German sports outlet Kicker reckon that Huddersfield’s David Wagner is a potential candidate to replace Antonio Conte. They’re not the first to link Jürgen Klopp’s former teammate and assistant with the possible vacancy — the Telegraph’s Matt Law mentioned him off-hand in a report last week, for example — but in an interview published today (Thursday), they’re the first to ask Wagner about the possibility.
This also comes on the heels of the news that Chelsea are assembling two lists of potential managers to replace Antonio Conte, an A-list of the usual accomplished suspects and a B-list of promising (younger?) managers at smaller clubs who may never have won anything except promotion, which makes Wagner a viable dark horse candidate.
The 46-year-old, who led Huddersfield Town to an unlikely promotion to the Premier League on a most meagre budget last season and looks likely to keep them up, has been linked with mid-table Eintracht Frankfurt of the Bundesliga (his hometown team and the first team he played for) as well as Chelsea thanks to those accomplishments.
Surprisingly, Wagner doesn’t give a completely opaque answer when Kicker ask him about these rumors.
“Of course I hear that. But I want to get there (Premier League safety) first, talk to owner Dean Hoyle, and then maybe look at what options are still there, maybe I do not have to think about that, but it will always be like this: The first and last conversation I have with our owner, I owe it to the club too much and have been able to experience so many beautiful things with him.“
In today’s media savvy environment, that quote pretty much amounts to a “come and get me”. On the other hand, Wagner seems pretty certain that he will staying with the Terriers, at least for one more season.
“This is the plan and the most likely option. I do it the same way as last year, first reaching the big goal, then sitting down with our owner at one table — we have a great relationship and talk about the future in peace.”
-David Wagner; source: kicker via Google Translate
But why would Chelsea be interested in a manager who’s in just his second full season in charge of a senior team and who’s lost more games than he’s won?
Maybe because he rescued the Terriers from 45 years of mediocrity? Huddersfield won three straight First Division titles in the 1920’s, but since their last season the top flight, have spent almost half a century of bouncing between the second, third and fourth divisions.
Until, that is, David Wagner came aboard after running Borussia Dortmund’s B-team for four years. He joined in them in November of 2015, replacing Chris Powell, and ensuring survival with a 19th place finish. The following summer he brought in 13 players from across Europe, bonded them in a rugged pre-season tour of Sweden and then won promotion to the Premier League. If that wasn’t the greatest accomplishment of his tender young career, then maybe it’s having little Huddersfield six points clear of the relegation zone with just four matches left in the season.
But there’s something else that might make him attractive to Chelsea, and especially Roman Abramovich. Here’s where his coaching roots come into play, because Wagner ran that B-team under the guidance of one Jurgen Klopp. And he has embraced Klopp’s pell-mell gegenpress philosophy. His ideal is to shorten the field, hunt in numbers, dominate the center of the pitch and attack with quick transitions before the opponent can regain defensive shape. It’s the kind of attractive football that Roman reportedly yearns for.
He also has a reputation for developing young players, something we know is high on Chelsea’s list of requirements. Whether he does it because he has to, or because he wants to, is something we won’t find out until he runs a club with more resources than Huddersfield.
Whether or not Wagner is on Chelsea’s B-list isn’t something we — or he — can know right now. He figures he’ll still be a Terrier when September rolls around. But things in football have a way of changing unexpectedly. The last time Chelsea hired their manager from Huddersfield Town was ... well, never actually. It’s not a thing. Or at least, it wasn’t a thing. But it might be a thing now. We’re in changing times at Chelsea and that which once seemed impossible now seems, if not actually possible, at least not completely ridiculous.
Chelsea play Huddersfield in the penultimate match of the season, in what will be the last match at the Bridge this season (other than the Legends game in memory of Ray Wilkins against Internazionale the day before the FA Cup final). By then we may know whether this Wagner thing is real, or just a fever dream.