Brentford FC: Premier League club sifts through over 85,000 players using data and ‘good eyes’
The story of David versus Goliath is old as time immemorial, but it never gets old when it comes to sport as every fan loves hearing about how the brave underdog fights against all odds to conquer the bigger and supposedly better giant.
In the Premier League a small west London club recently promoted to top-flight soccer has defied the odds and now has the distinct possibility of challenging for a place to play in one of Europe’s intercontinental club competitions, which would be a chance to dine with the continent’s elite and bring in extra revenue.
This season’s Premier League title might be moving to north London as Arsenal has found its form again, with the Gunners topping the league standings, but it’s Brentford FC who have been consistently surprising the league’s big spenders.
“Make no mistake about it, if we were to get into Europe, we could give a right good go,” Brentford’s Technical Director Lee Dykes tells CNN Sport.
“We would take the challenge on,” he adds bristling with confidence.
The reason the Bees are swarming into the top half of the table is down to the club’s approach to soccer as they have fully embraced the concept of “moneyball.”
It’s the notion that analytics trump scouts when it comes to constructing winning teams as was immortalized in the book, “Moneyball.”
The book was turned into a Hollywood blockbuster where Brad Pitt played shrewd baseball executive Billy Beane of the Oakland A’s, who helped the franchise make the Major League Baseball (MLB) playoffs despite their low payroll.
Brentford has made the point in the past that for David to beat Goliath, his weapon of choice has to be different, and for the Bees that has manifested in the form of statistics.
“I would say that we use numbers cleverly in recruitment and in performance, and I think the way I put it is that the structure of this club is its biggest weapon,” Dykes says.
This season, Brentford’s squad, which according to Transfermarkt is estimated to be worth $305 million, beat Manchester United 4-0 ($808 million), Manchester City 2-1 ($1.08 billion), and Liverpool 3-1 ($992 million), while securing draws with Arsenal ($803 million) and Tottenham Hotspur ($711 million).
“We’re constantly trying to push the boundaries so when we achieve good things and when we beat Liverpool – I was sat there with a nice smile on my face saying ‘we’ve done that.’ We’ve worked hard to get that result,” Dykes says.
“It is very satisfying because when you win, when you do well and you achieve great things, you kind of want there to be a story behind it. You kind of want to know that you’ve overachieved and you’ve gone above and beyond, right?
“And that’s what we feel we’ve done at Brentford. We’ve not just got promoted to the Premier League and thrived in the Premier League, paying ridiculous amounts of money. We’ve actually really worked cleverly in the transfer market,” he says.
Dykes explains that the club looks to hold themselves accountable to keeping track of several key metrics, so that it avoids any costly panic buys or bloodletting if results aren’t going the team’s way. It helps take emotion out of any decision making and any assessment will be down to cold hard facts.
“You lose a game and everybody’s down on the floor,” he continues.
“When you’ve dissected the performance levels using final third entries we’ve had, how much possession and how many key passes that we’ve made, how many real chances did we have in that game. It’s a fine margin.
“Also, the goalkeeper may have pulled off an unbelievable save, maybe just little things that have gone wrong in that passing sequence.
“So we try to really understand the performance of the team in any given game and find out if we have actually won or not … and we try to look at the underlining numbers, data, statistics.”
In many ways Brentford is the Goliath when it comes to using statistics, but is it as simple as using algorithms to displace any human input?
Not quite, according to Dykes.
“We cover 85,500 worldwide. For me to do that, my team to do that – 15 people strong – you’re not going to do that with your eyes. You need a system that filters that down to a manageable number. But that system has to be aligned with what you want from your eyes,” he says.
“You need to develop a criteria that is linked to the data filter of all of the players. It comes down into this process and then you’re in a stage where you can start looking with the eyes still checking with the numbers, but that’s how data should be used in football.
“It gives us options, it allows us to filter through and miss nothing. And then we attach some very good eyes in the recruitment team,” Dykes adds.
But spotting the player is the first step and from there Dykes says, “we try and do things quietly and quickly.”
“The data will give us a really good idea of where we should be looking, so we catch things really early. Then it’s about how quickly we can take it from that point to a signing stage.
“We’ve got a situation where nobody knows this player we’re in for. He gets to this point, so we’re nearly there and all of a sudden it’s out in the press and then he’s gone to another club. So in the Premier League, that is a challenge for us.”
“Good eyes” have helped find a number of gems including the irrepressible Ivan Toney who has scored 15 goals in the league, and is currently the third top scorer behind Tottenham’s Harry Kane (18 goals) and Man City’s Erling Haaland (27 goals).
“I think he’s one of the top 10 center forwards in the world and that’s what Brentford have done for Ivan, but also what he’s done for himself,” Dykes says of the club’s star player.
“We plucked Ivan from League One, from Peterborough. There were a lot of people looking at Ivan and he’s always one of those, you sign them to do well, and it’s like, ‘oh yeah’ it was an obvious one because he was doing really well for Peterborough.
” I’m kind of like ‘yeah’ we were the ones that put, well, [Brentford FC owner] Matthew [Benham] was the one who put the money on the table and look at him now.”
It’s also on the opposite side of the pitch that Brentford have a much sought after prized asset in goalkeeper David Raya who has captured attention all across Europe, Dykes says.
“David’s a great guy. He’s a very nice person and I know what he wants to achieve personally. But we will have to move on from David.”
“In my opinion [David] could go play for any team in the world. He’s that good.”
Last year, Brentford finished its inaugural season in the Premier League in 13th place, five places above the drop zone, where the worst three teams are relegated to the Championship.
Impressive for a team that had just been promoted.
Now the Bees have Europe in their sights, with an opportunity to potentially play in the Europa League or the Europa Conference League.
“For us, it is genuinely just about us getting better every year, but not by league position, by the measurements we take, by the players that we acquire, by the people that we employ,” Dykes concludes.
“If we can just continually develop and step in the right direction then naturally Europe will beckon one day. And we’ve got to embrace that challenge.”
CNN’s James Oware contributed to reporting.