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New-Bee contributor, Alex Cole, writes his first article for Beesotted – throwing a few questions into the mixer on the world of stats – which forms an integral part of Brentford’s recruitment process. 

With Brentford spearheading a new evidence-based approach in football, dragging the game into the 21st century, do fans have the information available, or knowledge, to really pass judgment? Do we actually know for a fact whether Vibe’s first touch compares to Scott Hogan’s, or if Yennaris is “making enough challenges” during games?

Do we even know if the qualities that we value in players are the most important?

The new metrics of success have shifted and it is becoming clearer.  We can no longer trust the traditional ideas of what makes a good football player. Or even how to win. Of course, we can have a pretty good idea if a player is playing well, based on our previous watching and playing experiences. But we simply can’t be as definitive as the data.

It’s well documented that statistical based approach came to Brentford with the arrival of owner Matthew Benham. Initially the approach, and the introduction of new ideas, came with a fair amount of criticism from fans, managers, journalists and pundits alike. Five years down the line and Brentford finds itself comfortable in upper-mid table with guaranteed Championship football for the fourth consecutive year.

Lots of questions have been answered by the relative success and yet some fans are not 100% convinced. Sure, we all have moments where we think, “I don’t need a spreadsheet to tell me that Big Nick is a donkey”, but with the fine margins between success and failure, is it time to admit that we just can’t know the definitive answer all of the time?

Some of the more ‘traditional’ fans amongst us are perfectly happy to continue as a friendly little tinpot Brentford – plugging away, content to live in a nostalgic world of familiar surroundings. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. It’s what we know. And it’s served us ok in the past to a certain extent. 

Admittedly, most fans probably would like to maintain at least an element of that, and many of us admit that it’s going to be very difficult to leave our home – Griffin Park. However, it’s become clear from the amount of debt that most clubs have – plodding along isn’t a viable option and we need to seriously compete for some of that increasingly valuable TV money or risk an uncertain future.

Unfounded rumours have been wafting around about Matthew Benham running out of cash. He’s pumped in a huge amount of cash into Brentford so far (reportedly circa £90m) and we surely can’t blame him for looking at investors and options for long-term sustainability. I’m personally more than happy to trust our innovative owner, and his track record so far has been almost spotless.

Twitter enthusiast, ex-Brentford Head of Recruitment and football data warrior, Ted Knutson, shared some fascinating insights into the inner workings at Brentford this week and, more specifically, player identification e.

Ted had a big part in the signing of cult favourite midfielder Konstantin Kerschbaumer a couple of summers ago. Below the radar, Kersch came to Brentford with some standout stats – particularly in his passing. However,  he started slowly, admittedly out of position. Recent performances, according to the data, have been more convincing. But to many fans, his contribution has been inconclusive. Ted’s glowing appraisal (even if a little biased) prompts us examine the metrics, on which we qualify success.

Romaine Sawyers has come in for a lot of stick this season too – often somewhat unfairly in my opinion. His somewhat languid and considered approach has been often  judged as a lack of effort by sections of the Griffin Park faithful. However, the stats and management would often disagree.

This compounds a somewhat contentious point, that our judgements are influenced by not only experience, but unconscious bias. I’ve seen many describe Sawyers with terms like “lazy b*astard” both on Twitter and Facebook and at the games, which strikes me as an opinion based on a pre-formed bias and not solely the player’s performance.

It’s not just us mere punters watching from the stands that can get proven wrong by hard facts. Pundits like Jermaine Jenas are also lost in a new world of instinct versus evidence, as shown by his emotional defence of a Tottenham team that were on the receiving end of a 4-2 defeat to rivals Chelsea.

Post- match, ex Tottenham regular Jenas, tried to convince the rest of the studio team that Tottenham were the better side and should have won. He protested that Spurs had played better, and based on the amount of possession that they had, didn’t deserve to lose.

The point is not really about whether Alan Shearer or Jermaine Jenas was right, but more about the fact that Jenas was clearly disappointed that his old team had lost and this clouded his judgement. We’ve all been there when emotions take over, but thankfully, it’s not normally captured, unless Dave or Billy from Beesotted are knocking around with their microphone of course.

 

Coincidentally, Jenas also had a lively discussion on BBC Radio 5Live recently with the aforementioned ex Brentford Recruitment exec – Ted Knutson – talking analytics in football (as can be heard in the podcast below).

It’s clear from some of Jenas’ fairly sneering remarks about Ted’s process, and credentials, that he still needs further convincing. In a similar way to some fans, his attitude feels like a defensive reaction to a step into the unknown. He gave the impression (to me at least) that he’s not really willing to learn or listen. The role of the ex-pro in the world of football seems pretty safe for now, but I’d expect to hear more from the football data nerds and their facts in the near future.

From my understanding, the best way to describe Benham’s philosophy at Brentford is:

“Making rational decisions from analysis, using ‘proper statistical methods” (with data being just one aspect of the decision making process)

The ‘methods’ certainly seem to be providing an edge for The Bees in the transfer market and it’s a similar philosophy already used in Benham’s business – Smartodds. So much so that new employees are asked to read a specific chapter of Thinking, Fast and Slow a book by Daniel Kahneman to further embed the process. The book (in the most basic summary) presents a theory around cognitive bias, which identifies two posing ‘systems’ for making decisions:

Fast, automatic, frequent, emotional, stereotypic, subconscious.
Slow, effortful, infrequent, logical, calculating, conscious

Simply, slow thinking uses a more calculating, rational process, over more instinctive/ emotional “fast” thinking. The book also examines other aspects, such as, the innate need in humans to be loss (risk) adverse, which has influenced Brentford’s footballing philosophy, building teams to win games rather than draw them. (often mentioned by Matthew Benham and the Brentford Director’s Of Football in interviews).

It’s obviously so hard to know whether the decisions are all good ones – particularly when we are not at liberty to all of the facts. But if we look at the trend, we look to be in a very good place. From specific players signed/ sold, to the closing of the academy system after the dust settles, it’s hard to dispute many of them. I, for one, will by embracing change, trusting the DoFs to recruit and MB to provide the direction. I won’t even use the league table as an indication of performance anymore.

I’m even more excited to start hearing rumors linking us to unknown foreign players and looking them up on YouTube, only to discover untapped potential – .

We can only hope Matthew Benham is judging the crowd performance on traditional measures like noise and aggression and not other key performance indicators like number of: jester hats, clappers, half scarfs, Mexican waves, adults with face paint on, brass band songs, fans shining torches on their mobile phones and the rest

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alex Cole

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