Brentford bias to the article but looking at signings of the last couple of years, young, untapped sources, wildcards almost witha hope of making a return on them
Has football found its answer to ‘Moneyball’?
Dean Smith (pictured), head coach of unfashionable Brentford FC, has introduced the statistical approach of owner Matthew Benham
“The first guy through the wall always gets bloody.”
In one of the final scenes of the film adaption of Michael Lewis’ seminal book ‘Moneyball’, Liverpool owner John Henry praises Billy Beane, played by Brad Pitt, for the analytical revolution at the unfashionable Oakland A’s. Transferring the concept of ‘Moneyball’ from baseball to football has been a tortuous task. There has, for more than five years, been talk of a ‘moneyball’ approach to recruitment, trying to replicate Beane’s success in unearthing undervalued players. In West London one businessman, however, is through the wall.
For Billy Beane, read Matthew Benham. For Oakland A’s, read Brentford FC.
Moneyball (2011) was based on Michael Lewis’s account of the Oakland Athletics baseball team’s 2002 season – and their pioneering general manager Billy Beane Benham, owner of Smartodds, Brentford FC and part-owner of Danish side FC Midtjylland, has pioneered the use of analytics in football. Through innovation, intelligence and statistics, he has achieved success with both clubs, as well as provoking intrigue and suspicion in equal measure. What business can learn from football to gain a competitive edge
Now, former Smartodds employee James Tippett has unlocked the door to reveal some of the secrets behind the success, to introduce what may be football’s answer to Moneyball: The Football Code. “There is just a general resistance in football to embrace new ideas,” he tells i. “At the moment the language we use to talk about football is all quite clichéd. This is a different way of looking at the sport. “Breaking it down, using ‘Expected Goals’, a mathematical approach really does reveal some hidden truths about the game.” Ah yes, ‘Expected Goals (xG)’. Viewers of Match of the Day may have noted the phrase crop up more and more in manager interviews. So what is it? James Tippett explains: “When you go to a football match you often say ‘we should have won that’ and you base that opinion on how many chances your team created compared to how many chances the other team has created. Football is always about chance creation. “Expected goals is a way of quantifying this. Not only looking at the quantity of shots which take place but also the quality of them. “You assess each shot and you give it a probability of ending up in a goal. And that then correlates to an expected goals value. “For example a penalty will have a 70 per cent chance of going in, roughly. so you will give it a 0.7xG value. At the end of the game you add up all these values and you are left with a number of goals you could have expected each team to have scored based on their shots or attacking opportunities.”
xG formed the foundation of Benham’s success with Smartodds, which provides “statistical research and sports modelling services to pro gamblers”. A statistical philosophy He transferred that to ‘The Bees’ and Midtjylland. “They take a more holistic approach generally to assessing the danger of an attacking opportunity, which gives a more profound reflection of which team’s actually performing at the best level,” Tippett explains. “Both teams found their success in the xG method. That’s the foundation for the success. Their whole approach is geared more towards a statistical philosophy. The supercomputer that can predict a footballer’s real value (and beat the bookies) “Because they are not as rich, they need to be smarter, gain all these edges. A lot of which come from mathematical modelling. “What I try to get at in the book is the general philosophy, not necessarily the specifics of the statistical models.” He adds: “Expected goals is a lot better way of measuring team performance than player performance. At the moment it is by the far the best predicative metric we can use.” Clubs at a variety of levels use statistics and analysis on a daily basis. The key is in knowing what to look for and how to apply it. In the space of a year FC Midtjylland won the Danish league and beat both Southampton and Manchester United (Photo: AFP/Getty Images) “Football is a very hard sport to break down statistically. It is so dynamic, there are so many players moving about at once,” says Tippett. “There are two parts to data collection. The first is actually collecting the data, which is very hard. There is so much to look at, you don’t know what to analyse. “The second part is analysing that data. What can give you accurate conclusions as to which teams, players or managers are better and what is just noise? “There’s so much noise in football, so much luck surrounding the sport. That is what football analysis is all about, trying to remove that luck and create an image of what is actually happening.” The reserved Benham and his teams have opened their minds to the benefits.
Midtjylland famously won the Danish Superliga for the first time in 2015, with set pieces an integral part of their success. “Brentford’s wages suggest they should be in a relegation scrap every season. Their ability to think smartly has allowed them to compete with more financial heavyweights.” “The co-director of football at Brentford says 30 per cent of goals come from set pieces, therefore about 30 per cent of training time should be spent practising set pieces,” Tippett explains. “I reckon most clubs spend about five per cent of their time practicing set pieces, which is a huge deficiency. In any other business if you gained profit from 30 per cent from an area you would put 30 per cent of your resources towards that. “They see set pieces as a hugely undervalued way of creating goals. They spent a lot of time focusing on it, creating unique routines. “It is also the only area of football you can really devise and practice over and over it again. A bit like how rugby teams devise moves from scrums and lineouts.” Playing the transfer market Through writing the book Tippett pinpoints a range of errors and deficiencies within football, and the analysis of it. While pundits offering opinions without any ‘checks’ or deeper thinking grates, it is transfer policy which continues to baffle. Especially when smaller clubs, such as Brentford, operating on smaller budgets, are showing what can be done with analysis and a plan. “You see some clubs and think ‘what is their transfer policy?’ You see clubs overspending on ageing players. The big inefficiency in the transfer market is when clubs pay for past performance, buy an old player based on his past record. This summer’s transfer window – in 17 eye-watering stats “Teams like Brentford are spending on youth players, players who are going to have many years ahead of them of great performance, and who they can sell on for a profit when the players develop and become really good. “Brentford’s wages suggest they should be in a relegation scrap every season. Their ability to think smartly has allowed them to compete with more financial heavyweights. That’s how success should be measured, how intelligent you are, not how rich you are.” Brentford finished tenth in last season’s Championship despite having one of the smallest budgets
Despite Brentford’s success – in the last Championship campaign they finished tenth despite having the 21st biggest budget – their influence has been slow to permeate through the game. It goes back to clubs’ unwillingness to embrace new ideas, think outside the box, take a risk. There is also still a natural skepticism towards words such as ‘analytics’ and ‘statistics’. The belief that “football is poetry, not mathematics”. Arsene Wenger has voiced fears that computers will soon pick the team, and then there is the Harry Redknapp anecdote of telling an analyst, after a loss, “I’ll tell you what, next week, why don’t we get your computer to play against their computer and see who wins?” Dexterity, accuracy and FIFA skills – the people behind Opta’s football data Tippett says: “You can never truly break football down into statistics. You always need that passion, that heart, people who know the game and can apply context. “Whenever you are carrying out any statistical analysis you always need context. That can only come from people who know the game. “The problem with passion in the game is that it can be very hard to separate yourself and look at it objectively. When you are angry you don’t make the best decisions, you are not rational. You can’t think objectively with logic. That’s where statistics help, they can show you what is actually happening.” However, despite all that, the sport has barely scratched the surface of what data can offer. “No one knows what the innovation is going to be because technology is always progressing and advancing. “I think football has barely even started its data evolution because there is so much more technology you can use. Stuff we have not even considered right now will, in five years time, be revolutionary.”
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