Is Brentford’s analytics revolution the future of football in England?

Is Brentford’s analytics revolution the future of football in England?

IT WAS 17 FEBRUARY WHEN BRENTFORD CONFIRMED BOSS MARK WARBURTON, assistant David Weir and sporting director Frank McParland would leave “as part of a remodelling of the club’s football management.”

Warburton guided the club to promotion from League One in 2013-14 and last season he led the Bees to the Championship playoffs, eventually losing out to Middlesbrough, despite it being their first season in the second tier for 21 years.

Owner Matthew Benham’s decision to switch to a continental structure with a head coach and sporting director, using mathematical modelling to recruit players was ridiculed – such methods are almost non-existent in English football. But what many failed to realise is Benham’s blueprint for Brentford’s future was in full force 800 miles away at Danish Superliga side FC Midtjylland, who went on to lift the title – the first trophy in their history.

Benham is the owner of Brentford and majority shareholder at Midtjylland. The Englishman made his fortunes in the business of money – he’s been a hedge fund manager and professional gambler. He also owns two companies in the betting industry, Smartodds and Matchbook. Smartodds provides in-depth statistical analysis to professional gamblers, while Matchbook is a sports betting exchange.

More importantly, Benham is a football man too. Following financial fallout of the Ron Noades era, Brentford supporters rallied together to buy the club – London’s first professional club owned by the fans. What many may not know is that a large chunk of that was funded by loans from Benham. And in 2012 he was given the opportunity to purchase the club, and he has so far pumped more than £90 million into the first team and infrastructure, including the new 20,000-seater stadium at Lionel Road, which will open in summer 2018.

These are the actions of a man fully committed to the club. Following the decision to part company with Warburton, Benham said: “I am a passionate Brentford fan and every decision I take is intended to be in the best long term interests of the club. Some of the decisions taken to date have been easy and some, like this one, have been extremely hard.”

Cliff Crown, chairman of Brentford added: “Lots of clubs are criticised for short term thinking – we want to take a long term view and put structures in place that both the Board and the owner believe will be to the benefit of Brentford FC for years to come.

“The new structure is unusual in English football, although commonplace in other European countries and in other sports.”

The crudest way to quickly explain the model in place at Midtjylland and now Brentford is “Moneyball”. The phrase is coined from the book and subsequent movie of the same name, which depicts the innovative approach Major League Baseball general manager Billy Beane took to revolutionise the Oakland Athletics.

The A’s had a small budget and Beane recognised if his scouts and coaches copied the methods of the big teams, they would fail. Therefore, he relied heavily on statistical analysis to identify undervalued players they could acquire cheaply, as well as selling players they thought to be overvalued.

By re-evaluating the strategies, the 2002 Athletics, with approximately $44 million in salary, were competitive with larger market teams such as the New York Yankees, who spent over $125 million in payroll that same season; this approach brought the A’s to the playoffs in 2002 and ‘03.

But how does this translate to Denmark and England though? The management team Benham has put in place Denmark is the testing ground.

Midtjylland are more than just a football club – they are a laboratory. The Danish club has been used to test management structures, player acquisitions and sports psychology, unlikely to be seen elsewhere. Benham invested £6.2 million in Midtjylland in July 2014 and installed Rasmus Ankersen as chairman.

An ex-player and UEFA A-licensed coach, Ankersen has written several books about talent and performance development and is best known for his book, The Gold Mine Effect, in which he shares his experiences from having lived and trained with the world’s best athletes for six months.

On his relationship with Benham, Ankersen said: “I met Matthew a few years ago. At the time, Brentford were third in League One and there were a couple of games to go. I said to him, ‘What are the chances of getting promoted?’

“When you ask that question you expect an emotional ‘yes’ or ‘no’ from a football owner. But he just said rationally, ‘At the moment, there’s a 42.3 per cent chance we will get promoted’. I knew then he was a guy who was thinking very differently about football than I have ever – experienced before.”

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FC Midtjylland knocked Southampton out of the Europa League

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And at Midtjylland, Ankersen takes an unorthodox approach to running the Danes. The manger is not judged on their league position; instead the club has developed key performance indicators (KPIs) that they find to have a stronger correlation with long-term success.

The use of specialist kicking coaches, in-game statistics for half-time team talks and the use of analytics for set pieces is Midtjylland’s new reality. Once a month, assistant manager Brian Priske gets the team and coaches together in the club’s set-piece lounge where statistics and videos clips are scrutinised to devise new routines. Nearly half of their goals last season came from set pieces, only bettered by Atletico Madrid in Europe.

Midtjylland also employ the services of Bartek Sylwestrzak, a specialist kicking coach, who works with the best players at the club from the youth team right up to the senior players.

When looking for new talent, the club’s approach is to ignore boundaries, and they utilise an analytics model that ranks every club in Europe as if they competed in the same league. Midtjylland scouts analyse if a player will fit into their squad from a personality or psychological point of view.

When the club signed former Southampton youth team player Tim Sparv in 2014 from German second division club Greuther Fürth, Ankersen said: “Our model says that last season, Greuther Fürth were good enough to play in the English Premier League.”

Midtjylland also boast 13 home-grown players in their first-team squad, and Ankersen added: “There are inefficiencies in the transfer market. Lots of clubs pay too much money for players that are low quality.

“We think we’ve got some tools that will make us evaluate teams and players much more accurately with data rather than the human eye is able to. The model we are using is something that could be applied in any country – it’s just a different way of thinking about football and trying to do things unconventionally.”

No wonder Midtjylland have become a poster club for analytics in football. And the gamble is paying off with the club eliminating Premier League side Southampton over two legs to reach the Europa League group stage.

This season, Brentford is adopting Benham’s model in the same way. Marinus Dijkhuizen (main photo) was appointed head coach, while Ankersen will take on dual roles with both clubs supported by Phil Giles at Griffin Park. Brentford will use their mathematical modelling to recruit players and it appears they will use it to identify targets to watch before making any decision on signing them.

Andre Gray may have left but the Bees may yet be better off, if they are able to secure the replacements that they view as better value. Dijkhuizen is open to these ideas with Ankersen and Giles having their input in the recruitment process.

Ankersen said: “It’s a lot about understanding what stats can be used for and where the weaknesses with stats are.

“For example, it’s more difficult with stats to measure the value of defensive players rather than offensive players because a defensive player tends to prevent something from happening and how would you measure something that never happened? There are things where the eye can spot something the stats can’t and there are other matters where stats can reveal something the eye and the ear can’t.”

Dutchman Dijkhuizen added: “I think it’s a brave decision to take me, I don’t have a lot of experience but I fit, as a person and also as a trainer. I like what the club is doing, it is a good moment to come in. They have a clear vision about football, a little bit of a new one. It’s not always emotional, always rational thinking and that’s the right way.”

Brentford will be a unique entity in English football. Midtjylland coaches rely heavily on technical analysis, something foreign to the football purists. Like Moneyball, the first to break down the walls is often left wounded, but Benham challenges traditional principles. Only time will tell if Brentford will be successful, but there’s no doubt Benham is changing English football from the inside.

By Rajan Mangat. Follow @rajansmangat

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