Plymouth Argyle travel to West Yorkshire to face Huddersfield Town on Saturday afternoon; rarely has a league game in the middle of January felt so important.
Since Argyle last played in the league there is a new man in the dugout, they’ve been pushed all the way in the FA Cup by the second-worst team in the EFL, and two of their star loan players have been abruptly recalled only to join divisional rivals. Add in more rumours surrounding players still at the club, and Monday morning was a truly tough time to support the Greens.
Now though, there’s just an impression that Argyle have cleared a few bumps in the road off the field. Morgan Whittaker is still here, and exciting young talents in Ashley Phillips and Darko Gyabi have arrived. Now Ian Foster takes charge of his first league game at the helm, facing another side whose primary goal is to avoid relegation. Any result has the potential to completely dictate the mood surrounding Home Park.
Huddersfield won’t be the same team Argyle beat 3-1 on opening day. With a familiar foe in Darren Moore now in the opposing dugout, we may already know what to expect from the Terriers. Is that indeed the case, or will there be anything surprising to keep an eye on?
Style of play
Well yes, it’s direct. It’s exactly the sort of direct style we’ve come to expect from Moore’s teams. 19% of the passes they’ve attempted this season have been long passes, with only rock-bottom Rotherham United going long more regularly. And that’s reflected in many of their statistics. Huddersfield’s average possession of 38% is again higher than only Rotherham, they’ve completed fewer passes than anyone bar Rotherham, and they rank 23rd for their pass success, with no prizes for guessing who is in 24th.
They won’t be as direct as Sutton United last week, but they will try to go long and swiftly put Argyle on the back foot where possible. Whether Argyle line up with a back three or back four, I’d like to see both Lewis Gibson and Dan Scarr feature. I wouldn’t fancy getting Phillips into the side just yet. He may be tall, but throwing somebody who is by all accounts a ball-playing defender into a game like this would put so much pressure on the shoulders of an 18-year-old.
Huddersfield, for their part, are likely to line up with three at the back. They’ve spent much of Moore’s time at the club in a 3-5-2 shape, with the two strikers being key in many ways. Not only do they provide an outlet for direct balls upfield, they are also the target for crosses that the wing backs will send in with regularity. If they’re on song, they can pop up with key goals too – Delano Burgzorg’s goals alone have won his side seven points this season. He’ll surely play a part if fit.
The midfield may provide a conundrum. Usually, it’s anchored by Jonathan Hogg. He’s probably best remembered for providing the assist for that Troy Deeney goal for Watford, but he’s spent the majority of his career with the Terriers. He’s made more tackles than any other Huddersfield player this season, but went off injured early against Middlesbrough, and missed the New Year’s Day defeat to Leicester City as a result.
If Hogg isn’t fit, the midfield suddenly looks weaker. And we know that Argyle face midfield selection dilemmas too, following the recalls of Finn Azaz and Luke Cundle and arrival of Gyabi, plus rumours of more to come. Whoever manages to get their midfield selection right will find it much easier to gain a foothold in the game.
In defence, as mentioned, Huddersfield will line up with a back three. Barring any late setbacks, Poland international Michal Helik is certain to start, having not missed a minute so far this season. He’s usually joined by Matty Pearson, but he’s another likely to miss the game having been ruled out by a calf injury since mid-December. It’s therefore likely that Tom Lees and Yuta Nakayama will make up the remainder of the back line. There have been injury problems behind them too but Lee Nicholls, who started the season as first choice ‘keeper, should be fine for this one.
They’ve got the potential to mix things up too – Alex Matos and Bojan Radulovic are yet to make a league appearance, but both featured in Huddersfield’s FA Cup defeat to Manchester City following their January transfers. Argyle will have to prepare for every eventuality.
Much of Moore’s system is rooted in getting the basics right. Do that, keep games tight, and the chances will surely come. Whilst it isn’t thrilling, it could be enough for Huddersfield this season in their relegation battle. An in fairness, off the ball they do a lot well.
Their defending is an obvious example. Huddersfield have made more clearances than any other side in the Championship. They’ve also blocked 124 shots this season, the second most of any side in the division. Behind only Plymouth Argyle. And yes, those figures may simply be a symptom of the amount of defending they need to do, but it does demonstrate that when the necessity arises, they tend to comfortably cope with bread and butter defending. They’re also the third best team in the league for their ground duel success, which certainly helps.
I’m also impressed by how well they cross. Remember there are no frills to Moore’s style; once they bring the ball down from the forwards, they’ll look to find one of the wide players and cross into the box quickly. They’ve completed 132 crosses this season, with only West Bromwich Albion completing more. And their success rate is impressive too; at 28% only two teams (Leicester and Swansea) cross more successfully. It’s another reason why the presence of Gibson and his clearances will be crucial.
When the style works, there are usually two players at the heart of it. One is Helik, who as mentioned has been an ever-present for Huddersfield this season. The other is Sorba Thomas, who has the versatility to play on either flank or as one of the strikers.
Helik is a threat at both ends. He’s a defender first and foremost of course, and a strong one at that. He’s made more clearances than any other Championship player, and ranks in the top three for blocks, acting as the main contributor for Huddersfield’s impressive numbers in those areas. There’s more – only two Championship players have made more interceptions than Helik, suggesting he’s the sort of player who can stop attacks early.
As good as those numbers are, I think I’ve been even more impressed with his goalscoring. With seven goals this season, Helik is the Championship’s top scoring defender. Given how centre backs tend to score, you may assume that means he’s a huge threat from set pieces. And whilst that may be true, he’s actually scored four of his goals this season – the majority – from open play.
