Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Exhibition

Ellen Gallagher@AxME, Tate Modern, opens 1 May

Ellen Gallagher is one of America’s most renowned contemporary artists. Tate Modern presents the first major solo exhibition of her work in the UK. This overview provides a unique opportunity to explore her career, as well as her employment of a wide variety of media- including painting, drawing, relief, collage, print, sculpture, film and animation.

Concert

Vampire Weekend, Troxy, 2 May

Williamsburg four piece Vampire Weekend return to play a short run of UK dates, including a stop at grandiose art-deco Troxy in east London. Their infectious blend of bouncy Afrobeat and indie-pop has only grown in popularity since their formation in 2006. The band will also be headlining gigs in Portsmouth and Bournemouth in June, in advanced of their support slot for Mumford and Sons at the Olympic Park.

Theatre

A Dolls House, Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, 1 May- 1 June 

A new adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s ground-breaking classic of female liberation and empowerment comes to the Royal Exchange this week. Star Cush Jumbo is reunited with director Greg Hersov following a hugely successful production of As You Like It in 2011.

TV

Vicious, ITV, premieres 29 April

This new sitcom, originally titled Vicious Old Queens, premieres on ITV on Monday. Theatrical heavyweights Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi star as an ageing couple sharing a Covent Garden flat whose world is turned upside down by the arrival of their dashing new neighbour Ash, played by Misfits star Iwan Rheon.

Film

Stanley Kubrick’s "A Killer’s Kiss", Prince Charles Cinema, 1 May

As part of their Kubrick retrospective the Prince Charles Cinema is screening A Killer’s Kiss, Kubrick’s second feature film. Made on a budget of £40,000 which Kubrick borrowed from his uncle, the film is regarded as a telling indicator of the era-defining invention and creativity that was to come. This New York noir tells the story of a young boxer and nightclub dancer who fall in love but become caught in a web of murder and revenge.

Festival

Stratford-upon-Avon Literary festival, Straford-Upon-Avon, continues until 5 May

A mix of debate, ideas, author events and workshops, The Stratford upon Avon Literary Festival has become of the most significant literary festivals in the UK. Highlights from the programme this week include an evening with Michael Palin on 2 May and "Michael Morpurgo day" on 5 May.

Ellen Gallagher's first major solo exhibition at the Tate Modern (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