May 8, 2016
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Is Huddersfield Town’s new German connection a help or a hindrance?

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When Dean Hoyle hired David Wagner to replace Chris Powell as Huddersfield Town’s head coach back in November of 2015, he outlined two objectives for the former Borussia Dortmund II man to work towards.

First and foremost, Wagner was tasked with importing a style of high energy play commonly known as gegenpressing from the banks of the industrial Ruhr to the valleys of post-industrial West Yorkshire. The decision to impose such a footballing identity on the club was, in hindsight, a no-brainer. Ever since the Terriers won promotion to the Championship in 2012, attendances at the John Smith’s Stadium had been in a state of continual decline, and it didn’t exactly take a genius to identify the main culprit.

For all their success in keeping Huddersfield in the division, Simon Grayson, Mark Robins, and Chris Powell largely set their teams up to play reactive and, well, unattractive football. Hoyle’s appointment of the attack-minded Wagner was as much about getting bums back on seats as it was about establishing a coherent club philosophy.

The latter was, of course, another goal the board had in mind when they opted for Wagner. From the summer of 2012, when Ross Wilson was appointed to the new post of Head of Football Operations, the club had been moving towards a more continental corporate structure, in the hope that continuity off the pitch would lead to steady progression on it. The fact that Wagner is referred to in all official club communications as the ‘Head Coach’, rather than the ‘Manager’, arguably signifies the next step in this cultural evolution.

The whole point of that evolution – now dubbed ‘the Wagner revolution’ – is to beat the system at the margins. In other words, to offset the financial advantages enjoyed by other clubs in the league. As Hoyle told the Huddersfield Daily Examiner after appointing the new boss, “treading water in the Championship is not enough for Huddersfield Town.” That was Wagner’s second task: to intelligently utilise the resources at his disposal – scouting and recruitment networks, sporting analytics, the integrated Canalside training complex, the Category II academy – to help the club punch above its weight.

This is all well and good, but the problem with this approach is that it still requires quality players to work. Even with a successful development squad and the best coaching staff in the world, the Championship is an unforgiving place, and though gegenpressing is a lot of things, it isn’t magic. Over time, it might turn a group of average individuals into an effective unit, but it still requires physical, technically gifted, quick-thinking players. Of course, we all know that those don’t come cheap.

The going-rate for a proven Championship striker, for instance, is somewhere in the region of £9,000,000 (Andre Gray, Brentford > Burnley FC for £9,300,000; Jordan Rhodes, Blackburn Rovers > Middlesbrough for £8,930,000; Ross McCormack, Leeds Utd > Fulham for £8,870,000), whilst a good midfielder will set you back around £5,000,000 (Jacob Butterfield, Huddersfield Town > Derby County for £4,130,000; Bradley Johnson, Norwich City > Derby County for £6,080,000; Stewart Downing, West Ham > Middlesbrough for £5,930,000). Even decent defenders fetch £3,000,000 nowadays (James Tarkowski, Brentford > Burnley FC for £3,000,000; Jason Shackell, Burnley FC > Derby County for £3,150,000; Moses Odubajo, Brentford FC > Hull City for £3,500,000), and the situation in League 1 isn’t much better (Massimo Luongo, Swindon Town > QPR for £3,210,000; Conor Washington, Peterborough Utd > QPR for £2,480,000; Jamie Murphy, Sheffield Utd > Brighton for £1,580,000).

When you consider the fact that Huddersfield’s record signing, Nahki Wells, was purchased from Bradford City for the paltry sum of £1,350,000, the scale of the difficulties facing Hoyle and Wagner become plainly evident. As Town’s new head of football operations, Stuart Webber, informed Gareth Jones on Radio Leeds in February, there’s simply no value left in the English transfer market. Webber went on to suggest that as a result, the club would be looking to bring in players from abroad, particularly Germany and Central Europe. Naturally, that got some fans wondering aloud whether Wagner’s knowledge and experience of German football might give the Terriers an extra edge over their rivals.

So, is it possible? Can Wagner’s German connections help the club compete with the big boys without having to break the bank?

The definitive answer to that question lies somewhere in the future, but in the meantime, there are three criteria by which we can make an educated guess.

First, we can look at Wagner’s dealings in the transfer market this season. Now, that might strike some as being a little unfair since he’s not been in the job for long. Players such as Jed Steer (loan), Jamie Paterson (loan), Emyr Huws (loan), Jason Davidson, and Dean Whitehead were brought in during Powell’s tenure, while Wagner-era recruits such as Elvis Manu (loan, since returned), Ben Chilwell (youth loan, since returned), James Husband (loan, since returned), and Rajiv van La Parra (loan, with option to buy) don’t really fit the bill when it comes to the query at hand.

Karim Matmour however, is a different story. Signed as a free agent during the January transfer window, the French-born Algerian international provides a textbook example of the German connection in action. Having played most of his professional career in the Bundesliga and 2. Bundesliga for SC Freiburg, Borussia Mönchengladbach,
Eintracht Frankfurt, and 1. FC Kaiserslautern, the attacking midfielder piqued Wagner’s interest a few years ago. For his part, Matmour
made it clear that the Wagner factor was a key part of his decision to move to West Yorkshire, telling HTTV that the bearded one was “a good coach” and “famous in Germany.”

So, I think we can say with some certainty that it’s doubtful the Algerian would have made his way to England if Wagner had decided to stay in Dortmund, especially since he’d been plying his trade at Kuwaiti side Al-Arabi SC up until October 2015.

