The Season So Far
Huddersfield’s season so far has been a qualified success: the initial and seemingly impossible aim of Premier League survival is currently being achieved and with breathing space to boot; a squad and a manager with a glaring lack of top-flight experience have performed way above their expected performance level; on top of everything, there was an unforgettable league victory over Manchester United, providing surely one of the greatest days in the Terriers’ history and ensuring that, whatever happens over the next six months, the fans have a memory to cherish for the rest of their lives.
With so many huge positives, it feels like their success should be more than qualified, but the harsh reality of the Premier League is beginning to set in, and there are reasons to believe manager David Wagner and company will regret not having gotten more points on the board while the going was good. The lack of quality and experience at this level is beginning to show, the defeats are starting to pile up and it seems inevitable that a slide down the table is coming, and Huddersfield will be sucked into the relegation battle.
The Season Ahead
It’s not looking good. Huddersfield have taken three wins from their last fourteen league games and since winning at Crystal Palace on the opening day, they’ve picked up one point away from home. Their players are starting to look tired and, as the fixtures come thick and fast during the festive period, it doesn’t look as though the respite they need will come, especially with long trips south to Watford and Southampton coming up.
If there’s a positive to be taken right now, it’s that after playing Chelsea they don’t face another top-six opponent until Liverpool visit on January 30th. With a more difficult set of games the Terriers would almost certainly sink without trace, but these fixtures against weaker opposition at least give them a chance of picking up points. How many they get in the next month or so could well be the difference between survival and a return to the Championship.
Given that David Wagner is, famously, Jürgen Klopp’s best friend and former colleague, there’s no surprise that Huddersfield play with many of the same principles as Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund and Liverpool sides. A high and intense co-ordinated press is the foundation of the Terriers’ play and their 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1 formation allows them to apply pressure on the ball all over the pitch without leaving gigantic spaces for the opponents to exploit.
Huddersfield’s defensive performance this season has been hugely admirable and it has shown promoted sides that there’s a viable tactical alternative to the traditional “4-4-2, backs to the wall, hit and hope” fare British managers usually serve up when promoted from the Championship or tasked with saving a team from the drop.
Huddersfield’s attacking isn’t quite as spectacular as the selfless one-touch interplay we’re used to seeing from Klopp’s teams, but given the colossal difference between the resources available to Klopp at Dortmund and Liverpool and Wagner at Huddersfield, that’s to be expected. Their approach is rather more direct and rudimentary and obviously easier to defend, with lots of long balls forward and low xG shots from distance.
The biggest strengths of this Huddersfield team are their organisation, their work-rate, and their tactical understanding. Without these qualities their system would collapse and their relative lack of Premier League quality and top-flight experience would have been more brutally exposed by now.
The figures show just how hard they’re working and how well they’re defending: 20.3 tackles per game is league’s highest figure, 13.8 interceptions per game is the third highest and only five teams have blocked more passes so far this season. If a team manages to get through the midfield and arrive in Huddersfield’s box, the no-nonsense defenders deal with the threat, no questions asked: only three teams have made more clearances this season than Huddersfield.
This means that even though Huddersfield have the eighth lowest possession average in the Premier League, they don’t necessarily suffer for playing for so long without the ball: only five teams have allowed fewer shots on their goal so far this season.
Unfortunately, their defensive strength comes at a significant cost: their attacking hasn’t been anywhere near good enough to get them the results they’ve needed, even when protecting their goal very effectively and needing to do relatively little to tip the balance of a game in their favour. Only three teams have taken fewer shots this season, no team has created fewer chances from crosses or corners or throughballs and they’ve turned the ball over with alarming regularity: only four teams have a lower passing accuracy and only five teams have played more inaccurate long passes.
It’s all well and good having an extremely well-drilled press and ably protecting your own goal for the majority of games, but it doesn’t add up to much if nothing happens when the ball is won and the opportunity to win a game presents itself. If David Wagner can’t add significant quality to the side in January and the players tire in the second half of the season and can’t press to the same level that they do now, then Huddersfield’s defensive performance will inevitably dip and the lack of goals and goal threat in this team will begin to cost them very dear.
On a more fundamental note, there’s a colossal gulf in quality between the two sides and even on Huddersfield’s best day they would also need it to be Chelsea’s worst for them to win. This is far from an even contest.
We’re into peak rotation season now and with fatigue mounting on both sides, starting line-ups are difficult to predict. Huddersfield don’t have a wealth of options so we should expect a familiar eleven, while Antonio Conte will be forced to make changes after Saturday’s woeful defeat at West Ham. Chelsea will be without Álvaro Morata so we should hopefully see Michy Batshuayi take his place, while a return to 3-4-2-1 against a lesser opponent should be expected with Willian and/or Pedro restored to the lineup in place of the unfortunate Tiémoué Bakayoko.
The Blues need to make a point after the West Ham game and Huddersfield are running out of steam. 3-0 to Chelsea.