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Charismatic David Wagner leads Huddersfield’s charge

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LONDON — Before David Wagner turned up Huddersfield Town were drifting in the lower reaches of the Championship, struggling for survival in England’s second tier.

[ MORE: JPW on”miracle” for Terriers ] 

Now, just over 18 months after the German-American’s arrival, Wagner has led Huddersfield to the promised land of the Premier League for the first time in club history and it’s the first time the Terriers have been in the top-flight of English soccer since 1972.

Wagner, 45, took a big risk when he left Borussia Dortmund II in November 2015 to head to Yorkshire but it has paid off. Big time. As a student of the famous Gegenpressing, he took a risk but along with enticing players from Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool to join on loan, Wagner has galvanized an entire club with his passion and desire on the sidelines.

Reports have suggested the likes of Wolfsburg in the Bundesliga, plus many Premier League clubs have been trying to entice Wagner away from the John Smith’s Stadium.

[ MORE: Wagner reacts to fairytale

Yet, after Huddersfield beat Reading 4-3 on penalty kicks at Wembley Stadium to win the Championship Playoff Final on Monday, it appears highly-likely Wagner will be their manager next season.

As he strode in to his post-game press conference, Wagner shrieked “Helloooo” to the media and then tripped over the stage of the press auditorium at Wembley before apologizing for smelling like Champagne as he had changed out of his all black suit and shirt.

It’s tough not to like this guy.

Especially because he had so many doubters when he turned up in England with a plan to play a high-pressing style in the Championship, a nutritiously demanding league both physically and mentally.

“I’m so happy we’ve proven that experience is not everything,” Wagner said. “I’ve always been confronted with questions of my experience in English football, the league, no winter break and the play-offs. Experience is important, but if you have passion, desires and ideas you can match it. We’ve shown it’s possible and brought this fairy tale to a happy ending.”

Wagner has been the architect of creating a wonderful team spirit between the players and the club as fans marvel at his ability to say the right thing at the right time but still being able to smile as well as snarl when necessary. He is no longer seen as Jurgen Klopp‘s buddy who got a job in England off the back of Klopp’s recommendation.

He has carved his own path, created his own identity and is leading Huddersfield on their own wonderful journey as 40,000 Terriers fans descended on Wembley and made a dreadful din all afternoon long to try and roar their team to the Premier League. Their team were the better side on the day and now they have brought Huddersfield an estimated $218 million through promotion.

The style of the team is tough, physical and direct. Wagner’s men only scored 56 goals in 46 league games (the second fewest in the top half of the table) and actually finished with a goal differential of -2. They found ways to get wins time and again, grinding out victories late on and feeding off their togetherness.

ProSoccerTalk asked Wagner if he will follow the model of any previous clubs who have been promoted to the Premier League, with other minnows such as Watford, Bournemouth and Burnley solidifying themselves in the top-flight after recent promotions.

“I’m not experienced enough,” Wagner laughed. “I have no experience about Bournemouth, Burnley. I know a little bit about the clubs, but I haven’t followed their story and how they came to this stage. We have to be focused on ourselves and this football club has to be focused on themselves. This football club has created an identity and this was always our target, that we create an identity and a style of football where even if we wear neutral jerseys people from outside are able to say ‘okay, that could be Huddersfield.’ I think it makes no sense to compare ourselves with other small clubs. This football club has its own story and I think, we are on the way.”

Huddersfield are on their way, but what does it mean for the town in Yorkshire which has a population just over 160,000?

Wagner showcased just what it meant to him as he climbed on the railing of the second tier at Wembley as hoisted the playoff trophy into the air, looking like he was almost going to fall over the edge. Huddersfield’s fans let out a huge roar, and, just like they’ve done all season, they embraced the German tradition of gathering together with players after the game to celebrate a victory by throwing their arms in the ear.

“Everybody knows that last time this club was in the [top division] was 45 years ago,” Wagner said. “It’s a big, big achievement and I’m so proud of my players, and I’m happy for the whole town and everyone who helped Huddersfield take these steps forward – including the chairman, who backed nearly all of my ideas!”

Huddersfield were meant to finish in midtable, at best, as fans bought in to Wagner’s charisma after he rebuilt the squad in the second half of the 2015-16 season on the way to a 19th place finish in the 24-team league, before setting things up perfectly for his first full season in England with a team-bonding trip to Sweden during preseason.

