A strong start, including a 3-0 win away at Crystal Palace on opening day, catapulted Huddersfield Town to joint second in the table after three matches. They finished 2017 in 11th place thanks to a bunch of low scoring draws and six wins including a home victory over Manchester United. That win was a lone bright spot, however. Before it, they lost nine matches and failed to score in seven of those and after that win they lost five in a row at the start of 2018; conceding fourteen goals and scoring only one in reply. In the end they ground out survival, not scoring more than once from the start of March onwards, but battling for draws away to Manchester City and Chelsea and clinching 16th place at the end of the season. Given that more than half of the teams relegated since the formation of the Premier League have been ones in their first or second season in the division this was a remarkable achievement. It seems likely that Huddersfield will be involved in a fight against relegation again this season so is survival a feat that they can repeat?
Soft Rock Defending
Huddersfield Town had a goal difference of minus 30 and the worst expected goal difference in the division. A major factor in that was their attack – they scored the joint fewest – but there were also some issues with their defence. Huddersfield tended to use a 4-2-3-1 formation in most matches and switched to a 5-3-2 against the ‘top 6’ teams. Their average defensive event location was ninth furthest from their own goal in the league but this was not an aggressive all over the pitch counter pressing style that the oft-used narrative of manager David Wagner’s long professional relationship and friendship with Liverpool boss Jürgen Klopp may have led some to imagine. Huddersfield Town, in the 2017/18 season, tended to concede the opposing team’s half and then press, individually man on man, only once the ball entered their own half and particularly if the intended ball recipient had their back to goal. If this press was broken, or the opposition maintained possession in Huddersfield Town’s half, they retreated into a very deep block which helped them to allow both the eighth fewest deep completions (passes completed within twenty metres of their goal) and the eighth fewest non penalty shots against; ranking behind only the ‘top 6’ and Watford in both of these areas. In fact, five teams conceded more goals than the Terriers and, incredibly, only seven teams kept more clean sheets. The problem for Huddersfield Town was that the chances they did allow were very good ones. The average xG open play shot they faced was 0.13 and as a result, despite limiting the number of shots they faced, they conceded the fifth highest non penalty xG per game in the league. As well as the style of press meaning that it was relatively easily evaded by quick players and good passing teams, they were not helped by a real lack of mobility in their central midfield. Aaron Mooy was fourth in the league for successful passes into the final third for teams outside the ‘top 6’ but lacks the athleticism to play as part of a defensive double pivot at this level and his usual partner Jonathan Hogg, while possessing the name and appearance of a middle manager, isn’t equipped to manage the middle of Huddersfield Town’s defensive half on his own. Against the bigger teams Wagner did include young Dane Philip Billing as a third midfielder but, while he appears to be a good passer and his height was a welcome addition given Huddersfield Town were among the worst in terms of xG for and against from set pieces in the league. They really required more of a positionally aware ball winner in front of the defence to help them avoid lapses of the sort that led to them losing three or more goals in eight separate matches last season. If, in terms of the way they defend, Klopp’s Liverpool are Heavy Metal and Sean Dyche’s Burnley are a Spector-esque Wall of Sound then Wagner’s Terriers could be considered an unadventurous soft rock group – a bit predictable and about to face difficult second album syndrome.
All Bark and No Bite in Attack
That unadventurous style shows up most obviously in Huddersfield Town’s attacking statistics. There are some fairly dramatic top notes;
- Scored the joint fewest goals in the league and failed to score in 21 of their 38 matches
- Attempted the third fewest non penalty shots per match
- Lowest xG per shot in the league
- Lowest xG per match on average
So, they weren’t shooting very often and when they were it was from poor locations. Not exactly a shock that this led to them scoring so rarely. Apart from passes into the final third by Mooy Huddersfield Town tended to attempt attacks by crossing but they weren’t very effective at it. In fact, the Terriers had the highest box cross ratio (percentage of their entries into the opposition’s box being crosses) in the league while also having the second worst cross completion percentage. A lack of certainty about which players should be the first choice in the wide attacking positions was compounded by Elias Kachunga’s two serious injuries which sidelined him for almost all of the second half of the season and although Rajiv van La Parra completed the fourth most dribbles per 90 in the league his end product and that of Tom Ince was lacking. Steve Mounie was tasked with the lone forward role and often found, on the rare occasions he got in behind the opposition defence, there were a lack of options in support. In fact, Huddersfield made the fewest successful passes inside the opposition box per match in the league. The passing options available in attacking areas did improve once Alex Pritchard was recruited in January 2018 to play in the central attacking midfield role but throughout the season there were clear issues in terms of creating quality chances for Mounie. The barrel chested, blunt instrument of Laurent Depoitre sometimes joined Mounie in attack but he was mainly used against the top sides as an aerial outlet and defensive weapon and only managed to attempt just over one shot every 90 minutes. In addition to attackers not managing to take many shots, there were the aforementioned issues with where they were shooting from. Huddersfield Town took the eighth highest percentage of open play shots from outside the box in the league. Even when they were on the front foot, they struggled to create good opportunities and score goals. In their home tie against Swansea City in March 2018 they dominated possession after the opposition were reduced to ten men and took thirty shots to zero but drew 0-0.
