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At Somerset House, Ai Weiwei's Zodiac heads are beautiful. If only the same could be said for the ve

Stroll into the courtyard of London's Somerset House over the next few weeks and you'll come face-to-face with Chinese artist Ai Weiwei's Circle of Animals.

The giant bronze heads, which represent the signs of the Chinese zodiac - rabbit, goat, rat, tiger and so on - are arranged in a semi-circle on six- foot poles.The symmetry is pleasing, and there's ample space to walk around each head in deep contemplation (if you want to).

It is a shame, then, that the same cannot be said for the exhibition currently on display inside the venue. Held in London for the first time this year, the Sony World Photography Awards features the winners and runners-up in categories as varied as documentary, sport, portraiture, landscape and fashion, showcasing the theme 'From Chaos into Order'.

And nowhere is chaos more obvious than in the exhibition's confused and cluttered curation. The sheer volume of work requires a vast exhibition space, split over three levels and six rooms.

With no clear route through the exhibits, the visitor's focus is distracted from the photographs and the experience becomes disorienting and, frankly, downright irritating.

Those unfamiliar with the photographers are given little context. Few of the pictures are labelled adequately, with many lacking basic details such as where and when they were taken.

Instead, tablet computers (Sony, of course) display a selection of images by the same photographer and a brief narrative. On the day of my visit, some of these did not appear to be working, and those that were had crowds of people jostling to read their tiny screens.

In another misjudgement, some of the exhibition's most high-profile images - those which had been used on promotional materials - are displayed on television screens (Sony, again). Here, a disproportionate amount of time is given to the photographer's name, while the pictures themselves appear all too briefly.

Also lacking is a sense of cohesion within the exhibits displayed in each individual room: jaunty photos of moustache-shaped pubic hair sit alongside images of victims of sexual assault.

The effect is not simply jarring (as no doubt the curator intended) but it simply doesn't work as a concept. Rather than being though-provoking, the impact of the more serious set of pictures is lost.

It's just all a bit contrived and detracts from the outstanding photographs. The winner of the Open Photographer of the Year Award, Chan Kwok Hung's picture 'Buffalo Race' is perhaps the standout image. Taken in Western Sumatra, it depicts an annual event where local farmers race their livestock, biting their tails to make them run faster.

There are other photos just as stunning, and the sad thing is that youn could easily leave the exhibition without realising who the winners of these awards are, nor have a sense of the hard work and dedication that capturing their photographs entailed.

It's a muddled display. And some of the blame must lie with the heavy sponsorship by Sony. Their name was an intrusive presence - on the tablet computers, TV screens and in an entire room dedicated to advertising the use of Sony cameras.

Corporate benefactors are undoubtedly becoming more common in the arts and this is not necessarily a bad thing. But the balance between the needs of the sponsor and the creative requirements of the exhibition needs to be finely tuned. And sadly, here, this has failed.

The Sony World Photography Awards 2011 are at Somerset House until 22 May.

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So much for "the table never lies" – data unravels football's biggest lie of all

London side Brentford FC are using data to rethink the usual football club model.

It’s a miserable day for practice, the rain spitting down on the manicured training pitches of Brentford Football Club. Inside a tiny office marked Director of Football, Rasmus Ankersen is waiting for his phone to ring. The winter transfer window closes in 11 hours and there are deals to finalise.

Ankersen, a 33-year-old Dane with a trim beard and hair pulled into a small ponytail, seems relaxed. Perhaps he knows that the £12m transfer of the striker Scott Hogan to Aston Villa is as good as done. Or maybe his comfort comes from Brentford’s performance this season. The small west London club sits safely in the top half of the second tier of English football – at least according to management’s own version of the league table, which is based on “deserved” rather than actual results. Officially, on 31 January, when we meet, the team is 15th of 24.

“There’s a concept in football that the table never lies,” says Ankersen, whose own playing career was ended by a knee injury in his teens. “Well, that’s the biggest lie in football. Your league position is not the best metric to evaluate success.”

Brentford are an outlier in English football. Since the professional gambler Matthew Benham bought a majority share in 2012, they have relied on the scientific application of statistics – the “moneyball” technique pioneered in baseball – when assessing performance.

The early results were positive. In 2014, Brentford were promoted from League One to the Championship and the next season finished fifth. That same year, Benham’s other team, FC Midtjylland, which is run on similar principles, won the Danish Superliga for the first time.

Yet in 2016 Brentford slipped to ninth. Despite the disappointing season so far, Ankersen insists the strategy is the right one for “a small club with a small budget”.

Underpinning Brentford’s approach is the understanding that luck often plays a big part in football. “It is a low-scoring sport, so random events can have a big impact,” Ankersen says. “The ball can take a deflection, the referee can make a mistake. The best team wins less often than in other sports.”

In a match, or even over a season, a team can score fewer or more than its performance merits. A famous example is Newcastle in 2012, says Ankersen, who besides his football job is an entrepreneur and author. In his recent book, Hunger in Paradise, he notes that after Newcastle finished fifth in the Premier League, their manager, Alan Pardew, was rewarded with an eight-year extension of his contract.

If the club’s owners had looked more closely at the data, they would have realised the team was not nearly as good as it seemed. Newcastle’s goal difference – goals scored minus goals conceded – was only +5, compared to +25 and +19 for the teams immediately above and below them. Statistically, a club with Newcastle’s goal difference should have earned ten points fewer than it did.

Moreover, its shot differential (how many shots on goal a team makes compared to its opponents) was negative and the sixth worst in the league. That its players converted such a high percentage of their shots into goals was remarkable – and unsustainable.

The next season, Newcastle finished 16th in the Premier League. The team was not worse: its performance had regressed to the mean. “Success can turn luck into genius,” Ankersen says. “You have to treat success with the same degree of scepticism as failure.”

Brentford’s key performance metric is “expected goals” for and against the team, based on the quality and quantity of chances created during a match. This may give a result that differs from the actual score, and is used to build the alternative league table that the management says is a more reliable predictor of results.

Besides data, Brentford are rethinking the usual football club model in other ways. Most league clubs run academies to identify local players aged nine to 16. But Ankersen says that this system favours the richer clubs, which can pick off the best players coached by smaller teams.

Last summer, Brentford shut their academy. Instead, they now operate a “B team” for players aged 17 to 20. They aim to recruit footballers “hungry for a second chance” after being rejected by other clubs, and EU players who see the Championship as a stepping stone to the Premier League.

It’s a fascinating experiment, and whether Brentford will achieve their goal of reaching the Premier League in the near future is uncertain. But on the day we met, Ankersen’s conviction that his team’s fortunes would turn was not misplaced. That evening, Brentford beat Aston Villa 3-0, and moved up to 13th place in the table. Closer to the mean.

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times