What’s the process of signing a player? – a breakdown of Brentford’s scouting system
In a recent Beesotted PrideOfWest.London podcast, the structure of Brentford’s current scouting and recruitment system was raised. It became immediately obvious that no one around the table had any real idea of how our recruitment process worked.
- Who scouts our players?
- Do we have a chief scout like the legendary John Griffin we used to have back in the day?
- How do we use the data to find players?
So we decided to have a little dig around to ensure that when we talk – or argue – a point we at least know exactly what we are talking about.
A few interesting things happened just after that podcast (it was the pre-Nottingham Forest Podcast on 31st Mar). After questioning in the pod who our chief scout was, the following day we found out Brentford had actually just put out an advert for a Chief Scout. Spooky !!!!
We also discussed on the same podcast, the ‘disbanding of the analytics team’ as was described by Ted Knutson – a genius analyst who was employed by Matthew Benham last April to head up a new-fangled analytics team supplying data for both Brentford and FC Midtjylland.
With two major changes within Brentford FC, many questions were being asked as to whether he club was changing it’s approach.
Does the employment of a Chief Scout mean we were going back to the old skool method of discovering players? – a method which some fans say we should revert to and forget this statistical approach
We have gone out of our way to find out as much information as possible and note it down in this article … on how both ourselves and others are operating in the recruitment game. Hopefully, there will be enough information here for you to make up your mind as to how good, bad or indifferent our recruitment system is. And what could be done to improve it?
This information is meant to be used as a supplement to the podcast broadcast on 21 April 2106 (“Is Brentford’s player recruitment any good?” – The MK Dons pre-match podcast from the pub”) – click on the link or click on the podcast above – which discussed Brentford’s recruitment system as we were not able to discuss all the points due to time constraints.
It’s a very interesting podcast as it starts of disusssing Brentford’s finances – shedding a little more light on what the club can and can not do in the transfer market due to the finances available to them. Brentford losing £16.7m last season with a turnover of just under £10m. Matthew Benham has put in around £75m to date. The mythical saviour – the TV deal – pulling in less than £250k of our turnover. Brentford’s biggest chunk of money actually coming from hand-me-down cash from The Premier League and FA which accounts for nearly 50% of our turnover (£4m).
One thing we forgot to mention was – if (and we are just using this figure as an example to show how it affects the bigger picture .. it is NOT being touted) Brentford decided to pull more money in by raising ticket prices by huge 20% (so a £30 ticket becomes £36 .. a £350 season ticket becomes £420), the club would pull just in an additional £600k. Peanuts in the bigger scheme of things. But that increase in money fans would have to would mean a lot to the fans.
It then moves onto the new stadium – how that is moving on with the granting of the compulsory purchase order and what the costs are involved.
Then we drill down into the info in this article – the Brentford scouting and recruitment system. Trying to sort out exactly who does what and also dispel a few myths. We managed to get hold of an interesting interview with ex Brentford Head of Analytics Ted Knutson – talking to the well respected Arsenal podcast ArseBlog (thanks Arseblog for allowing us to use this) about how the world he works in merges with football.
There are also a number of links at the bottom of this article referring to other referencing articles – mainly on other clubs that are doing similar things as Brentford – including two different articles on Boro and their recruitment system (here is one article and here is the other), an interview with Alistair Campbell’s son (yes the politician) Rory who is a recruitment analyst for West Ham but who used to be – it seems – a Oxford graduate professional gambler (any parallels you know?) .. and an article on very secretive Brighton who’s owner Tony Bloom – who used to be a business partner of Matt Benham – is also a professional gambler and owns stats company Star Lizard. The company describes itself as “a betting consultancy that uses complex statistical models to generate football odds that are sharper than those offered by professional bookmakers” (ring a bell folks?) and I’m guessing operates behind the scenes in a very similar way to Brentford.
