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Tactical Philosophy: David Wagner

While this website has made its name focusing on the lesser known youth of this beautiful sport, and combined it with a tinge of tactical flavour meant for the football enthusiast, we found a large gap to be exploited in terms of combining the two. This mini-series thus focuses on young managers (below the age of 45) and their tactical philosophies, deriving what got them here and where they could go. Sam McKeever has a look at David Wagner’s emergence.


David Wagner is one of the more intriguing coaches to look at in the championship this season. The up and coming Huddersfield Town manager has changed Huddersfield fortune’s around making their supporters dream of a place in the Premier League, this turnaround has happened due to the style of play and personality that Wagner has implemented into the club. Most people would see Wagner’s style as Klopp esque due to his high pressing and energetic style with also the passion on the touchline to back it up as seen this season against Leeds United.

Wagner had a very ordinary playing career spanning over spanning over a 15 year period playing in Germany. He’s more known for his time at the likes of Schalke 04, Mainz 05 and Eintracht Frankfurt, he also managed to gain eight caps for the United States due to his American descent and having ownership of an American passport. This never turned out as well as Wagner wanted as he never represented them in a major tournament.  After taking a break from the game Wagner got his first job in management becoming the manager of the Dortmund second team in the summer of 2011 leaving them in November of 2015 to join Championship club Huddersfield town where he has excelled as a coach developing players such as Danny Ward, Isaiah Brown and many others.

Tactical Philosophy

During his time with The Terriers, Wagner has stuck mostly with a 4-2-3-1 system as you can see in the above image. This particular system allows Wagner to get his players to play the aggressive energetic pressing style that most young modern managers are playing today. His teams press the ball as soon as they lose possession and the ball goes into wider areas. They trigger the press trying to make two vs three situations with the wingers coming in more narrow to support the striker in winning the ball back, hunting in packs and making it difficult to find options for the defence to play out from as they are usually being double or tripled up on. He also wants his two central midfield players to push forward leaving zero options in the centre of the pitch basically “suffocating” the space that the opposition has to work with.

For the attacking side of Wagner’s style he wants his teams to move the ball quickly in transition and make it hard for the opposition to regain shape. The front four are given a licence to be flexible and interchange with each other making it difficult for the opposition’s defence to be organised, the wingers are also encouraged to drift inside to support the striker in the goals and assists department with the full backs given space then to get forward giving another option in the attacking third.

Attacking Shape

These graphics will show how Wagner likes his teams to attack in the central and wide areas during a game. Typically the main aim of his style is to attack in a fast and direct manner wanting the front 4 to get at the opposition’s defence as quickly as possible. This is done by getting runners to pull the defence out of position to create space for the player in possession which allows them time to play a killer pass or have a shot on goal. He also likes using the full-backs as his wide option getting them to put low crosses into the box.

In the 3-2 win vs. Rotherham back in February you can see Isaiah Brown on the ball and running at The Millers’ back 4 which has sucked out a defender from the defensive line leaving a space for the two options ahead of him to make a direct run towards the box. This gives Brown the option to play him in on goal or have a shot himself. Neither of these scenarios happened as Brown was dispossessed by the Rotherham defender leaving a loose ball which was picked up by Joe Lolley who came inside to finish with a curled left-foot shot into the bottom corner.

We see here a move that has ended up on the right-hand side with the ball at full-back Tommy Smith’s feet in the 3-1 win over Brighton.  As you can see the three out of the Huddersfield front four are in the box anticipating the low cross in the box from Smith who has ventured into the space that the winger has left for him by drifting into the box. Once again the ball never reached any of the three in the box as the cross was blocked as the ball bounced back out to Smith’s feet who then cut inside to finish off with his left foot.

From the two graphics above it shows that Wagner likes to attack with numbers through the middle but mainly out wide through the full-backs, by getting the players in front of the player in possession to make runs in behind. The two wingers drift in-field, leaving space for the full-backs to run into to give a threat out wide for the opposition to worry about. Even when his team’s attacks break down due to the sheer numbers he likes to get forward they win most second balls which turn into goals and clear-cut chances.

Defensive Approach

Wagner’s main approach to defending would be to press the opposition high giving no space and no passing options to the opponent due to the compactness they have in the middle. They start to press high up the pitch when the ball gets put out wide by the opposition with three players closing the space down of the opposition full back. This gives him few options for a pass, forcing him to kick long and more often than not losing the ball with the two centre-backs very well positioned to mop up any long balls.

