Slow and steady…and data… may just do the trick for Brentford FC
Another gruelling season in English Football Championship has just commenced to redefine the meaning of fight to the end. Amidst this hullabaloo, Debojyoti Chakraborty, here at Goalden Times, narrates the story of a club that may just open up the Pandora’s box – use of Data modelling in Football. Read, share and explore.
Beginning of the End… of MiseryIt was a chilly December day in 2007 at the London Borough of Hounslow. Local club Brentford FC was not doing well in the Football League Two, English Football’s fourth tier, with only five wins and 13 losses in 23 matches under the new manager Terry Butcher. This was not a new experience for the lowly club. Since being set up in 1889, the supporters at Griffin Park had spent most of their time in the obscurities of the lower leagues of English football. But all of that was about to change. Slowly but surely.
Butcher was gone and his assistant, a former Brentford winger, Andy Scott, was appointed as the caretaker manager. Three weeks into the job and three wins in five matches saw his contract being graduated to a permanent role on 4th January 2008, following a successful caretaker spell. He celebrated the new contract the following day with another win. A few more wins followed and Brentford finished in a respectable mid-table position that season.
The Revival, Baby Steps
Scott was far from done though. In his first full season in charge, Scott led the west London club to the Football League Two title. He was in the limelight far more than before. . Scott won the League Two Manager of the Month award for April-May 2009 for clinching the title without his four first choice strikers in the last eight games of the campaign. He was also awarded with the BBC London “Manager of The Year” for the calendar year 2008 and narrowly missed out on the LMA Manager of the Year Award for League Two, 2009.
Welcome to League One and the fairy tale continued. Some smart loan deals –goalkeeper WojciechSzczęsny (Arsenal) and winger John Bostock (Tottenham Hotspur) helped cement their place in the third tier of English football as Brentford finished the 2009-10 season in the ninth place. It was quite remarkable as all other newly promoted teams struggled that season– Exeter City avoided the drop by a single point whereas Wycombe Wanderers and Gillingham headed straight back to the League Two.
Brentford’s good showing was largely due to their superb home form – during this two-year period they lost only four home league games – as well as some tremendous results against the more established clubs like Leeds United, Norwich City, Southampton & Huddersfield Town.
The Second Season Syndrome and beyond
Even though Brentford had a couple of decent Cup runs in 2010-11, their league form took a back seat. Scott paid the price and was relieved of his duties in February 2011. Even though this decision irked some of his favourite players – most notably Szczęsny taking on Twitter to vent his frustration – Brentford moved on. For the 2011-12 season, German manager Uwe Rösler took over the reins with Mark Warburton, a former Watford Academy Coach and then assistant coach at Brentford, appointed as the sporting director. This was a clear indication that the club was going to follow the much-acclaimed European model where the latter will be given an equal importance, especially while sourcing players.
Brentford consolidated its position in the League One with another top 10 finish that year and moved closer to their goal of promotion as they missed out on the play-offs by a mere six points. But the highlight of the year was transfer of the club’s shareholding to supporter-investor Matthew Benham. This was soon to become critical in the club’s coming years.
Agony and End of an Era
Rösler mounted a serious claim to promotion in his second season in charge. So much so that Brentford came within minutes of securing promotion to the Championship, the second tier of English football. Their match against second placed Doncaster Rovers at Griffin Park, the final match of the 2012-13 season, was heading for a goalless draw much to the despair of the home crowd as only a win could have seen them through. And in the dramatic final minute of added time, Brentford won a penalty. On-loan striker Marcello Trotta snatched the ball from captain Kevin O’Connor to take the spot-kick. His shot hit the crossbar, and more cruelly, Doncaster scored from the resulting counter-attack off the rebound. Doncaster celebrated their biggest ever title win with aplomb rounding off a doomsday for the Bees.
Their ill fortune was compounded even further when Yeovil Town beat them in the play-off final. Brentford again had an impressive run in the FA Cup – taking holders Chelsea to a fourth round replay – but that was no consolation for the misery of the league play-offs.
Rösler, though, was far from done. He completely revamped the squad for 2013-14 season as he signed or brought upon on loan as many as 13 players. Suitors came calling and Rösler left for then one of the top Championship clubs Wigan in December 2013 but not after he had won seven of his last eight games. He had also by then become the most successful club manager (60 wins in 137 matches at 43.80%) in the history of Brentford. Long serving player and skipper O’Connor paid a glowing tribute to Rösler at the end of the season –
“Uwe got the ball rolling. We were a bang average League One side, but Uwe changed the mentality. Everything he did was all Premier League standard. He did amazing, so we’ll be saying thank you to him.”
Save the Best for the Last
Sporting director Mark Warburton resisted the temptation to follow his manager and instead stepped up to take up the mantle at Brentford. And, he had a blockbuster start. With four back-to-back wins, the first one to do so in his first four matches in the club history, Warburton took Brentford to the top of League One. The winning streak continued for six games and the unbeaten run lasted for an incredible 19 matches. Just imagine the cutthroat nature of the lower leagues and one would understand how mesmerizing this feat has been.
