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Championship

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.

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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.

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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.

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. 

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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

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.

FA Cup

Sheffield Wednesday 0-0 Swansea City – Tammy Abraham didn’t take first-team opportunity

Jake Jackman

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Swansea

Swansea City were held in the FA Cup away to Championship club Sheffield Wednesday. The Swans have been drawn to face lower league opposition in every round of the competition so far and this occasion saw Carlos Carvalhal return to his former club. It was a huge day for him and he will be slightly disappointed by the performance that he witnessed.

Although the Premier League side selected a talented team, it was an even contest and both teams had chances to score. Neither team deserved to go through on this viewing and they will have to meet again at the Liberty Stadium in just over a week’s time.

It will be interesting to see who will await the winners of this tie in the next round and that could dictate whether Swansea take the replay seriously or not. Here are three talking points from Hillsborough:

Tammy Abraham didn’t take his opportunity

It was a frustrating day for Tammy Abraham as he had few chances to impress in the final third and he was taken off midway in the second half. That will be a disappointment for the forward as this was an opportunity to earn more game-time in the Premier League and his contribution on Saturday is unlikely to bring that.

During the match, he failed to have a single attempt on goal, while his pass success was at a poor 58%. The service he received was non-existent as shown in the second half when Luciano Narsingh refused to play the striker in.

Abraham did nice work to release the winger and spin in behind his marker, but the return ball didn’t arrive. The striker was visibly annoyed that the ball wasn’t given back.

Jordan Ayew was the man that replaced Abraham and he offered more when he was on the pitch. He was willing to drop deep to be given possession, while he got two attempts in on goal during his short time on the pitch.

His distribution was more effective, as displayed by his two key passes. The former Aston Villa man is the player that should lead the line for the relegation-threatened club.

Adam Reach stood out in midfield

This has been a season to forget for Sheffield Wednesday as they are a considerable distance off promotion, despite being one of the best Championship teams in recent seasons.

The match against Swansea provided the players with an opportunity to prove they can compete with Premier League opposition and Adam Reach was one of the standout performers.

The 25-year-old showed glimpses of both attacking and defensive quality, which shows he can contribute in both halves of the pitch. He will be the first to admit his final ball could have been better, but he regularly got in positions to cause problems for the away side. During the match, he attempted three shots and completed 86% of his passes.

Meanwhile, he worked hard out of possession and didn’t allow Swansea to dominate the midfield battle. Reach won four tackles and made a further two interceptions. He was relentless in work rate and his energy rubbed off on the rest of the team. The midfielder will be a player to keep an eye on in the replay.

Alfie Mawson had to miss the match through injury

The Swansea City defender was pencilled in to start in the match, but he was injured in the warm up and had to be replaced in the starting eleven by Kyle Naughton.

This was a major blow for the team as Mawson is a born leader at the back and offers composure to the back-line. He was later pictured wearing a knee brace and holding crutches, in what was a worrying sight.

The last thing Swansea need is a serious injury, especially to one of the team’s most important players. Towards the end of the game, the cameras showed that he was moving his leg more freely, but it is a concern nonetheless.

Naughton came in and did well, with one excellent challenge saving a goal in the first-half. The entire Swansea defence played well, with Kyle Bartley standing out as a Premier League centre-half.

The former Leeds United loanee won five aerial duels and made four ball recoveries. He could be required to step up if Mawson has to miss some of the run-in.

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Chelsea

Chelsea 4-0 Hull City – Willian plays himself into Champions League contention

Jake Jackman

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Chelsea

Chelsea continued their upturn in form with a convincing 4-0 win over Hull City in the FA Cup. The Blues were overwhelming favourites for the tie, but they had to get the job done and they did so effectively, scoring four times in the first-half.

They would have had one eye on the Champions League tie against Barcelona that is upcoming and that led to Antonio Conte making several changes.

The Italian decided to rest key players such as Eden Hazard, Ngolo Kante and Cesar Azpilicueta. It was the right decision as they progressed with comfort. Here are three talking points from the match:

Olivier Giroud is off the mark

One huge positive to come out of the game for the hosts was Olivier Giroud’s first goal for the club. He signed in January to provide competition for Alvaro Morata and his performances have been encouraging since signing, but to hit the back of the net takes the pressure off the Frenchman.

The signing carried relatively little risk for Chelsea as the striker has lots of experience in England and his consistency is already shining through in a Blues’ shirt.

Early into the game, he had a great opportunity to open his account, but he blazed a volley over the bar. It was a difficult chance as the ball was lifted over the defence to play him in, but a striker of his calibre should have done better.

Three goals were scored and he didn’t score one of them. If he had finished the match without scoring, it would have been talked about and that is why his goal just before half-time will relieve the pressure from him.

The rest of his game was excellent as he got two assists and linked up the play well from the front-line. Although he was brought in to be the back-up striker, Conte may give him the start against Barcelona as he is the player in form.

Hull City showed fight in the second half

The contest was over by the time the players stepped back out for the second-half, but Hull City showed fight and commitment to keep the score down to 4-0.

Nigel Adkins knows the importance of every mental victory when battling against relegation and to draw the second half can provide the players with confidence ahead of a return to league action.

Their performance was markedly improved as they created good opportunities and came close to scoring from the penalty spot. David Meyler stepped up and saw his penalty saved, but that didn’t see the players lose focus as they continued to create opportunities. During the match, they had 10 shots to Chelsea’s 14, which shows that they were far from embarrassed. They just didn’t have the quality in the final third that their Premier League opposition did possess.

