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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 June 2018

Struggling Huddersfield Town suffering from an identity crisis in the Premier League

Wagner's men love gegenpressing, but they do not have the talent to apply the philosophy - especially against the better teams - nor have they been good defensively

Huddersfield Town, in blue and white, find themselves in trouble - and without an identity. Lee Smith / Reuters
Huddersfield Town, in blue and white, find themselves in trouble - and without an identity. Lee Smith / Reuters

It was a pulsating clash, the sort that can be created by a German manager’s devotion to gegenpressing. Breakneck speed fashioned compelling drama.

It ended in disappointment for Jurgen Klopp, but Liverpool’s 2-2 draw with Tottenham Hotspur was nonetheless an endorsement of an ethos he and Mauricio Pochettino espouse. Rewind a week and there ought to have been another example of what happens when gegenpressers collide.

David Wagner and Klopp have shared both beliefs and key moments in each others’ lives alike. Instead, Huddersfield against Liverpool was tame and one-sided. So, in its own way, was Huddersfield’s Saturday trip to Manchester United.

Both can be explained by the gargantuan gulf in resources. Yet it is also evident that Huddersfield are undergoing an identity crisis. It is understandable, explained by the difficulty of their task, but has shed them of their distinctiveness.

There were indications a blueprint has been ripped up. The five most expensive signings in Town’s history were on the bench at Old Trafford while Wagner, a devotee of 4-2-3-1, again used three centre-backs.

The gameplan has changed. A rethink was required after Huddersfield faced Tottenham in September. They pressed as usual. They faced a team who did it better, and with better players. They were 3-0 down after 23 minutes.

Pressing can be a great leveller, denying more gifted opponents time and space on the ball. Yet it is also a gamble and the inherent risk in committing players forward is increased when the gap in ability is so large. The safer tactic is to keep men behind the ball.

Plan B reaped some dividends. Huddersfield beat Manchester United in October. They ran Manchester City close in November. Yet that victory feels like a glorious anomaly, and not just because Huddersfield played like men possessed.

The key against United was that, while adopting a low block, the pace with which Thomas Ince and Rajiv van la Parra got forward to support striker Laurent Depoitre. It is not something they have managed in the other meetings with the elite.

Take away the games against the Manchester clubs and Huddersfield have one, irrelevant last-minute consolation goal against the top teams. They have neither posed any threat nor come remotely close to keeping a clean sheet.

They have been caught between two schools of thought. They have perfected neither on an eight-game winless run, struggling against the best and the rest alike.

Statistics a couple of weeks ago showed Huddersfield’s players had only covered the 12th most distance in the division. They are no longer defined by their philosophy or their physicality as much as by the sense of struggle.

Perhaps that was inevitable. It is worth considering the context. Huddersfield overachieved hugely to win promotion. They recorded a negative goal difference in the Championship last season.

Huddersfield Town manager David Wagner, right, believes in the concept of gegenpressing. Scott Heppell / Reuters
Huddersfield Town manager David Wagner, right, believes in the concept of gegenpressing. Scott Heppell / Reuters

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They began their summer business with the initial impediment that two of their finest players, Danny Ward and Aaron Mooy, were only on loan and arguably only owning one player of Premier League class, in Christopher Schindler. Even with subsequent spending, they have, man for man, the weakest squad in the division.

Their attempts to be progressive have been hampered by the failings of their supposedly attacking midfielders, none of whom has scored more than one goal. Cautious tactics are a natural response.

But the advantage of a high-pressing, high-tempo game is that it provides the kind of conspicuous commitment that renders it easier for supporters to get behind their side. It helped generate a superb atmosphere.

And somehow, from a wretched run, Huddersfield have to regain the feel-good factor if they are not to become the curiosities one-season wonders often feel.

Three of their last four games are against the top six, plunging them back into a familiar predicament. But only one of the next eight is. It is imperative they beat their peers and, preferably, get a cushion on the bottom three.

If not, perhaps the superclubs who destroyed Wagner’s gegenpressing gameplan will end Huddersfield’s Premier League life.