The Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Art

Tate Britain, London SW1 - Another London: International Photographers Capture City Life 1930 – 1980, 27 July–16 September 

Tate Britain explores the capital city through the eyes of some of the most significant names in international photography, from Henri Cartier-Bresson to Eve Arnold. Bringing together 180 classic photographs, Another London explores the city’s rich complexity.

Talk

Raven Row, London E1 – The Real Truth – A World’s Fair, 28 July–19 August

Suzanne Treister’s project at Raven Row is spread over four weekends with speeches from a global futurist, an anarcho-primitivist and a US security agency insider within a specially designed theatre. A World’s Fair also hosts an exhibition including three unique libraries, two video lounges and designs for a virtual world’s fair. On 28 July Robert Rydell, the international expert on the power of world’s fairs to define the modern world, delivers a keynote speech.

Theatre

The Africa Centre, London WC2 – And Crocodiles Are Hungry At Night, 31 July–18 August

Bilimankhwe Arts and Nanzikambe Theatre present the UK premiere of And Crocodiles Are Hungry At Night - the award-winning dissident poet Jack Mapanje’s prison memoir, adapted and directed by Kate Stafford. Mapanje was imprisoned in Malawi’s Mikuyu prison in 1987 without charge and remained there for over three years despite a prolonged international outcry.

Film

BFI Southbank, London SE1 - The Genius of Hitchcock, 1 August–31 October

The BFI stages its biggest project to date - a complete retrospective of the 58 surviving Hitchcock feature films, with on-stage interviews including Tippi Hendren, the ultimate “Hitchcock Blonde”. The project opens on 1 August with two different screenings of Hitchcock’s Blackmail – a rare silent version with live musical accompaniment and a sound version.

Music

Wigmore Hall, London W1 – Ian Bostridge, 28 July

Ian Bostridge concludes his Ancient & Modern series at the Wigmore Hal, a season-long residency which has seen the tenor explore influences, musical visions and period instrumentation. This closing recital concentrates on modernity with works by Benjamin Britten, his contemporary Hans Werner Henze and the American pioneer John Cage alongside Schubert lieder. The Chinese guitarist Xuefei Yang joins the evening’s journey through drifting soundscapes.

BFI Southbank launches its Hitchcock retrospective (Photo: 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