On the surface Huddersfield Town and Borussia Dortmund don’t have a whole lot in common. Despite the deceptively similar names there is a huge gulf in class between the Championship and the Champions League, Nakhi Wells, while pacey, doesn’t quite have the explosiveness of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, and the atmosphere at the John Smith’s Stadium, although occasionally lively, can’t compete with the ferocity of the yellow wall.
Yet pre-2008, before a tracksuited messiah named Jürgen Klopp arrived in Ruhr, you could have made a comparison. These were two sides with their glory days firmly in the past (a long way in the past in Huddersfield’s case), who had been struggling mightily since the turn of the century, Huddersfield anonymously bouncing around the lower divisions and Dortmund plagued by financial problems.
However Klopp’s arrival sparked a revolution at Dortmund, and now Huddersfield have their own shabbily dressed saviour, David Wagner. A man well versed in the ways of gegenpressing having worked closely with Klopp as manager of Borussia Dortmund II from 2011 to 2015, overseeing the club’s fabled youth academy and the progress of the likes of Erik Durm and Jonas Hoffman into the first team.
The Wagner revolution actually began back in November when he replaced Chris Powell. The German manager watched a game from the stands, a 3-0 derby defeat to Leeds, before taking over, and was surprised to see the team struggling with fatigue so early into the game. As a result double training sessions were introduced while opposition analysis became a bigger focus. The change in culture soon yielded positive results, as the Huddersfield players quickly and happily adjusted to the gegenpressing approach. The Terriers picked up some impressive scalps as a result, routing Leeds 4-1 in the return fixture at Elland Road, and ending the team I support, Nottingham Forest’s, unbeaten run at 13 games with a 2-0 victory at the City Ground. The then 19 year old midfielder Phillip Billing sealed the win that day with an arrowed shot from 30 yards out, his emergence under Wagner was a particularly bright moment last term. As was the form of Nakhi Wells, who netted 18 times and won the club’s player of the season award, something he credits to Wagner who he describes as ‘revitalising my career’.
Yet despite all that positivity Town still had a fairly poor season, finishing a disappointing 19th in the Championship (their worst position since 2013). The adoption of a gegenpressing system may be scintillating when successful but it often failed them last term. Championship defenders, long asked to contribute almost nothing to the offensive side of the game didn’t seem comfortable with the multifaceted, ball-playing approach, and were often caught out of position. Heavy defeats to likes of Bristol City and Brentford were testament to that fact.
Wagner has gone some way to addressing those weaknesses in the transfer market, recruiting twelve players so far this summer. That leaky defence has been largely scrapped, with a new, German engineered backline poised to take over. The centrepiece of this imported defence is Town’s record transfer Christopher Schinder, signed for £1.8 million from 1860 München – a club that counts Julian Weigl, Kevin Volland and the Bender brothers among it’s recent alumni. Schindler was the club captain in Bavaria and a model of consistency, disciplined and excellent on the ball. Joining him at the heart of defence is Jon Gorenc-Stankovic, signed from Dortmund’s second team, another young and composed centre back. An issue for Huddersfield last season was their inability to transition from defence to attack, these two should rectify that, they are as good as anyone at this level at launching those Bonucci-esque balls into the final third. Also arriving from Germany to bolster the defence is Michael Hefele who will compete for the centre-back positions, and left-back Chris Löwe, another ex-Dortmund player.
Town also have a couple of new and exciting additions in the heart of midfield as they continue to exploit the foreign market. Aaron Mooy arrives from Melbourne via Manchester, the Aussie box to box midfielder broke the record for assists in the A League and should improve the Terriers’ poor set piece delivery. Deep-lying playmaker Ivan Paurevic arrives from Russia after a couple of excellent seasons for FC Ufa. Additionally a cluster of interesting and exciting young players should infuse the attacking line up. The diminutive Jack Payne arrives from Southend, who sparkled for the Shrimpers last term and his goal against Sheffield United, where he dinked the ball over the keeper Griezmann-style, remains one of my favourites.
It is shaping up to be a very competitive Championship season. Two of England’s bigger sides Aston Villa and Newcastle United are now in the division, and both have spent big this summer in the hope of an immediate return to the Premier League. QPR, Fulham and Leeds United have all spent well and will be a threat and a collection of clubs could be potential dark horses. However much like Dortmund emerged from the depths to challenge Bayern’s Bundesliga monopoly, it is not unthinkable to imagine Huddersfield doing the same this season and launching their own promotion bid .