In truth, initial reactions to Matmour were mixed. Although he offered glimpses of quality in his first outings in blue and white, he struggled to make any kind of meaningful impact on games or fans. In recent weeks, though, as his fitness has returned, Matmour has looked more and more like the player Wagner waxed lyrical about in January, showing a deftness of touch and ability to create and utilise space that screams experience! A goal against arch-rivals Leeds in March hasn’t done him any harm with the Town faithful, and he was the only player to emerge with any credit from the 4-0 defeat at Bristol City on 30th April. For various reasons – some footballing, some not – it’s unclear whether the club will take the option to extend Matmour’s contract until the end of next season, but whatever happens, it’s fair to say that he’s been a cheap and effective addition to the squad.

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Second, then, we can look at Wagner’s dealings in the transfer market for next season. It might come as a surprise to Town fans who are accustomed to biting their nails on deadline day, but the board and management team have displayed an admirable – it’s tempting to say ‘Teutonic’ – efficiency in getting things wrapped up nice and early.

Wagner’s first major summer signing was revealed on 6th April, with the announcement that Kaiserslautern’s 26-year-old left-back Chris Löwe had signed a pre-contract deal. A number of high profile clubs in the German second-tier were thought to be in the running for Löwe’s signature, so for a club like Huddersfield to come out on top is something of a coup. In fact, Wagner’s gone as far as to suggest that capturing a player of Löwe’s quality is a real statement of intent for the club going forward.

More than that, it addresses a real need. Town’s only senior left-back, Jason Davidson, has struggled to adapt to the rigours of the English game and has been found wanting on more than one occasion. It is not a given, but Löwe’s physical attributes – namely pace, strength, natural fitness – in combination with his experience, leadership abilities, and mental agility, are likely to shore-up Huddersfield’s problematic left-side, both in defence and attack. 

In Michael Hefele, Löwe will have a sympathetic audience once he realises just how rain-sodden the Pennines really are. Another player to be signed on a pre-contract deal, the 6ft 4in centre-back will join Huddersfield from 3. Liga club Dynamo Dresden on 1st July. Some fans have questioned whether a 25-year-old from the German third division is ready to make the leap to Championship football, but there’s good reason to suggest that these doubts are unfounded. First off, Wagner’s been following Hefele’s career for a long time and believes that his style of play – physical and ball-playing – will “suit the…Championship perfectly.” Besides, it is not as though he’s been playing for mid-table cloggers, for he captained Dresden to the title with two games to spare, scoring six goals in the process.

The key point to stress here is that both players – one with experience at a similar level and another with potential – have been brought in under the radar and for relatively little cost up front. Risks and ‘unknown unknowns’ aside,
that’s an improvement on the usual state affairs in the Football League, which usually involves a protracted and very public bidding war, forcing clubs to pay over the odds or pull out altogether.

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This brings us to our third and final benchmark: Wagner’s working relationship with Liverpool manager Jürgen
Klopp. A considerable amount of ink has been spilled over that particular subject – Wagner and Klopp playing together at Mainz, Wagner managing Dortmund II while Klopp led the first team to glory, Wagner performing best man duties at Klopp’s wedding and vice-versa – but for our purposes, we only need to know what impact their comradeship might have on Huddersfield Town. 

Wagner himself has made no secret of the fact that he’s willing to make use of his friendship with Klopp, and as things stand, it looks like Danny Ward, the 22-year-old keeper who started for the Reds against Swansea on 1st May, is on the verge of swapping Anfield for the John Smith’s on a season long loan. If the deal goes through, it would be a shrewd signing for both parties, giving Town the opportunity to fill their number one jersey with a highly-rated young talent on the cheap, whilst also allowing Klopp to better gauge Ward’s long-term prospects. Given the similar playing styles of both coaches, further such deals may prove to be mutually beneficial, as long as they’re limited in number.

That’s all the good stuff; what about the possible downsides?

The most obvious pitfall awaiting any foreign manager abroad is that they become over-reliant on their native marketplace, importing a bevy of average, unproven players, diluting the unique character of the club and upsetting the established hierarchy. Luckily, I don’t think there’s much danger of that happening under Wagner. He has made it clear that he wants to maintain a British core, promising to replace first-team coach Mike Marsh with an Englishman when he leaves at the end of the season, and rewarding skipper Mark Hudson with a new three-year contract. There’s also concern that adventures in foreign markets will halt the progression of home-grown academy prospects. Again, I don’t think there’s much to worry about on that front. Indeed, compared to his immediate predecessors, Wagner has been far more willing to use youth players, allowing the likes of Joe Lolley and Philip Billing to cement their place in the starting eleven.

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Ultimately, we will have to wait and see whether Huddersfield Town’s new German connection pays off, but early signs are encouraging and should give Terriers fans cause to be cautiously optimistic. On the whole, Wagner’s forays into the German market have been well-timed, cost-effective, and born of necessity. Viewed in light of the exciting style of football that Wagner has brought to the club, an improving atmosphere due to the South Stand initiative, and a season ticket offer for 2016-2017 that’s the envy of other fans, that can only be a good thing.


Featured Image: All rights reserved by Robbie Jay Barratt

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James Chisem is a Huddersfield Town fan and a keen advocate of supporter involvement in decision-making at club and league level. He is also an editor and writer for the foreign policy analysis website Atlantic Bulletin.

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