Klopp's apprentice no more: The expectations on Huddersfield's David Wagner
Huddersfield Town manager David Wagner has spent most of his career in Jurgen Klopp’s shadow, but he is poised to at least grab a share of the limelight when the pair goes head-to-head this season in the English Premier League.
We are probably the biggest underdog ever in the Premier League, but it doesn’t change our ambitions
The 45-year-old Wagner and Klopp, 50 and currently managing Liverpool, have been close friends since they used to share a room in the early 1990s while playing for German club Mainz. Wagner, the son of an American serviceman, was even best man at Klopp’s wedding before they were reunited on the coaching staff at Borussia Dortmund.
While Wagner was overseeing Dortmund II, Klopp was steering the first team to two Bundesliga titles and a Champions League final.
Wagner resisted the temptation to follow Klopp when he was offered the chance to join his coaching staff at Anfield in October 2015, instead staying at Dortmund. However, it was not long before an opportunity came along.
When Wagner sought advice from Klopp on the Huddersfield job, the response was straight out of the Nike playbook: “Just do it.”
Summer signings XI
Now the two friends are ready to compete as rivals for the first time after Wagner steered Huddersfield Town into England’s top flight for the first time in 45 years.
“We are probably the biggest underdog ever in the Premier League, but it doesn’t change our ambitions,” Wagner recently told reporters.
“We are not only in the Premier League only to say hello and after one season it’s done. We want to stay more seasons. We know where we are, where we come from, but we will work as hard as we can.”
Now they know who the Terriers are
Success has raised Wagner’s own profile and thrust Huddersfield into the spotlight alongside Klopp and Liverpool’s back in Germany.
“In Germany, to be fair, Huddersfield Town is a name in football. I think it was not a name 18 months before, because even I didn’t know something about Huddersfield when I first got in contact,” Wagner said. “Maybe after the top six in English football, it is one of the biggest and most known names and football clubs in Germany, now.”
Since taking over at Huddersfield, Wagner has instigated broad Dortmund-esque cultural changes as he changed the club’s outlook. Those changes are defined by the high-intensity, full-throttle gegenpressing style honed by Klopp in the Bundesliga.
“Like Jurgen, David is blessed with an ability to look into people’s souls and get that extra 10 percent out of them, and that’s down to charisma,” Wagner’s agent, John Morris, said.
David’s changed the way we think. Instead of going for managers who’ve been around the block a few times and been sacked three or four times to become a savior, the club sought a fresh start. That’s been the catalyst.
His club, nicknamed the Terriers, is being tipped by the bookmakers and most experts to make an immediate return to the Championship, but those low expectations suit Wagner, who relishes the underdog status that he ensures is key to the club’s mentality.
“We now call it the Terriers’ identity,” Wagner told The Guardian.
“Exactly the style of football I love is like a terrier. We're not the biggest dog, we are small, but we are aggressive, we are not afraid. We like to compete with big dogs. We are quick, mobile and have endurance. We never give up.”
Former Town coach Mark Lillis, who handed over the managerial reigns to Wagner, vouches for his coaching credentials.
“Imitation is the biggest form of flattery, and there are lots of similarities between the way Klopp and Wagner set their teams out to play with the high-pressing style,” Lillis told FourFourTwo.
“He wasted no time transmitting his philosophy to the players, who all bought into it his new methods. They knew exactly what had to be done in certain areas of the field like what he called the ‘fight zone.’
“That was where they sprang into action in attack. They learned how to recognize certain triggers to go quickly and get backed up. That fighting spirit got us promoted, but it’s underpinned by his ability to develop players.”
That emphasis on developing personnel emanates from the fact Wagner, born in Germany to a German mother and American father, once almost quit soccer for a career in education.
After a playing career that saw him represent the United States eight times and play for Eintracht Frankfurt, Mainz and Schalke 04, he headed to university in Darmstadt, where, over the course of five years, he earned a degree in biology and sports science before going into teaching.
According to sources close to Wagner, he was only persuaded to return to coaching by Klopp. He studied for the UEFA Pro License and became a youth team coach at 1899 Hoffenheim before a reunion with Klopp in 2011 in Dortmund.
Wagner steered Borussia Dortmund II into the third tier of German soccer, but the team finished near the foot of the table when Huddersfield came calling.
When head of football operations Stuart Webber met Wagner at his home, there was a bowl of chocolate raisins on the kitchen table, and Wagner used the contents to illustrate his tactical thinking. After three hours, having eaten their way through the raisins, Webber was won over. Owner Dean Hoyle went on to hire Huddersfield’s first foreign manager after meeting Wagner in London.
“Dean deserves immense credit for changing the direction of the club with David,” former Town chairman Geoff Headey told FFT.
“David’s changed the way we think. Instead of going for managers who’ve been around the block a few times and been sacked three or four times to become a savior, the club sought a fresh start. That’s been the catalyst.”
Wagner was taking over a club that won the old Football League three times in a row in the 1920s under Herbert Chapman and was revived by Bill Shankly before he left to invigorate Liverpool.
“David might not know it yet, but his place in Huddersfield folklore is now guaranteed,” said former Town manager and captain Peter Jackson.
“He’ll be up there with people like Herbert Chapman, Bill Shankly, and Denis Law as real club legends because he’s made dreams come true with ideas that were completely outside the box.”
'He stays, unless he buggers off'
Wagner turned mediocrity upside down with detailed changes. Player diets and eating times were altered. The timing of training sessions became flexible, re-scheduled to ensure players’ body clocks were in sync when kickoff times varied from the standard 3 p.m. Saturday.
Despite his methods, it looked like nothing had changed at the end of the 2015-16 season as Town finished 19th in 24-team Championship. But last summer proved pivotal as Wagner brought in 13 new players and led the Terriers on a four-day expedition into the wilds of Sweden. There was not a football or cell phone in sight, and the players had to fish for their supper.
Wagner signed a new two-year contract in June, and Hoyle insists his job will remain safe, even if Huddersfield is relegated next May.
“He stays, unless he buggers off,” Hoyle told reporters. “Regardless of what happens, David will be our manager at the end of the season.
“I’m very thankful for what he’s done for this club. I’ll be very loyal in return.”
Hoyle has already put money where his mouth is to give Wagner a fighting chance of defying the odds. Ten new signings bolster the squad, including U.S. international Danny Williams from Reading.
“We are not competitive in terms of money with the other 19 clubs,” Wagner says, “but we have to find other ways to be competitive. We did it in the Championship, and we have to do it in the Premier League. We know it’s difficult but it’s so exciting.”