WHY THE BEES HAVE MANAGED TO FLY FROM THE THIRD DIVISION OF ENGLAND TO THE PREMIER LEAGUE IN ELEVEN YEARS
„Looking beyond the horizon“
In our new series „Looking beyond the horizon“, we look at clubs in Europe that are achieving extremely remarkable success as underdogs and are breaking new ground to do so.
Brentford FC will make the start.
Summer 2007 – Brentford FC are once again relegated to the Second Division, the third or fourth division in England.
Summer 2021 – Brentford FC are promoted to the Premier League, unsurprisingly, after failing to make the play-offs at the last minute a year earlier. They beat Arsenal FC (total market value of the squad 548 million euros) 2-0 in the Premier League in mid-August and Liverpool FC (total market value just under 880 million euros) three to three at the end of September.
An extraordinary success story, but one that has relatively little to do with chance and luck, but a great deal to do with a new perspective, innovative and creative ideas, a new concept and a clear strategy.
To city and club
Brentford is located in the outer west of Greater London and has a population of just under 15,000. So FC Brentford is not exactly a „big city club“, it is more comparable with Unterhaching or Altglienicke than with Union or 1860.
Brentford FC was founded on 9 October 1889, the bee became the heraldic animal rather through a misunderstanding. The club colours are red, white and black. In 1935 the club was promoted for the first time to the first English league, then called the First Division. After relegation from the top division in 1947, Brentford found themselves mostly in the third and fourth divisions between the 1950s and 1990s. Until 2007 they did not progress beyond League One. Brentford FC is a traditional club, but a traditional club without a tradition of success and titles.
From 2007 to 2009 they played in the Second Division, then until 2014 in League One (both third division, the league system was restructured in England at that time), in 2014 they were promoted to the Championship, this year finally to the Premier League.
The current situation of the club
All the more remarkable, given this long but relatively „thin“ history and the very modest conditions, is the great success in the past ten years.
The most important basis for this is that those in charge have been absolutely clear from the beginning that you cannot achieve the same success by simply copying the approach of the big clubs, but that as an underdog you have to go other ways, that you can only compensate for financial and structural disadvantages with new ideas.
In short, it is a perfect David versus Goliath story. Malcolm Gladwell has examined a number of such stories in his book „David and Goliath. The Art of Conquering the Overmatched“ under the microscope. Brentford FC tells its own:
According to Transfermarkt.de, the team’s current market value is 166 million, which means that they only have the third weakest squad in the Premier League for the 2021/2022 season. In the table, however, they are currently (beginning/mid-October) in seventh place (matchday 7).
The coach and co-coach are Danish (since 2018 Thomas Frank, previously with Brøndby and Denmark’s national under-23 teams, and Brian Riemer), while Rasmus Ankersen, the sporting director, is also Danish.
Among others, one German (Janelt), one Norwegian, one Finn, one Swede and seven Danes are currently under contract, which is also no coincidence – more on that later.
Since 2020, the Bees have been playing in the new Brentford Community Stadium (capacity 18,250). The venerable Griffin Park, which has a pub on every street corner, has been abandoned.
In the six years of its participation in the Championship, Brentford FC was able to generate a transfer plus of almost 116 million euros, which means that it was not only very successful in sporting terms, but also financially, and was able to finance its sporting progress with an extremely clever transfer policy. Finding players with a lot of potential, who had previously been overlooked by other clubs, through data-based scouting, training them and then selling them for a lot of money is an essential part of the club’s new DNA.
For the first season in the Premier League, however, they went into the red for the first time with 37 million in transfer investments and were able to benefit from the cushion they had built up over the past few years.
The main characters – Matthew Benham and Rasmus Ankersen
The fathers of success are Matthew Benham as owner and Rasmus Ankersen as sports director.
Matthew Benham studied physics at Oxford, then worked for the Bank of America, most recently as a board member, first developing mathematical models for calculating share prices and finally football matches. With his company Smart Odds, he became a multi-millionaire through football betting based on these models.
As a natural scientist, he has become a kind of new football scientist over the years, getting better and better at minimising randomness as much as possible.
Together with Rasmus Ankersen, he has thrown many of football’s „eternal“ wisdoms overboard and slaughtered many sacred cows. Innovations usually come from the outside. „Thinking outside the box“ is easier when you are not inside the box. An insider would not have mustered the courage for this. Benham is an absolute outsider. In 2012, he took over his youth club as owner.
