The Season Just Gone
Huddersfield Town’s 2017-18 was about as good as they could possibly have hoped for. The highlights were probably those improbable and dream-like victories over Crystal Palace (3-0 away on the opening day) and Manchester United (2-1 at home on a miserable October afternoon), but simply securing Premier League survival and having a massive party at the John Smith’s Stadium was the ideal scenario this time last year, and they achieved it with games to spare.
Aaron Mooy proved himself a fine Premier League player, while Alex Pritchard impressed following his January move from Norwich City. Steve Mounié and Laurent Depoitre, neither an entirely convincing number nine at this level, between them scored the goals to ensure survival, while Christopher Schindler enhanced his reputation at the back with plenty of fine, stoic interventions.
That’s not to say it was all plain sailing. They only won three games from December 23rd until the end of May and for much of that time they didn’t even look like threatening. Their lack of top-level quality was evident all over the pitch, and were it not for the stellar management skills of boss David Wagner, who managed to make almost an entire squad of Championship-level talents play way above themselves before that collapse, Huddersfield would surely have been relegated.
Indeed, the scale of Wagner’s overachievement may not have been truly appreciated outside of West Yorkshire, and the popular German would be entitled to feel aggrieved were he not so idolised by his club’s supporters. When he moves on to bigger things, there will certainly be no hard feelings given what he has done and the joy he has brought with the meagre resources at his disposal.
The Season Ahead
There are reasons for optimism. Wagner has been retained despite overtures from bigger clubs in England and back in Germany, and with him at the helm the impossible remains possible. The nucleus of the squad has been kept together, and weaknesses at both ends of the pitch have been addressed without the worrying knock-on effect of disrupting dressing room harmony.
At the same time, we have to recognise that a lot of hard work lies ahead. A chronic lack of goal threat dogged the Terriers (ahem) throughout last season and their feebleness with the ball at their feet was and remains their most glaring weakness. If they attack so dismally in 2018-19, they will surely disappear without trace, and at the time of writing young winger Adama Diakhaby remains their only attacking addition this summer. (Ed.note: they added 8-goal Isaac Mbenza on loan from Montpellier on deadline day.)
Presumably Wagner and company are aiming to do a Bournemouth, fostering the growth of a modest, workmanlike collective whose strength comes from their co-dependence and the fact that they are nothing without each other. This is certainly an attainable goal and more realistic and sensible than, say, making the same mistakes as Bolton and disappearing without trace.
The famous David Wagner/Jürgen Klopp connection has been written about countless times over the last few years and there’s no surprise that Huddersfield have aimed to 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 usual 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1 formation, sometimes adapted to be a 5-3-1-1 against the top six, allows them to apply pressure on the ball all over the pitch without leaving especially damaging gigantic spaces for the opponents to exploit.
While clean sheets were not as numerous as any defensively solid side would hope, Huddersfield’s defensive performance last season out was hugely admirable. One hopes that promoted sides learn 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 (read: Neil Warnock) or tasked with saving a team from the drop (Tony Pulis).
Given the difference in level and resources, it’s no surprise that Huddersfield’s attacking hasn’t been quite as spectacular as the selfless one-touch interplay we’re used to seeing from Klopp’s teams. The Terriers’ approach was generally rather more direct and rudimentary and obviously easier to defend against, with lots of long balls forward and low xG shots from distance. The addition of Pritchard gave them a necessary and more varied type of threat, however, and we should expect to see a more developed, evolved Huddersfield in 2018-19.
This is a team built according to principles and they are not to be compromised. Every player in Wagner’s squad knows his role and is ready to sacrifice himself for the good of the team, safe in the knowledge that everyone else is willing to do the same. Sure, they lack the flashy technical ability of players at bigger clubs, but their surplus of commitment and their huge organisation, work-rate and tactical understanding just about bridge the gap.
Throughout last season Huddersfield ranked near the top of the defensive actions charts, making a huge amount of tackles and interceptions and blocking a similarly impressive number of passes, and it will be a surprise if these trends aren’t repeated this season. Huddersfield’s defenders are from the no-nonsense school and deal with any approaching threat by simply kicking the ball as far away from their goal as possible.
This meant that even though Huddersfield had a relatively low possession average in the Premier League, they weren’t necessarily exposed by playing for so long without the ball: plenty of teams allowed more shots on their goal and seven finished the season with higher Expected Goals Against tallies.
Sadly for Huddersfield fans, their defensive strength was just about their only strength. As previously mentioned, their squad is glaringly lacking in individual quality and, for large parts of last season at least, their attacking wasn’t anywhere near good enough to get them the results they’ve needed. Even when protecting their goal very effectively and theoretically needing just one goal to tip the balance of a game in their favour, they struggled to effectively transition into attack and to create clear goalscoring opportunities.
It’s all well and good having an extremely well-organised press and manfully protecting your own goal for the majority of games, but it doesn’t mean a great deal if nothing happens when the ball is finally won and the opportunity to win a game presents itself. Huddersfield simply weren’t able to keep the ball for long enough or to move it quickly enough into dangerous positions, and while there are reasons to believe they won’t be as bad this season, there are plenty more reasons to expect more of the same.
Only Swansea had a lower Expected Goals tally than Huddersfield last season, and with precious little done to address that issue from a personnel point of view, Terriers’ fans will be left hoping that Mounié or Depoitre do a Jamie Vardy and become a genuine top-level striker overnight.
Most bookmakers have Huddersfield around evens to go down and it’s hard to argue. This could be a long, hard, sad season.
Let’s assume Huddersfield go with their uberdefensive 5-3-1-1 against a top side and hope to frustrate Maurizio Sarri’s Blues. Even then, the exact line-ups are too difficult to predict.
Damn you, transfer window!
Huddersfield 0-2 Chelsea.