I haven’t written anything about Huddersfield Town so far this season, because 1) they received a lot of early coverage anyway; 2) someone with the initials S.W edits my work. But five games in, the media have moved on, and I can only get fired once, so it’s time to dig in with the Terriers and see what turns up.
(Before we start, it’s been reported in several places that Huddersfield’s disallowed goal this past weekend should have stood. Looking at the initial replay, you’d agree, but a few minutes later the television crew found the definitive angle: offside, no goal.)
Okay then, results. Town have eight points in five games, putting them comfortably in the top half of the table. But look at their fixtures so far: Crystal Palace (a), Newcastle (h), Southampton (h), West Ham (a), Leicester (h). Three out of five at home, and not a top-six team to be found. This isn’t in any way to disparage their performances, which have been fantastic; it’s to note that they’re not likely to maintain that pace over the course of the season.
The good news is that if they fail to take a single point from the top six, and maintain the eight-points-in-five against the rest of the league, they’ll finish with 41, which should see them easily safe. But as Aristotle once said, it’s a marathon, not a sprint, and we can legitimately reserve judgment until we’re well into the season.
That’s particularly true because the Terriers play a high-tempo style, and haven’t had to do it repeatedly against this level of competition. Against Southampton and Leicester the side pressed brilliantly for long periods, but you can’t do it for 90 minutes, and you probably can’t do it every game either.
That matters, because the press disguises some important defensive weaknesses. Only the Manchester clubs have allowed fewer goals, but that’s partly because the side have committed the third-most fouls in the league, quite a few of which have been tactical. Christopher Schindler’s 1.8 fouls/90 is the second-highest among regular centre-halves, never a good sign. Tommy Smith’s 1.5 fouls/90 is fourth highest among full-backs. It’s telling that Schindler and Smith are the best defenders in the back line, yet still need to resort frequently to fouling.
Chris Löwe and Zanka are less reliable. Löwe gets dribbled a bit too easily, and you saw his clumsy challenge for the penalty on Saturday. Zanka is a powerhouse, but technically very raw. He looks like he should be good in the air, but has won only 50% of his aerial duels, very poor for a centre-half (compare Schindler’s solid 65%).
Part of the difficulty is that the side’s best defensive midfielder, Jonathan Hogg, has been out with an ankle injury, and played his first eight minutes this weekend. Philip Billing and Danny Williams have filled in well overall, but they need Hogg in the line-up so Aaron Mooy, the only natural playmaker, can be freer in attack.
But so far the side has kept the opposition reasonably in check. The varying calculations have Town somewhere between fifth and seventh best in the league in expected goals allowed. Jonas Lössl has yet to be severely under siege, and although he was low-rated by many Bundesliga-watchers, he’s been fine when called upon.
It’s the attack that’s been a little worrisome. Huddersfield dominated the game against Southampton and failed to score. They controlled the action against Leicester in the first half without producing a clear-cut chance. Because they don’t have a lot of creative players, the press has to produce the opportunities. Expected goals scored have them somewhere between 13th and 17th in the league.
Mooy, who generally plays from deep, is the alpha and omega of midfield. Basically, he gets the ball and does things with it. He leads the team in key passes, accurate long passes, accurate short passes, accurate crosses, accurate corners, and probably accurate weather predictions. He’s also just as good on the press as the rest of the side: in the first half against Leicester he seemed to be first to every ball. As long as he stays happy and healthy, the team is in with a shout.
The wingers and forward midfielders are of varying style and quality. Elias Kachunga has plenty of drive, but could use a little more guile. Tom Ince is absolutely maddening: he always looks as if he’s about to do something fabulous, but it never seems to happen. He also doesn’t always make the right decisions, shooting from outside the box too often. Rajiv van la Parra isn’t likely to be a game-changer. Kasey Palmer might show us something, but he’s been out injured since the first game and it’s not clear when he’ll be back.
There’s one guy with plenty of promise, though, and he was unveiled on Saturday. Abdelhamid Sabiri, 20 years old, played behind the lone striker, and it’s hard to believe he’s appeared only nine times in the second division in Germany. He looks strong and technically adept, and the numbers say he’s a monster goalscorer at the lower levels. We’ll see more of him in the coming weeks, to be sure.
Another debutant was Laurent Depoitre, late of Porto, a target man with surprising pace. Harry Maguire won’t forget him any time soon. Crystal Palace won’t forget Steve Mounié either, but he’s looked ordinary the last few times out, and it’s still too early to know how good the striker corps is.
I’m sure this all sounds ridiculously negative for a team that’s exceeding all expectations. I’d call it ‘cautious’. It’s easy to fall in love with a team like Huddersfield Town: a young, innovative manager; a lively style; a club that seems totally without pretensions; Patrick Stewart; The Cribs. But football, like love sometimes, can be unforgiving, and we don’t want to lose our hearts too soon.
On second thought, f*** that. The Terriers have been wonderful so far, and long may it continue. A story like this is just plain good for football. Oh, and it’s good for SW too – what more do you need?
The lovely Peter Goldstein