Duane Holmes’ goal in the first half was enough to give the Terriers victory in the away game at Nottingham Forest, although the hosts had plenty of good chances to equalize.
Harry Toffolo got an assist for the fourth game in a row as Carlos Corberan changed the system to take on Forest, who had been the best team in the division since the win Huddersfield Town in the second leg in September.
Lee Nicholls and his back four had to work incredibly hard for the three points, but were barely able to hold on through a combination of last defense and a lavish finish. Here are our five conclusions about the game.
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1. The result here was really everything
There is a lot about this performance that we could criticize, if we were that minded, and we get the impression that Corberan agrees. He would have wished his team had to suffer less to get the result.
After Town enjoyed an even game before Holmes put them in the lead – albeit a game in which each side took turns doing good spells rather than consistently ending play – Town was too sloppy to punish Forest any further .
For all Forest fans, they will rightly lament their team’s miserable day in front of goal, the best chance of the game was actually wasted by Town when Danel Sinani somehow stormed over the bar after giving Rhodes a less than great chance from Jordan . Edged as brightly pimped in the finest filigree.
The defensive work in front of the back four also left a lot to be desired, the midfield was bypassed too easily to bring Forest into the final third.
But we really can’t emphasize enough how much this was a game where the result was all that mattered. One point away from Forest would have been a good result regardless of performance, and the strength of Steve Cooper’s side since he took office is so great that we would have kept our criticism in check even if the scores had reversed. So getting all three points is just a celebration, no matter how it came about.
Every team gets a few games like this for and against them each season, and this is the first time Town has won against what xG calls a loss. The opposite happened to them twice, at Cardiff and Stoke. To dive into the player’s error for a moment in the name of the narrative, Town owed it.
2. Huddersfield Town showed its tactical flexibility
We commended Corberan for taking the chance from Lees’ injury to score 4-4-2 over the weekend and he stayed with that formation here, excluding both Tom Lees and Naby Sarr – although interestingly said the head coach he would have gone with that lineup even if Sarr had been fit.
Corberan has hinted that Rhodes will need a little more time to get up to speed after missing three months of the season with an edition of his own. We suspect he might have started with Danny Ward if he could play the full 90 minutes.
That gives the head coach a fascinating opportunity to get into the second half of the season, as has the back four success both here and after Lees’ retirement from Blackpool – a positive sign after a few more daring appearances earlier against Fulham and Barnsley earlier in the season.
Town started in five different formations this season: 3-4-3 (13 times), 3-4-2-1 (six times), 3-5-2 (three times), 4-2-3-1 ( twice) and 4-4-2 (once). They won all of them except 4-2-3-1.
More importantly, it has broadly proven itself in which systems are best for which occasions. If we leave aside the subtle difference between 3-4-3 and 3-4-2-1, Corberan has made significant changes to his team’s overall form six times this season. Town have taken three wins and two draws from these games, with their only defeat being a Covid-hit defeat against Fulham.
Hopefully these options will only increase. In each of Town’s last three games, a long-injured player has returned from the bench: Rhodes came after a three-month hiatus against Bristol City, Aaron Rowe returned after a seven-month hiatus against Blackpool and Pipa stepped on the season for the first time against Forest after a groin surgery in August.
If all goes well, Lees and Jonathan Hogg could both return to practice ahead of the Blackburn game. Should Ward and Sarr’s problems prove to be minor, Town’s injury list will hopefully soon only consist of two players, none of whom would be regular starters anyway: Alex Vallejo and Rolando Aarons.
3. Duane Holmes plays a unique and important role in this roster
While we are talking about flexibility, I would particularly like to mention goalscorer Holmes.
We think he started in seven different positions this season: right and left of a front three; right, left and middle in attacking midfield; as a left central midfielder; and now four to the left of a midfield. And that doesn’t even count the positions he may have occupied in the middle of the game. Holmes has not started more than four games in any of these positions.
We have criticized Corberan for constantly moving Holmes after his return in January, as he felt it was hampering his ability to adjust to any shape. But we hold up our hands: in the long run we were wrong.
Holmes may be a little more used to being so adaptable now, or maybe he’s just more attuned to Corberan’s methods and approach. Anyway, he’s been proving to be an incredibly useful player on this roster, having scored three goals in his last ten games – two of them in his last three games.
4. The line of defense and the goalkeeper are the foundation of Huddersfield Town’s success
While that wasn’t a stellar feat, Corberan rightly praised his defense for how well they coped with the move to a back four with very little time to prepare for it.
Without Lees and without Hogg, this was the second-youngest starting line-up Town has drawn this season, and even then only because it has been two and a half weeks since the Coventry game.
As Corberan pointed out after the game, Ollie Turton and Levi Colwill had never played championship football before this season; We’d like to add that before this season, Lee Nicholls had played all seven games at this level.
Still, Town showed a real back-to-the-wall performance in and around the box, which was also thanks to Forest’s poor finish, but still ended with a ninth goal of the season for Nicholls. Only three other goalkeepers in the league have more than that and all – Sam Johnstone of West Brom, Mark Travers of Bournemouth and Matija Sarkic of Birmingham – are full internationals for their respective countries.
It’s a point we made earlier, but it needs to be reiterated: despite all of the complaints we’ve had with Town’s recruiting team over the past few years, they did an excellent job building that defense after last season’s squad had the worst defense record in the championship. This rearguard is not only up to standard; they are actively good at defending.
The identification of Nicholls was a notable scouting from goalkeeper boss Paul Clements as he brought in Colwill on loan and both Lees and Matty Pearson as free agents now all look like big coups for Town. Turton took some time to adjust but seems to be getting along with things and is now the capable, if unspectacular cover that Town hired him to do.
Recruiting is only part of it, of course, and credit goes to the players themselves and the coaching team for fixing the self-destructive tendency that absolutely ruined last season.
But just a word of caution, because as much as we praise Nicholls and the back three / back three, this was still Town’s first goal in seven games and even then earned rather by chance.
The expected goals against Town in the last few games are higher than at any time this season; By that standard, five of their ten worst defensive performances came in their last eight games. (Incredible, this one is only the fourth worst).
Corberan would like to point out that this is not only due to the defense and that better ball control would of course reduce the number of scoring opportunities conceded. That was his main criticism of his performance against Forest as he offered a characteristically measured and analytical view of the eventual excellent win.
5. There is a new optimism for Huddersfield Town in 2022
Three straight wins for Town for the second time since February 2017 and consecutive away wins for the second time under Corberan mean Town could almost make up for a poor run of just one win in seven games ahead of the Bristol City game.
Add those three wins to those seven games and Town has taken 1.5 points per game for the last ten games – a little less than the last 15 games.
If they’re serious about a playoff push, they’ll likely need a slight improvement over the course of the season. Continuing their current point return would bring them to 71 or 72 points, which would give them a 50/50 chance of a top 6 result in a typical championship season.
At the moment we would assume so, but it is worth repeating that even our rather violent criticism of Town after the Coventry draw was based on the feeling that this team is dramatically exceeding what we had expected at the beginning of the season, there is an opportunity for them to improve even further and to make themselves serious candidates for promotion.
Either way, three straight wins are a statement that Huddersfield Town wants to push forward and do just that.