Elite Football Clubs

The Brentford FC story: running a football club through data

In 2012, professional gambler, betting businessman and lifelong fan Matthew Benham saved Brentford FC from bankruptcy by paying the £500,000 debt the club owed. Since then, he has invested over £90 million in improving the team's training facilities, stadium and developing a youth academy that looks after every young player's academic and sporting development needs.

But aside from investing money in the club like many other club owners do, what Benham also brought to Brentford was a revolutionary analytics culture to every aspect of the club. He removed the idea that results should drive decisions, but instead use the evaluation of key performance indicators to make any recruitment decisions. When looking for his next striker, the club would now look at the number and quality of chances that player creates and how the collective performance of the team, whether it is offensively or defensively, affects the performance indicators of such player. It is by consciously doing things differently that Benham attempted to take a small club like Brentford to be able to compete at the highest level against clubs with a lot larger budgets.

Implementing a new pioneering approach to looking at the sport like the one Benham wanted for Brentford does not come easy in the world of football. Resistance of fans, and even coaches, to let go of traditional believes by holding on to the use of acquired wisdom for decision-making was something Benham had to face. In 2015, Benham sacked successful manager Mark Warburton after Warburton had won the club promotion to the Championship the prior season and the team was by then in a healthy league position. It was openly discussed that Warburton had fundamental philosophical differences with the changed structure in which Brentford FC was being run. The mathematical modeling methods that were being applied at the club, particularly in the club's scouting practices, conflicted with the football believes of a more traditional manager like Warburton.

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As journalist Tim Wigmore clearly explained in his article for Bleacher Report in 2017, another unorthodox and tough decision Benham had to make was around the youth academy. Since 2005, no academy player had debut in the first team. Not only that, the best talent being produced by their academy was being stolen away by top clubs in the Premier League at young ages when Brentford was not due compensation for the transfer. The situation meant that the large investments being made in developing young talent were not returning any positive results to the club. This is why Brentford FC decided to completely close their academy and solely focus on recruitment from other clubs. They also created a B-team consisting of players previously rejected by other clubs and overseas players looking to trial in English football. They switched from being a feeder club of young talent into larger rivals to partnering with them for the release of the other club's surplus assets for a small fee. With a B-team as a stepping stone into the first team, the club ensure a the have a plan of succession and a place to develop talented players regardless of their age.

The approach to the recruitment of players at the club also changed. They started to follow a stock market type approach when evaluating which players should be signed, almost looking at them like appreciating and depreciating assets and taking into consideration market inflation in different countries. They aim to hire young and undervalued players that had the motivation and energy to develop further, even though that sometimes causes conflicts between short and long term planning. To do so, they employ statistical modeling to analyse player performance, particularly focusing in leagues across Europe where the markets are less inflated but player quality levels may exceed those in the Championship. 

Evaluating team performance also changed drastically at the club. Brentford are big fans of models like xG, and use those to obtain a potentially different view to the existing league table position and match results. They argue that this takes away the luck factor that can influence football results and instead looks at the quality of performances the team is having with an eye in the long term sustainability of the club. They do so to avoid the traditional rash decisions often made in football, especially around sacking a manager for a poor run of results. After the previously mentioned disagreements with Warburton, Brentford hired Dean Smith as their head coach who was fully onboard with the club's innovative philosophy and is now one of the longest-serving managers in the league.

The Telegraph also explained in 2016 how tactics and training also experienced a change in dynamics with the implementation of analytics at the club. They found that in football, teams don't pay enough attention to set piece, even though they may constitute up to a third of a team's goals. They decided to place more emphasis in these areas during trainings and even hired specialised set pieces coaches to improve on them. This resulted in a more planned approached to taking set pieces that ultimately led to more goals.

The long-term philosophy that Brentford FC have been implementing over the last 6 years generates excitement around the football analysis community that is hoping to see a club being run by analytics, sound business strategy and statistically-based decision making can make their breakthrough into the Premier League in the coming seasons. In the 2017/18 season, they were only 6 points away from promotion play-offs.