The Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Art

Spread across the city, Edinburgh - Festival Promenade, 2 August – 2 September

All Edinburgh Festival punters soon realise that the main problem facing them is how to use their finite time when presented with the choice of such a vast multitude of shows. One answer is to take part in a Festival Promenade. Led by Artist Anthony Schrag, these walks will take you across some of the city’s historical monuments and public spaces, where a series of renowned artists have been invited to create outdoor art in what is the Edinburgh Festival’s most ambitious commissioning programme to date. Artists include Turner Prize winner Susan Philips, Callum Innes and Andrew Miller. If a walk in a park is too conventional for you, Schrag will also be offering climbing tours, alleyway tours, art pub crawls, and afternoon nap tours.

Film

Curzon Soho, London, W1D – Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry,  10 – 16 August

In Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry journalist and filmmaker Alison Klayman documents the life of China's most internationally revered contemporary artist. From 2008 to 2010, she accompanies Ai at piviotal moments of his work, family life, and political struggle. The resulting exploration merges art and activism in a portrait, not just of one man, but of contemporary China.

Theatre

The National Theatre, SE1 - The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, 24 July - 12 September

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time is a stage version of Mark Haddon's award-winning novel of the same name, which follows the adventures of an autistic teenager, Christopher, as he tries to unravel the mystery surrounding the death of his neighbour's dog. The play was adapted by playwright Simon Stephens and is directed by Marianne Elliott. The performances of Luke Treadaway, Paul Ritter and Nicola Walker have been described by several newspapers as "stellar" and "poignant".

TV

More 4 - What’s my body worth? 13 August, 10pm

In this age of austerity many are considering alternative ways of supplementing their income, yet few have ventured as far as trying to profit from their own embodiment. In this programme journalist Storm Theunissen explores the ethics, legality and stark reality of the industry which preys upon those desperate enough to sell their body - whether it’s working in the sex trade, or selling bodily materials, such as eggs, fluids and even organs.

Music

Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh - Brazil! Brazil! Presents Latin Live, 2–26 August

The people behind Brazil! Brazil!, who wowed Edinburgh in 2010, return to the festival to get audiences on their feet with favela funk and samba reggae. Acts include Magary Lord, Black Semba and Paloma Gomez. Latin Live promises to be an energizing blend of music, dance and vibrant costumes.

Edinburgh Fringe promoters hold up reflective letters (Image: Getty)
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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