It was an evening in which Carlos Corberan’s team made its true arrival, after opening with three lacklustre performances in league and cup which demonstrated a side very much in progress.
That still remains the case even with those first three points on the board, but after two months in the job there are plenty of signs that the head coach is getting things closer to his liking.
Here’s what Corberan has looked to implement and how the players have stepped up to the task.
Full-backs provide spark
Corberan’s learnings from Marcelo Bielsa at Leeds United have been very well publicised, though he is far from the only influence on the philosophy of a man who has been involved at clubs from Valencia and Villarreal in his homeland, to Saudi Arabia and Cyprus. But Bielsa’s success in Leeds has clearly had a strong impact on his approach down the road at Huddersfield.
The basic formation isn’t too dissimilar, with a 4-3-3 in which the holding midfielder drops back in possession and the other two midfielders are much further forward, as in the 4-1-4-1 set-up of Bielsa, who watched Corberan’s first victory from the John Smith’s Stadium stands.
It is in principles that they are most closely matched though; both demand high-tempo pressing and an attacking focus when playing out from the back. Although that is nothing new to this corner of West Yorkshire after David Wagner’s promotion side, it is a different outlook to the more functional style under Danny Cowley.
It takes some time to retro-fit new ideas into that squad and they failed to score in their opening three games, against League One side Rochdale in the EFL Cup and then Championship promotion candidates Norwich City and Brentford.
Traditionally in this system, those two ‘number eights’ are the key, but Corberan is yet to find a satisfying solution here. Alex Pritchard, so frustratingly short of the breakthrough playmaker that emerged at Norwich, showed improvement in a freer role and had the most touches of any Huddersfield player, but Juninho Bacuna offered very little going forward.
But at the moment, it is the full-backs that have the most crucial role. With Jonathan Hogg – and later the Ajax-trained vision of debutant Carel Eiting – dropping from the base of midfield, Harry Toffolo and Pipa are given full licence to attack, and to do so from varying angles, be it overlapping or playing inside.
Often against Forest they received the ball from defence in advanced positions, and just one or two more swift passes had the visiting defence under real pressure. Their impact made the whole team’s play look much quicker and sharper as the ball was rarely kept at the back with no purpose, but was moved up the pitch with a higher number of chances created, just as Corberan wants.
Those full-backs are fast becoming the most decisive positions on the field in elite football and Toffolo, quickly emerging as one of the best left-sided defenders in the division and surely on track to reach a higher level, made the key play that brought the winning goal.
The wingers, too, have a dynamic role, allowed to play centrally or stick wide, and it was Isaac Mbenza’s positioning on the left touchline which initially stretched out the Forest back four. Toffolo took full advantage with a surging run beyond the midfield, into the gaping space between Cyrus Christie and Loic Mbe Soh. His ball set up Campbell, who smartly remained on the penalty spot as Scott McKenna dropped back, and his sweet volley gave Terriers fans the even sweeter taste of a first goal of the season at long last.
Pivotal first clean sheet
As well as a first goal, the victory was also secured with a first clean sheet of Corberan’s reign. The biggest positive to take is how their fitness held up, having suffered evident drop-offs in both previous league matches at the subsequent concession of three goals in the final 10 minutes.
It is in fitness demands that Corberan can seem most like the offspring of ‘El Loco’ and the famed ‘murderball’ training game is having the desired effect, because on Friday Huddersfield seemed to have a greater spring in their step in the closing stages than they did in the opening ones.
Meanwhile, if one individual can claim to have made an important step forward, it is goalkeeper Ben Hamer. Nottingham Forest had few real chances of note but two did slip through the net, and Hamer made a couple of crucial stops to deny Sammy Ameobi and Mbe Soh in the first half.
Fans can understandably need some persuading when told their second-choice goalkeeper of the past couple of campaigns is now capable of being number one, but Hamer did his reputation the world of good with those saves. Corberan trusts him, not least with the ball at his feet as the coach’s gameplan demands, and this performance was highly reassuring.
Credit is also due to Romoney Crichlow, drafted into the sizeable boots of skipper Christopher Schindler who was absent through injury. He is quite old at 21 considering he only made his senior debut earlier in the month, but with a real calmness on the ball and willingness to carry and pass it forward, it is easy to see why Corberan has taken a liking to Crichlow and trusted him with a first league start.
This was not a match in which Huddersfield came under the toughest inspection; Forest came into the match with the same goalless, pointless and hopeless record that they did. In a big, and potentially final gamble, their boss Sabri Lamouchi made seven changes, handed out four debuts, and looked just as disjointed as you might expect given those numbers.
But it was the real beginning of the Corberan era. He is making an indelible mark on this team, bringing them to his shape and standards, and giving them a new identity. There are many areas still ripe for improvement, but a first victory gave every indication that they are heading in the right direction.