By J Hutcherson (Jan 15, 2019) US Soccer Players - David Wagner's time as manager of Huddersfield Town ended on Tuesday and with it the American coach working at the highest level of the club game. Wagner isn't a product of the American soccer coaching model, far from it. He put his time in as a player and coach in Germany, part of the successful Borussia Dortmund system under now-Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp. Wagner wasn't an understudy, taking the Huddersfield job well aware of the issues with small club soccer in England. Challenge accepted and exceeded, ending the way it normally does in the Premier League.
Wagner got more out of Huddersfield Town, something that's now the easy description of his time there. He got them to the Premier League, kept them up, and struggled to do it all over again this season. Huddersfield is in last place and eight points from safety.
"I had no intention of sacking David this season," Huddersfield Town chairman Dean Hoyle said. "Subsequently David – being the great man he is – came to us and made it clear that he needs a break from the rigours of football management.... I know the term ‘mutual consent’ is often a byword for the manager being sacked in professional football, but this is a truly joint decision. David has a real, genuine love for this club and, like me, his foremost concern in our talks has been to establish what is best for Huddersfield Town."
That's a fair question. What is best for a team that most people probably wouldn't automatically include in the top 20 in England? This is an open question for a number of English clubs that have spent time in the Premier League while trying to play to an unlikely standard. In the long-term, the mean normally wins. Short of spending ridiculous amounts of money in relation to revenue, the drop to a lower division beckons.
Netflix's Sunderland documentary doesn't exactly stress that point while making it obvious. Their Premier League stability required an incredible amount of money with relatively little return. It's easy to make the same point about the teams competing at the top of the Premier League table, but that's a difference in scale. Midtable obscurity shouldn't have as high a relative price point as competing for a title. It's not the same scenario for pouring money into a doomed relegation fight, but it speaks to the overall problem.
In a structure where the league a club plays in isn't static, relying on anything short of spending is a risk. That's certainly the case in England, where the exceptions can't shoulder the narrative of sporting meritocracy. Those exceptions normally don't last long without spending. That's Huddersfield Town's situation this season, trying to get another Premier League season well aware of the financial risk. It's worth pointing out that Huddersfield Town spent this season, but roughly £30m in the current era of the Premier League isn't necessarily a competitive amount of money. Wolverhampton's transfer balance came in at around £59m while fellow promoted club Fulham clocked in at £105m.
There's no magic number, but there is the realization that price point for the kinds of players that can change things in the Premier League is normally going to be high. Huddersfield had a coaching advantage up until this season. The plaudits from the club with whom he just "parted ways" aren't empy sentiment. Wagner was the biggest difference for Huddersfield's recent success. He figured out his squad and the competition, creating the kind of advantage that could get one version of a team promoted and another version of the team a second season in the Premier League. That's a major accomplishment for any coach. It's also a competitive problem for the Premier League.
Flush with cash, the Premier League already operates in a transfer system where their clubs pay more. It's the Premier League tax, with the rest of the world well aware that they can afford to pay more. What that does is inflate the fees while deflating the spending power. Those increases in TV revenue are nice, but maybe not as nice when it's now an opportunity for more cash to flow out of Premier League clubs as it flows in. It's tough to think that Spurs started a trend this offseason by not bothering with the transfer market. Few clubs have the squad they want at the start of the season. Eventually, the market will take hold.
Wagner's old pal Klopp at Liverpool is the prime example of that in 2018-19. Liverpool needed a new goalkeeper so they spent £55m on Alisson. They wanted to rework their midfield, so they spent over £52m on Naby Keita and another £39m on Fabinho. The transfer budget as inseparable from coaching talent at Premier League level is not news, but it's worth the reminder that Liverpool outspent the rest of the league last summer. It's worth asking what other coaches might accomplish with that ability to spend.
It's also worth asking what comes next for Wagner. He's done the interesting version of the job, taking an underfunded and underappreciated club to new heights. That's also worth asking of any pro coach. What can they do with limited resources? Wagner already answered that. The better question for him is what he can do at the next level.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Logo courtesy of Huddersfield Town