Before anyone gets too excited here, let’s acknowledge two things.
1. Huddersfield Town are still 35 match weeks away from being 2015-16 Leicester City, which is to say let’s not waste any more time with a serious comparison.
2. Huddersfield Town are still 35 match weeks away from being 2016-17 Hull City, who won two of their first three matches before managing 28 points in the next 35 games on their way to deserved relegation with a Premier League-worst minus-43 goal difference.
But lumping the Terriers in with Hull might be more irresponsible than any comparison with those fantastic Foxes. The unsexy truth is Huddersfield likely fall somewhere between, which hardly warrants this level of attention. What does deserve acknowledgement is the tactical competence of a relatively unknown club that spent the past 10 seasons split between second- and third-tier football.
The Terriers represent a community trapped in a triangle of Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield in northern England and play at the aptly inconspicuous grounds of 24,500-seat John Smith’s Stadium. They arrived last month seeming to have an idea of how they’d like to play in the top flight, which we’ll show below. More so, they already seem comfortable implementing it, despite it being in some ways a significant departure from a more possession-based Championship system of last season that earned them their first top-flight campaign in 45 years. In short, the influence of another German manager in the Premier League on Huddersfield boss David Wagner is already showing, which we’ll get back to.
First, the cautionary tale of Hull. Take a deep look back at their start last year, and you’ll see the Tigers got those initial six points with plenty of direct play and possession in their own half (maintenance). They didn’t counter, their high press was lowly and their possession-based styles in attack (build up, sustained threat, fast tempo) were essentially nonexistent:
That held true over the course of the season with maintenance and direct play as the only two areas they operated above league averages. It’s hard to say that amounts to a system of note, and it caught up to them. Their 80 goals against were the most in the Premier League since Fulham conceded 85 in 2013-14, and it can’t even be attributed to bad luck. Their expected goals against was 83.3, so they actually conceded fewer goals than what would be expected under league average circumstances.
But the data-driven story of Huddersfield’s seven points coming out of the international break looks considerably different. On the surface, they’ve played what one could say amounts to an average or below-average schedule. That said, they’re one of two sides (Manchester United) that haven’t conceded. Of the 18 sides that haven’t conceded through three matches in the Premier League era, the average finishing position is 5.3. Only four of those sides have finished outside of the top eight. Manchester City ’07-08 and Portsmouth ’06-07 finished ninth, and Birmingham City ’03-04 finished 10th. But don’t consider Huddersfield in the clear just yet. Charlton Athletic didn’t concede through three matches in 1998-99 and were relegated after finishing 18th.
Wagner is approaching the small sample of success with appropriate caution.
“We are happy with our start (to the season) because of our results, the clean sheets and because of the performances we have put in,” Wagner, the Premier League Manger of the Month, told the club’s official website. “The players can see now that if they follow their ideas and their identity, even in the Premier League, they have a chance.”
What exactly that identity is has shifted some with the climb. Consider last year’s side, which finished fifth and won the playoff for the third promotion spot. Along with Reading and Fulham, they were one of the Championship’s dominant possession-based attacking sides, even if they worked in a high press (they did, and we’ll get to that):
It’s known that Wagner makes fitness a priority, which seemed to translate to widespread tactical and situational success last season to compensate for a minus-2 goal differential. They scored one goal in their last five matches, yet somehow managed to win the playoff.
Now consider this season and the significant departure in possession-based attacking styles:
That’s not something Wagner didn’t foresee entering the season.
“We changed sometimes in the last season the style of our game as well,” he said. “When we played Newcastle away, we played slightly different than in other games. So there will be some games in the Premier League as well where we have to maybe slightly change our style. But the idea and our identity will always be the same.”
Their high press style is 52 percent above league average through three matches, which ranks first, but they’re also effective in execution of regaining the ball while pressing.
Liverpool, managed by Wagner’s mentor Jürgen Klopp and his well-known gegenpressing striving for immediate ball recovery, led that category last season with 199, or 5.2 per match. It’s interesting to at least note here that Hull’s 112 were next to last, and Leicester’s 161 in 2015-16 were five behind leading Manchester United. That might be oversimplifying things, but the only teams to finish in the top six the past two seasons without being above league average percentages in maintenance, build up, sustained threat and fast tempo are Leicester, Tottenham Hotspur and Southampton in 2015-16. Those clubs all operated above the league average high press percentage and ranked in the top seven in regains.
Huddersfield through three matches are just ahead of Liverpool’s per-match pace from last season, but that actually shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. They led the Championship last season with 217 over 46 matches (4.7 per match).
So while there was a shift in style from the Championship, that’s not to say they didn’t employ a high press last year. They’re not attacking with the ball this season, but they are similarly disrupting. They’ve just had to go about it differently and will have to continue to do so because they’re realistically not going to be a possession-based attacking team anytime soon at this level. That probably means their forwards are doing a bit more work this campaign, but they might have brought in the right attacker to head that up.
They’ve succeeded thus far with much of the same team under the same manager. Ten of the 15 players Wagner has used in their three matches are holdovers from the Championship side, but some key players certainly joined the club over the summer.
There’s Steve Mounie for the obvious reason of scoring twice in his first three games with the club, but he’s also contributed four high press regains. That ranks tied for third in a small sample size, but Mounie was one of 12 players in Ligue 1 last season with double-digit goals and high press regains.
He did it for a club that seemed to succeed with a high press. Montpellier operated just three percent above the league average but ranked fifth in regains.
Looking further into individual performance and beyond playing style to quantify Huddersfield’s success, there’s Jonas Lössl with his three clean sheets in his first three with the Terriers, which have come with the keeper outperforming the league average of expected saves. Subtract the former Mainz 05 man’s expected saves from his saves, and his differential comes out at plus-2.3, meaning he’s saved them at least two goals the average keeper wouldn’t. As STATS has written before, goalkeeping was a huge part of Leicester’s dream run.
But there are also holdovers from last year who are properly adapting. STATS has brought ball movement points into analysis, which is broken down into categories of offensive and defensive as well as positive and negative (oBMP+, oBMP-, dBMP+ dBMP-). These metrics use machine learning to assign an objective value to every involvement a player has in a possession to credit or discredit decisions with the ball, measuring how dangerous a player is with ball circulation by relating it to the probability of a shot happening later in that play. Passing points generate expected shot points, so if a player generates one BMP, he’s generated passes to lead to one shot.
Aaron Mooy’s 0.67 oBMP+ ranks 15th in the Premier League ahead of players like Dele Alli, Wayne Rooney and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, despite the midfielder having to exist in a very different system. That doesn’t tell the whole story because he, like the rest of the team, is having to defend more than last season. Yet his 0.30 defensive contribution, calculated by adding dBMP+ and expected goals defended, is also interesting to consider. It ranks between noteworthy central presences such as N’Golo Kante (0.35), who we all remember from Leicester, and Nemanja Matić (0.29).
They also only have one player in the top 50 of dBMP-, which is impressive for a club that’s spending a decent amount of time in their own half. Again, these are small sample sizes, but it’s a start.
That’s all those seven points are thus far for the Terriers – a start. So are Huddersfield ’17-18 going to be Leicester ’15-16, Hull ’16-17 or Klopp’s Liverpool?
The answer is probably none of the above. They’ve simply evolved from their former selves, but that might have staying power.