Brentford manager Mark Warburton’s decision to resign from the club at the end of the season, despite its meteoric rise into the Championship play-offs under his guidance, has brought the use of analytics in soccer firmly into the public eye.
The decision by the club’s chairman, Matthew Benham, to sacrifice Warburton in his quest to introduce analytics has been drawn ire, mockery, and praise from various quarters. However, another team’s success as a result of introducing such a philosophy has seen the decision increasingly receive a grudging acknowledgement of the logic behind it.
There has been much resistance to the use of analytics in soccer, partly because its use is seen as an intrusion by mathematics and science into something that people believe should be more about romance. On top of this, powerful people in soccer appear unwilling to believe that the success seen in individual sports like baseball can translate into a team sport. Matthew Benham has, however, already achieved success using the same blueprint he is trying to introduce at Brentford - at the Danish club he is the majority shareholder of, Midtjylland.
Midtjylland finished third in the Danish Superliga last season and currently sit nine points clear at the top. They have done so by putting stats analysis and predictive modelling at the forefront of everything they do, from scouting to tactics.
The policy was introduced by the club’s chairman, Rasmus Ankersen, a 32-year old former player who was appointed by Benham. His method allows for no compromise to his vision to remove the irrational, subjective, and emotional decision-making, and replace it instead with the scientific method.
Ankersen has introduced a raft of changes at the club, with coaches’ evaluation of matches now primarily informed by mathematical models. He believes that scouting should be an exclusively technical art, leaving no room for traditional eye tests of talent. Midtjylland’s scouts fill a different role at the club, judging a potential recruit exclusively on their physical and psychological fitness. Ankersen also believes strongly in the power of set pieces, with formal monthly meetings held between players, coaches, and himself. This has born fruit, with the club scoring three times from free kicks in one game.
Ankersen acknowledges that there is a large amount of luck involved, and prefers to measure success based on their own models rather than simply going by the league table. He has changed the system so that the manager will only get fired if he fails to meet targets set by these models, as opposed to table position. Data analytics informs every aspect of the day to day operations of Midtjylland, as it is likely to go on to do at Brentford.
The use of analytics in football is still young, although it is slowly creeping in to the major clubs. Liverpool, under the stewardship of Boston Red Sox owners and Moneyball enthusiasts John Henry and Tom Werner, created a new position for a director of research in 2012, and many other top teams have introduced whole teams of analysts to study players and games. Their influence on major decisions is still minimal though. No other team has undergone the same top down re-organization as Brentford and Midtylland, however, and it may take the success of a club like Brentford in the premier league to change this.