“He has made a massive difference, he has changed the whole culture of the club around,” Steven Sunderland, a lifelong Huddersfield fan said outside Wembley. “He has brought a new mentality to the game. That German mentality. A winning mentality. He has got everybody on board and that’s the main thing.”

Wagner also didn’t take much of the praise, instead lavishing it on his players who have been brought together with loan deals, free transfers and their record transfer who scored the winning penalty kick at Wembley, Christopher Schindler, cost just $2.3 million from 1860 Munich last summer.

The former U.S. national team striker scoffed when asked about the $15 million budget for this season, saying it was “much lower than that” and revealed what he told his players ahead of the playoffs.

“I said to the players before the [play-off] semi-finals: ‘You are heroes, you finished fifth in the league, but from hero to zero in football is sometimes only a week and now you have the opportunity to become legends.’ Now they are legends for sure,” Wagner said. “Everybody will remember what this group of players have done with a small budget. And they deserve it. This football club has written an unbelievable story.”

The Premier League will have another charismatic German screaming and gesticulating on the sidelines next season, with Wagner laughing about the prospect of facing his good friend Klopp on the sidelines when the Terriers play Liverpool.

“I will probably meet him on the sidelines in the Premier League… it will be funny, for sure,” Wagner smiled. “When we had the friendly he was the first manager who came in my managers office before the game and we drank a cola. So I am unsure if this will happen in a Premier League match, but from my point of view it could happen. When the game starts he and I are out of control, even if he is my pal I don’t have to agree with everything that he is doing.”

But Wagner is caught up in the moment and isn’t thinking too much about next season or even next week. He admitted he will have to make plenty of calls to try and secure the services of loan stars Kasey Palmer, Izzy Brown, Aaron Mooy and Danny Ward next season, but right now he’s all about one thing: the party.

“I haven’t thought about my personal standing or [that of] individual players,” Wagner said. “All that’s in my head is celebration. My only focus was this final, so I was not involved in planning [celebrations] but there are a lot of smart, intelligent and very happy people in Huddersfield who have been thinking about that – and after 45 years it is sure to be one of the better celebrations.”

There’s no doubt Wagner will be leading those celebrations and he will be a hero forever in Huddersfield.

Newcastle to pry $15 million Praet away from Sampdoria

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Reports in Italy say Newcastle’s nightmarish start to the season may get a prime reinforcement in former Anderlecht midfielder Dennis Praet, now of Sampdoria.

Praet, 23, has a single cap for Belgium and played 34 times for Sampdoria during his first season with the Serie A club. He played 84 minutes of the Genoese club’s 2-1 season-opening win over Benevento this weekend.

[ MORE: Wood to Burnley; Clucas to Swans ]

He arrived from Anderlecht last season for just under $12 million, and Newcastle’s reported cost for his services will be right around $15 million.

More than capable in his own end and productive in moving play along, he’d play a bit deeper in Newcastle’s midfielder.

With Jonjo Shelvey suspended, Isaac Hayden had a feast or famine partner in on-loan Borussia Dortmund mid Mikel Merino in the Magpies’ disappointing 1-0 Sunday loss at Huddersfield Town.

Stream Live: Manchester City host Everton

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Manchester City welcome Everton to the Etihad Stadium on Monday (Watch live, 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) with two Barcelona legends colliding on the sidelines.

[ LIVE: Stream Man City-Everton ] 

Both teams will be looking to make it two wins from two to kick off the season as their new-look, expensively assembled squads have plenty of expectation on their shoulders.

Pep Guardiola and Ronald Koeman will put their friendship to one side for this game.

In team news Man City bring in Leroy Sane for Danilo, while Everton move Davy Klaassen to the bench and have new club-record signing Gylfi Sigurdsson alongside him.

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Geoff Cameron reaches Premier League milestone

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Stoke City’s Geoff Cameron has become just the sixth American in history to make 150 appearances in the Premier League.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

Cameron, 32, started at center back as Stoke beat Arsenal 1-0 at the bet365 Stadium on Saturday with the Potters defense holding firm to seal a big early-season win.

The U.S. national team star has been a mainstay at Stoke since arriving from the Houston Dynamo in 2012 and he is now only behind Clint Dempsey in terms of appearances made by an outfield player in the Premier League.

Selected 46th overall in the 2009 MLS draft by Houston, Cameron’s career has gone from strength-to-strength since joining Stoke and the USMNT center back signed a new two-year contract extension at the end of last season which will keep him with the Potters until at least the end of the 2018-19 campaign.