Teaching Old Dogs New Tricks
In the summer of 2017 the Terriers brought in a significant amount of players under the recruitment guidance of David Moss, their newly appointed head of football operations. Moss, who had overseen the scouting department at Celtic for the previous seven years, was suddenly dismissed after less than six months and Olaf Rebbe, himself let go by VfL Wolfsburg after a failed attempt to poach a Bundesliga rival’s general manager, was appointed as Sporting Director in April 2018. This summer Rebbe and Wagner have secured the goalkeeper Jonas Lössl, rightback Florent Hadergjonaj and left sided defender Terence Kongolo on permanent deals after their loan periods at the club last season. This means that the defence can remain unchanged and can easily switch between a four and five man set up given Kongolo’s capability at both leftback and centre back. In addition Erik Durm, surprisingly still only 26 years old, has arrived on a free transfer and can add experience and depth in both full back positions especially as Scott Malone has returned to the English Championship with a move to Derby County. Ben Hamer, a free transfer from Leicester City can provide competition for Lössl in the absence of Rob Green who has moved to Chelsea. Moving up the pitch, Juninho Bacuna, younger brother of Reading’s Leandro, has joined from FC Groningen and while he seems to be capable in possession is only 21 years old and does not appear to be the ball winner the midfield appears to really need. The question remains – what have Huddersfield done to move the needle on their inability to create good chances. They don’t appear to have added much mobility to their central midfield in terms of starters, although Billings may be a first pick in more than the eight starts he managed last season. Ahead of central midfield, Ramadan Sobhi has joined from Stoke City and, while it remains to be seen how much more he can contribute than Ince who moved the other way, he is clearly talented and has a strong upside given he is only 21 years old. Finally, Adama Diakhaby has joined from Monaco. While it is a concern that he has been allowed to leave only one season after joining from Rennes he can play all across the front line and could be a strong threat running the channels. We may also see more of the promising attacking midfielder Abdelhamid Sabiri and Kachunga will return from injury. The outfield players that have arrived this summer are all, except Durm, 24 or younger. Huddersfield Town do have a young team and while having so many of their players in peak age range is clearly a positive there could be some concerns over a lack of experience especially once the new recruits are taken into account. Perhaps a move for an attacking midfielder with a bit more experience and clear end product such as Pablo Sarabia, currently in stalled contract negotiations at Sevilla FC and with a release clause of €18 million, or a high quality central midfielder like André-Frank Zambo Anguissa, who newly promoted Fulham acquired from Marseilles, could have really addressed the deficiencies in the starting eleven but Wagner is certainly a dedicated coach and maybe he can help some of his existing players to have more of an impact offensively this season.
In Search of Attacking Identity
There’s a lot to admire about Huddersfield Town; incredible pedigree in the game. They were the first club to win three successive top tier league titles. They’ve been managed by legends such as Bill Shankly and the pioneering Herbert Chapman. They maintain close ties to their community, and have affordable season ticket prices. And that’s all before taking into account recent success in terms of promotion to, and survival in, the Premier League despite their financial constraints relative to their rivals. Wagner, in tandem with the chairman Dean Hoyle, has helped to modernise the club off the pitch and fostered a strong bond within the squad and an identity rooted in fearlessness and self belief. Clearly, survival in the top flight is possible. The problem, apart from the underlying numbers we’ve laid bare which show just how difficult they found it to create chances and quite how good the chances they were conceding were, is that a lot of their competition is likely to be a lot tougher this season. Instead of the dead wood, comprising a combined twenty five years of consecutive Premier League football, that was relegated last season they now face the Portuguese all-stars of Wolves with added football twitter dribbling fave Adama Traore and increasingly smart recruitment from the likes of Fulham and Brighton. If Huddersfield Town can repeat their strong start, this time against Chelsea and Manchester City before a very early proverbial six pointer versus Cardiff City, while bringing more of that identity into the attacking side of their play they might not avoid being in the relegation fight but they just might be able to scrap their way out of it once more.
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