Had the Championship season started when Danny and Nicky Cowley took charge in early-September, Huddersfield Town would currently be 12th – 12 points above the drop zone and five shy of the play-off places.
Their job this season is not done yet, of course, and the team’s awful start means Huddersfield still have work to do to avoid relegation.
The work the duo have done so far, however, is incredibly impressive, so we take a look at how they have instigated this progress and what the future holds...
One of the reasons that Danny and Nicky Cowley have enjoyed so much success in the game is because their preparation is meticulous.
Although they are not working in the Premier League, yet, they apply a Premier League level of professionalism.
The typical approach, given that they were taking over after a run of 34 league defeats in 45, would be to prioritize simplicity: a ‘back-to-basics’ mantra that your typical caretaker manager would employ.
Instead, the Cowley brothers have been able to produce sophisticated game plans whilst maintaining the required clarity, which only a very high-calibre management team would be able to do.
Of course, it is common for managers to prepare for their opponents but the Cowley brothers cover each shred of detail, to get every ounce out of their group, which is why they consistently achieve success against the odds.
The Dynamic Duo
Brave with Karlan Grant
Past trends suggest that the Cowley brothers do not perceive a striker’s finishing ability to be their most important attribute.
When they led part-timers Braintree Town to the National League play-offs in 2015-16, their top scorer was Michael Cheek with 15 goals.
In their successful three years with Lincoln City, it was Matt Rhead with 15, then Matt Green with 13 and finally John Akinde with 15; in each of those seasons, their main competitors tended to have one or two strikers pushing or exceeding the 20-mark yet that did not concern them.
Rhead was crucial to their direct game by winning aerial duels and Green was a threat with his running in behind; Akinde could do both of those things and hold the ball up for others.
While many managers, therefore, would have prioritized getting the best out of runaway top goalscorer Karlan Grant as soon as they walked into Huddersfield, the Cowley brothers looked at the bigger picture.
Although they recognized Grant’s ability, they deemed him to be lacking certain qualities to lead a successful collective attack on his own, which is why we have seen the likes of Frazier Campbell, a tireless runner and Steve Mounie, an aerial reference point, get the nod.
Grant has still carried a goal threat from the left, scoring nine goals in 17 starts from that side and the team looks better co-ordinated as a result.
#htafc recruitment recently.— Carrot 🥕 (@Stephen_Roebuck) January 10, 2020
Emile Smith Rowe
Who gives a toss if we're not blowing millions. Quality additions.
👏 PH and Cowleys
Huddersfield have been boosted significantly by the loan signings of Emile Smith-Rowe, Andy King, Jonas Lössl and Chris Willock.
King has added experience and knowhow around the group, Lössl provides extra calmness and accuracy of distribution with Kamil Grabara sidelined – and Willock has been excellent too.
The Benfica loanee brings energy to the game and a work rate like that of Elias Kachunga, but with an extra layer of ability on the ball in combination play which has given the Terriers a real lift.
The left-back position, which had been problematic in the first half of the season with Terence Kongolo being a centre-back by trade, has been fined by the arrival of Harry Toffolo, who has certainly earnt a chance at this level after starring in Lincoln’s League Two title win last season.
Richard Stearman has formed a strong centre-back pairing, too, with the intelligent Christopher Schindler, who finally has the dominant partner he requires.
Considering how influential Smith-Rowe has been, it takes a lot of courage for the Cowley brothers to drop him from the starting XI for certain matches.
And yet, there has been good reason for that: they have done it to keep the Arsenal loanee fresh for congested sequences of fixtures, to keep him fit for games in which his qualities are particularly useful – and because, in some games, they want something different from their number 10.
Huddersfield got a valuable point at Derby, for example, by playing Lewis O’Brien as the pressing number 10 out of possession; then on the turnovers, he would drop in to the left and Andy King would push forward from the right to create an overload.
Although the manager’s decision to leave the Arsenal loanee on the bench in the 3-1 loss at Swansea, it arguably paid off with his stellar displays in successive home wins the following week – Smith-Rowe can be a real match-winner with his creativity, driving runs and eye for goal.
It seems Cowley is doing what Wagner did in his 1st window. Some short term signings to keep us up before a complete overhaul in the summer. Fine by me #htafc— Chris Smith (@chefsmith28) January 14, 2020
Making big decisions
As evidenced by the Cowley brothers’ impressive handling of Grant and Smith-Rowe, they are not afraid to make big decisions.
Juninho Bacuna, for example, has scored four goals in 10 substitute appearances and frequently makes an impact from the bench, yet the duo have resisted the temptation to throw him into the starting line-up.
Parallels can be drawn to the situation with Adama Diakhaby and Isaac Mbenza, even if Bacuna remains a more valuable squad member.
Both capture the imagination with their raw pace in bursts and, one imagines, there may have been a temptation for a lot of managers to play them every week in hope that they could act as almost a quick-fix to cut teams open.
Cowley, though, started neither after October and was happy to loan both out to clear space in the wage budget for more intelligent operators – chiefly Smith-Rowe and Willock - who can influence games in a more sustainable way.
The above shows that the Cowley brothers not only have the vision to see the bigger picture, they also have the courage to act upon it.
Chalobah in for Hogg
Jonathan Hogg is undoubtedly a Huddersfield legend.
He was inspirational in the 2016-17 promotion-winning side, showing incredible spirit and great battling qualities.
Equally, the 31-year-old now looks restricted in the amount of distance he can cover and the number of minutes he can play; ally that with limitations in possession and it feels like his time as a regular automatic starter could be coming to an end.
The stalwart’s injury, though, has offered Trevoh Chalobah an opportunity – and in the last two games, he has grasped that opportunity with both hands.
Chalobah brings a new dimension of energy and dynamism to the Huddersfield midfield.
Youth stars tend to thrive in their second or third EFL loan spell, rather than their first, so while the England Under-21s international had his erratic moments last year at Ipswich, he will have learnt a lot from that stint and is a very exciting prospect.
Andy King. I’ll put him in the Danny Simpson category. Solid, experienced pro who can do a very good job in helping us on & off the pitch. Along with Stearman, you can see what Cowley is after in this window #htafc— Chris Smith (@chefsmith28) January 14, 2020
What does the future hold?
Huddersfield are still very much in a relegation battle.
It is probable (but by no means certain) that the Terriers will lose at Leeds this Saturday and with six of the seven teams below them facing a relegation rival, the gap to the drop zone could be reduced to three points.
After hosting Wigan the following Saturday, Huddersfield then go to promotion contenders Nottingham Forest, so if Huddersfield get none or one point from this sequence, rather than the desired return of four or more, then April could start to look like a nervy month in prospect.
For that reason, the Cowley brothers will not be looking too far beyond their immediate objectives.
Given Huddersfield’s improvement under their guidance, though – a resurgence from cellar-dwellers to top half form – it is tempting to wonder what can be achieved.
A few strong summer additions and who knows?
The Cowley brothers have managed in eight of English football’s top nine divisions – keep up their current levels of progress and the ninth one may not be too far away.