Renewed Huddersfield Town pride and Jon Russell’s role in final five conclusions before play-offs

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Huddersfield Town signed off on the Championship league season by breezing to a 2-0 victory over Bristol City that pushed them to a third-place finish and set up a play-off semi-final against sixth-placed Luton Town.

Carlos Corberan picked a much-rotated side with six changes from the side that claimed victory away to Coventry City last week. In came seldom-seen players like Jamal Blackman, Carel Eiting and Naby Sarr alongside the returning Danel Sinani and Danny Ward – but it did not do Town’s performance any harm as two first-half goals were enough to settle the tie.

Harry Toffolo’s fifth goal in seven games was followed up by a Ward effort from close range after good work by Duane Holmes to create it, with late drama elsewhere seeing Nottingham Forest blow their lead away to Hull despite scoring a 92nd-minute penalty. That meant Town rose a place in the table and will now start their play-off campaign next Friday. Here are our five conclusions on the game.

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1. Huddersfield Town are in excellent spirits going into the play-offs

It is remarkable how different this club now feels to last year. Fans did not need to be able to attend games last season for the discontent to be so palpable that you got an acrid taste in your mouth just from opening Twitter or visiting Down at the Mac.

The closest recent comparison we have to the feeling at the John Smith’s Stadium on Saturday was the pre-season friendly at Southport last summer, when everyone was just delighted to be able to finally be back at a game of football. It was far from shorts weather on this occasion as it was back then, but the calves were out in spirit as Carlos Corberan happily strolled around outside the John Smith’s Stadium before the game, making himself available for selfies and autographs.

Short of a 5-0 defeat at Kenilworth Road next Friday, it’s hard to imagine a circumstance where those good vibes evaporate entirely regardless how they fare in the play-offs. Promotion was beyond many Huddersfield Town fans’ wildest dreams coming into this season; Finishing third is enough of an achievement in its own right that everyone can now feel positive about the direction the club is going.

Even if they ultimately fall short of the Premier League, and even if one or two players finally have their asking prices met, Huddersfield Town are in a very good position to build on what they have put together this season. Most importantly, pride has been restored in the club, the head coach and the players. We honestly could not have asked for more than that this season, and everyone at Huddersfield Town deserves immense credit.

2. 3-5-2 may be Huddersfield Town’s best formation for the play-offs

Not so long ago, it looked like three at the back had largely had its day for Huddersfield Town. Carlos Corberan picked a back four for 11 of the 15 games between the 3-4 win away at Reading in January and the 2-2 draw against Queens Park Rangers just a few weeks ago. That was the last time we saw it, however; it’s been a three all the way from Middlesbrough onwards.

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Admittedly, that may just be a coincidence. Corberan has long preferred to play two centre-backs against a lone striker and three centre-backs against a front two, and it just so happens that Boro, Barnsley, Coventry and Bristol City all favor a pair of centre-forwards. On the other hand, Corberan was willing to eschew that general principle against Nottingham Forest, Reading and Sheffield United over the second half of the season.

Is it significant that he has since gone back to a three recently? We think so, and that could be telling since all three of the teams who will join Town in the play-offs this year have generally played with a front two this season.

Corberan had barely touched 3-5-2 until recently, using it just three times in August and then not doing so again until the Middlesbrough game. That game was won 0-2. Against Coventry, Town started in a 3-4-3 and struggled; a switch to 3-5-2 midway through the first half unlocked the game for them.

Here, Town went largely untroubled while putting in one of their best attacking performances of the season, registering an xG (2.31) only bettered at home to Reading and Blackburn and away to Hull. This game was the first time Town have scored two goals from open play in nine games, the last time being the 2-2 draw against West Brom on 11th March.

We’re keen not to draw too many meaningful conclusions from this game, given how poor Bristol City’s defense is and the distinctly end-of-season atmosphere around the whole game. But we can say that this formation suits the defense, allows Town to use their strengths on either flank despite Sorba Thomas’ absence, and adds an extra man to a midfield we have found to be slightly worryingly porous over recent games.

Most importantly of all, Town have taken 13 points from the five games they have started in a 3-5-2, easily the best return rate of any formation they have used this season. Is this the winning formula that will take them to Wembley? We’ll see.

3. A late-season positional switch offers an intriguing option

Yes, we’re still trying to make ‘the Middlesbrough Mascherano’ take off as a nickname. But it’s entirely apposite for Jonathan Hogg of late, as a player who, despite not being the tallest, has made a late-career transition from snarling defensive midfielder to composed centre-back.

Hogg put in a truly excellent performance playing in the middle of the back three against Luton and has continued to look well-suited to the role against Barnsley (alright, -ish), Coventry and Bristol City. It’s a small sample size to work from, but we’re willing to set out our stall right now and say that currently seems like the best position for him.

