By Kristan Heneage
At David Wagner’s unveiling as Huddersfield Town manager he made a very simple statement. “We like to bring some German influence to this English culture,” he said. “Everybody knows where we are from, we are from Dortmund, and everyone knows what kind of football we play there. This is exactly what we would like to bring to Huddersfield.”
Fifteen months on and Wagner is making good on his promise. Serving as Jurgen Klopp’s assistant at Borussia Dortmund, it’s easy to see the influence of the Liverpool manager in Wagner's methods. Yet, their relationship far exceeds being colleagues. Klopp is godfather to one of Wagner’s two daughters, and it was the Liverpool boss that persuaded Wagner to take his Uefa license and later join him at the Westfalenstadion.
They remain close, but that has not inhibited Wagner in developing his own coaching philosophy, with this weekend’s visit of Manchester City the greatest test of his fledgling career. "Of course we [Klopp and Wagner] have spoken," the Huddersfield manager said this week. "But there is nothing he can do or say to help us. What did he say? Good luck!”
Huddersfield hasn’t needed much luck this season though. Wagner oversaw significant changes in the summer, with 15 new arrivals and 14 departures drastically reshaping his squad. Knowing he would need to bond the group quickly, the team went to Sweden for four days in pre-season; no internet, no phones, no electricity. “We had three guides with us to help, but if you are always together, in a two-man tent or eight hours a day in a two-man canoe –- and we always rotated the pairings -– then you have to speak to each other,” Wagner explained to the Guardian. “I am convinced that the better you know your mate off the pitch, the more you are able to work for him on it in uncomfortable situations.”
Sitting third in the Championship, just behind Newcastle and Brighton, it seems his unconventional methods have worked. Finishing last season just above the relegation spots, predictions for this season were just slightly more optimistic. However, there were early signs of Huddersfield’s potential when they travelled to St James’ Park in August.
The Magpies, stung by an opening day defeat to Fulham were looking to bounce back, yet instead of a punching bag, they found in Huddersfield a well-organised side that was tough to break down. The visitors played the game patiently, and twice sprung devastating counter-attacks on the Magpies to win the game 2-1. "My first feeling is that I am proud for my players. It was an outstanding performance, in terms of togetherness,” Wagner said afterwards. “We were brave and we stuck to our match plan which was a lot different to what we played before.”
Earning praise from Rafa Benitez, the performance not only highlighted the team’s potential, but also Wagner’s tactical flexibility. Traditionally under the 45-year-old the team has engaged in a number of principles reminiscent of Klopp’s Liverpool and Dortmund teams. “We now call it the Terriers’ identity,” Wagner told the Guardian. “Exactly the style of football I love is like a terrier. We are not the biggest dog, we are small, but we are aggressive, we are not afraid, we like to compete with the big dogs and we are quick and mobile and we have endurance. We never give up. This small dog has fighting spirit for sure.”
That spirit is often complimented by a high press and possession based style, with Wagner’s double sessions facilitating the former attribute. In the heart of the midfield Manchester City loanee Aaron Mooy keeps the ball moving with a fantastic passing range, and is already viewed as one of the club’s best ever players by supporters.
Mooy’s ineligibility is not the end for Huddersfield though. Wagner has sought to rotate his team throughout the season, and placed trust in every member of his squad. Consequently, the Terriers do not possess a talisman. Elias Kachunga, on loan from Ingolstadt, is a fast direct forward that is said to be catching admiring glances from the Premier League. Elsewhere, Nahki Wells can be a potent finisher on his day, while the January arrival of attacking midfielder Izzy Brown on loan from Chelsea has proven hugely beneficial for both player and club.
Strongly committed to the 4-2-3-1, it represents a rare moment of inflexibility from Wagner. Only briefly experimenting with 4-4-2 and 3-4-2-1 formations this season, chances are he will stick with what is tried and tested. Saturday represents a big opportunity for the German-American to impress, testing himself against the tactical nous of Pep Guardiola, and yet the German coach already looks destined for bigger things, hopefully as manager of Huddersfield.