The modern age allows you to capture data on just about anything at all.
From the energy you use in your house to the miles you walk in a day, apps and tracking devices have revolutionised our lives. How often do you hear someone say, ‘I need to get my steps in today’, in response to a beep from their wrist? It’s a factor in everyday lives, and it’s being used to change the way we approach sports.
In the Eredivisie, SC Cambuur are not a big name, but they’re trying to stay ahead of their richer opponents by using data in their training and recruitment. According to Training Ground Guru, they use a data-driven model to improve their academy players, and it works; last season, four academy players stepped up to the first team. This season, they’ve punched above their weight in the top half of the table, perhaps a reflection that they’re doing things right.
They’re not the only team using data to improve performance; in fact, their very blueprint for data-driven success lies in the richest division in the world, England’s Premier League. It is littered with the biggest names in world football, from Liverpool to Manchester United, and even clubs struggling at the bottom of the table have huge financial reserves to draw from. One exception to that rule is Brentford, the new kids on the block doing things differently.
Heading into the 2021/22 season, Brentford had just one post-war season in the top flight, way back in 1946/47. Since then, they’ve been a mediocre third-tier team, never looking likely to break into the Premier League. All that changed in 2012 when they began to adopt a data-driven model to improve their recruitment. They looked at stats such as expected goals (xG) and actual goals to determine whether they should sign a player or sell. One classic example of their success is Scott Hogan; the striker scored twice as many goals as the chances he had suggested he should, which pointed to a purple patch for him. Signed for £500,000, Brentford sold him for £12m. He’s not the only player they turned a big profit on either; Ollie Watkins, Said Benrahma and Ezri Konsa all turned the club a good profit, allowing them to sustain recruitment in a division often beset by financial inequality.
The Bees’ co-director of football Rasmus Ankersen is the man behind the revolution, and his strategy helped them generate £120m of revenue from transfers and still retain a top squad. Despite the big sales, they finished top ten in the Championship six years out of seven and earned a promotion to the Premier League. With no discernable switch in approach, they’re now in the top half of the world’s most competitive league and priced ahead of Everton, Southampton and Crystal Palace in the Bwin rankings for a top-four finish. How do they do that on a limited budget? Ankersen explains.
“When we evaluate how well we do, we don’t look at the league table. We look at these underlying ratings which we trust more. They’re more predictive for where we’re going to go. Because of all the randomness in football, you can overachieve with 15 points or underachieve with 15 points. The league table isn’t always so reflective of how strong you actually are.”
Brentford don’t judge their manager on points and wins but xG and data. So far, it has turned them a huge profit and seen them make their way into the hardest division in football. Can their blueprint, seemingly adopted by SC Cambuur, bring success? It certainly seems so, perhaps over and above the ‘spend big’ philosophy that has ruined Barcelona and many teams before that.