David Wagner has transformed Huddersfield Town on a tiny budget, but how? From team-bonding trips in the Swedish wilderness to an obsessive attention to detail, Nick Wright gets the inside track on the methods which have made him one of the hottest coaching properties around.
“I still remember my first game for Borussia Dortmund’s second team,” Mustafa Amini tells Sky Sports. These days Amini is a senior Australia international playing his club football in Denmark, but back in September 2012 he was a wide-eyed teenager who had only recently arrived in Germany from A-League side Central Coast Mariners in his homeland.
The promising midfielder had been warmly welcomed into the fold by bespectacled reserve-team coach David Wagner, who spoke to him in English to help him settle in, but when he jogged onto the pitch that day against SC Preussen Münster, he saw another side to his new boss. “After a few minutes, I noticed Wagner was screaming at me,” says Amini. “He was going off on the touchline.”
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Between the furious instructions from the dugout and the late goal which consigned Dortmund’s newly-promoted reserves to a 1-0 defeat, it was not quite the debut Amini had hoped for. Instead, it was an important lesson about Wagner. The former striker, so supportive and attentive off the pitch, was ferociously demanding on it. After the dream move, Amini says, came the reality check.
“He’s a tough character and he knows exactly what he wants,” he adds. “If you deliver, it’s good. If you don’t, he makes sure he lets you know. He’s not the type who will ease you along the way. It was very tough for me at the beginning. He pretty much told me: ‘You have to do things this way, you have to learn, and you have to work hard’.”
Fast forward to the present day and Wagner has lost none of his intensity. The relentless gegenpressing tactics he mastered with his best friend Jurgen Klopp at Dortmund have taken root at Huddersfield, and two years on from his appointment at the John Smith’s Stadium, he is exhibiting his managerial acumen and animated touchline antics in the Premier League.
Huddersfield, so wildly unlikely to achieve promotion last season, have continued to defy the odds in the new campaign. Saturday’s loss to Bournemouth showed how cruel the top flight can be – Huddersfield had twice as many shots as their opponents and key decisions went against them – but three months into the season they sit 10th having already secured a famous victory over Manchester United.
Their success has Wagner’s fingerprints all over it. Huddersfield’s squad may be light on stars but it is carefully constructed, highly motivated and, perhaps most importantly, tightly bound. “You won’t get anywhere as individuals if you haven’t got team spirit and togetherness,” Andy Hughes, a first-team coach at Huddersfield, tells Sky Sports.
Wagner goes to great lengths to foster team spirit. Hughes is speaking a few days after returning from Huddersfield’s international break training camp in southern Spain, where Wagner, his technical staff and 16 first-team players were joined by their wives and families.
“It’s something I had never previously experienced in my career,” says former midfielder Hughes, who was coaching at Crystal Palace before he was hand-picked by Wagner to join Huddersfield at the start of last season. “We did it last year as well and I think it’s a phenomenal idea. It’s not a holiday by any means, we train hard, but it brings everyone closer together – from the staff and players to the families.
“Usually on trips like that you would get players playing Xbox in their rooms in the afternoons, but this way you’ve got the bonus of your family being there. So after training you get to unwind and relax on the beach and totally take your mind off football. It’s a little reward for the families who support the players all year round but it’s also a clever way of making everyone more cohesive.”
Wagner’s pre-season trips often have a rather different feel. The 46-year-old took his Huddersfield squad to a remote Swedish island without phones, technology or even footballs last summer. It was practically unheard of for an English side, but it’s a team-building exercise Wagner has been using since his Dortmund days.
“We didn’t even touch a ball for my first week with the second team,” recalls Amini. “Wagner took us to Sweden and we lived in tents and canoed for eight hours a day. There were groups to clean the camp, wash up, cook, everything like that. There wasn’t much food so we had to share it around. It was a survival camp, basically. Wagner was trying to teach us the importance of pulling together.”
Terrence Boyd, an American striker who scored 20 goals in 32 games for Wagner’s side in the previous season, remembers a similar trip a year earlier. “He’s a guy who is all about the team,” he tells Sky Sports. “The team-building trip helped us grow together. We didn’t know each other but he made us into a little family. It was important because we turned out to be a close group.”
The same can be said of Huddersfield now. The summer brought an influx of new faces to the club, but key figures from their promotion campaign remain and the side retains what Wagner describes as their ‘Terrier identity’. They are the underdog, forever snapping at the heels of bigger opponents. It takes togetherness but it also takes a special brand of leadership.
