“It’s a wonderful story at Huddersfield,” Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp told reporters in September, heaping praise on his former Borussia Dortmund colleague David Wagner, now at the helm at Huddersfield Town. “I watch a lot of Championship football. I’m interested in how Huddersfield are doing.”
Klopp‘s relationship with Wagner goes back decades, from time as team-mates at Mainz 05 to operating as manager and reserve manager at Dortmund and now together in England—one in the Premier League and one in the Championship.
Wagner was best man at Klopp‘s wedding to his long-term partner, Ulla, in 2005, while the 44-year-old told the Guardian‘s Andy Hunter in December that “I’ve known Jurgen longer than I’ve known my wife.”
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Jurgen Klopp and David Wagner have been friends since the 1990s.
More importantly, Wagner revealed that the pair “have the same thinking about football,” and this is why Klopp is not only watching out for the Terriers’ results in the English second tier, but also the performances of goalkeeper Danny Ward.
Ward joined Huddersfield on a season-long loan at the beginning of July, with Liverpool revealing the Wales international had “signed a new long-term contract” ahead of his move to the John Smith’s Stadium.
Though he ended up as one of 12 players to leave the Reds on loan during the summer transfer window, including familiar faces Lazar Markovic, Andre Wisdom and Jon Flanagan, Ward will be among a select few whom Klopp takes a more vested interest in over the course of 2016/17.
Fortunately, just under a quarter of the way through the Championship season, Ward is proving to be one of the sleeper hits of the division and could be paving his way into the Liverpool first team in the future.
Ward arrived at Huddersfield to replace the previous campaign’s regular starting goalkeeper, Jed Steer, who had returned to parent club Aston Villa after a successful loan spell of his own, and Wagner praised the Terriers’ acquisition.
“I’ve spoken before about using the loan market to bring special talent to the club and Danny is another great example of this,” he told the club’s official website, continuing to hail the Welshman’s talents:
Danny is a goalkeeper that Liverpool FC rates very highly, which is why he has signed a new long-term contract at the club.
He did very well out on loan last season and I believe we can help him take the next step in his career this season, so he will return to Liverpool a better goalkeeper.
He is good with the ball at his feet, which is important in our style, but most importantly he is excellent at keeping the ball out of his net!
Wagner alluded to Ward’s spell on loan with Aberdeen in the first half of 2015/16, in which the goalkeeper kept 10 clean sheets in 21 appearances in the Scottish Premiership, conceding just 20 goals in the process before being recalled to Liverpool in the January transfer window—with his performances for the Dons featuring prominently in a video package released by Huddersfield on Ward’s arrival:
Lauding Ward’s quality as a modern, front-footed goalkeeper, Wagner had clearly highlighted Klopp‘s high-potential youngster as suiting his system in Yorkshire, a system he shares with the Reds manager.
Though Ward didn’t feature due to his involvement at the UEFA European Championship in the summer, the demands Wagner makes of his goalkeepers were clear during Huddersfield’s 2-0 pre-season friendly defeat to Liverpool in July, with 21-year-old back-up option Joel Coleman regularly racing off his line to mop up loose balls.
After the disappointment of Steer’s return to Villa Park, Wagner had found his new No. 1, and Ward has slotted in seamlessly since.
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Ward has been a solid presence between the sticks for Huddersfield.
Ward made his debut for the Terriers on the first day of the Championship season, starting between the sticks for a home clash against Brentford, and impressed despite conceding a 77th-minute strike from Nico Yennaris—with the Huddersfield Examiner‘s Blake Welton praising an “assured” display.
This was swiftly followed by an emphatic display against Newcastle United at St. James’ Park, saving Dwight Gayle’s penalty kick on the hour mark, and though the former Crystal Palace striker converted the rebound to give the Magpies an equaliser at 1-1, Ward’s side eventually sealed a 2-1 triumph.
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Wagner has been impressed by Ward’s performances so far.
These two wins were part of a six-game unbeaten run in the Championship, in which Ward conceded just four goals, keeping clean sheets against both Wolverhampton Wanderers and Leeds United.
Behind a solid back four of Tom Smith, Christopher Schindler, Mark Hudson and Chris Lowe, Ward had established himself as part of one of the most formidable defences in English football; and, watching on, Klopp will have been impressed with how quickly he slotted in, just as he did at Aberdeen in 2015.
After the victory over Leeds, however, Ward served up the only major error of his spell with Huddersfield so far, allowing an Anthony Knockaert strike to evade his grasp to give Brighton & Hove Albion a 1-0 victory at the American Express Community Stadium in September:
GoPro footage of Anthony Knockaert’s winner against Huddersfield. #BHAFC pic.twitter.com/8OsI8gMqzq
— BHAFC (@OfficialBHAFC) September 14, 2016
“I have no worries about Danny,” Wagner told reporters in the aftermath of this Sussex loss. “There is nothing for us to speak about regarding what happened—I believe Danny could stop the next 15,000 shots like that with his eyes closed!”
This was a sensible, sensitive approach for the German to take, and he has since been rewarded with an impressive recovery from his No. 1, who has helped Huddersfield retain their place at the top of the Championship heading into the October international break.
Though Smith, Schindler, Hudson and Lowe deserve similar praise, that Ward compares so favourably to his goalkeeping contemporaries is a marker of his strong form so far in West Yorkshire:
|Goals Conceded||Clean Sheets||Saves||Penalty Saves|
Only four goalkeepers—Ward, Brentford‘s Daniel Bentley, Queens Park Rangers’ Alex Smithies and Wolves’ Carl Ikeme—have played every minute of every game in the Championship so far this season, and of those, Ward has conceded the fewest goals (eight).
Only Newcastle’s summer signing, Matz Sels, has conceded fewer goals in the English second tier this season (seven in nine games), but no goalkeeper has conceded fewer goals per game than Ward (0.73).
Wagner will be relishing this successful signing—but Klopp‘s best man should not plot for the long term with Ward between the sticks.
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Klopp is making plans for Ward.
“What I see in training is two very, very good goalkeepers and another very good goalkeeper for the future, who we gave on loan to Huddersfield,” Klopp told reporters on his goalkeeping situation in September. “So the business is done, hopefully, and we don’t have to talk about this position.”
Adding German stopper Loris Karius to his ranks this summer, with the 23-year-old joining from Mainz 05 in May, in a deal worth £4.7 million, Klopp has moved to reinforce his options in goal for the foreseeable future.
Karius has taken up the role of first-choice goalkeeper on Merseyside following his recovery from a broken hand, relegating Simon Mignolet to the substitutes’ bench. Karius has started Liverpool’s last three games, against Derby County in the EFL Cup and both Hull City and Swansea City in the Premier League.
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Ward made his Liverpool debut in April’s 2-1 win over Bournemouth
Assuming the No. 1 shirt on his arrival at Liverpool, Karius is likely to keep the role of starting goalkeeper for the long term, and while Klopp has insisted Mignolet remains a key part of his plans, it is his mention of Ward that is most intriguing.
The decision to send Ward to Huddersfield, where he can develop out of the Premier League spotlight under a manager Klopp trusts implicitly, was a sensible one by the Liverpool figurehead—and Ward can be expected to return in 2017/18 to challenge Karius for the starting duty.
His time at the John Smith’s Stadium has proved hugely successful so far, and if this continues, he is almost guaranteed a bright future under Klopp at Liverpool.
Jack Lusby will be covering Liverpool throughout 2016/17 as one of Bleacher Report’s lead correspondents. Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted; statistics via Transfermarkt.co.uk and Squawka.com.
Follow Jack on Twitter @jacklusby_ and Facebook here.