The graphic that will be analysed below will show you how well-timed the press is, showing the excellent ability Wagner has as a coach to get this defensive style across to his teams but it also shows the intelligence of the game that you need to have to play under him to execute this style of defending correctly.

As you can see here in the cup game against Manchester City the press was triggered soon as the ball was travelling towards Alexander Koralov’s feet with Joe Lolley starting the press. He used the touchline to his advantage to close the space down and forces a misplaced pass from Koralov putting Nolito under pressure.  This then triggers the other two Huddersfield players in the picture, Collin Quaner and Jack Payne, to press the ball leaving Nolito in a 3 v 1 situation. They end up winning the ball in this situation creating a goal-scoring opportunity for themselves. This was down to the quickness of closing down the space for Koralov as he was pressured into making a pass that he didn’t want to make landing his team-mate in trouble and in the end losing the ball to the pressure that Huddersfield put under them due to numbers they had.

Wagner’s decision to play the high pressing game is probably due down to the fact that he has a very fast and direct approach when attacking. He wants his teams to win the ball back quickly as they can by compacting the middle forcing teams to play sideways to the wings and back towards their own goal due to the lacking of passing options and how well organised his teams can be. His approach to the game has won plaudits all over the championship this year due to the turnaround in The Terrier’s fortunes this season and also bringing in an attractive playing style which the John Smith faithful have thoroughly enjoyed this season.

Three Career-Defining Games

Newcastle 1-2 Huddersfield – The second game of the Championship season saw The Terriers face a daunting trip to St. James’s Park which was made even more daunting as they had not won there for 63 years. But on the 13th of August this all changed as they claimed a famous victory with goals in both halves from Nakhi Wells and Jack Payn. This game showed Wagner’s capabilities as a coach to make tactical tweaks if needed and also made people take notice of Huddersfield’s capabilities of being possibly a serious contender in the Championship promotion race.

Huddersfield 2-1 Leeds United – A game that really put Wagner’s coaching ability on the map to everyone around England and Germany was a Yorkshire derby against Leeds United, a very passionate and high tempo affair. Wagner’s Huddersfield side edged the game 2-1 by the last-minute winner through Michael Hefele sending the John Smith faithful into raptures and also boosted Wagner’s stock as a coach in the meantime.

Wolves 0-1 Huddersfield – One of Wagner’s most important games ever as a manager came recently in the West Midlands against Wolves a game where he could make history and be the first manager to guide The Terriers into the Championship playoffs. He certainly did that as they went on to win the game 1-0 through an Izzy Brown goal setting up an exciting end to the season for Wagner’s Huddersfield side.

Three Key Players Developed

Aaron Mooy – Signed on-loan from Manchester City in the summer Mooy has come on leaps and bounds ever since joining Wagner at Huddersfield. The Australian has become a key figure in the centre of the park this season only missing out on one game in the Championship this season chipping in with four goals and seven assists in the process. With the progress Mooy has made it is for sure that Wagner will want to keep him for next season if he sticks around at the Terriers, if not there could be a possibility of a recall by Pep Guardiola into the Manchester City squad.

Elias Kachunga – Kachunga has been one of the star players in the attacking front four for Wagner’s Terriers this season being the top scorer with 13 goals in all competitions this season. The highly skilful winger with a fantastic work rate has developed fantastically under Wagner’s guidance with also an international call-up to the DR Congo side in March due to his great form coinciding with a permanent move to the Terriers for just 1.1 million pounds. Wagner has given him the game time that he has needed to progress as a player. If the Terriers get promoted to the Premier League and he impresses, a big money move could be on the card for the German-born winger.

Michael Hefele – Hefele was more of an unknown quantity for Huddersfield fans when Wagner signed him in the summer of 2016 with him playing most of his career in the in the third and fourth tiers of German football. Like Mooy, he has come on leaps as bounds as a player forming a fantastic partnership with fellow German Christopher Schindler. He became a fans favourite due to his late winner against Leeds United in a vital Yorkshire derby. He also chipped in with two goals against Rochdale in the cup. Already a physical presence as a defender, Hefele has improved fantastically with the ball at his feet under the coaching of Wagner having a 75% pass completion adding to his defending qualities.

Read all the other articles from this series here

Sam McKeever

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