A Wagner masterclass

“All 24 teams can challenge in this division. We don’t have any reason to dream. We have every reason to work and this is what we do.

“I was never a dreamer and I was always a worker which is why I am here at this club, this is a working club. We start again tomorrow.”

David Wagner 13th August 2016.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why there is so much hope and optimism around Huddersfield Town.

Wagner enjoys the moments of triumph, which are hopefully to become more regular now that his squad is both his own and, crucially, prepared in his way, but it isn’t enough for him to produce a relatively large shock against the Championship favourites on their own turf, sit back and bask – he wants much, much more.

He also alluded to the fact that, no matter how rightfully ecstatic we all were with the win, there were elements of luck in victory – Gayle should have done better with a chance just 3 minutes in, there was an extended period when the excellent Ritchie threatened to take charge of the game single handedly and Town’s winner was preceded by more than a suspicion of a push by Palmer.

None of this will matter to the 3,200 Town fans – a number which will undoubtedly inflate as the years pass – as their team put Wagner’s master plan in to operation with possibly as much certainty as they could muster in the chaos of real time games.

Rightfully and thankfully, bemoaning the resources of other clubs and the inherent unfairness of it all which, in turn, became preemptive excuses for defeat is now a thing of the past. However, it remains hugely pertinent to compare the chasm in scale of our opponents yesterday; a little fewer than 50,000 Geordies turned out to see a second tier game with their team boasting expensive players of no little quality lead by a world famous, Champions League winning manager.

Over the past 4 years, we have pitted our wits against some pretty big clubs – Wednesday, Leeds, Derby, Forest etc – but walking up to St James Park was to experience a different level all together. People revel in mocking the lack of success at this North Eastern giant, with regular accusations of delusion, yet Newcastle United dominates the city with its imposing, monolithic presence. The stadium dominates the skyline, hulking over a city centre whose citizens formally and casually wear black and white in huge numbers. If only they could find their own Dean Hoyle.

Given the context, Town’s victory was easily the most impressive since promotion to the Championship and entirely founded on a game plan which confounded pre match musings, including those of David Wagner. The scamp.

The first surprise was the pairing of Wells and Kachunga. As a firm believer in playing one out and out striker, seeing these two on the same team sheet and in the first eleven was an indication that the normal game plan was to be adjusted for the circumstances.

As the game unfolded, it became clear that the trademark high press had been abandoned in favour of a rope a dope strategy which allows the opposition lots of possession but precious little space. As a formation to neutralise the pace of the Magpies and the passing range of Shelvey, it worked for most of the game, though Town needed to hold their nerve following a third minute breach of the system when Janmaat’s ball over the top should really have been converted by Gayle.

For the rest of the half, however, open play was largely under Town’s control despite them having significantly less possession than their hosts. Newcastle’s attempts to find their front man were thwarted time and again to the growing consternation of their supporters – a day which started with an atmosphere building display of large flags quietened down markedly and quickly as Wagner’s game plan became more and more effective.

Shelvey largely came out the loser in his bald head to bald head clash with the excellent Mooy but when he was unshackled from the Aussie for free kicks and the home side’s solitary first half corner, his threat was real.

He put in a dangerous cross from a free kick, only for Ward to be equal to Mbemba’s powerful header and from the subsequent corner, Hayden headed just over. Finally, Ward was forced in to a decent save from his free kick, but that was pretty much the last significant contribution Shelvey made.

Despite deliberately starving themselves of the ball, Town also created chances. In contrast to United’s rather ponderous build up play, the visitors counter thrusts were pacy and direct. An early Wells shot only just cleared the bar and the returning striker then assisted Kachunga to hit the post. Lolley and Van La Parra wasted reasonable chances by firing way over the bar on each occasion but there was little doubt that the visitors posed a threat.

After Shelvey’s free kick, Town sucked the enthusiasm from the crowd with calm authority. Rarely hustled out of possession when they had it and easily frustrating the Magpies forays forward, the home side resorted to speculative balls forward which, more often than not, sailed over heads to safety or were easily cut out by an increasingly comfortable back four.

As the first half entered injury time, the noisy Town fans – sweltering at altitude under a Perspex roof which concentrates rather than diffuses sunlight – could be satisfied with a very solid performance from their team, but it was about to get much, much better.

Picking the ball up inside Newcastle’s half, Van La Parra went on one of his runs which often peter out with lost possession. To the audible annoyance of the baking fans, the Dutchman ignored a good run by Lowe on his left and turned in to what should have been a crunching tackle by Shelvey. The ex- Swansea man was, to be kind, half hearted in response and allowed Town’s winger to squeeze a ball through to Wells who coolly curled a low shot home.

The frustration around St James’ Park was palpable and boos inevitably followed as half time came. Somewhat higher up in the stands, a good half had been turned in to a great one and a raucous following roared their delight – there was a sense that this was going to be one of those good days righteously earned through years of largely uninterrupted disappointment.