This information is a jigsaw puzzle of information I have gleaned over months and months. It’s not been easy getting info out of people in this area as they are super protective. They seem happy to talk about information that is already ‘out there’. But if you have time to sniff around the internet … speak to folk who are in the game .. speak to folk who used to be in the game (you get more info here) … put 2 plus 2 together .. and make a lot of assumptions … it’s possible for you to piece something an article like.
In my head it seems an accurate reflection based on the facts I gleaned.
However, I’m now waiting for the phone calls and emails to let me know what parts need a slight adjustment.
The Recruitment Team
Director of Football
Phil Giles is at the top of the tree. Director of Football for player recruitment. He is the top dog. And ultimately it is he who is in responsible for the player recruitment process and ultimately who we will and won’t sign.
His role is like all DoF roles. Basically it’s his job to keep on top of everything. Make sure the whole chain is working smoothly. Know exactly what is happening with the team and at the training ground. Making sure he is on top of the scouting – both traditional and ‘in office scouting’. Keep on top of the paperwork. Sit in the middle and play devils advocate or be the diplomat if necessary to keep the ship sailing on course. Liaise with all sorts when the time is right. Players. Agents. Middlemen. Lawyers. Random characters. Coaching staff. Other football clubs. Owner. The list goes on.
Without putting the job down – my analysis of the role (and this is all my thoughts .. not anything that has been told as such) is it’s very much a multi-disciplinarian role which involves knowledge of a lot of areas. It is highly administrative by way the fact that one has to be super organised and be on top of many many many different elements within the football world. And it’s the DoFs job to ensure that all the elements of his operation are running smoothly – so the professional and experts in each area are happy, working to the best of their ability and producing the goods.
Head of Football Operations
Rob Rowan is the Head of Football Operations. Often described on Brentford forums as ‘the invisible man’, he has a multifaceted role which includes:
- Developing relationships with Premier League clubs to enable us to get players like Swift and Canos
- Running our loans programme in terms of monitoring players loaned out as well as feeding back to Chelsea and Liverpool on how Swift and Canos are doing
- A key part of the scouting team – bringing players to our attention, and watching opposition players
- Opposition scouting – attending our next opponents matches and forwarding a report to the first team coach
- Development squad management – liaising with Flemming Petersen and Kev O’Connor to help run the Development squad and bring in trialists such as Nathan Fox from Cray Wanderers
- Training ground operations including reviewing our catering provision
- Co-ordinating first team transport and hotels
- Pre-season planning. Finding pre-season location, arrange fixture programme etc.
First Team Scout
Andy Scott is currently the South of England scout. His official title is First Team Scout & Scouting Advisor for Brentford FC and FC Midtjylland. He works for SmartOdds.
His role is described as such:
“Watching games from U18, U21 & Football League as well as using Wyscout & Instat video scouting platforms to research and study potential transfer targets for development squad and first team positions.
Liaising with First Team Management staff and analysis departments on strategy and player requirements.
Dealing with clubs and agents to ensure maximum amount of knowledge is gained in order to give us the best chance of securing our player targets”
SmartOdds, who are owned by Matthew Benham, are Brentford’s version of Opta or Prozone – football data which other clubs buy in. The difference is we own our own data and use it in a unique way and we don’t sell our data to other clubs giving us an edge on the competition.
Not only that, SmartOdds’ main business is data and how to analyse it to make money. They employ reams of people who are experts in data – one again giving them the edge over their competitors in the football game.
Pretty much every club uses Prozone or Opta so if we did not use SmartOdds data, the we would then have to buy our data in like everybody else and empty a set of analysis – like any other club – to crunch the data.
The only clubs that have their own data and algorithm are possibly Arsenal (they bought stats company StatsDNA but it is tough to find out exactly what their role is with Arsenal) and Brighton (who’s owner Tony Bloom is in a similar business to Matthew Benham which owns its own data but once again is completely secretive about any links between his tech company and the football club).
Brentford’s analytics team was – until recently – 4 people who are based at SmartOdds. This is where the player recruitment process starts off.
