Newly-promoted Huddersfield Town played their first home game ever in the Premier League last Saturday at the John Smith’s Stadium. For such a momentous occasion their one-nil victory over Newcastle was the perfect result. David Wagner’s game plan, while not as spectacular as the occasion might have demanded, was effective in securing a morale-boosting win.
The pressing game that has become a feature of Huddersfield’s tactics under the tutelage of their German coach was evident from the start of the match. It was a high intensity affair with the Terriers constantly pressing Newcastle high up the field in their own half. The results were encouraging as they were able to regularly win back possession, keeping Newcastle on the defensive for most of the first half.
When building play from their defensive third, however, Huddersfield took a very cautious approach in contrast to the frenetic pace of their pressing. Aaron Mooy, who had a fantastic game, would come back into defence along with his midfield teammates, to assist the defenders in playing out from the back.
With more players coming deep, the attacks moved at a slower rate, with fewer Huddersfield players available higher up the pitch to receive passes. The primary objective of this strategy was to assist the defenders in retaining possession during the critical initial stages of build up.
Whenever the passing encountered resistance from Newcastle, Huddersfield did not hesitate to shift the ball backwards, before restarting their probing.
Wagner’s strategy may not have been as exciting as the atmosphere in the stands but it accomplished its objectives, as both the high pressing and the careful build-up play kept Newcastle away from the Huddersfield goal for most of the first half.
Perhaps the most important revelation of the game was how important midfielder Aaron Mooy will be in the execution of Wagner’s tactics, particularly at this higher level of competition at which Huddersfield now find themselves. Mooy put in a sterling performance in both attack and defence, never straying far from the play.
He was the key component in Huddersfield’s build-ups from the defensive third, coming deep to assist the defenders and distribute the ball from the back. In attack he would be found high up the pitch, lending his intelligence and superior passing to the combination play.
Mooy’s presence all over the field was vital in maintaining the coherence of Huddersfield’s attacks with his efficient ball distribution. In the end he proved that he can do more than just support the attackers, scoring the game’s only goal early in the second half. It was a spectacular shot from the edge of the box preceded by a one-two with Elias Kachunga.
The 26-year-old’s vital role in the team, which was plainly evident on the weekend, raises the question of whether or not the Terriers can produce similarly successful team performances without him. He was critical in defence, attack and set pieces and for the moment it would appear that there is no one in the side to match his all-round prowess. This may become an issue as the season progresses.
Mooy’s goal early in the second half spurred Newcastle into life and Rafa Benitez’ men made more progress attacking the Huddersfield goal. However, they were unable to convert their opportunities as Huddersfield were forced to change their strategy and defend deep.
Huddersfield showed that they are a versatile team, able to defend high or in a low block and switch from high paced attacks – for which they have become well known – to a more cautious style.
Despite this laudable adaptability to circumstances, it was still clear that Huddersfield are not at the same level as the more established teams in the league. While they defended high and enjoyed more of the ball than their opponents, particularly in the first half, they were still unable to produce many clear-cut chances on goal and Newcastle were able to contain their attackers with relative ease.
In the second half Huddersfield were obviously in an intense struggle to keep their fellow newly-promoted team at bay, with Newcastle getting into dangerous positions and creating more opportunities. David Wagner’s tactics paid off against the Magpies and they were able to take advantage of one of the few chances that were hard to come by, while keeping a clean sheet.
Nonetheless, Wagner will be well aware that his team’s two victories from their first two Premier League games have come from Crystal Palace and Newcastle, both of whom may be considered as low-level opposition in the Premier League.
Huddersfield will have to not only maintain the intensity and tactical flexibility they demonstrated against Newcastle, but improve upon it, if they are to get something from their games against better opposition.
They will also be hoping that Aaron Mooy maintains his fitness and is able to feature throughout the season. His superior talent in both attack and defence is critical to the success of any strategy they choose to employ in the games to come.
Many Huddersfield and neutral fans may have the urge to start drawing comparisons with Leicester City’s successful Premier League title run two seasons ago. However, while Leicester’s tactics were unstoppable for many opponents, both weak and strong, Huddersfield have shown more vulnerability than the Foxes, even though Wagner’s tactics have been spot on so far.
Huddersfield may have an outstanding player in the form of Aaron Mooy, but Leicester’s title-winning team had more talent in the form of Jamie Vardy, Riyad Mahrez, N’Golo Kante, as well as several others, who were outstanding in their various roles.
At the moment Huddersfield Town should be congratulating themselves without getting too carried away.
David Wagner’s tactical mix of caution, aggression and flexibility did the job against Newcastle, but he will need more of this kind of adaptability to his opposition for the entirety of the season.
His players must also maintain the same intensity and discipline for every game if they are to survive their first year in the Premier League against more established teams.