Why Crystal Palace won’t be the last Premier League side Huddersfield embarrass this season

When David Wagner’s Huddersfield Town won promotion last May they instantaneously became favourites to finish rock bottom of the Premier League. Following a run of 10 points from their final 10 Championship matches – which left them on a -2 goal difference for the season and a strike-rate of 1.2 goals per game – Huddersfield won the playoffs courtesy of three dull draws and two penalty wins. The Terriers looked doomed before a ball had been kicked.

But within 90 minutes of the new Premier League season those gloomy predictions were emphatically cast aside as Huddersfield outthought and outclassed a Crystal Palace side coached by one of the most intelligent young managers in the division. Their 3-0 win at Selhurst Park was no fluke; it was a tactical victory that hinted at a bright future for Wagner’s side and, more importantly, suggested that the German’s brand of gegenpressing football is in fact better suited to the Premier League than the Championship, where tactics are wilder and the campaign more gruelling.

Crystal Palace are mid-revolution; it certainly helped the visitors that De Boer’s fluid short-passing philosophy is still uncomfortable for players used to years of deep-lying, counter-attacking football. But Palace’s attempts at playing a measured possession game symbolised the tactical chasm between England’s top two divisions; whereas Huddersfield’s frantic high-pressing system is inevitably a slog in the fierce-but-clumsy Championship, the Premier League’s high-concept approach to tactics gives Wagner breathing space.

And the former Dortmund coach’s tactical plan was perfectly executed on Saturday. Famously a disciple of Jurgen Klopp, many expected Wagner to intensely press the Palace defence in order to unsettle their passing rhythm, but instead Huddersfield cleverly backed off. De Boer’s back three were afforded plenty of time on the ball, while Aaron Mooy and Philip Billing clamped down on Palace’s Jason Puncheon and Ruben Loftus-Cheek.

Desperate to impress their new manager, Palace’s defenders continually attempted to pass through the Huddersfield team even though their midfielders were tightly marked, resulting in constant turnovers as Mooy and Billing stamped their authority on the game. It also meant that Huddersfield weren’t too high up the pitch overall, minimising the amount of space in behind for Wilfried Zaha (who, forced to come short, was easily squeezed out).

Mooy and Billing in particular were extremely impressive, not just in the pincer midfield press but collecting second balls and cutting vertical passes through to striker Steve Mounie. These two were first to everything, bravely pushing forward to cut off Palace’s passing lines and dictate the tempo in south London. It was largely thanks to these two players that the Terriers recorded more tackles (28) and more fouls (19) than any other Premier League team on the opening weekend. 

Mooy was also impressive going forward, setting up the first two Huddersfield goals with excellent crosses, but the £8million signing from Manchester City wasn’t the only reason Huddersfield fans can be optimistic about the year ahead. The weaving runs of Tom Ince and Kasey Palmer suggest they will benefit greatly from a high-pressing philosophy, which is decidedly more influential in a division of high back lines and short-passing defences; when Mooy won the ball from Palace’s centre-backs, both Ince and Palmer made threatening runs that stretched the game.

The same can be said for Mounie, an £11 million summer signing from Montpellier who scored two impressive goals on his debut. The Benin international was menacing throughout the 90 minutes, showing great athleticism and pace whenever Huddersfield charged forward. Wagner’s system requires an agile centre-forward in Mounie’s mould, and his two emphatic finishes suggest Huddersfield will not struggle to score as they did last season.

Sometimes getting out of the Championship is actually harder than excelling in the Premier League, as Swansea City, Southampton, and Bournemouth have all shown in recent years. Significantly, all three of these teams played an expansive and high-pressing system during their promotion campaigns; Wagner’s model of aggressively closing down and counter-attacking the open spaces will work better against teams with possession-centric pretensions than it did in the Championship, where long balls dominate the war of attrition - and thus nullify the gegenpressing approach.

Huddersfield, then, could be the surprise package of 2017/18, stunning the division like Swansea, Southampton, Bournemouth and Wigan Athletic before them, while a kind fixture list (six of their next seven league games are against teams that finished 11th or lower last season) only strengthens their position. Crystal Palace won’t be the last side Wagner’s nippy, well-organised young team embarrass this year. Huddersfield can look forward to a fun and successful debut campaign.