Curle having the bravery to use Adams as a wing-back, albeit this time on the left – but it has worked a treat for the Cobblers.
The 33-year-old thinks a split-second above other players at this level which is why he is an asset in opening up opponents, especially when combining with two or three teammates in tight areas.
Understandably for a fourth-tier player, not everything Adams tries comes off, but his hunger and desire to get on the ball and make things happen is unwavering.
It is a similar story with Hoskins who, arguably, has been one of the EFL’s most underrated players in the last decade.
Hoskins has always brought energy, skill and good movement to his side’s play, but the question has tended to be whether he scores enough goals to justify the advanced roles he has been given.
Ironically, Hoskins is now operating as a right wing-back this season and is more of a goalscoring threat than he has ever been, on course for the first double-figured campaign of his career.
Nicky Adams has now contributed to 5 of Northampton’s last 11 Goals scored.— Teyn Edition (@TeynEdition) January 18, 2020
Hoskins has contributed towards 4 of the last 10 too.
The Northampton wise boys doing the business! #NTFC pic.twitter.com/xPgXypg5Xa
Will they sustain it?
Curle’s side have a curious ability to look flat and uninspiring for large portions of certain games, yet still score three or four goals in them.
That could be interpreted in more than one way.
Firstly, it shows that they have a lot of quality in advanced areas – we have not mentioned Andy Williams, who has scored 125 EFL goals in his career, or Paul Anderson, who has bagged in a Championship Play-Off Semi-Final.
Perhaps when the Cobblers start playing at a high intensity for large portions of their encounters, we could see a ruthless, winning machine like the one that stormed to top spot in the second half of the 2015-16 campaign, under Chris Wilder.
Alternatively, it could show that their final third productivity is masking a lot of imperfections – and that if Hoskins or Adams were to drop in form, or even if Oliver were to join Smith on the sidelines, they would start to look like a bland, mid-table side.
Reality, for Curle’s troops, will likely lie somewhere in between.