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Kicking off with Huddersfield Town: David Wagner ready to pit his wits with the elite again

Refreshed: Huddersfield Town head coach David Wagner.
Refreshed: Huddersfield Town head coach David Wagner.
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AS David Wagner had anticipated, his first year in the Premier League brought untold challenges.

Along with all the additional demands, both physical and emotional, that accompany a place at the top table of English football came the sort of battle that the German has always relished.

I had a good off-season and came back ready for what will again be a very big challenge. We are ready.

Town head coach David Wagner

“I enjoy the tactics side of the game,” said the 46-year-old when speaking exclusively to The Yorkshire Post on Town’s recent trip to Austria.

“It is a different league compared to the Championship – and not just when preparing for games. We faced so many different ideas and so many different ideas during a game as well.

“All the time, we had to react and find a solution. This was and is a challenge.”

The tactical battle that, at times, can more resemble a game of chess between the two managers will start early for Wagner. Maurizio Sarri and Chelsea are first up on Saturday, followed by a trip to Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City eight days later.

Both will provide a stiff test of the lessons the Town chief learned in his first season among the elite. Perhaps the biggest of those, he admits, came courtesy of Tottenham Hotspur and Harry Kane in late September, as Wagner realised the high-energy pressing that had brought promotion may not be the best way forward after all.

“My mind did change after that Spurs game,” admits Wagner. “We learned from what happened that day. We tried to press them high, get in their face and yet after 20 minutes we were 3-0 down. Harry Kane punished us.

“It was great to see for the neutrals on television, I am sure. But not great for us. So we learned and we changed.”

In came a more pragmatic mentality following that 4-0 loss to Mauricio Pochettino’s men, along with a willingness to adopt a more ‘horses for courses’ approach.

Against Manchester United, for instance, Wagner surprised Jose Mourinho with a set-up that effectively had three defensive midfielders in front of the back four with Aaron Mooy handed licence to get forward when Town had possession.

A memorable 2-1 victory saw the formation utilised again the following week at Liverpool but, gradually, it fell from favour when tackling the elite clubs as the defeats mounted.

Wagner’s tried and trusted 4-2-3-1 was retained against the lesser lights but further tweaks did follow, most notably during that glorious final week via a switch to a three-man defence as battling draws against Manchester City and Chelsea kept Huddersfield up.

“We had many formations last season,” he added. “A three-man backline, 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1 and, if necessary, a 4-3-3. We also changed our formation when we attacked and when we defended.

“But the most important thing was that everyone was on the same page. This is not always easy in football, especially in front of 50,000 supporters. The atmosphere and the adrenalin can make a difference to a player. But the players were very good at doing what we asked.

“The big plus for me now is we have the experience of last season. This will help the team and help me as well.”

Wagner recently went through the 1,000 days landmark as Huddersfield manager.

It has been quite a ride, and there can be little doubt that amid another summer where around £40m has been spent in the transfer market, the most important signing by far was the retaining of the manager on a new three-year deal in May.

Many, including this correspondent, feared the in-demand German would move on in the wake of keeping the Terriers up.

His managerial stock, the reasoning went, could not go any higher, even if Town again beat the odds to stay in the Premier League a second time.

Happily, Wagner opted to spurn those offers from elsewhere and stick around. He is, though, under no illusions as to the size of the task facing both him and Huddersfield.

“The Premier League is not a competition that gets easier,” he says. “That is the case this season. But we have some advantages.

“For example, now we have more experience. We know, even if we lose five games in a row, it doesn’t count in terms of our goal over the season. Just win the sixth.

“I am also happy that we had more of a break this summer. Wembley (in 2017) meant it was a short off-season a year ago.”

Asked if he had been able to get away and fully clear his head amid the 24/7 existence that is piloting the club during the close season, Wagner replied: “I did switch off, yes.

“I needed that as well. Even if it never really stops, for example there has not been a day when we had no ’phone calls or meetings.

“But when you know you have done your job at this great football club and if you know what is in front of you in the future, it helps for you to come down a little bit.

“For me, that is how it was. So, no complaints from me. I had a good off-season and came back ready for what will again be a very big challenge. We are ready.”