Even though the playing careers of Jaap Stam and David Wagner are worlds apart, it hasn’t stopped the pair sharing similarities as coaches in the Championship this season.
England’s second tier is a war of attrition, and it is fair to say both men have instigated a dramatic turnaround at their respective clubs. Of the four teams to make the play-offs this season, only one — Sheffield Wednesday — also qualified last year.
For Huddersfield and Reading, the 2015/2016 season was a battle against relegation rather than an ambitious attempt towards Premier League football. The pair finished 19th and 17th respectively, meaning the aims for this season were modest at best.
Stam in particular was seen as an unknown quantity. He had experience with Jong Ajax, working alongside his assistant at Reading Andries Ulderink, but there was still very little known about his ethos and how it would translate to England’s second tier.
One of the obvious crossovers from Amsterdam to Reading has been a focus on youth. Stam is credited with developing a handful of the current Ajax first team including; Kenny Tete, Jaïro Riedewald and Donny van de Beek. That same confidence in youth has seen the likes of, George Evans, Liam Kelly, and John Swift all handed significant responsibility.
At Huddersfield, Wagner has trusted Chelsea loanee Izzy Brown, but taken a more cautious approach with promising Danish midfielder Philip Billing. A towering 20-year-old, Billing is a product of the club’s academy, and has reportedly been tracked by Mauricio Pochettino and Tottenham Hotspur.
Billing is the archetypal Wagner player. The German-American knew when he arrived in West Yorkshire that budgets would be tight. His style is unsurprisingly reminiscent of a Jurgen Klopp team, and implements a calculated high press and quick transitions to catch out opponents.
In the eye of the storm sits the ever-composed Aaron Mooy. Wagner was shrewd in loaning the Australian from Manchester City, with the 26-year-old serving as a metronome in midfield. Mooy’s ability to retain possession, and break the lines with his passing has been key in giving Huddersfield a different dimension in attack.
By contrast, Reading prefer instead to dominate possession and play through their opponents. The Royals budgets have been slightly more flexible than Huddersfield’s, in part thanks to the sale of Aaron Tshibola to Aston Villa for £5million.
Despite that, Stam is still to break the bank. The aforementioned Swift was a free transfer from Chelsea, while Liam Moore, Tyler Blackett and winger Roy Beerens cost less than £4million combined.
On the field, the 44-year-old has preached possession football. In the Championship, only Fulham has averaged a greater share of possession per game than the Royals, with Reading’s pass accuracy also the second best in the Championship.
Granted, not everyone has admired such a style. Against Leeds at Elland Road in December, Reading had a 77% share of the ball but lost 2-0, with chants of “boring, boring Reading” emanating from the home supporters.
“If you think that this is boring I think they need to have a look at their own team and how they play,” Stam said after the Leeds game. “They can say, ‘we won’ and of course at the end it’s about the result – but if you need to play like that then I don’t want to be a manager. That’s not my type of playing, my type of tactics.”
Principled, Stam would be naive to ignore the fact that sometimes his possession style has caused Reading problems. Of the top six, the Royals hold the worst defensive record, with their last four league defeats seeing them concede a total of 16 goals.
In that regard, it is fair to say a lack of tactical flexibility has cost both managers this season. Huddersfield staggered over the line, with some critics claiming Wagner’s high press had been found out by opposition managers, with their inability to break down deep lying teams only compounding the issue.
All in all, Monday will represent a meeting of contrasting styles though. Stam’s eagerness to hold the ball and play through Huddersfield may make them the perfect victim for a quick transition and Wagner’s high press.
Equally, the German-American could watch his team be undone by a slick Reading outfit that will frustrate Huddersfield by retaining possession.
Regardless, it looks set to be an engaging meeting of two young and exciting managers, with both showing potential to manage in the Premier League irrespective of who emerges from Wembley victorious.
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