Therefore it is not inconceivable that given his great recent form and his versatility to play at center back, in central midfield or a right back, that he will rack up close to another 90 appearances over the next two seasons to overtake Dempsey’s total of 218 appearances.

Cameron has quietly moved ahead of the likes of Carlos Bocanegra, Brian McBride, Claudio Reyna and other U.S. legends in terms of appearances and his longevity in the PL, at perhaps its most competitive era in history, should be applauded.

With only Danny Williams and DeAndre Yedlin likely to play consistently elsewhere in the PL this season, Cameron is one of the few players still flying the American flag.

Here’s a look at who is ahead of him and when he can move further up the list of Americans to appear in the PL.

  • Brad Friedel – 451 appearances
  • Tim Howard – 399 appearances
  • Clint Dempsey – 218 appearances
  • Kasey Keller – 201 appearances
  • Brad Guzan – 153 appearances
  • Geoff Cameron – 150 appearances

PL Playback: Man United ready to roam freely

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MAN UNITED’S MOMENTUM

So far this season Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United look ready to bolt from the barn whenever matchday rolls around.

In a good way.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays

United blew away Swansea City 4-0 on Saturday, using an explosive 3 minute and 41 second period to score three times at the end of the game.

Mourinho’s stable of powerful attacking players are on the pitch and on the bench, with Romelu Lukaku, Paul Pogba and Anthony Martial running riot late in the game.

“I had players on the bench who could help me. Happiness in our play. It happened to me so much with my teams, you’re winning 1-0 and you can can concede. There was no need to close the door, just let the horses run freely,” Mourinho told the BBC after the game.

The depth in this United squad is considerable with Martial coming off the bench to score twice and assist on another goal in the opening two games of the PL season. Lukaku has scored four goals in his first three official games for United, while Pogba has a goal in each of his first two PL games this season. Everything is looking rosy for United who sit top of the table after two 4-0 wins to open the season.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

But hold your horses. No disrespect to West Ham and Swansea, but United should beat them convincingly. Yet they seem to have put aside their problems from last season where they dominated teams but couldn’t put them away, which led to a league-high 15 draws from 38 games. They’ve kept more clean sheets than any other PL team in 2017, so conceding hasn’t been the issue.

The balance is now better with attackers able to roam freely and interchange further up the pitch. In truth, they played similarly for large spells of last season but they couldn’t finish. Now the confidence is flowing and scoring goals seems like the easiest thing in the world.

Mourinho seems to have instilled newfound confidence in his team and with the players now having a whole season of the Mourinho experience under their belt, they understand what he wants. Also, the second-season syndrome (we all know what happens in year three) under Mourinho always seems to get the best out of his methods. There is a real feel-good vibe around United right now and their early-season schedule will allow this to build.

Despite all of the positives surrounding United’s opening victories, what if Romelu Lukaku goes down injured? Can Marcus Rashford, who has looked dangerous out on the left, fill his void up top? Maybe Zlatan Ibrahimovic will arrive on a short-term deal but the forward issue is one which will still concern Mourinho, even though his attacking unit is purring right now. Injuries hit United hard last season but they had more games with their Europa League campaign, EFL Cup success and deep run in the FA Cup. This season should be easier to manage.

Mourinho’s team now seem able to shut opponents down and limit their chances and the balance of this team is spot on. Nemanja Matic‘s arrival has been lauded and he allows Pogba to roam free in support of Lukaku, Rashford, Martial and Henrikh Mkhitaryan who was sublime once again, taking his assist tally to four in 173 minutes for the season.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule

The diminutive duo of Juan Mata and Mkhitaryan perfectly compliment the powerful trio of Pogba, Lukaku and Rashford in attack and all of a sudden you can see why Mourinho was shown pretending to smoke an imaginary cigar before the game when the cameras caught him chatting with Swansea boss Paul Clement.

So chill.

Mourinho will let his horses roam free for the opening months of the season as United do not face a top six opponent until Oct. 14 when they head to Liverpool and then they face Chelsea and Tottenham in two of their next three games, while the UCL group games will also come thick and fast around that time.

That’s when the real tests will start to arrive but United already have a ruthless streak about them which wasn’t there last season.


CHELSEA’S WEMBLEY GRIT

It wasn’t the best display Chelsea will put in, but it had buckets of desire and determination as they became the first team to beat Tottenham at home (yes, it was Wembley) in 19 Premier League games.

