RARELY can a club have started an important league game with the substitutes’ bench reading, quite literally, as a who’s who of their top five most expensive signings.
This, though, is how Huddersfield Town lined up on their first visit to Old Trafford since the 2011 League One play-off final.
Steve Mounie, the club’s record capture at £11.5m, was there alongside Alex Pritchard, the midfielder who cost £10m to prise away from Norwich City just last month.
A couple of seats away in the dugout at kick-off against Manchester United was Aaron Mooy, who along with fellow substitutes Tom Ince and Scott Malone complete the list of Town’s all-time top five imports.
For the full quintet, who cost a combined £41.75m in transfer fees, to be on the bench together was remarkable.
It was also an indication as to just how tough life has become in the Premier League for the Terriers as head coach David Wagner rolled the selection dice in an attempt to kick-start his side’s faltering season.
Now, we can chase and look forward. We do not have to look over our shoulders. I am very confident we will get the points we need.Huddersfield Town head coach, David Wagner
Result-wise, it did little good as Huddersfield slipped to a fifth straight league defeat in 2018 courtesy of second-half goals from Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez.
United avenging their shock loss at the John Smith’s Stadium last October also nudged Yorkshire’s sole top-flight representative into the relegation zone for the first time all season.
Wagner, however, was relaxed about his side’s league position. Instead, he wanted to focus on the positives of an afternoon when the Terriers did, at least, display more bite in the tackle than had been the case in those previous defeats this year to Stoke, West Ham and Liverpool.
“The whole town is fighting to survive,” said the Town head coach. “Of course, no one wants to be where we are in the league.
“But, to be totally honest, maybe this is better (Huddersfield are in the bottom three). Now, we can chase and look forward. We do not have to look over our shoulders.
“I am very confident we will get the points we need. We knew it would be difficult to get points against Liverpool and Manchester United in four days.
“But, against United, I can totally live with the performance. They showed work ethic, desire and togetherness. That is what we will need.
“To be totally honest, we knew Liverpool at home and Manchester United away at Old Trafford in four days would be very difficult fixtures. But now we have some very interesting fixtures, against the teams who are in and around us.
“The whole town has to come together and show we are ready to fight to survive.”
Fresh from tackling one of just three clubs to share the distinction with Town of having lifted three consecutive league titles, Wagner’s men could probably have done with a different assignment than taking on one of the others.
As had been the case against Liverpool, containment was very much the order of the day against a Red Devils outfit featuring Sanchez on home soil for the first time.
Florent Hadergjonaj, whose previous appearances have come at full-back, was pressed into action alongside Jonathan Hogg and Philip Billing in a defensive midfield role that the Swiss international had last filled in his teenage years.
The trio had clearly been ordered not to hold back in the tackle as Scott McTominay discovered when flattened by Billing early on. Similarly heavy challenges came in from Hogg, Collin Quaner and the impressive Terence Kongolo during a first half that saw the hosts dominate possession, but only rarely test Jonas Lossl in the Huddersfield goal.
The Danish international did have to get down smartly to deny Sanchez, after earlier beating away Jesse Lingard’s effort. But, otherwise, Town held firm during those opening 45 minutes.
Little had been seen of the visitors as an attacking quantity by half-time save for one decent cross from Quaner that Chris Smalling did well to put behind for a corner as Laurent Depoitre threatened. Nevertheless, Town could be satisfied with their efforts in the first half.
The key to this continuing after the restart was the Terriers maintaining their discipline and the hosts being unable to break down what Jose Mourinho described afterwards as a “Berlin Wall” of defence, “organised so well by David (Wagner)”.
Unfortunately for the visitors, Juan Mata triggered the fall of that ‘Wall’ with a quite delightful cross from the left 10 minutes into the second half that Lukaku guided past Lossl on the volley.
United doubled their advantage midway through the half, a clumsy challenge by Michael Hefele, on for the injured Christopher Schindler, sending Sanchez sprawling inside the penalty area.
The Chilean stepped up to take the resulting spot-kick, but Lossl got down smartly to block. The ball, however, rebounded kindly to Sanchez, who made no mistake a second time to ensure there was no way back for a Town side who failed to muster even one shot on target all afternoon.
“I cannot ask for more from the players – apart from the result,” added Wagner, whose side were unable to provide a happy memory of Old Trafford to replace the misery of losing to Peterborough United in the 2011 play-off final.
“It showed me these players are totally on track and totally focused. Now, we have the fixtures (coming up) to survive. If we show this commitment, I am totally sure we can get the points.”