Can Huddersfield maintain their good start at the top of the Championship?

Huddersfield sit proudly on top of the Championship table. Even before the difficult midweek trip to Brighton, who are one of the sides tipped to earn promotion this season, they had stretched their lead to 4 points by winning 5 of their opening 6 games and earning manager David Wagner the August Manager of the Month award. Though they ultimately suffered a defeat midweek, which is a minor setback, they remain a point clear of Newcastle and other surprise package Barnsley going into the weekend’s fixtures.

However, the question being posed is: Do they have the longevity to stay at the top? They seem to have come from nowhere and some pundits even had them pegged as relegation candidates (Notably Chris Iwelumo on Channel 5’s Football League Tonight show). Many statistical models were not strong on them after a poor ending to the 2015-16 season saw them take only one win from their final eight games, whilst the odds on them being promoted at the start of the season were around 9.00 – not significantly large but long enough to be considered outsiders.

Using Ben Mayhew’s (@experimental361) format to determine the “strength of schedule,” it cannot be said that Huddersfield have had an easy start.

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Of their first three fixtures, two were away games against sides relegated from the Premier League last season, Newcastle United and Aston Villa. There is conjecture that the best time to play these sides is early on before they get settled (Between both sides they signed an additional 8 players after these games were played), but taking 4 points from these difficult matches was an excellent – and somewhat unexpected – return.

Another point of note should be that their game in Round 6 was against Leeds United, fierce local rivals which adds an extra element of difficulty and Round 4, seemingly the easiest on the list, was against another local rival in Barnsley who currently sit 3rd in the table having also made a great start.

Huddersfield have made some very prudent signings over the summer to better-fit Wagner’s playing style. Coming from a career coaching in Germany he is big on pressing quickly to win the ball back, which is in stark contrast to Huddersfield’s previous managers, who all liked to get bodies behind the ball and focus on defensive stability first.

Naturally the transition takes time and it has taken the summer to really get to grips with this style of play, especially with an influx of 13 new first team players arriving signalling a big overhaul in the playing squad.

Of these, only one has any significant experience of playing in the Championship before; (winger Rajiv van La Parra), and the new signings have an average age of just 23. Recent work done by Omar Chaudhuri for 21st Club (@21stClub) shows there is a misconception that previous Championship experience leads to more promotions (http://www.21stclub.com/2016/08/18/the-overrated-factor/) and Huddersfield will certainly be classed as having one of the squads with the least amount of Championship experience. When the games start coming twice a week it will be interesting to see if Huddersfield have the depth of squad to be able to cope with these demands. Nine of their players started at least five of the opening six games, hinting that Wagner either prefers not to rotate or doesn’t trust the depth of his squad.

The age of the squad shows that Huddersfield may be building a team of players ready to reach their peak age. Several analysts have done work in the area of peak age, notably, work from Tom Worville (@Worville) and Simon Gleave (@SimonGleave) indicates that players reach their peak age between the ages of 24 and 29 and Huddersfield have the majority of their squad within this bracket (13 of 24 first team players), with only three players older than 29 – one of whom is 3rd choice goalkeeper Murphy. This may be a good indicator that they will be able to keep the majority of the side together throughout the season if they can avoid injuries and suspensions, though fatigue will inevitably become an issue if rotation is kept to a minimum, as has been the case up until now.

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Looking at the chances Huddersfield have created in their games so far does tell a slightly different story. Using StrataData we can estimate their expected goals for and against from their seven games played so far this season.

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While the number of goals scored in home matches is close to what we would expect, they have massively outperformed the number of goals scored away from home. It is still early in the season and sample sizes play a part in this, but overall we would actually expect a negative goal difference rather than the +4 they currently have. In all four away games thus far they have actually created very little – in the games against Aston Villa, Leeds and Brighton they failed to create any Superb, Great, Very Good or Good Chances. This could be a worry as they seem to be riding a lot of form at the minute and it’s unlikely this will be sustainable.

Huddersfield in fact find themselves 18th in the table of expected Goal Difference – again it must be made clear that it is early in the season but this still perhaps is a worry for a team who may have ambitions for promotion.

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The analyst reviewing each game for Stratagem also assigns what they believe a Fair Score would be for the match. These are more subjective and take into account the overall flow of the game rather than just expected goals – however things do not look any better in this regard for Huddersfield. In this hypothetical Fair Score table Huddersfield would have just 9 points rather than the 16 they currently sit on. While they shouldn’t be penalised for doing better than expected, it again rings some rather large alarm bells when looking at their future prospects.

Their average Key Entries per game also tell a story. While this data is more about a team’s style of play and game state can have a big impact on it, we see Huddersfield right in the middle with an average of 22 key entries per game. We would expect teams with more key entries to be more attacking – however, this is not always the case with Newcastle being very efficient with the amount of entries they have per game compared to goals.  They often score and are then content to sit back and control the tempo of the game rather than pushing for more and more goals, though their 6-0 win against QPR proves to be the exception to the rule.

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This shows Huddersfield as perhaps what they truly are – a good mid table team. Their excellent start to the season has raised expectations massively amongst supporters and has perhaps naturally piqued interest in the media, but they seem to currently be riding the crest of a wave, with momentum playing a big part, meaning it will be interesting to see how they react to their first defeat of the season.

If they do suffer injuries or a loss of form then it may be very difficult for them to come back and press for a top 6 place. There are some very good and well-funded teams in the Championship, but the West Yorkshire side are already a good way towards a tally that would see them avoid relegation, which has been their primary aim in the past few seasons.

The smart money is that they will fade away and ultimately not make the play offs, therefore the odds of 1.73 on them to Finish Outside the Top 6 (the 4th highest odds for this market) seem quite generous. However in the short term at least, the fans will enjoy the ride, with memories of Leicester City’s memorable run to the Premier League title last year giving genuine cause to believe this early season run can continue.

Dave Willoughby (@donceno)

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