Bold Huddersfield show up Mourinho’s title pretensions
Ambitious Yorkshire side exploit slow United with combativeness and planning
Aaron Mooy scores Huddersfield’s first against Manchester United. Photograph: Matthew Lewis/Getty Images
This was only one match but it supplied further evidence to support two convictions. Firstly, Huddersfield Town are a good bet to remain in the Premier League under David Wagner. Secondly, Manchester United are a long shot to win the Premier League this season under José Mourinho.
Huddersfield’s rise from 18th in the Championship – the position they were in when Wagner was appointed less than two years ago – has been encapsulated in a two-word hashtag often used by the club and their fans and inspired by the manager’s rousing discourse: #NoLimits. Mourinho’s approach, by contrast, imposes limits on United. That has been clear on their travels this season, most blatantly at Anfield last week; and when challenged to go beyond those limits at Huddersfield, they fell short.
Under Wagner, Huddersfield have recruited smartly and played with intelligence, boldness and verve. Every player knows what he is expected to do and does it with gusto. With brio, too, in the case of many, especially the midfield conductor Aaron Mooy and the quietly commanding centre back Christopher Schindler.
There are several more vaunted clubs who do not emit such powerful sense of purpose and are below Huddersfield. Indeed, the biggest risk to the team’s survival this season may be the fact their success could lead others to try to entice Wagner away. But the German has already turned down offers since arriving in Yorkshire, including from Aston Villa and Wolfsburg, and one gets the sense it would take something exceptional to lure him from a club where everyone, from the chairman to the players, is on his wavelength. That is Huddersfield’s strength and it has fuelled a marvellous odyssey that reached its highest point with this deserved victory over United.
“I have no problems to work on the extraordinary but we should not take for granted extraordinary performances,” said Wagner. “There are three things why we have had this little bit of success: ambition, realistic expectations and great togetherness. If we change one of these things, we start to struggle as a football club. That’s why we have to make sure we keep these three things right, which are our Terriers’ identity.”
The Spurs lesson
Three weeks ago Tottenham Hotspur visited the John Smith’s Stadium and became the first team to dismantle Huddersfield this season, inflicting a 4-0 defeat, albeit with the aid of uncharacteristic mistakes by the hosts. Afterwards the home team paid tribute to the wit and deftness of Mauricio Pochettino’s men.
“They’re very sharp in the way they think,” Mooy said. “Their movement is very, very good and makes it very difficult for you to win the ball.” But Huddersfield also vowed to learn from that. Their first goal against United showed proof of their progression, as Mooy won the ball off Juan Mata in midfield before feeding Tom Ince, whose shot was saved by David de Gea. It rebounded to Mooy, who finished emphatically.
United could not find the cutting wit that Spurs had shown. That was partly because the Terriers suffocated them. But it was also because Mourinho’s approach, especially in away matches, is not so much about outwitting opponents but about getting them in a headlock and wearing them down. That worked at Swansea, who collapsed in the last 10 minutes to lose 4-0. But United were fortunate to squeak past Southampton at St Mary’s and settled for draws at Stoke and Liverpool.
Huddersfield were determined it would not work here. They knew the absence of players such as Paul Pogba, Marouane Fellaini, Eric Bailly and Zlatan Ibrahimovic stripped Mourinho of much of the power and height he cherishes. The first-half injury to Phil Jones deprived them of more – and Victor Lindelof proved an inadequate replacement, his weakness in the air allowing Laurent Depoitre to score a second goal for the home side.
“They are a very, very strong team but they were missing a couple of their very big guys, Pogba and Fellaini,” said the Huddersfield goalkeeper Jonas Lossl. “We spoke about that. [Romelu] Lukaku was the key: we had to keep him down and then close down the spaces and stay tight between the lines so they weren’t able to play inside with Mata and [Henrikh] Mkhitaryan. They couldn’t find space and sometimes it seemed like ‘Okay, we’re standing in confident and they don’t know what to do’. That was great.”
Lossl said it showed how much Huddersfield had learned from the Spurs game. “We are going to get beaten sometimes but if we manage to learn from those defeats and get stronger, we will get points out of these games against big teams. Because we are a strong team: we have some very good individuals, great spirit and a great leader.”
Ince struck a similar note, saying Huddersfield were able to exploit United’s vulnerabilities thanks to their combativeness and planning. “When you look at United, they’re obviously a top-quality side but they don’t really play with the same fluidity as Spurs or Manchester City. They build up the game quite slow. They like to get it out wide and we felt that if we could win the ball back and try to exploit the space the full-backs leave, because they go so high, then we were able to do that. And we were in their face every opportunity we got. We defended our box well. I thought our game plan worked a treat and it’s a great three points.”
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