The names of potential players are passed to the club via a plethora of avenues. Agents. Brentford staff (Dean Smith, coaching staff etc) recommendations. Friends. Smartodds staff recommendations, scouts etc.
Their job is to then find out absolutely EVERYTHING about these players
- their background (age, passport, injury history, availability, wages, personal life, temprament etc)
- statistical review (an in-depth analysis of their playing game)
- a review of the level of the team the player is playing in .. in relation to The Championship. This particular measurement is unique to Brentford – no other team uses it other than FCM – as it is software developed by SmartOdds. There is a possibility that Brighton may use something similar but we can’t guarantee that as they are very secretive
- basic review on video using standard scouting video software such as WyScout and Instat Scout (Wyscout is a subscription-based, fully searchable, minutely detailed video database that covers every minute of every game in every major league in the world with video footage of over 273,000 players from 30,000 teams playing in 150 divisions in 80 countries. Most teams use Wyscout or Instat for their ‘desktop scouting’)
The recruitment process
The system as it has been over the last 12 months
- The head coach or the academy head gives a spec as to what type of player he wants
- Information is gathered from a multiple of sources. Agents. Recommendations from Brentford staff, analytics staff, mates, scouts etc. This is passed onto the analytics team who look into everything. Background checks are KEY (age, passport, injury, availability, wages, stats, review of team their playing in and how they fair, video reviews)
- Thousands of players may be put into the ‘system’ at this stage. Possibly only 10 or 20 may end up coming out as being possibilities
- This is filter stage number 1
- ONLY if a player passes stage number 1, he then gets passed onto the scouting team for review. This will be mainly Andy Scott and Rob Rowan and possibly our scout in Ireland. Occasionally Rasmus Ankersen may get given a player to watch but the feeling I get is Andy Scott and Rob Rowan are currently the two key players in the scouting set-up. They are asked for a detailed review. The watch the player online. They watch the player live. And they compile reports ….
- This is filter stage number 2
- If the player passes this stage he is then passed up the line to first team coach Dean Smith, assistant coach Richard O’Kelly and head of U21 team Flemming Pederson so they see if the players found match the spec that was briefed out in the first place
- If the player matches the brief, he is then passed to the ‘new player decision team’ comprising of Matt Benham, Phil Giles, Rasmus Ankersen and Dean Smith
- Once they have all agreed on the target, Phil Gilles gets the thumbs up from Matt Benham who gives guidance on the money and instructs Phil to get the best deal and sort out the paperwork.
The system from April 2016
In late March/early April the SmartOdds analytics team – headed by well known analyst Ted Knutson – was halved from 4 people to 2 people with Ted leaving his role with the club. This was only a year after SmartOdds decided to hire the team and try a few different things on their analytics side. SmartOdds previous model did them well – finding players such as Gray, Odubajo, Jota and Hogan – but they were always looking to evolve and stay ahead of the game.
One can only assume that this evolution did not quite work out as planned and they made a decision to go back to the old model they used to use (with some tweaks). Looking at what Brentford were doing and the knowledge Knutson and his team had under their belt, bringing him on board did not seem like a bad move at all if one was looking to keep ahead of the game. The fact is … sometimes things don’t quite work out and it is our guess that this was the case in trying something new here. However, listen to Ted on Arseblog and you will hear him chat about an area which he obviously has a lot of knowledge on. Very interesting.
At the same time, the club are now looking to replace the two analytics personnel with a new Chief Scout and a Northern Scout with interviews currently in place.
The new process will focus on the Chief Scout managing a lot of the recruitment data before the player is then being passed up the line.
It seems there is the same philosophy running through the club – just a different implementation …
What surprised us on researching the league was how many teams were actually doing the same thing as Brentford were – but were keeping a lid on their activities. It was very difficult to find out detailed information on other clubs’ player recruitment teams and their methods as they don’t want to give any competitive advantage away.
