Sugar high

<em>The Apprentice</em> boss is more capricious than ever.

It's series eight, and the troops march into the boardroom. Sugar looks up, vaguely harassed, as though disturbed doing some very important work in his office and not, in fact, in a TV studio in Ealing, having just got his make-up done in a trailer.

He's a fascinating man. The camera men think so too, picking up the faintest of mouth twitches, the smallest crocodilian flicker of the eyes. No-one can keep their eyes off him. He's indomitable. He's never wrong.

In fact I find I can't describe him properly without reference to the Dominican dictator Rafael Leónidas Trujillo. Between 1930 and 1961 he wielded complete power over his people - no-one challenged him. The source of this authority? He was irrational. The more unpredictable and capricious he was, the more insecure his subjects became.

Lord Sugar's fearsome charm resides in an ability to switch something, at random, from the category "things that are really important and obvious" to "things he just doesn't give a shit about". Whichever answer the coin flips to, he presents it with maximum aggression - cue sycophantic scrambling from everyone.

In episode one, the boys were lambasted for spending all their time talking about margins, "and ignoring the product!" They win, however, and suddenly margins were "obviously" the priority all along, idiots. "What went wrong, girls?" "The guys were very focused on their margins," plead the girls. "That's called strategy," comes the smug answer.

Mentioning humble beginnings, once a brilliant way to get Alan Sugar on side, is now apparently out. "I don't want to hear your sob story", is the new line. Now he wants "aggression" in his business partner ("if I want a friend, I'll get a dog") - but be aggressive, and you're " far too shouty".

Not that I feel too sorry for the contestants. It's just that they don't seem to have much of a chance. The formula seems to be: film them saying something (possibly with the off-camera instruction, "Can you just say something obnoxious please? Yep, that's great, yep, like that"), and then show a montage of them doing the opposite, with tuba sounds.

The sneaky rug-pulling tactics are used on us as well. So violently edited is the show that it allows radical plot twists (the team that seemed to get everything wrong wins) - and complete character changes (shrinking violet becomes team bully) - from episode to episode.

Having said that, there are a couple of nicely captured moments in episode two. Jane (Irish, shouty) spotted Maria (another one) asleep in the car. A heaven sent chance. She decided to engineer the situation, stuff of classroom nightmares, where you wake up to find yourself required to participate in a conversation you've missed. Waking Maria, she immediately asked her the (completely out of context) question "So, what do you think about that? I mean, do you have ideas ... or ..." Maria had no answer. It was brilliantly evil - and lead almost directly to Maria getting fired.

Azhar was another highlight. "People describe me as a killer whale of the sea world." That's just a regular killer whale, Azhar. That's not how metaphors work.

I won't go on, because they are indeed fish in a barrel, but then so are we for watching it.

Lord Sugar, Getty images

Martha Gill writes the weekly Irrational Animals column. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Martha_Gill.

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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