Helik is the sort of player who finds pockets of space when least expected. Sometimes he’ll stay up from a set piece when the initial chance is long gone, and other times he’ll drift upfield when Huddersfield are in possession. It means he’ll pop up in attacking areas sporadically, and most teams won’t have a plan to mark him. That gives his team an extra attacking element, and it’s something Argyle must take into consideration. They learnt that to their detriment on opening day, when Helik was quickest to react to Brahima Diarra hitting the post.
If Helik doesn’t get you, Thomas might. He plays a type of Morgan Whittaker role in Huddersfield’s attack; when in doubt, their role will be to get the ball to Thomas as soon as possible. Helik is the only Terriers player to have more touches than Thomas this season.
Where Thomas differs from Whittaker is the end product. Not in terms of quality, but in terms of the desire. With Whittaker, his aim is to get a shot away whenever he gets the ball (his total of 106 shots this season is comfortably the highest in the league). Thomas’ role is much more creative, with his end goal being to bring his teammates into play. It’s actually Josh Koroma (54) who has had the most shots for Huddersfield this term.
It may take a long ball and a knockdown to get the ball to him, but Thomas is actually the driving force behind most of Huddersfield’s moves. He has more key passes (60) and has created more big chances (9) than anybody else in the side. Given Moore’s style, perhaps it’s least surprising that Thomas’ crossing catches the eye the most. With 73, he’s completed more crosses this season than any other Championship player.
Nullify Thomas, stop and get around Helik, and Argyle will go a long way towards winning the game. It’s easier said than done.
I’m getting déjà vu from last weekend’s Sutton preview. Because as good as those strengths sound, there must be a reason why Huddersfield find themselves at the wrong end of the table.
When reviewing Sutton, we concluded that they were too defensively frail to be effective. I think Huddersfield have the opposite problem. Going forward, they just don’t offer enough of a threat to win games consistently.
They’re currently facing a double whammy of not taking many shots, and the shots they do take not being threatening. They’ve taken 275 shots this season, with only three teams having taken fewer. And only 60% have been from inside the box, again with only three teams having taken a lower proportion of their shots within the penalty area.
When you don’t shoot often, and the shots you do take tend to be pot shots from range, you won’t score many goals. And it shows, with Huddersfield ranking 20th for goals scored in the league this season. I also think they’re hampered by Moore’s inability to change games when necessary; Huddersfield are the only side in the Championship not to have had a goal scored by a substitute this season.
Why is the attack struggling so much? I just wonder if Moore is trying to enforce a style that doesn’t quite fit the players at his disposal.
We’ve discussed at length that Huddersfield like to go long. And that might have worked for Moore in the past, but right now they’re struggling to get the ball into attacking areas and, more crucially, keep it there. They have a long pass success of 35% so far this season. That’s the second worst figure in the league, and particularly insufficient for a team relying on those long passes so heavily.
To my eye, their forwards aren’t good enough in the air to bring the ball down as required. I mentioned earlier that Burgzorg has the knack of scoring key goals, which is obviously positive. But his aerial duel success rate of 22% means he’s rarely involved in his side’s build up play. It’s a similar story with Josh Koroma, who occasionally plays in an advanced role but wins 25% of his aerial duels. Thomas has the worst record of the lot – he may be a threat when on the ball, but has won just 15% of his battles in the air.
There are players with better records, but they haven’t seen enough game time to be effective. Kian Harratt is one such player, whilst Danny Ward would be a good option to bring the ball out of the sky had his season not been blighted by injury. Huddersfield do have Kyle Hudlin; standing at a frankly obscene 6 foot 9 it’s no surprise that he wins more aerial duels than he loses, but it doesn’t look like Moore trusts him to play the full 90 minutes. At least for now.
Maybe new arrival Radulovic will be the man to fix Huddersfield’s fortunes in the air, because he certainly has the physique to do so. Until he does though, the Terriers are likely to continue playing the ball upfield aimlessly and hoping to get lucky.
Forcing this style on a squad currently unsuited has been one of Moore’s major failings since joining Huddersfield back in September. He replaced Neil Warnock then, and it’s tough to see exactly where they’ve improved since making the switch. In fact, in many ways, they’ve become worse.
There are many metrics we can use to assess how much, if at all, Huddersfield have improved under Moore. But this piece is getting on a bit now, so I’ll settle with the standard points, goals scored and goals conceded. I’ll even throw in their expected values too for good measure. As you’ll see, Warnock actually has the edge in most areas, particularly in attack.
|Huddersfield Town (2023/24)
|Under Neil Warnock
|Under Darren Moore
|Points (per game)
|Goals scored (per game)
|Goals against (per game)
|Expected points (per game)
|Expected goals (per game)
|Expected goals against (per game)
The key caveat is that Moore hasn’t had a transfer window to bring his own side together. The second half of the season will therefore be key. If he doesn’t have his side firing after January, Moore may find himself under serious pressure. Wouldn’t it be nice if Argyle delivered a telling blow this weekend?
On one hand we have a side that can defend but struggles to attack. On the other we have a side that can attack but struggles to defend. Who will play to their strengths and come away with the points?
With Argyle being away from home, I expect the game will be played on Huddersfield’s terms. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll win, but it should be tight, with defences winning the battle against the attackers. However it goes though, I do think Argyle are good enough to get at least something from the game.
A win would lift the mood around Home Park significantly. And whilst it wouldn’t be the end of the world, a defeat may just feel like it. Not many are considering a third option though, and that’s what I think we’ll see. 1-1.