There’s two reasons for that. One is that Hogg has always been most comfortable when he has plenty of options from which to choose his passes, hence his general tendency to drop so deep even when he is picked as the deepest-lying member of a midfield three.

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The second is that Corberan seems to have decided that playing Hogg and Russell in midfield together is not the way to go; he made a comment to that effect after the Coventry game in explaining why the more dynamic Scott High got the nod in that starting lineup.

Russell was impressive playing that number six role here, and we admit we may have sold him a bit short with a 7 in our player ratings. He had clearly learned his lessons after being marked out of the game last time he was tried in the defensive midfield role against Hull City thanks in some part to his immobility on that occasion, and constantly made himself available this time.

In fact, if Russell had one just one more touch of the ball, he’d have had exactly double the number he had against Hull (48). Just to accentuate his influence against Bristol City further: no other Town player got even close to those 95 touches; the next player on the list is Naby Sarr, with 68.

We have a feeling that if Corberan were building a team from scratch, he would have a big, rangy, ball-playing defensive midfielder acting as the heartbeat, keeping everything circulating between defense and attack – hence why Town targeted Alex Vallejo so early in his reign at the club.

The current configuration gives Corberan the best of both worlds: the leadership qualities and determination he prizes so highly in Hogg, and a player in Russell who is more naturally able to drive the midfield forward from behind while offering a constant outlet on the ball; his touches from him were taken in all areas between the two boxes.

Bristol City made it incredibly easy for him to do that, admittedly; but the principle is sound, and we’re fascinated to see if Corberan sticks with it into the play-offs – especially if Matty Pearson is back fit and able to return to the back three.



Jon Russell’s touches vs Bristol City

4. Huddersfield Town look well-placed to cope with any absences

Pearson is not the only player Town hope to have back ready for the play-offs, of course; Thomas is also hard at work trying to get himself fit enough to play at least some part in the two games that will hopefully become three, while Lewis O’Brien missed this game with an injury that Corberan does not believe to be serious but which will have caused a notable spike in doctors’ reporting of cold sweats around the Kirklees area.

If Town hadn’t played Luton, QPR and Middlesbrough so recently, we might be tempted to dismiss this point, but the way Town has handled so many key absences has been a real pleasant surprise over the past few weeks. We actually wrote about a month ago that Town had four virtually irreplaceable players in their side: Lee Nicholls, Lewis O’Brien, Sorba Thomas and Danny Ward. We were tempted to chuck in Matty Pearson because of the excellent form he was in at the time.

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Well, Town have been without four of those players through injuries of varying length and severity over the last few weeks (while Nicholls was also rested here in favor of Jamal Blackman), and it has cost them all of two points over their last seven games. . That is the enormous benefit of both Corberan’s adaptability and the squad depth at his disposal from him. Luton Town have not coped with their own recent injury problems nearly as well.

5. Duane Holmes made the most of Huddersfield Town’s final audition

Not to get all Father Ted’s Golden Cleric acceptance speech about this (“…and now we move on to ‘Liars’…”), but I am aware there is a feeling in some sections of our readership that I am unduly kind to Duane Holmes. I might point out that 27 of the 40 player ratings I have given him this season have been a 6 or lower, and that when I have gone higher, you have usually agreed. Judging from the scores we respectively gave him for this game, this is one of those occasions where we differ.

As we’ve acknowledged, this game had a distinctly end-of-season feel to it, but for us the two Town players who treated it like every 50/50 ball was being contested in the last minute of a play-off final were Ollie Turton and Holmes, who got in behind the Bristol City defense so often in the first half largely by virtue of being the only player for either side who was going absolutely full pelt to get to it.

Doing so allowed Holmes to create two good chances for Danny Ward, including his goal; as well as having a damn good crack at scoring himself only to be denied by an excellent acrobatic reflex save. It was a relief to see him get back up and carry on after a nasty-looking slip had the John Smith’s Stadium groaning in worry. (Incidentally, credit to Bristol City goalkeeper Daniel Bentley, who went over to check on Holmes and then called for his teammates to put the ball out of play so he could get treatment.)

If our hunch about 3-5-2 and the role Hogg and Russell would play in it are all correct, then there is a place on the right of the central midfield three up for grabs – assuming O’Brien is fit to play on Friday , as is the hope within the club.

That would likely come down to a straight competition between Holmes, Scott High and Danel Sinani, and all three of them have made good cases for themselves over the past couple of weeks – but for us, it was Holmes who made the most of his minutes . That teamsheet on Friday night really is going to be incredibly interesting in all areas of the pitch.



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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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