It would be a huge blow for Hull City to suffer back-to-back relegations and their manager will be aware of that. This match against Chelsea was a good occasion, but it was far from a priority and their defeat won’t live too long in the memory.

They are currently 21st in the Championship and only above the bottom three by one point. Their far superior goal difference provides encouragement, but they must show this level of commitment until the end of the season if they are to avoid the drop.

Willian proved his quality before the return of the Champions League

Rotation can cause problems in the FA Cup, but in this case, it provided an opportunity to those that are on the fringes of the first-team to play themselves into contention for the Champions League.

Willian is an interesting case as he does feature prominently, but he isn’t a guaranteed first-team starter, as Pedro often gets the nod to start ahead of him.

Willian was excellent against Hull City and certainly gave his manager some food for thought ahead of the match with Barcelona. He completed six dribbles, attempted four shots and made three key passes as he terrorised the opposition defence. On the day, he scored twice, but he easily could have got a hat-trick.

Antonio Conte will be aware that his team’s big weakness is an over-reliance on Eden Hazard. The return of Cesc Fabregas goes some way to providing some support to the Belgian, but if Chelsea can get Willian playing to this level consistently, that would be a positive. He is more dynamic than Pedro and offers more flair to the attack. This performance could see him start against Barcelona.

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Nottingham Forest

Nottingham Forest must give Aitor Karanka time to succeed

Nottingham Forest must give Aitor Karanka time if he is to achieve success at Nottingham Forest, writes Greg Whitaker.

Greg Whitaker

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Aitor Karanka
Photo: Reuters

The Championship is awash with British footballing institutions this season.

Leeds United, Derby County, Sheffield Wednesday and Wolves have all been Champions of England in their time, while Aston Villa have won nearly everything there is to win in the game, including the European Cup in 1982.

Yet, it is Nottingham Forest that hold one of the most unique records in football history, as the only British side to win back-to-back European Cups.

However, two decades of instability on the pitch, in the dugout and in the boardroom have frustrated the Forest faithful.

Twenty years since the Reds last graced the top flight, nights of European glory under Brian Clough and Peter Taylor seem an eternity away.

If new manager Aitor Karanka is to bring the good times back to the City Ground, Forest must break with the bad habits and mismanagement that have plagued the club in recent years and back their man – both with time and the investment needed to wake this sleeping giant.

Since taking the hot-seat at the start of the year, Karanka has not enjoyed the best of starts.

With just one win and five defeats making up his first six league games in charge, one could be forgiven for suggesting the Spaniard is already under pressure.

After all, Karanka is the 13th manager in just ten years to take the reigns at the City Ground. But paradoxically, this is exactly why the former Real Madrid man must be given time.

Indeed, it would certainly be fair to suggest that the painfully inconsistent nature of Forest’s league form over the past decade or so comes as a direct result of their trigger happy mentality when it comes to their manager, paired with their scattergun approach to appointing a successor.

In the last four years alone, Karanka represents the seventh man tasked with kick-staring the Tricky Trees.

What is more concerning is the blindingly obvious lack of consistency in these appointments. Never has a list of seven managers contrasted so much.

From Billy Davies to Philippe Montanier, Stuart Pearce to Mark Warburton, each manager has come with radically different ideas, approaches and management styles.

As Forest legend Garry Birtles was quoted as saying in the local media last month, Consistency breeds consistency but the same is true of inconsistency.’

Although it could be argued that the appointment of the pragmatic, Jose Mourinho-esque, Karanka, immediately after the very English style of management offered by Mark Warburton, smacks of no joined-up thinking at board level once again, the appointment was welcomed by fans.

Whilst he has garnered a bit of a reputation for his short temper, the former defender has a good record in the Championship, leading Middlesbrough to the Premier League in 2016.

Of the 13 managers to take to the Forest dugout over the past decade, Karanka is certainly one of the more exciting prospects and warrants the time needed to put his own stamp on this Forest side.

Despite a poor start, the Spaniard must now work with the ragtag squad of players he has inherited and ensure Forest are still a Championship club come May, before rebuilding in his own image next summer.

After all, the squad undoubtedly possesses a good deal of ability and potential, with a number of exciting young prospects also making their way into the first team fold.

However, much of this ability is raw or inconsistent.

Karanka’s first job is surely to inject much needed confidence and organisation into this group of players.

During his time at the Riverside, Karanka managed to turn an underachieving Boro team –  who were arguably in a similar state to that of the current Forest side – into promotion winners.

He did this through implementing his own pragmatic approach – making his side defensively very well-drilled and difficult to break down.

Although this style, labelled as negative by some, proved not as successful when applied in Middlesbrough’s single season in the Premier League, this meticulous focus on preventing the opposition from playing their natural game often pays dividends in the rough and tumble of the Championship.

What is certain is that Karanka views Forest as a project.

He has shown in recent interviews and press conferences that he understands and respects the rich and prestigious history of the club.

However, he has also indicated that he is under no illusions that making Forest a true force again will require time and, in the long term, large investment in his squad.

What it all comes down to now is simple.

After five chaotic years under the ownership of Fawaz Al Hasawi, will new owner Evangelos Marinakis show Aitor Karanka the patience and investment needed to revitalise one of England’s biggest footballing institutions?

After all, in the words of Nottingham Forest’s greatest ever manager, Brian Clough: ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day … but I wasn’t on that particular job.’

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