Analysis in the week leading up to Huddersfield’s match against Liverpool in late October centered around the close relationship between managers David Wagner and Jurgen Klopp. Having met over 20 years ago as teammates at Mainz in Germany’s second division, the duo’s professional and personal journey have intertwined through their rise at Dortmund and onto the Premier League stage with Wagner as the best man at Klopp’s wedding. Even if Klopp were the godfather to his daughter, Wagner insisted he would still celebrate if his side scored against Liverpool. But in losing 3-0, he never got the chance.
You could forgive the result against his friend. Wagner and Huddersfield were coming off a historic 2-1 win against Manchester United, their first win against the side in 65 years. The upset displayed the upstarts at their best: full of spirit, running and pressing, with just enough counter attacking quality to make opponents pay for turning the ball over. This was planned ever since Wagner took over a Huddersfield side languishing in 19th place in the Championship in 2015, branding “The Terriers’ Style” to mean aggression, full throttle and emotion. On the United match, Daniel Taylor described their style as “quick to the ball, strong in the challenge and utterly determined.” A worldwide television audience was introduced to the protégé’s variation on his mentor’s heavy metal pressing football and showed how a newly promoted, low budget side with mid-table aspirations could be molded with savvy transfer moves.
The two goalscorers against United - the 27-year-old midfielder Aaron Mooy and 29-year-old striker Laurent Depoitre - each represent club record transfer fees. Depoitre, whom Wagner described as a “worker” who would fit his Terriers identity, was signed for $5 million after an unsuccessful season at Porto. Mooy spent last season on loan with the Terriers in the Championship from Manchester City, and it was as recently as last February when Pep Guardiola hinted at his return the parent side. Instead, he broke another club record when he signed permanently with Huddersfield for $10 million.
Wagner’s transfer chops were honed in the Championship, where he displayed an eye for building a team that achieved results above their budget. He stamped his identity in the 2016 summer transfer window that originally brought in Mooy, adding six players from the top two German divisions for a total of $4 million. To build team spirit, Wagner took the side camping in the Swedish wilderness where they had to rely on each other for survival. The side’s high pressing 4-2-3-1 formation took them to fifth place with a team budget under $16 million before beating Sheffield Wednesday and Reading in penalty shootouts to secure the final promotion spot. Through it all, the one feature that defined Wagner was in his ability to get results from a side that on paper had no business being in the playoffs in the first place.
Even in the top division, Huddersfield continue to play as one would expect from a manager who took over Dortmund’s second team in the third division of German football in the glory years of Klopp's tenure. Upon getting hired at Huddersfield, Wagner referenced Dortmund’s heavy metal football brand as a blueprint for his English side to follow (more recently, he’s been rumored as a potential replacement should his former club fire Peter Bosz). Their initial starting 4-2-3-1 formation features inside forwards cutting in from the wing position and fullbacks in the opposing half to send crosses and maintain defensive pressure once the ball is lost. Perhaps the style is most symbolized by Tom Ince, more a pacy dribbler and striker then fleet footed passer, in the attacking midfield role. Huddersfield play with pace and directness in attack as Mooy provides the tempo in possession.
In preparing for the challenge of the Premier League, Wagner emphasized the importance of having an identity regardless of the results. The traditional strategy for a newly promoted side is to play it safe by adding Premier League tested players who in theory understand the pace and physicality of the top division. Yet the Terriers once again benefitted from Wagner’s ability to find players specific to his uptempo system. Their previous club record signing was center back Christopher Schindler for $2.6 million from second division 1860 Munich in 2016. Including Mooy and Depoitre, they broke their own club record for a player transfer six times in preparation for the Premier League, mixing top players from the Championship with value finds on the continent.
If former Roma and current Inter sporting director Walter Sabatini described Italy as a “second market” just below the level of Neymar-esque big name transfers, then Wagner - and Klopp - have each found success in Germany’s “secret shop” of undervalued and overlooked players from the bottom half of the Bundesliga and its second division. The moves were grounded in the idea that their league style emphasizing physicality and speed would make for an easy transition compared to players from Italy or Spain. Indeed, Wagner lived up to expectations signing four players from Germany’s second division to round out his squad.
Wagner has had his struggles, as any new Premier League side would. Huddersfield currently sit in 16th place, alongside fellow promoted side Newcastle (Brighton, the third team promoted from the Championship, are in 12th). Since the win over United, they’ve lost five out of their last six matches. But adversity was always the expectation in their initial Premier League season. From how much a team need to spend to stay in the Premier League, to questions of whether new sides should sit back and counter or press, Huddersfield have built the foundation both on and off the field. Wagner’s side are an experiment in how far a team can go at the highest level through finding value players who fit a clearly defined style. Whether they stay up or get relegated this season may not be a matter of coaching ability or individual talent, but a limitation of the market.