In your faces, forecasters! After a 45-year absence, Huddersfield Town strode back into the top flight of English football and immediately served notice of their intention to stick around, despite their widespread billing as certainties for relegation.
David Wagner’s team played with clever vibrancy as they heralded their return to the big time with a deserved victory at Selhurst Park, which, coincidentally, had been the scene of their last match among the elite in 1972.
If anyone resembled Premier League impostors it was Crystal Palace, who floundered in their first match under their new manager, Frank de Boer.
As the home team struggled to adapt to the style and shape being introduced by the Dutchman, who arrived only six weeks ago, Huddersfield performed with the same dynamic enterprise that gained them promotion from the Championship last season, but with extra deadliness thanks to the predatory skills of Steve Mounié. The Benin striker became the club’s record signing when he joined in the summer for £11.5m from Montpellier, and he scored two fine goals here.
“I said beforehand we will not change our identity just because we are in the Premier League,” said Wagner. “If you think you have a strength and you trust in what you are doing, then you have to do it, even at the highest stage of football.”
About 20 minutes into the game, Huddersfield were playing with such boldness that the 2,900 fans who had travelled excitedly from West Yorkshire began taunting the fretful home crowd with chants of “Where’s your famous atmosphere?” If that was the first sign that the visitors realised the Premier League might not be all it is hyped up to be, a more enjoyable one came moments later when Huddersfield took the lead by exploiting clueless defending.
Chris Schindler flicked on a corner by Aaron Mooy at the near post, Mathias Jorgensen met it just beyond the back post, and Joel Ward inadvertently nudged the ball over his own line.
Huddersfield did not get carried away celebrating; instead, they exposed the hosts’ vulnerability anew, doubling their lead three minutes later. Mooy was involved again, crossing from the left after being released by Chris Löwe and neglected by Palace’s defence. Mounié, similarly free in the middle, expressed his gratitude for the slovenly defending by banging a header into the net from seven yards out, as Patrick van Aanholt stood watching in bemusement.
Confusion was the defining characteristic of Palace early on. Some of De Boer’s selections seemed particularly awkward: Van Aanholt struggled on the left side of a three-man defence, while Ruben Loftus-Cheek looked lost on the right wing, which made the exclusion of Andros Townsend seem perverse.
The manager rectified that at half-time by introducing Townsend for Luka Milivojevic and redeploying the on-loan Chelsea player to his customary position in central midfield. Palace improved, but not enough.
Huddersfield, by contrast, were smooth, even with four debutants. Their cohesion made the home side seem all the more disjointed and their smart pressing sabotaged Palace’s attempts to swagger out from the back. One of their summer signings, Tom Ince, could have opened the scoring in the second minute but volleyed straight at the goalkeeper after being teed up by Tommy Smith.
Ince had another chance just after the quick-fire salvo that gave Huddersfield their lead but Ward thwarted the attacker with a superb last-ditch tackle. Jorgensen then headed wide from a corner as Wagner’s side threatened to rack up a humiliating scoreline.
Palace got better after the break, with Wilfried Zaha tormenting Smith so much that Wagner made a change at right-back. Early in the second half, Christian Benteke forced Jonas Lossl into his first difficult save, the summer signing from Mainz diving well to turn away a header. Actually, Lossl had also got a touch to a dangerous shot by Zaha just before half-time, but the referee did not spot it and failed to award a corner. A lack of luck was another of Palace’s problems on a dispiriting day.
Dann should have given the hosts renewed hope 13 minutes from the end but thrashed a shot over the bar after a corner. Moments later, Mounié finished a swift counterattack by guiding a shot into the net from 10 yards.
“Nobody expected that, it was a harsh lesson,” said De Boer, who attributed his team’s defeat to “wrong choices” by players during 15 first-half minutes.
Wagner burst into laughter when asked afterwards how it felt to be top of the league. “I cannot take this question seriously,” he replied in giggles.
“Let’s just focus on the performance, which was good. We were clinical today and it was a great debut for Steve Mounié – and we had a great goalkeeper, and that helped massively. This makes for a wonderful afternoon.”
It was a good time to meet Palace. And it is a great time to be a Huddersfield fan.