David Wagner is transforming Huddersfield Town into arguably the most attractive side to watch in the Championship. His high intensity, high pressing, all action style of play, more recently labelled as “gegenpressing”, has The Terriers currently occupying 3rd place in the division.
When Wagner arrived in Huddersfield on 5th November 2015, following the dismissal of Chris Powell, Town were sat in 18th place in the Championship, having only been the victors in 3 of their 15 league fixtures up to that date. The three victories they had amassed came against the three sides, Charlton, Bolton, and MK Dons, who would eventually be relegated come the end of the season. In appointing David Wagner there is no denying that Huddersfield Town chairman Dean Hoyle had taken a risk. Unknown to many in England, David Wagner became the first manager from outside the UK and Ireland to be appointed by Huddersfield.
He was dealt the thankless task of keeping Huddersfield Town in the division. There was work to be done and Wagner was straight to it, immediately doubling training sessions after his confirmation as manager. A work in progress, the former Schalke player lost his first two games as manager, a 3-1 defeat at the home of Yorkshire rivals Sheffield Wednesday, and a 2-0 defeat to Middlesborough in his first home game in charge. Huddersfield ended the 2015/16 campaign in 19th place, a further 10 victories and 6 draws ensuring survival, but without a win in their last four league outings, including a 4-0 defeat at Ashton Gate, and a 5-1 home defeat to Brentford, fans would be forgiven for still being sceptical ahead of the following season.
Wagner knew his first pre season at the club would be crucial to his teams league campaign. He needed a togetherness, an unbreakable spirit. The squad departed for Sweden on a pre season tour without the item that would otherwise be first on, or of high priority, on the list of things take, a football. On the islands off Sweden, and without a football in sight, David Wagner had his players canoe from island to island. Two players to a canoe, and two players to a tent once they reached the island. The pairs were often rotated also. Wagner’s logic behind this was to encourage the players to have conversations with one another about anything and everything, not specifically football. He wanted to the players to learn about each other, about their backgrounds, families and the like. Wagner is a firm believer of the closer the players are bonded off the pitch, the greater the results will be for the team on the pitch.
Among other items left behind were mobile phones, another way of encouraging conversation. There were no toilets, no electricity, no food, no water. If the players were hungry they would have to pick up their fishing rods and catch their own dinner. Likewise if thirsty, get your bottle and head down to the lake, fill it up. If players were cold in the camp, make a fire. Rather than a pre season tour, it was shaping up to be a survival camp expedition. Wagner and his colleagues specifically made it an uncomfortable experience for the players simply because, as Wagner himself puts it, “in the Championship there is no comfort zone.” They were so out of their comfort zone, they did not even know the result of the Euro 2016 quarter finals.
Despite people outside the club expecting a backlash to this type of pre season, Wagner found his decision vindicated. The squad was knitted tightly together as one, even the 13 new players he had brought to the club either permanently or on loan bought into it.
Despite a loss in the EFL Cup to lower league opposition in Shrewsbury Town, The Terriers soared to the top of the Championship. Winning away at St James’ Park, and a 1-1 draw away at Aston Villa, two of the sides considered among the strongest in the division, Huddersfield were exceeding even their own expectations. With 8 victories and a draw from their opening 11 league fixtures, Wagner had overseen Huddersfield Town embark on their most successful start to a league campaign in the entire history of the club. With a victory over rivals Leeds United at Elland Road, Wagner’s second in two games against them, along the way, victory over Ipswich Town ensured Huddersfield would head into the international break sitting atop the Championship.
With many presuming, correctly, that Huddersfield Town were punching well above their weight in the Championship, the slump after the international break was met with an air of inevitability from outside of the club. The feeling was that Huddersfield Town would now fall away and descend down the league. With a solitary victory in eight matches following the break there was not a lot of evidence to suggest the thoughts of the majority of fans outside of Huddersfield were false. Huddersfield had fallen outside of the top six for the first time this season.
What followed this slump was a remarkable run of eighteen matches in all competitions in which The Terriers have lost only two. One of those losses coming away at the Etihad Stadium in the FA Cup against Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City after making nine changes.
In the midst of Huddersfield’s latest remarkable run of form, take the cup games away and Town have lost only 1 of their last 15 league games, came the Yorkshire derby against Leeds United. With both sides occupying the top six, it could be argued that this was the biggest derby in which the two clubs had faced off in a very long time, in all probability forever. After taking the lead through the ever impressive Chelsea loanee Izzy Brown, Huddersfield were pegged back by Leeds United talisman Chris Wood. It was not until an 89th minute winner scored by Michael Hefele, a free transfer from Dynamo Dresden, that wild jubilation and celebration was sparked. Wagner bolted out of his technical area and off down the pitch to join the wild celebrations of his players, and his now adoring fans. It was an act David Wagner would pay for, a fine of £6,000 and a two-match suspension, but one which proved the meaning of such a big result. If you did not know David Wagner, you would be forgiven for thinking the German was born and bred in Huddersfield, such was his participation in the celebrations after victory over Leeds.
Ultimately David Wagner continues to work wonders for Huddersfield Town. He has turned the John Smith’s Stadium into a fortress. Nobody looks forward to a trip to West Yorkshire anymore, and that includes the so-called big boys of the division. Huddersfield have won 12 and drawn 2 of their 16 games played at home this season. Only Sheffield Wednesday and Wigan Athletic have managed to take maximum points away from their trips to the John Smith’s Stadium. Huddersfield have amassed 65 points in the Championship this season, and with 13 games remaining, already have 14 more points on the board than they ended up with last season.
With only Newcastle United out of the Championship’s current top six left to play, The Terriers look a certainty to make the Play-offs and if results go their way, look the team best placed to launch an assault on the top two. A lot of the way Huddersfield’s season has gone, and the way they have performed, has to go down to the manager. The togetherness and spirit that David Wagner knew was crucial to his side before they embarked on the survival expedition of Sweden in the summer is firmly in place. The risk that chairman Dean Hoyle took in appointing the relatively unknown manager has paid off. The rewards could be great. David Wagner looks to be leading Huddersfield all the way to the Promised Land.