The Premier League has an rather easy relegation set-up. The bottom three will be relegated, no play-offs whatsoever. Their replacements will come in the form of number 1&2 from the Championship + the winner of the play-offs. Newcastle and Brighton were having an wonderful season and both were immediately promoted. But I want to discuss the play-off winners: which is Huddersfield Town. The club is rather unknown to the general population, mainly because their last season in the Premier League goes all the way back to 1972. The man responsible for their promotion is David Wagner. I discuss the details revolving around this tactical mastermind.
How was this possible? We all know the fairy-tale story from Leicester City, I would call this the light version. Huddersfield were performing poorly in 2015-16 and dropped their manager in November of 2015. His successor was quickly found in the name of David Wagner. A German born and raised, but won eight caps for the USA due to having an American father. Wagner had an rather mediocre career as an domestic football nomad. His managerial career is way more interesting. The 45-year old started with Borussia Dortmund II back in 2011, when Jürgen Klopp was responsible for their senior squad. The latter signed with Liverpool back in October 2015. Just three weeks later: Wagner left his job, which strengthened the rumour that he would join Klopp in his backroom staff. Which didn’t happen, Wagner wanted the sole responsibility and joined second-tier team Huddersfield Town, who were struggling at the bottom of the league. His job was difficult, but simple: safe the club from relegation. Which he did. The season afterwards was 2016-17. Expectations weren’t significant, some bookies even thought “The Terriers” would end up at the bottom six. Boy, were they wrong.
Wagner bought thirteen players from across the continent in the summer 2016; and he knew that bonding and communication would be vital. His plan to speed up the process: take the whole squad on a pre-season trip to Sweden, where they had to survive with only basic equipment for a few days.
In hindsight: an brilliant idea. Huddersfield were, unexpectedly, topping the table in September. With Wagner being crowned Manager of the Month of August (he later on won this individual price again in February). The side didn’t had a real star, but were widely praised for their collectiveness and tactical flexibility.
On a personal note, I am a complete tactics freak and Wagner is such an interesting manager. The Championship is known for its fast play and physical challenging games, but he did something completely different. The Terriers always started in a 4-2-3-1 formation. With the backs pushing up and one of the two defensive midfielder dropping deep. Those backs who were bombing forward constantly needed the space, meaning that the wingers were cutting inside. Making their original gameplay change to a 3-4-2-1 formation in-game. Their style in possession differed per attack, which made it terribly difficult for the opposition to stop them. The defensive organisation was typical German (or typical Klopp?), which basically comes down to pressing, pressing and pressing.
His playing-style requires fit and tactical intelligent players. And someone who is the embodiment of those qualities is Aaron Mooy. Huddersfield loaned the Australian from Manchester City in the previous campaign, but decided to make it a permanent deal. Beating clubs such as WBA, Southampton and other newcomer Brighton along the way.
The difference in quality between the Championship and Premier League is immense. Many clubs who (re)join the highest division are splashing their hard-earned money on players. The German is doing something completely different with his Huddersfield. The tactics he have used and perfected along the way are suited to specific types of players. We will see The Terries buying some surprising players this window.
The question is simple: Can Wagner surprise friend and enemy once again? The deck is stacked against him and many bookies are placing Huddersfield Town at the bottom three. Quality-wise, I would agree. But not many managers across the globe can get 150% out of their squad. David Wagner can.