“When I met David there was something about him that struck me straight away,” says Hughes. “He’s got this feel about him that makes you want to work for him. It’s hard to describe, but I always say a leader is someone who can tell you to do something you don’t agree with, and you still want to do it for them. That’s what he brings to his squad. He makes you believe there are no limits.”
Wagner’s gift for man-management extends to every member of his squad, according to Hughes: “He knows how to get the best out of a player. If a player is playing at 100 per cent, he somehow manages to get 101 per cent. He has different relationships with every single player. He knows them all individually and psychologically.
“He knows when to put the hammer down and liven people up and when to take people to one side and put an arm around them, but he also knows when to leave players alone and not even talk to them at all. It’s something that you can’t learn. Be it an emerging 17-year-old or an experienced pro, David just knows how to create a bond.”
Huddersfield’s Jonathan Hogg described Wagner as a “top man” and “fantastic manager” in an interview with Sky Sports earlier this season and he was influential for Amini, too. “He pushes you hard but players respect that,” he says. “He changed me from a No 10 to one of the sixes in midfield. It was difficult but it worked out well. I became one of his main players after the second year and even now I’m playing as one of the sixes for the national team.”
Team spirit and man-management are integral to Wagner’s approach but so too is his meticulous approach to preparation. Hughes describes the 46-year-old as a tactical “genius” and he uses the same word to describe Christoph Bühler, the assistant who followed Wagner from Dortmund to Huddersfield.
“It’s brilliant watching them work together and bounce off each other,” says Hughes. “Those two see things that I don’t even see. They don’t miss a trick, be it training, analysis on teams, games, players… Everything. Every detail matters. David will have the training pitch at a certain size for a specific reason leading into the Saturday. Everything has to be just right.”
Wagner expects the same high standards from his players. Huddersfield share their Canalside training complex with local bowls and snooker clubs and eat meals in the same canteen as the members, but from the moment they cross the white line, there is no room to relax.
Wagner discusses what happened on Jurgen Klopp's stag do
“Everything is done at a match intensity,” says Hughes. “Everything can be gained from being prepared for a matchday, and there’s no point training at a level which will not prepare you for a game. A lot of teams go through the motions sometimes, but David has us training the way we play.
“You might think our best games are on a Saturday, but our best games are on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Our best games are the ones on the training pitch that no one sees. To see Christopher Schindler and Jonathan Hogg going at it 100 per cent, or Aaron Mooy and Dean Whitehead… It’s top class. The competition between our players in training is incredible.”
Huddersfield have suffered heavy defeats to Tottenham and Bournemouth this season but for the most part Wagner’s side are well-drilled and difficult to break down. They have kept five clean sheets in 12 games so far. Only Manchester City, Liverpool, Tottenham, Arsenal and Manchester United have allowed fewer shots on goal.
Wagner, Hughes says, makes it all work by relaying tactical ideas in a manner that every player can understand. “I don’t want to tell you all the secrets but he makes things really, really simple,” he says. “He doesn’t complicate things, that’s the trick to it. Every player at the club knows exactly what they have to do on a Saturday or on a training day.”
It helps, too, that they are one of the fittest sides in the division. Huddersfield rank fourth for sprints this season behind only City, Watford and Arsenal, and their stamina allows them to press their opponents relentlessly. Wagner, who has a degree in biology and sports science, is influential in that regard, working closely with what Hughes describes as a “wonderful” sports science department.
His gruelling training sessions are familiar to Amini, too. “He worked us very, very hard, especially in pre-season,” he says. “We used to do triple sessions, starting with six 1000-metre runs at seven o’clock in the morning. You get a time of around three minutes and 40 seconds to run 1000 metres, then a break of two minutes, then the same again.
“After that you would have breakfast and start the second session at 10am. That was another tough session, then in the afternoon you would have a high-intensity game. If you lose the ball, there’s no dropping off. You have to try to win it back as soon as possible. He’s constantly making sure you on top of your game. If you don’t want to work, you can get on your bike.”
The screams are still ringing in Amini’s ears from that day at Münster and he would be the first to tell you that Wagner’s methods are not for the faint-hearted, but his extraordinary Huddersfield record speaks for itself and so too does Amini’s own rise into Australia’s national team.
“All top-class managers are demanding,” says Hughes. “But the key with David is that he makes you want to reach his standards and keep improving every day. He makes the players believe, he makes the staff believe and he makes the fans believe. He makes us all believe that there are no limits.”
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