Brentford’s recruitment approach has been a key part to their over-performance relative to economic power over the last few years. Brentford have the fourth lowest playing budget in the Championship. However, they have managed to finish in the top ten four years in a row. In this time they have also been able to make profits on transfers in the region of around sixty million. A transfer record any player of Football Manager would be proud of.
The Bees and Benham
Brentford’s recruitment approach is heavily analytics-driven and guided in part by the owner, Matthew Benham who also owns Smartodds. Smartodd’s is a statistical research and sports modelling serviced designed for pro gamers. Many of the algorithms and statistical models such as Expected Goals (xG) were key to the company sustaining impressive profits, which ultimately led to the purchase of Brentford.
Benham has taken much of this approach into Brentford. Nevertheless he “hates” the term moneyball when used to describe his approach. Rather he believes the use of statistics is a facet of a wider scientific method of running the football club. He has also stated that he is a fan of “scouting with the eyes”.
Brentford’s great Dane
Another individual who cannot be discounted in Brentford’s recruitment approach is a Danish born director, Rasmus Ankersen. Seen as a high-performance expert, Ankersen is the director of Brentford as well as the chairman at Fc Midytlland. Ankersen was formally a club youth captain at Midytlland, but with injury curbing his career, he turned to coaching and football business in general. One of the most important parts of Ankersen’s journey was a six-month sabbatical. He travelled the world in order to discover the secrets to high performance. These are chronicled in his book, The Gold Mine effect. The lessons learnt here have been the driving factor for many of the decision frameworks in place at both Midytlland and Brentford.
One of the key findings from his expedition was that context is king. This means understanding the key circumstances and facts that actually contribute to an end effect. The example Ankersen uses is that of choosing between an Apple and Microsoft employee. Whilst the Apple employee may have performed better in total sales, it may take more competence for the Microsoft employee to bring in an average amount of sales. Therefore, we must take into account the context in order to guide our decision making. It also has wider effects on being able to judge whether your actions lead to success or not.
The Perfect Marriage
Ankersen and Benham were able to see how the reduced amount of goals in football leads to a huge variability and randomness in the actual results that occur. This often times can be at odds with the underlying performance indicators of a team or player.
The combination of Ankersen’s ideas of context and Benham’s exception ability to generate meaningful data, meant that Brentford were able to decipher the complexity of football better than most. Brentford have been equipped to sort through the randomness of football and therefore make better decisions. They use statistics such as expected goals and assists, shot percentage, shot differentials and conversion rates. Just to name a few of the ones we are even aware of.
The League table always lies
We can all agree that as far as poor football decisions go, giving Alan Pardew a six-year contract is close to the top of the pile. Using Benham’s betting projection algorithms, they took a detailed look into Newcastle’s astonishing 2011/12 season in which they finished in fifth place. On face value, the performance that year from Newcastle was outstanding and worthy of an improved contract. However, when looking at the underlying statistics, the duo were able to point out that Newcastle had hit a purple patch over the year and performed way over the odds. Benham used expected points. This is a statistic developed to predict the outcome of football matches for his betting company.
The red line indicates expected points and the black line actual points. We can see here how Newcastle over-performed in the 2011-12 season.
One of the key factors in this was Papiss Cisse producing a shot conversation rate of 33%, better than Lionel Messi’s 20% at the time. Furthermore, Newcastle had both goal differences and shot differentials completely at odds with the surrounding teams at the top of the table.
These factors were seen as the key reasons given for their subsequent ‘underperformances’ the next year. However, it was not actually a case of underperforming. Rather, Newcastle regressed to their mean over the next year finishing 16th. This type of process is fundamental to Brentford and how they use data in order to understand the context before making decisions.
The notion of context
The idea of context is the basis of Brentford’s recruitment strategy which basically buys undervalued players and sells overvalued players. Scott Hogan, brought in for £500k, was sold two years later for around £12m, with the money re-invested back into the club. Presumably one could guess that Hogan had performed over the odds with both expected goals and shot conversion percentages. Brentford may have predicted that this bid was overvaluing Scott Hogan’s actual ability and cashed in.
Comparing Hogan to the rest of the league
In Hogan’s first season at Brentford, he scored seven goals with an expected goals of 3.5xG. He had a shooting percentage of 77%. This was far and above the top five scorers in the Championship that season. His goals per ninety minutes was the highest in the league, tripling the nearest player in Cauley Woodrow.
Since then, Hogan has gone from a .58 goals per game scoring rate at Brentford to .16 goals per game at Aston Villa and then .25 goals per game at Sheffield United.
Brentford and Benrahma
Mohamed Said Benrahma was a name English football fans would most likely have not been familiar with. Flash forward one year and anyone who watches the Championship semi-regularly would have at least been witness to one moment of magic from the Algerian.
Interestingly, he was signed by Brentford after a productive yet not ground-breaking season on loan to Chatearoux. In 31 games in Ligue 2, he amassed nine goals and four assists. Brentford subsequently signed him on a four year deal for around £1.5m. But why Benrahma and not say, Umut Bozok? Bozok had scored 24 goals in 35 games whilst being a year younger than Benrahma. Whilst they do play different positions, I believe that Benrahma’s underlying numbers suggested that he was a better option.
The statistics behind Benrahma
When looking at Benrahma’s numbers for the season in Ligue 2, you can gain some context by comparing him to the other top goal scorers in the League that year.
Firstly, he is primarily a wide midfielder in comparison to mainly strikers in the list. Secondly, he was playing for one of the mid-table teams in the division. Furthermore, we can see his numbers suggest a performance that year close to what is expected. We can see this by comparing expected goals (xG) and actual goals (aG)
This coupled with his poor shot percentage (shots on target which become goals) could have been seen as potential value for Brentford. Ankersen has previously noted how Brentford have an array of specialists at the club in order to gain the most improvement out of the players as possible. This includes a shooting specialist.
We see here that Benrahma takes a huge proportion of shots. If Brentford could improve his shooting percentage by 10 to 15 per cent, we could see a huge increase in goals. His numbers have been similar this year in the Championship. In good news for Brentford fans, he has only been at the club for one year. With age on his side and potentially more development, if Brentford can hold onto him they could be in for more goals next term.
Furthermore, his value would be much closer to his actual ability rather than say a player such as Bozok who outperformed his expected goals by an astonishing 10.65. Whilst this is far from an in-depth and perfectly accurate method of comparison, these may have been the kind of factors that Brentford looked into when signing Benrahma. Many other factors such as contract length, in person scouting and personal reviews, could have also been at play.
The nature of football means we are rarely privy to the actual events that occur behind closed doors. Much of this piece is an attempt to look at the possible approaches that a team such as Brentford may employ. Whilst we don’t know the specifics of how they approach the transfer market, we can be pretty sure that they are doing a fine job of it.