David Wagner running out of room for manoeuvre with Huddersfield

Paul Wilson on 11 January 2019

David Wagner was only stating the obvious, and doubtless would have preferred to answer the question in a slightly different way, but being bottom of the table with only 10 points from 21 games is not a position that allows much room for manoeuvre.

“Yes,” the Huddersfield manager said with a resigned expression and a trace of a sigh. “You can say it is a game we have to win. We all know we have not hit our ambitions so far this season but as long as there is a chance we can still have hope. It is not mission impossible until it actually is impossible. Every loss makes you more desperate but statistics don’t always tell the whole truth.”

What Wagner means is that though Huddersfield go to relegation rivals Cardiff on Saturday on the back of eight consecutive defeats, nine if you count last week’s FA Cup exit at Bristol City, several of the scorelines have been tight, with red cards and single-goal margins playing a part in an unhappy Christmas and new year. Statistics do sometimes mislead but the compilation of facts and figures that is the Premier League table cannot really misrepresent.

The Terriers have not won a game since November. The run of defeats that took them to the bottom included ostensibly winnable games against fellow strugglers such as Burnley, Fulham, Southampton and Newcastle. Cardiff will be the last bottom-six team to be encountered, the same Cardiff who came to West Yorkshire in August and earned a draw. A scoreless draw, naturally, goals being neither side’s forte this season. If Huddersfield return empty-handed from Wales, one feels, the glimmer of light Wagner believes may grow into a turning point will be all but extinguished. After Cardiff, Huddersfield’s next four opponents are Manchester City, Everton, Chelsea and Arsenal.

That places a lot of significance on Saturday’s game, although the same is true for Huddersfield’s opponents. A team fourth from bottom have to regard the visit of the bottom club as an opportunity, and three points for Neil Warnock’s side would confirm Cardiff have the potential to survive, with 21 points from 22 games amounting to a reasonable platform from which to attack the remainder of the season.

David Wagner before Huddersfield’s FA Cup loss at Bristol City.
David Wagner before Huddersfield’s FA Cup loss at Bristol City. Photograph: Kieran McManus/BPI/Rex/Shutterstock

Burnley are in an almost identical position, level on points with Cardiff with 19th-placed Fulham at Turf Moor on a day when four of the bottom five clubs are in action against each other. Burnley’s win at Huddersfield last week was their second consecutive league victory since returning to a 4-4-2 formation with Tom Heaton back in goal. A third would give them a confidence boost as well as a lift up the table, but though Fulham have yet to win away under either Slavisa Jokanovic or Claudio Ranieri they must entertain some hopes of success against opponents they beat 4-2 in August. That was when everyone was still expecting big things from both the promoted side and the one who reached the Europa League last season, before it became apparent that neither would be able to take top-flight status for granted.

Huddersfield have never allowed themselves that luxury, while even fans of Warnock at Cardiff are aware of his reputation for hitting some sort of invisible ceiling between Championship and Premier League. At least the former Sheffield United and Queens Park Rangers manager is forcing some of his critics to revise their opinions this season, whereas Wagner is floundering and unable to do much about it.

“We have to try to find some solutions while we can,” he said of a transfer window that has seen more departures than arrivals, with a bid for Leicester’s Shinji Okazaki fruitless. “I am hopeful of finding someone who can help us but I am not certain that anything will happen. The list of targets is not long.”

No one realistically expects Huddersfield to dig deep and try to buy their way out of trouble; it is not that sort of club and neither would transfer targets be easily persuaded to lend their support to what looks like a lost cause.

A change of manager may work in the short term, in that certain firefighting types are probably better suited to organising a relegation scrap than Wagner, though many feel the German is owed a debt of loyalty for what he has achieved for the club on a negligible budget.

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“This is without doubt the worst period of my three years at the club, because I like to see smiles on everyone’s faces and the last six weeks have been very difficult,” Wagner said.

“I take responsibility and it is also part of my job to try to lift everyone, to keep morale high. Of course we will make sure the players know everything they need to know about Cardiff, going into the game but it is also important to know we are the only ones who can save ourselves.

“People have to take responsibility, we have to stand up if we are to stay up, because no one is going to do us any favours.”

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