The exuberance of some of us with a memory was slightly tempered by the sight of Matt Ritchie readying himself on the touchline as a replacement for the ineffectual Aarons (though he had been better than the woeful Anita). It seemed that Benitez had woken up to the fact that he had spent a lot of money on a very, very good player and perhaps it would be an idea to, you know, involve him (in fairness to Rafa, it emerged that Ritchie wasn’t fully fit though his performance didn’t suggest it).

Town’s first half assurance began to creak a little as the threat from Newcastle’s right increased with Ritchie and Janmaat proving a handful for the over worked Lowe and Van La Parra (eventually, Wagner swapped the more defensively adept Lolley for his Dutch team mate to good effect until Joe’s cramps overcame him).

Inevitably, the home side’s new found impetus on the right lead to an equaliser. Janmatt’s cross eluded Hudson, who may have been impeded and the ball struck his hand in the ensuing melee. It would have been a brave referee who would have denied a penalty in front of the Gallowgate End but, in truth, the offence, while unfortunate, was clear.

With hopes pinned on Ward, the Welsh keeper didn’t have to do much more than guess the right way to dive to stop a pretty awful penalty by Gayle; unfortunately, the ball looped up for the ex Palace man to head home his first Toon goal.

In the following 15 minutes, Town’s play became less and less of a game plan and a more desperate rearguard action.

Sitting a little too deep by now and with legs tiring in the middle, the home team had the opportunity to go for the jugular but, again to the consternation of the black and white hordes, lacked any real guile to trouble Town’s last line of defence.

In and amongst the ineffectiveness, however, a rare attack involving passing and moving found Dummett who put in an excellent far post cross which the otherwise excellent Ritchie should have buried.

By then, Wagner had rung the changes. Wells, just back from a long lay off and increasingly superfluous as Town defended deep, was replaced by Palmer with Kachunga moved forward.

Between half time and the equaliser, Town’s counter attacks were rare – Lolley forced Sels in to a routine save early on in the half – and though the impressive Hogg and Mooy continued to frustrate their opponents, phases of possession were few and far between.

Van La Parra, anonymous as an attacking force and already replaced as defensive cover and exiled to the right was taken off for Scannell.

The substitutions seemed to settle Town in to a better shape; while desperation was never far from the surface, Kachunga was a more visible outlet for pressure than Wells and Palmer added a little more guile.

Newcastle were restricted to shooting from range, badly, and the intensity from their right started to ebb.

In these slowly changing circumstances, Wagner was forced in to his final substitution as Lolley succumbed to a second bout of cramp (reflecting just how difficult it had been to contain Ritchie) and Kachunga was pressed in to a more defensive role as Palmer moved forward. Jack Payne, a rather unfortunate victim of Wagner’s revised game plan, came on to take the number 10 role.

The little Essex lad was about to burn his name on the memories of the Town faithful just one minute after his introduction.

A clearance was fought for by Palmer on the left, with a hint of illegality, and the Chelsea loanee wriggled away before playing a perfect ball to the scampering Payne. Slowing his advance slightly, he bought himself vital seconds before striking an unstoppable shot in to the far corner past the hapless Sels. It was the only way.

Pandemonium in the Gods ensued as a famous victory loomed and, probably anticipating backlash, a demoralised home team couldn’t muster much of a response before a rapidly depleting crowd.

A generous – to us – 4 minutes were added on but the story was written. That narrative, of course, was Newcastle’s defeat rather than Town’s win (stop moaning, that IS the story) but their opprobrium was of little concern to the delirious Yorkshire men loudly celebrating in the far flung corner.

Wagner, delighted at the way his charges had carried out his plan (even if they rode their luck a little at times), joined in the celebrations by standing back to allow then to take the acclaim.

It would, of course, be far cooler to just take the win as if it was routine, but we all know it was actually pretty momentous and, in any case, the importance of the connection between supporters and the team has been extensively stated since the German takeover and there is a genuine hope that this season may well turn out to be a special one.

After a performance where each and every player contributed, it is a little unfair to pick out individuals, but the Hogg/Mooy axis was hugely responsible for the win. Hogg was everywhere protecting his colleagues and Mooy’s class is unmistakable.

With another fallen giant to face on Tuesday, recovery time – emotional as well as physical – is short, but we can rely on Wagner to make the right decisions for a game where the pressure is off following a perfect start to the season.

Newcastle will click, and probably sooner rather than later, but Saturday provided a welcome example of how organisation, innovation and belief can overcome huge financial disadvantage – Dean Hoyle’s plan is starting to bear fruit, even if it is very early to make any assumptions in this enormously challenging division.

For now, let’s enjoy the result and performance and remember “I was there!”

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