Town’s 2-1 victory over Manchester United on a blustery Saturday afternoon will live long in the memory of all Town fans. However, it was more than just a much-needed win in incredible circumstances.
Whilst most of the attention will be on a lacklustre Manchester United performance, my focus will remain firmly on Huddersfield Town and David Wagner.
The game became a showcase that David Wagner can compete tactically with some of the very best managers, not only in the Premier League, but in elite football.
Whilst Town’s victory today was a showcase of David Wagner’s managerial ability, Town’s last home game led to a number of questions being asked.
Mauricio Pocchettino demonstrated the limitations of Wagner’s system and philosophy in their rawest form and took advantage of them in what became a formality after only twenty-three minutes played.
One of the questions which was being asked was about Wagner’s stubborn adherence to his philosophy regardless of the opposition and if he would be capable of adapting.
This was compounded by Gary Neville who described Town’s performance as a naïve one when analysing the gaps between the lines which were left by aggressive pressing. The space was brutally exploited by Spurs’ precise counter-attacking.
For many pundits and fans alike, a repeat performance was expected with most predictions suggesting Manchester United’s vast attacking quality would simply overwhelm an imbalanced Huddersfield side.
However, from the first minute, it was clear that this would not be the case and Wagner had learned from the brutal lessons that Tottenham Hotspur had taught Town.
The formation tweak
From Wagner’s first game in charge of Town, the enigmatic German head coach has religiously stuck to the 4-2-3-1 formation (with the exception of the odd experiment with the traditionalist 4-4-2 formation and innovators method of choice, the 3-4-2-1).
Yesterday, David Wagner set up his side in a flatter 4-1-4-1 system. Whilst it may seem like a minor tactical tweak, it meant that Wagner did not have to fit square pegs in round holes.
It allowed Tom Ince to return to the wing and the introduction of a midfield trio of Aaron Mooy, Jonathan Hogg and Danny Williams in the centre of the park.
This midfield trio played a crucial role in not allowing Manchester United get into a rhythm or making inroads into Town’s final third. The midfield had the guile and raw aggression to win the midfield battle.
It was the absence of a number 10 which meant that Aaron Mooy had more of a free role to move forwards on occasions and play in that role when in possession but also drop deep and offer added security when needed.
Significantly, out of possession, the formation tweak meant that Town could set up as a compact 4-5-1. This was a major difference from the previous home game against Tottenham Hotspur as there were virtually no gaps in between the lines for Manchester United to exploit.
Instead of trying to play through a crowded middle third, the onus was placed on Manchester United’s full-backs Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young to create Manchester United’s chances which by and large, they were unable to do.
Although the formation change did prove to be a moment of genius by Wagner, the success on the pitch was down to an excellent collective performance by the entire side.
A disciplined collective performance
In a game of that magnitude against opposition of that calibre, the application on the pitch was always going to make the difference.
Against Spurs, Town started brightly and looked to be in the contest until individual mistakes and rash decision-making took the game away from Town.
Yesterday, Town demonstrated that whilst they may not have Premier League experience, they are learning very quickly about what it takes to be successful in the Premier League.
One of the key personality traits of a successful Premier League side is discipline and Town showed that, despite two bookings within the first ten minutes of the match.
At times, it was clear to see that there was an eagerness to press against a Manchester United side that held 78% of possession but Town kept their discipline and held their shape well.
Town did press but only in the right areas and as a disciplined collective unit. It was this discipline as Town naturally sat deeper which allowed them, when in possession, to transition through the phases and hurt Manchester United on the counter-attack, leading to the first goal.
The Early substitution
Whilst Elias Kachunga may have come off due to a knock, there was certainly a tactical feel about Wagner’s decision to make the substitution in the 39th minute.
Prior to the substitution, Manchester United’s biggest threat was their left-back, Ashley Young. On two occasions, he had got the better of Kachunga and it seemed that if Manchester United were going to make a breakthrough, it was going to come through the left back.
In a game where fine margins make all the difference, the threat that Ashley Young posed was quelled by the arrival of Rajiv van La Parra.
The Dutch winger has had his critics in recent weeks, however, he put in an outstanding performance as another one of Wagner’s masterstrokes.
It was van La Parra’s threat to take on his man and drive Town up the field which quelled the threat that Ashley Young had posed Town in the early stages.
This substitution not only provided further discipline but it was also a showcase of Wagner’s managerial ability to act in an effective pre-emptive manner when having to deal with real-time problems on the field.
After such an excellent performance, David Wagner has now set a benchmark and a high standard for himself and the squad to attempt to replicate. It’s yet to be seen if Wagner will persist with this formation once the likes of Kasey Palmer return to full fitness but it does look to be a good system for Town to use when they are likely to be starved of possession, particularly away from home.