[ MORE: Can Spurs get over Wembley jinx? ]

After being at the London derby, the first-ever Premier League game at Wembley, I wrote about Spurs’ struggles at their temporary home, and that was a big part of this.

Chelsea rode their luck but without the injured Eden Hazard, exiled Diego Costa, the suspended duo of Gary Cahill and Cesc Fabregas, plus new signings Alvaro Morata, Antonio Rudiger and Tiemoue Bakayoko all taking time to settle in as they made their first starts for the club, it was one heck of a result.

[ MORE: 3 things learned from Chelsea’s win ]

Tottenham were wasteful in attack against Chelsea’s revamped 3-5-2 system which saw David Luiz become a colossal in central midfield and youngster Andreas Christensen more than hold his own in central defense. They hit Spurs on the counter expertly as Willian hit the post and then Marcos Alonso scored a late winner which sent the 3,000-plus away fans wild at Wembley.

Antonio Conte ran to the away section after the game punching the air with delight as the Italian coach looked to be unloading plenty of the pressure which had been piling up on his shoulders over the summer and the early weeks of this season. That was understandable following the Costa saga, Nemanja Matic being sold to Man United, the FA Community Shield defeat to Arsenal and a shock loss to Burnley.

“This is a perfect response of the champions,” Conte said. “We won the league last season, winning 30 games, and that is not easy. We lost in the final of the FA Cup. We have arrived in some problems with bans and injuries but we must be ready to work and focus on the pitch. The club is trying its best in the transfer market to improve our squad but I must be happy.”

With the chips down, Sunday’s London derby win proved the reigning champs won’t give up their crown without a fight.


EARLY SEASON HEROES, STRUGGLERS

We are only in Week 2 but there are already plenty of heroes and vllains around the Premier League.

Huddersfield Town have won their first two Premier League games with David Wagner‘s side beating Newcastle United 1-0 on Sunday at a raucous John Smith’s Stadium.

Aaron Mooy was the hero as the Australian midfielder cut inside and bent home a beauty into the far corner to become Huddersfield’s hero. In truth, every Terriers player was a hero, just like they were in Week 1 at Crystal Palace.

Wagner’s men are six points closer to the magic 40-point marker to avoid relegation and the Yorkshire club are loving life in the big-time. They are the new darlings of the PL.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, there are five teams at the bottom of the Premier League table who have yet to grab a point this season, and four of those have yet to score a goal.

They aren’t panicking, but a slow start is far from ideal.

Newcastle United were lackluster in attack in their defeat at Huddersfield and Rafael Benitez looks frustrated on the sidelines with funds from owner Mike Ashley not as forthcoming as he’d hoped. The Magpies need major work in the final weeks of the window.

So do fellow new boys Brighton & Hove Albion and Chris Hughton‘s side barely created anything at Leicester City in their second 2-0 defeat to open the season. Bournemouth, surprisingly, have lost two games to open the campaign with Eddie Howe‘s men also yet to score as Watford dominated the game at the Vitality Stadium. The alarm bells are ringing in Dorset.

Crystal Palace put in a dogged display away at Liverpool but Christian Benteke missed a glorious chance and Frank de Boer’s men conceded late on with Sadio Mane grabbing the winner and West Ham have now conceded seven goals to open the season with two defeats from two for Slaven Bilic‘s side.

At least West Ham’s Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez hasn’t had a slow start to the season even though his team lost 3-2 at Southampton in a dramatic game. Mexico’s all-time leading goalscorer netted two typical close-range goals but his side were undone by giving away two penalty kicks and having Marko Arnautovic stupidly sent off.

Like the other teams struggling at the start of the season, the Hammers are creating problems for themselves. How would Hernandez sum up their start and the current mood at West Ham?

“Difficult, we knew that with three away games. The last two with Manchester United and then at Southampton we played a really good game in the second half with 10 men, we had a lot of effort and were so close to getting one point and maybe even three points, you never know. It has been a little bit sad but we are getting there,” Hernandez said. “We need time to keep working, to keep improving. We need to look forward, we need to be positive. We can not stay in the good memories or bad memories. That’s the good thing about football, you have a chance of revenge every weekend.”

Premier League Playback comes out every week as PST’s Lead Writer and Editor takes an alternative look at all the action from the weekend. Read the full archive, here