Huddersfield Town: Pragmatic Corberan walking his own path to Wembley

When Marcelo Bielsa left Leeds United in February, Carlos Corberan said working with the Argentinian improved him “in every single way you can imagine”.

The Huddersfield Town coach is part of a very big fan club. Champions League final coaches Pep Guardiola, Diego Simeone, Mauricio Pochettino and Zinedine Zidane idolise Bielsa.

It is telling, though, that none slavishly copy him.

Avoiding the fault that was Bielsa’s biggest undoing has been a huge factor in Corberan’s success since swapping Leeds for Huddersfield two years ago. Ultimately, Bielsa’s stubbornness cost him at Elland Road, whereas Corberan’s flexibility and pragmatism has been the making of him 12 miles down the M621.

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Carlos Corberan and Marcelo Bielsa worked well together at Leeds United. Picture:  Jonathan Gawthorpe.Carlos Corberan and Marcelo Bielsa worked well together at Leeds United. Picture:  Jonathan Gawthorpe.
Carlos Corberan and Marcelo Bielsa worked well together at Leeds United. Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe.

Bielsa was magnificent for Leeds – not just Leeds United, Leeds. He transformed the way the club thought about itself and the game with football that was not just refreshing but invigorating. It fell just short in its first season but delivered a Championship title in its second and a ninth-placed Premier League finish in its third.

But in the fourth season, when Leeds needed to adapt, Bielsa refused. He had taken them this far by sticking to what he believed in but he had never led any team into so many matches.

He was more than good enough to adapt, but his mindset was always to do the same but better. A bit more flexibility and he would have been saying fond farewells last weekend, rather than being sacked in February.

But that was the risk with Bielsa. If he was perfect he would have a trophy haul to match some of his proteges but, after Leeds escaped relegation, most supporters will conclude the journey was well worth it.

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Former Leeds head coach Marcelo Bielsa.   Picture: Tony Johnson.Former Leeds head coach Marcelo Bielsa.   Picture: Tony Johnson.
Former Leeds head coach Marcelo Bielsa. Picture: Tony Johnson.

Even the best have to adapt. No matter how good you are, top coaches and their teams of analysts will eventually spot chinks and work out ways to exploit them until you give them something else to think about.

Ostensibly, Manchester City and Liverpool play the same way as in Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp’s debut seasons. In fact, there have been significant changes within their unbending principles.

Five years ago, Guardiola recognised City risked getting hemmed in by pressing when they played out from the back so he brought in the Premier League’s deepest-lying playmaker. Goalkeeper Ederson is happy to roll goalkicks a couple of yards but can also ping them accurately into the opposition half so teams can no longer push all the way up and smother them.

City switched from Sergio Aguero up front to a false nine but in Erling Haaland they now have an out-and-out centre-forward again, and one at his most dangerous on the counter-attack, something which has never been much of a characteristic of theirs. Defensively they have developed to become less open to it themselves over time.

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Huddersfield Town coach Carlos Corberan.Huddersfield Town coach Carlos Corberan.
Huddersfield Town coach Carlos Corberan.

Since Liverpool’s title two years ago, Klopp has added Thiago to a midfield of ball-winners, giving Liverpool more guile down the middle when teams sit back. Previously that came mainly from their false nine, Roberto Firmino, who is being phased out for quick, on-the-shoulder centre-forwards, changing that dynamic too.

Corberan’s first half-season at Huddersfield was as Bielsaesque as the Terriers were probably hoping. The Spaniard had been a manager before taking charge of Leeds’s Under-23s, but was clearly another disciple.

Results improved after years battling relegation and it was highly entertaining.

The second half was neither, and felt like a screeching U-turn. Targetmen centre-forwards Yann Sanogo and Oumar Niasse joined in February and March, and the football got much more direct. Richards Stearman and Keogh were no-nonsense defenders, rather than ball-players. I was one who thought if Huddersfield were to play this way, others were better placed to coach it.

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Actually, though, it was just a sign this Terrier was not as dogmatic as his old master.

The man-to-man marking which eventually caught up with the Whites was abandoned last summer at Huddersfield.

At Wembley on Sunday, Steve Cooper’s Nottingham Forest will be the “purer” football team.

Town are not long-ball merchants, their football far more refined than in last year’s relegation scrap, but they have more than one way of going about their business.

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Despite not having Ederson’s accuracy Lee Nicholls will kick long when needs be and they are prepared to use long throw-ins and score from set-pieces, things some of the snobbier purists frown upon.

Even since Christmas, Huddersfield have evolved. Until then they were pretty solidly 3-4-2-1 in possession (though as others have pointed out, it was a different shape out of it) with variations rare. There is no guessing what Sunday’s formation will be.

Jon Russell’s emergence has added another ball-player to Danel Sinani and Duane Holmes.

Watching Huddersfield develop under Corberan has been a joy and whatever Sunday’s outcome, the evolution will continue as long as he does.

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He has taken some of the best bits of one of the finest coaches of his generation and dropped the stubbornness which undermined him.

Had they not done such a good job of recognising and nurturing it, you would say Huddersfield were very lucky to have a talent like Corberan.

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