Rasmus Ankersen, born in 1982 in Herning, Denmark, had to end his football career with Midtylland FC after his first professional game due to a knee injury. After his first years in the coaching team of his club, he travelled the world and wrote some very successful books based on his experiences, such as „Hunger in Paradise“ and „The Goldmine Effect“, in which he deciphers, for example,why most of the successful sprinters in the world come from a club in Kingston, Jamaica (e.g. Usain Bolt) or the very most successful long-distance runners in the world come from a village in Kenya. Almost always, a single coach who also came to his respective sport as an „outsider“ is one of the most decisive factors.
Other important insights are, for example, the „outcome bias“ (the error of evaluating decisions solely on the basis of results while ignoring how they came about), „What you see is not always what you get“, „Never overestimate certificates, never underestimate character“, „Great talent does not necessarily mean the right talent“, „Always distinguish potential from performance“ or „The most important foundation for success is the right mindset.“
The absolutely fascinating punchline to his story is that it was only a few years ago, rather by chance, that he found out that his small hometown, of all places, has become a huge reservoir of successful ice hockey players. Almost half of the Danish national team comes from Herning, but above all, five players born in Herning have made it to the NHL in the last nine years. In science, this phenomenon is now called the Birthplace Effect.
Ankersen is also in demand as a speaker.
After meeting Matthew Benham, he became sporting director at Brentford FC and Midtylland FC.
The success model – data-based scouting
The analysis of one’s own possibilities showed, as I said, that one cannot be successful with conventional methods and less money.
So it has to be stressed again: „If David wants to defeat Goliath, you can’t do it with the same weapons“, Rasmus Ankersen, told the English website Talksport.
Therefore, they developed a scouting model based on Benham’s betting models and primarily look for new players in leagues with a significantly lower salary level.
To do this, they try to make teams and players comparable on a quasi-global scale in order to find players who are at a somewhat higher level, but who have a significantly lower market value and correspondingly lower salary expectations due to the „less important“ league. The fact that they are scouting mainly in Scandinavia for this is no coincidence, if only because of Ankersen’s origins. Moreover, it is believed that players from these countries are generally more adaptable and disciplined.
Data is a big part of the recruitment process,“ Ankersen tells Bleacher Report. „There’s no player I’ve ever recruited at Brentford without data having a say, but there’s also no player who would have been recruited without the traditional method.“ „You look for players who have potential and analyse the context: why haven’t they fulfilled their potential yet?“
Another essential element for scouting is the development of key performance indicators (KPI) such as „dangerous passes“, which are used not only to evaluate players and coaches, but also to create profiles for positions, making scouting much more efficient.
In addition to Scandinavia, Brentford FC also scout in the French second division and in the lower leagues in England. One example is Ollie Watkins, a twenty-five-year-old centre-forward who was signed from Exeter in 2017 for 7.2 million before being transferred to Aston Villa in 2020 for 32 million. He became an England international this year.
Another discovery is Vitaly Janelt, a left-footed six who is strong in duels and very sure of the ball, who was signed from VfL Bochum for 600,000 in 2020. He is now a regular in the Premier League, a European Under-21 champion and is in Hansi Flick’s notebook; his market value is now seven million.
With Oliver Heil (as a player formerly with Mainz 05 II and Darmstadt 98) one of the four scouts is a German. He previously worked as an analyst for FC Midtylland.
Benham and Ankersen have pioneered data-based scouting for football – much as Billy Beane (Mister Moneyball) did for baseball – and have thus developed a new way of looking at football, a scientific and economic one that is infinitely more rational and objective and, at least at first glance, seems less traditional and emotional.
The general aim is to minimise randomness, which plays a greater role in football than in many other team sports.
Her maxim „The table always lies, the subjective impression often, but the numbers never“ sounds very provocative at first, but is obviously true and is the basis of her impressive success.
Numbers alone, however, are not enough for Ankersen; among other things, he scours the forums of clubs for information about interesting players in order to get a broader picture.
Looking beyond their own horizons is also very important to them for their work; they orient themselves on other sports and on economic cycles and parameters and get a variety of impulses and suggestions there. In this way, professionalisation is to be advanced at all levels.
The „clock structure“
Another very important factor is the new structure of the association, which Ankersen compares to a clock:
The head coach is, so to speak, the second hand, responsible for the daily strategy, the directors of football – Ankersen and Phil Giles – are the minute hand, responsible for the medium-term strategy, focused on transfers and squad planning, and the board, including Benham, is the hour hand, responsible for long-term strategy and goals. So there is no longer – as usual in England – one manager who is solely responsible for everything.
The frequent changes of coaches in recent years show, on the one hand, that not every coach can cope with this structure for a long time. On the other hand, the successes show that even a major fluctuation in this position does not necessarily have to be negative. Incidentally, Thomas Frank, the promotion coach, has already been in office since 2018. Eight of his first ten games were lost, so people have been patient with him from the start. His overall average is now 1.72 points per game.