Boro have a system pretty similar set up to Brentford. They have a Head of Recruitment in Gary Gill and Victor Orta plays a sort of Director of Football role. They have 3 another guys in their analytics team who crunch data – one concentrating on opposition analytics, one being a senior data analyst and a one being a technical recruitment scout (who is responsible for identifying potential transfer targets).
The team are given specs by Aitor Karanka.
They then crunch the data using Prozone or Opta to narrow down the targets from 1000s to 10s (this is their equivalent to SmartOdds)
The data is then passed up the line for the recruitment team to scout (both on video and physically) and if it all comes out hunky dory, Boro try and sign the player.
Rory Campbell – politician Alistair Campbell’s son – is a technical recruitment scout for West Ham and pointed out that more and more teams were coming on board using data to assist in recruitment. Even older generation managers like Claudio Ranieri who would normally poo poo the idea are on board. West Ham and Leicester managing to secure N’Golo Kanté, Dimitri Payet and Riyad Mahrez identified for a combined cost of £16 million when Man United were spending £70m for a trio of players that have failed to deliver.
He also highlighted the fact that Spurs bought then fast-tracked players like Dele Alli (a Div 1 player just over 12 months ago) and Eric Dier into their 1st team.
But he also noted something quite interesting. That the ‘real footballing world’ was struggling to come to terms with a something that they really did not understand dumped right into the middle of their football world.
“Where I think the analytics world has struggled is building a bridge to the traditional football world to infiltrate the information better. It is actually quite presumptuous to give out loads of information, that makes perfect logical sense from a mathematical standpoint, and expect a sport that has developed for decades to accept it overnight.
I would say this remains the biggest challenge. You have to understand the dynamics and the personalities of the people you are working with to be able to communicate the information. I think that is why analytics has not penetrated football like maybe other businesses would have expected.”
He mentioned the fact that in life we have gone from a vertical to a horizontal society.
The vertical is where you have a leader at the top and everyone follows.
The horizontal is where you have a leader bombarded by information and opinion. That’s where the leader has to be so clinical about what’s important and what’s noise.
He also talks about Borussia Dortmund head coach Thomas Tuchel seeking out Brentford owner Matthew Benham to learn more about his systems – as does Ted Knutson in our podcast this week. He does mention the fact that Benham has stressed the complementary importance of “scouting with the eyes” as well as the significant variance of any maths model in a sport as low scoring as football.
There are always many many ways to string a cat.
Brentford re-emphasised in the recent posters that they put up around Griffin Park recently that they were very much committed to the strategy they had been practicing over the last few years – one in which they would couple technical information with traditional football methods to try and get a competitive edge with regards signing new players and also on the pitch
Hopefully with the information at your fingertips here, you are more informed as to how not only Brentford operate in the recruitment area but also how our rivals do their business.
One things is for sure is there are a plethora of clubs doing what Brentford do. Maybe not in exactly the same way. But the principal is the same. Many of these clubs have higher budgets than The Bees so will naturally attract higher quality players – so the need to maintain some sort of competitive advantage is important.
As we said on the podcast, the key is in the workers. The pawns on the chessboard (not saying this in a disrespecting way) who, through whatever means, beaver through tons of information to identify these key players and get the decision makers (the people who sign the players) to take note. The tools that these workers use are crucial (including raw data, software and interpreted data). If the tools produce bad information, the pawns will produce bad information.
This is the same whether you are using stats to help you identify players … or more traditional methods.
Any flaws at this very important grass roots level will mean that, whatever process you use to recruit your players, you will end up with bad information and end up signing the wrong players or missing out on potential targets.
And that’s not a good thing.
ps. apologies for any inaccuracies in this article. This article was written at 4am after recording the podcast in the pub .. then editing it for publication .. then decided to knock this info up as supplementary information (as you do).
You can read up more on Boro on these two articles in the Evening Gazette by Anthony Vickers (@untypicalboro)
Rory Campbell article
Brighton FC and Tony Bloom article