Huddersfield Town were having a fairy tale season before defeating Reading on penalties to win promotion to the Premier League. They had finished near the bottom of the Championship last season and had one of the lower payrolls in the division. They gambled on hiring a first-time manager who had never worked outside of Germany. Now the Terriers are celebrating their first promotion to the top flight since 1972 and they did it by going against the narrative.
As anyone who has watched any Championship football knows, the Terriers adopted an attacking, pressing style of football. David Wagner adopted some of the same tactical traits as his best friend Jurgen Klopp including a frenetic, high-energy from his players. This season this led to a large number of one-goal victories for Huddersfield but also a -2 goal difference as the Terriers were open to giving up goals, especially with a thin roster.
Yet the club with such exciting, high-energy play actually won promotion in quite a dull way. They scored one goal in three matches, won both playoff rounds on penalties, and played better defensively than a club that had been playing their style would’ve been expected to. Why is this?
It comes back to the idea I wrote about two weeks back – managers have an incredible survival instinct. They want to win but they also want to keep their jobs. When managers are described as pragmatic, it usually means he or she is old fashioned in their tactics. Rather than try and implement a more skilled style of play, generally speaking their teams play a defensive shape that utilise set piece opportunities to nick points. Managers can be pragmatic in their implementation of tactics however, and this receives less attention.
The Terriers were the better side in their match against Reading and it shows in the statistics. Reading like to play a possession game and yet only held the ball 52% of the time. Huddersfield had the two best chances within ten minutes of kick-off and maintained an advantage in shots on target and corners. While they pressed sometimes, for majority of the match they allowed Reading to have possession and carry the ball over the halfway line before challenging their possession. Mooy in midfield was particularly lauded by pundits and the manager after the match and rightfully so for his steady play.
But what if the Terriers had played more aggressively in this match? A higher press throughout would have allowed the Royals midfield to pick apart a more widely spread opponent and players like Danny Williams (who was excellent) would have been able to play more incisive passes. As it was, there real opportunities were limited by a more pragmatic opponent.
I had some questions heading into the playoffs about whether David Wagner could adjust to winning not just moral victories but actual victories when it mattered. He had a chance for significant victories in the FA Cup but didn’t land them, and failed to grab a top two spot in the Championship. His conservative, smart game plan over both rounds shows a pragmatic streak that will play well in the Premier League either for Huddersfield or another club.