Universal development of the players
Another very important element is the development and improvement of players in all areas and at all levels.
Ankersen explains this in an interview as follows: „Our model of player development is as important as recruitment. The young players we bring in are very rarely the finished package (…) and we spend a lot of resources and money to develop these players as soon as they enter the building.“ For this development, they have specially contracted a talent development coordinator.
Brentford FC also employs, among others, a neurobiologist and a considerable medical department to keep injuries to an absolute minimum.
Other important areas are nutrition and sleep, and since 2016 the club has been working with a sleep expert. In this way, they want to ensure that the players can permanently invest the maximum amount of energy in order to be able to bring their full potential onto the pitch.
Brentford, more than any other club, therefore needs young, hungry players who want to develop further, because they are permanently required to implement professionally, responsibly and independently all that the club makes available to them in terms of opportunities.
What does it all look like on the pitch now? In an interview on Transfermarkt.de, Vitaly Janelt praises his team’s great team spirit and attractive ball-oriented style of play. The win against Arsenal and the 3:3 against Liverpool FC fit well into the picture.
No more youth academy, but a B team instead
An extremely radical consequence of the analysis of Brentford FC’s own very limited possibilities as a small-town club in the London periphery is the abolition of youth work. After the best young players from its own academy were repeatedly snatched away by its overpowering rivals, the club closed its youth academy.
Instead, they „founded“ a B-team and thus virtually reversed the traditional model: now they sign interesting U19 players from big clubs who did not make the leap into their professional squads.
Exemplary of this model is Chris Mepham, who trained at Chelsea, first playing in Brentford’s B team and then in the first team. In 2019 he went to AFC Bournemouth for 13.60 million.
According to Ankersen, it is particularly important that the players in the B team are as close as possible to the professional team so that the players in the first team are tangible role models for them.
The reaction of the fans
It is never easy for the fans of Brentford FC to see players they have taken to their hearts quickly leave, the new crest and the new stadium are also rebelled against by the fan soul.
On the other hand, one can see here that the frequent departure of key players and identification figures does not have to be a big problem – if the hit rate in scouting is as high as at Brentford due to a clear concept.
The enormous success of their club ensures that doubts do not get out of hand.
As scientific and economical as Benham’s and Ankersen’s new ways of seeing, thinking and acting may be, they focus exclusively on all concerns around the ninety minutes on the pitch, so that the players together can call on their potential as often & as fully as possible.
In this way, Benham and Ankersen have increased the likelihood of goals, victories and promotions – in other words, everything that makes us emotionally explode as fans – for their small suburban London club to now compete with Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester City and co.
All in all, Brentford FC resembles an e-bike that rides (or rather has ridden in the Championship, the exception being Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United) among many other bikes, which sells its old engine expensively every year and takes another step up the ladder each time with a new and inexpensive one, which is then tuned according to all the rules of the art.
But this e-bike now has to compete with motorbikes in the Premier League – to stay with the metaphor – and can at least be further upgraded and modernised for this with very lavish television money (for comparison: FC Bayern received just over 90 million euros from the national pot for last season, last year’s Premier League bottom team 101 million euros). Whether this works in the long run will be interesting to observe.
Regardless, Benham and Ankersen have changed the game as Malcolm Gladwell describes it: they play it as David according to their rules and laws, they have turned their club’s disadvantages into advantages.
As strange as their approach may have seemed to most fifteen years ago, and may still seem to many today, their great success proves them right.
Conclusions for Eintracht Braunschweig
It is hardly possible to copy this concept completely – and it doesn’t have to be, or at least it shouldn’t be to some extent, at least as far as a possible dissolution of the youth academy is concerned.
However, Brentford FC can serve very well as a role model and inspiration, especially when it comes to the mindset of the underdog, thinking outside of traditional conventions, the „clock structure“, data-based scouting including KPI and the permanent endeavour to improve its players in all respects.
A multi-millionaire in the background would be very helpful, but not absolutely necessary. When those responsible at Eintracht say: „We don’t have any money, so we can’t afford a philosophy“, that is fundamentally wrong. You would have to turn it around and confidently proclaim: „Having little money is part of our philosophy, but we are much more imaginative.“ It all depends on the ideas ….
In the next episode, Brentford’s Danish cousin FC Midtjylland will be under the microscope.
LITERATURE AND SOURCES:
Rasmus Ankersen: The Goldmine Effect (2012) Hunger in Paradise (2016)
Malcolm Gladwell: Outliers (2008), David and Goliath: underdogs, misfits, and the art of battling giants. (2013)