Dubai: It’s taken them 74 years but Brentford FC, my local club from West London, are now back in the top flight of English football and they have started the season with an incredible win over Arsenal. But, just how they made it back to the big time will leave most with their jaws to the floor. It hasn't been achieved by bolstering the team by unearthing raw talent via scouts who watch hundreds of reserve games hoping to come across a gem. No. It's been done by studying stats and figures on spreadsheets of unknown players and creating a winning team with them...
The Bees came close to promotion to the Premier League on several occasions but luck deserted them. Current Aston Villa manager Dean Smith had lead them on a promotion charge and now at the helm is Thomas Frank who finally won them promotion via the play-offs to the big league.
But there's no rich owner splurging on ready made top class players like so many clubs do these days. Nor have their scouts found the next Ronaldo or Messi from the unknown. A proper scouting system has always been the backbone of any club’s transfer programme, but, Brentford aren’t just looking at players that they can afford to buy – they are using the Moneyball method and delving deeply into their data and statistics to see if they can actually fit into the team and improve it.
This stats-driven approach to recruitment has proved it can lead to improved on-field results in sports such as baseball in the US. Brentford adopted it too and look where they are now – in the Premier League and comfortably beating the Gunners.
Their recruitment of players has proven to be extremely successful. Owner and data-driven entrepreneur Matthew Benham has been using analytics to unearth talent missed by the traditional scouting methods – that being attending a lot of reserve games in grass roots football hoping to find a gem. It's a technique ex-US baseball player Billy Beane pioneered during his time managing California’s Oakland Athletics. He recruited players that nobody had even heard of and who on the face of it were well below average. But, he turned that team into champions by basically relying on the law of averages. Beane felt the sport’s conventional wisdom was all wrong and faced with a tight budget, he reinvented his team by outsmarting the richer ball clubs by disregarding old-school traditions. And by bringing in bargain-bin players that the scouts said were no good but had potential, he created a winning team. Brad Pitt starred in a movie all about this, aptly called Moneyball and it sure is worth a watch.
Benham also owns Danish Superliga team FC Midtjylland where he has used the same statistics-heavy system as Beane and it has worked a treat over there as they have won the championship three times since he bought the club in 2014.
And at Brentford, he has been doing the same thing; he recruited mathematics graduates who have been analyzing the data of footballers from all over the world who had slipped under the radar of the bigger clubs. They were able to sign Neal Maupay, Said Benrahma and Ollie Watkins for next to nothing. All three proved themselves and have since been sold for huge profits to Premier League clubs. They made a £27 million profit from Benrahma, and £26 million from Watkins who joined West Ham and Villa respectively. Ivan Toney was bought for £5 million and he’s been banging in the goals and now he is estimated to be worth £35 million. Just look at the profit they'll make if they sell him. They’ll study every stat of another player and get him for £5-10 million and then flip him for £20 or 30 million when the richer clubs come calling after the unknown player has made a name for himself. By doing so, Brentford will continue growing.
This player development model has helped the club get this far and it is an incredible story - but now they have made it to the top flight, the question is can they punch above their weight against bigger and better teams using this stats-heavy method? Time will tell. Or rather, the data will.