Are analytics working at Brentford?
Background image: Markus Unger, CC BY 2.0
The adoring fans at Griffin Park refer to their team as the Bees. In the insect world, those are hardworking drones who buzz around producing honey. In English football, thanks to Brentford owner Matthew Benham, the Bees comprise hardworking drones who buzz around the Championship producing money. Benham bought the club in 2012 and Danish side FC Mitjylland two years later. Rather than your typical owner, he's the one every punter wishes they could be. Benham made his fortune gambling on football then bought two clubs to see if his system would work when applied directly. A personally developed analytic system drove his success with the bookmakers and it's shown some success on the pitch as well.
In 2015, Benham went on record with Sports Illustrated to explain the thinking behind his approach, why he effectively merged his two clubs and how he uses analytics to run Brentford. Rather than the statistics in the table, Benham looks at other numbers geared to reveal the output of a player at a particular position. He recruits players based on those numbers rather than competing with other owners for players in the spotlight.
Benham expects his manager and technical staff to buy into that system as well. In 2015, gaffer Mark Warburton wasn't. Warburton, now with Queens Park Rangers, was rallying the side for a promotion-playoff push when Benham announced his contract wouldn't be extended whether or not he succeeded. The data that serves as the owner's honeycomb suggested the squad was lucky to be fifth in the table rather than 11th.
The table is notoriously inaccurate because there’s just way more randomness than people understand. One of the best examples is over halfway through [2015/16] in Germany, Dortmund were bottom of the league. We actually still made them the second-best team in Germany. They were just horrifically unlucky. If you go to a manager and say, 'You’ve been unlucky and you actually deserve to be higher', that’s actually quite an easy message but if you say, ‘You’ve been lucky, you deserve to be lower,’ that’s actually an incredibly difficult message for the manager to swallow.
American sports are loaded with this analytical edge. Teams gather, then process the data as much as they play the sport. It works for them but does it work with football or Brentford? Benham's project had barely begun when he spoke to SI. In the interim, his work has paid massive dividends in the Danish SuperLiga but Brentford has remained stuck in the Championship mid-table.
At Midjtylland Benham is the closest thing to god. Formed 20 years ago, the club settled into the mid-table but never won silverware. Sine Benham became the hands-on owner, the Ulvene haven't finished below fourth. They've won two Superliga titles and a Danish cup while playing Champions or Europa League qualifiers annually.
In his first season at Brentford, the Bees improved from ninth to third in League One. They finished second the next term to win promotion to the Championship. In that first campaign in the second tier, Benham's club finished fifth. Since Warburton's dismissal, however, the club has hovered between ninth and eleventh, to low to gather any pollen.
Benham appointed Dane Rasmus Ankersen as director of football for both clubs. Countryman Thomas Frank is the manager. The club now relies heavily on Benham's data for recruitment. While the system has paid off in the less competitive Danish league, it is not doing as well in England. The Bees have won progressively fewer games in each season of the Benham era.
But the problem isn't any Danish influence. It's the English owner rebelling against his own culture. The Brentford owner disdains traditional English football and has suggested a manager should be free to bench a player who just scored a hattrick because the numbers say the next opponent will shut him down. Paris Saint-Germain boss Thomas Tuchel subscribes to the same beliefs. Form carries little weight with either man.
Players such as Andre Gray, Alan Judge and Lasse Vibe were sold at the height of their production for Brentford. The worrying trend continues with Neal Maupay. Brentford's most clinical striker over the last two years is linked with moves away to either Sheffield United or Aston Villa. If the sales were economically motivated, their departures would be equally unfortunate but more understandable. Instead, they are football decisions based on the conclusion none of the players fit into Benham's model.
The problem is the system has hit a glass ceiling. It's designed to uncover hidden gems but the quality at the top of the Championship, in the Premier League and Europe's top divisions is well-known to everyone. In addition, most of those clubs use data now. They all have extensive scouting networks and connections. To climb any higher, Benham must acknowledge that the clubs above him have some business savvy themselves and be willing to compete for, sign and build around the same top talents they are chasing. In the end, a system is only as good as the players [rather than drones] working within it.