In the Critics this week

Richard Mabey on autumn, Jason Cowley on George Osborne and Sarah Churchwell on A M Homes.

In the Critics section of this week’s New Statesman, Richard Mabey, in his final seasonal diary (autumn), considers how to evaluate the significance of wildlife. “The problem is that we don’t have an agreed alternative scale for the 'value of species,'” Mabey writes. “That clunking, portmanteau term 'biodiversity' doesn’t help. Like 'natural capital' it’s an intruder from corporate-speak.”

In Books, NS editor Jason Cowley reviews Janan Ganesh’s biography George Osborne: The Austerity Chancellor. “Who is this book for?” asks Cowley. “Is it for the general reader interested in Westminster politics or Janan Ganesh’s friends in journalism and those aides and special advisers who work for George Osborne...?” Elsewhere, Tom Wolfe’s latest novel Back To Blood is reviewed by Leo Robson. “The new novel is broadly concerned with the limits of what the US is willing to assimilate and accept,” Robson writes.

Also in Books: writer and literary critic Sarah Churchwell reviews A M Homes’ novel May We Be Forgiven (a “comic epic of modern America”); Yo Zushi looks at David Byrne’s How Music Works (“a partly autobiographical trawl through music history and theory that is essential that is essential reading for anyone with even a passing interest in the subject”); and William Skidelsky reviews Steven Poole’s You Aren’t What You Eat: Fed Up With Gastroculture (“the author’s two main charges in this polemic are indeed that, on one hand, “foodists” talk a lot of rubbish and, on the other, that an overweening interest in food is a new, specifically western type of deviance”).

In his “Personal Story”, Hunter Davies makes a confession about his 1968 Beatles biography and reveals the origin of the phrase “I am the eggman.”

Elsewhere in the Critics: Rachel Cooke is won over by new US TV show Girls; Antonia Quirke on Simon Callow and Classic FM’s Tasting Notes; and Alexandra Coghlan reviews Decasia.

PLUS: Will Self’s Real Meals, Nina Caplan on Drink, Down and Out by Nicholas Lezard, and Ed Smith’s Left Field.

George Osborne at the Tory Party conference (Photo: Getty Images)
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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