The secret behind Warburton’s success was the fact that he had been long associated with the club. He had already seen how well the team was functioning and insisted on continuity in the good work. That is why he did not go for a complete overhaul in the backroom coaching staff, only tinkered with a few here and there. Warburton’s approach was vindicated as he won the League One Manager of the Month award for December 2013.
On 18th April 2014, Brentford beat Preston 1–0 at home securing promotion with three games to spare. It sparked a pitch invasion by the 10,774 home fans as they were jubilant of their return to the Championship after 21 years. Brentford ultimately finished second in the league table that season behind Wolverhampton Wanderers.
Warburton’s first full season in charge was to be a memorable one. He himself won the manager of the Football League Team for the Week of 3rd–9th November. That was followed by a club record-equalling five successive second-tier wins. By the end of November, Brentford was sitting pretty in the third place, the club’s highest placing in the English league structure since 1952-53. Warburton had received the Championship Manager of the Month award, and had driven the Bees to the best home record in the Football League in 2014. Continuing with their superb showing, English Championship odds for all betting markets have given Brentford a decent chance for the play offs this season.
And then came Statistics
Just when everything seemed ever so perfect, lightning struck. The owner Matthew Benham, a man who made his fortune from football betting and hence was slightly inclined to data analytics, decided to remodel the club’s management structure, emphasizing more on mathematical modelling and statistics over the more traditional scouting methods. It created a sense of unrest amongst the coaching staff. Warburton, assistant coach David Weir and sporting director Frank McParland decided to leave at the end of 2014–15 season. This incident, labelled Warburtongate in the newspapers, had a massive adverse effect on Brentford’s performance as they managed to win only five of their next 15 games. But two wins in the final two games and fortunate results elsewhere saw Warburton lead Brentford to fifth position and a place in the play-offs, the club’s highest second-tier finish since the 1934-35 season. Brentford eventually lost out 5-1 to Middleborough in the play-off semi-finals. Warburton won London Manager of the Year award at the 2015 London Football Awards. He signed off with 40 wins, a winning percentage of 51.28%, the highest for any Brentford manager.
The Data Man
So, it might seem quite odd for some team owner to dismantle his coaching staff when his team was fifth in the table, fighting for promotion. But as per Benham’s own data modelling, his team was lucky enough to be so high up there – they were actually the 11th best team in the Championship. By the time the season finished, his data had reconciled with the team’s actual position (fifth), but certainly the man does not wish to stop there. He explains:
“Usually the way the fans and especially the media look at it, randomness is quite an unsatisfactory explanation, so they like to look for stories and a narrative. But very often randomness is the main explanation.”
Data is not new to sports.Baseball teams have started gathering detailed statistics going back to the 1870s and they had their revolutionary Moneyball moment some time back. Football is more free flowing and dynamic in terms of events. And it is still early days to comment anything about the man’s massive project. But let us look into the results so far. If we term them mind boggling, well, it will be an understatement. FC Midtjylland, another club which our Data Man is a primary owner of, has just won its first Danish league title – Midtjylland had never won any kind of trophies before. Their set piece conversion rate was second only to Atlético Madrid in the entire Europe – a feat achieved purely based on the data science. And then Midtjylland marched on. They won their first ever UEFA Champions League second round qualifier and lost out in the next round only to away goals.
Benham’s best attribute – or may be his downfall in coming days – could be his attachment to data and detachment from emotions. In an interview with the Guardian, when asked if he thought Brentford would be promoted (for the 2015-16 season), the boyhood club supporter replied:“There is a 42.3% chance that we will go up.”
And he has been proven right so far! His plans are revolutionary to say the least. Soon, we might hear about how network theory is being applied to the increasing realms of data to predict the passes players make and who they connect with. What is even more intriguing is that all these might lead us to overwhelming discoveries about passing networks – which groups of players have the most effective connections and why. Certainly, if that is the case, it could revolutionize the way managers think about picking their first XI.
Starting with a new head coach, the Dutch debutant Marinus Dijkhuizen, and sporting director this summer, Benham has taken full control over Brentford. It is not exactly an acid test for him, but surely quite a few eyes will be monitoring his team’s progress.
And they seem to have got it right so far. Brentford have retained their star performers like shot-stopper David Button (158 saves last season, the most in the league) and midfielder Alan Judge (joint-highest assists of 12 from open play last season). And the Bees have strengthened their squad by the capture of Chelsea midfielder Josh McEachran and club record signing (£2.1m) defender Andreas Bjelland from FC Twente.
Every season leagues spurn up some surprises and very rarely expert predictions match the actual outcome. Brentford have themselves seen AFC Bournemouth and MK Dons leapfrogging them. But can they hang on like they have been doing since 2007? May be they can use those two clubs’ story as an inspirational launchpad for a successful campaign! Or will their owner get it right and open up a football revolution based on data modelling? Whatever it is, Brentford should be hugely disappointed if they fail to finish in the top six.