Saturday, 28 February 2015

Ignoring The Result

I’m quite sure that Rasmus Ankersen didn’t have some of the characters featured in this blog in mind when he says “In the past year I have learned that the brightest guys in football work in the betting industry, because they are much more rational and less biased” but it’s a great quote from an excellent article by Sean Ingle in the Guardian.

Ankersen’s employer at Midtjylland (currently leading the Danish league, and on track for their first ever trophy) is Brentford owner Matthew Benham, who as the article says "has made fortunes betting on football, but he has not done it by following the sheep who place long-odds accumulators and trust in blind luck". We all know he hasn't done it by betting based on goal times either! As Mark Langdon of the Racing Post says – There could easily be short-term failure at Brentford but bad bets sometimes win and good bets sometimes lose. Long-term it will work.

Here's the article:
It was enough to make those football pundits who revel in the old days and old ways collectively choke on their beans and sausages. Brentford would, a club statement announced, be parting company with their respected manager Mark Warburton, switching to a continental structure with a head coach and sporting director, and using mathematical modelling to help recruit players. The response of one former professional, Micky Quinn, was not untypical.
“They want a head coach and mathematical modelling … Ha, ha, good luck with that.”
What Quinn may not realise is that the blueprint for Brentford’s future is already being stress-tested 800 miles away at FC Midtjylland, who lead Denmark’s Superliga by six points and are on course for the first trophy in their history. And who is the majority shareholder in Midtjylland? Matthew Benham, the former hedge fund manager and professional gambler who also owns Brentford.
When Benham invested £6.2m in Midtjylland last July he appointed Rasmus Ankersen – a 31-year-old former player, Uefa A-licence coach, entrepreneur and author – as the chairman.
Ankersen promised to challenge the conventional ways of running a football club and to put Midtjylland on the map. He is doing just that. “When I am being provocative I tell people that our coach, Glen Riddersholm, will never be sacked based on our league position,” Ankersen says. Instead Ankersen tells him he will be judged on whether he achieves certain key performance indicators (KPIs) which, over the long term, the club believes are more indicative of success.
Ankersen won’t reveal everything about the club’s use of data, but does say that Midtjylland pay particular attention to what he calls “dangerous situations” in games. Interestingly, they are a client of E4talent, which tracks shots in the “danger zone” – an area that stretches from the start of the six-yard box to the edge of the penalty area – from which 77% of Premier League goals are scored.
Set pieces are another focus. Midtjylland have scored 15 goals from set pieces from 17 games, an average of 0.88 per game, the second highest in Europe. Only Atlético Madrid, with an average of 1.04 a game, are more prolific. The highest in the Premier League are Arsenal with 15 in 26 games, an average of 0.57.
Data also informs what Midtjylland’s coaches say to the players and the press. As Ankersen explains, at half-time the coaches are sent texts before they speak to players outlining how the team are measuring up to certain key metrics. “These effective KPIs give a more accurate message to the players and the press,” he insists.
Too often in football, the result determines the narrative – for managers, reporters and fans. Ankersen dismisses this as facile. “For instance, when we played at home against the bottom team, we won 2-1,” he says. “But our model massively downgraded us because we were super lucky. A lot of people said well done but it was a terrible performance – that is the message we should convey. No one wants to say they were lucky when they win. But in football success turns luck into genius.”
Midtjylland’s success is also partly down to their excellent youth academy, which Ankersen helped get off the ground a decade ago: usually five or six starters in their games are home-grown. The emergence of the Danish under-21 international Pione Sisto, who has been linked with many top sides in Europe, is another factor. But using mathematical modelling as well as traditional scouting has helped the club acquire players they believe are undervalued, including Kris Olsson from Arsenal, Marco Ureña from Kuban Krasnodar and Jim Larsen from Club Brugge.
This is fascinating, radical stuff, and it is driven by Benham. Ankersen remembers that when he met him, he asked him whether Brentford would get promoted from League One. “From a football guy you would expect a yes or no, or an answer with emotion,” he says. “But he just looked at me and said: ‘There is a 42.3% chance that we will go up.’ I knew then he thought very differently about football.”
Of course he does. Benham has made fortunes betting on football, but he has not done it by following the sheep who place long-odds accumulators and trust in blind luck. Instead he has developed a deeper understanding about why teams win matches, constructed statistical models and used them to exploit inefficiencies and errors in bookmaker prices.
Can such a data-driven approach really be applied to running a football club? We are about to find out. But it seems perfectly reasonable to expect that by taking advantage of inefficiencies in the transfer market and elsewhere, adopting the best practice of clubs such as Southampton and employing super-smart data analysts, Brentford and Midtjylland can punch further above their weight. Ankersen certainly has no doubts. “In the past year I have learned that the brightest guys in football work in the betting industry, because they are much more rational and less biased,” he says.
None of us know what will happen next. But we can say this. Brentford and Midtjylland are clearly going the right way and their stories over the next few years will make fascinating viewing. And while Benham has taken some flak in recent days, history teaches us that in the long run it is unwise to bet against him.

1 comment:

Betslayer said...

You are getting a little obsessed with goal times....I imagine and infact know that Benham and his operations as applied to football include goal times in their analysis!