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Rob Burnett: Why Brentford’s new data-driven methods could be a game changer

28 Aug | BY Betway | MIN READ TIME |
Rob Burnett: Why Brentford’s new data-driven methods could be a game changer

The Bees’ Billy Beane-inspired Moneyball approach to football should be commended, says the's Sports Editor

In a dramatised scene from the Moneyball film that told the true story of how Billy Beane got the Oakland A’s baseball team punching way above their weight, Beane and his chief scout Grady Fuson are discussing how to replace their star hitter Jason Giambi.

Frustrated at Fuson’s linear thinking, Beane shouts: “If we try to play like the Yankees in here, we will lose to the Yankees out there.”

“Boy, that sounds like fortune cookie wisdom to me, Billy,” says Fuson.

“No,” Beane hits back, “that’s just logic.”

The A’s budget was less than a third of what the big guns in baseball had to play with. Beane realised that as long as he did things they same way as them but with less money, he would always lose.

His statistical analysis approach caused a storm in the sport as baseball traditionalists were horrified at his reliance on data to recruit new players and run the team.

There was a similar reaction from football’s elders in February when it was announced that Mark Warburton, the highly-respected coach who led Brentford to promotion from League One – and who would go on to take them agonisingly close to the Premier League – was to leave the club.

Warburton, a former City trader and a man widely viewed as one of the most progressive coaches in football, was apparently unwilling to work as part of a new set-up at the club that owner Matthew Benham wanted to implement.

Why would Benham take such a gamble by tearing apart a very successful management team?

The answer lies in his revolutionary approach to football.

He made his money betting on football – meaning headlines about him gambling on Brentford’s future were easily drawn – but he didn’t get rich by backing his hunches.

He did it using incredibly sophisticated data modeling that sought to find patterns where others saw none.

The system is based on the notion that most people look at the wrong things when assessing a likely winner.

He believes he can bring the same thinking to running a football club.

When Warburton left the club in May, the shake-up saw Marinus Dijkhuizen, former manager of Dutch side SBV Excelsior, brought in as head coach.

The club also created the position of head of football philosophy and player development, and appointed Rasmus Ankersen appointed as co-director of football.

While the ‘football philosophy’ job took all the headlines and associated mickey-taking and scoffing, Ankersen’s appointment was perhaps most interesting.

A former player, Ankersen’s last job in football was as chairman of FC Midtjylland – the other club Benham controls.

Last season they won the Danish title for the first time in their history. And they did it using the model Benham is now introducing at Brentford.

That set-up means there is a data-driven approach to almost everything at the club, including player recruitment, and match analysis.

Coaches on the touchline even get text messages telling them how the players are measuring up to their key performance indicators (KPIs) at half time.

Under the new system, the head coach will not have final say on player recruitment.

That was thought to be a key sticking point for Warburton, and is the kind of thing that gets pundits very worked up and rolling their eyes at the latest attempt to introduce a ‘continental’ model to an English club.

But just like the Oakland A’s, Brentford are never going to be among England’s biggest clubs. They are never going to have the budget of Manchester United.

Faced with this truism, isn’t it to be admired that Benham is trying a new way of working?

Traditionalists in any industry don’t like change because they fear it. They fear being made obsolete.

Arsene Wenger was dismissed as an irrelevant school-teacher when he first came to Arsenal. Now his methods including sports science and diet are standard at any serious club.

Beane’s success with his Moneyball concept was sneered at by the baseball establishment until they could afford to sneer no more.

Nine MLB teams soon employed full time data analysts – including the Yankees.

Every innovation is scoffed at – until it starts to produce results.

Will Brentford’s experiment work out?

Who knows – but at least they are trying to break the mould, and that should be applauded.

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