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Posted by on May 4, 2017 in Articles | 12 comments

According To Our Data – “You’re Not Very Good, And You Know You Aren’t”

According To Our Data – “You’re Not Very Good, And You Know You Aren’t”

 

New-Bee contributor, Alex Cole, writes his first article for Beesotted – throwing a few questions into the mixer on the world of stats – which forms an integral part of Brentford’s recruitment process. 

With Brentford spearheading a new evidence-based approach in football, dragging the game into the 21st century, do fans have the information available, or knowledge, to really pass judgment? Do we actually know for a fact whether Vibe’s first touch compares to Scott Hogan’s, or if Yennaris is “making enough challenges” during games?

Do we even know if the qualities that we value in players are the most important?

The new metrics of success have shifted and it is becoming clearer.  We can no longer trust the traditional ideas of what makes a good football player. Or even how to win. Of course, we can have a pretty good idea if a player is playing well, based on our previous watching and playing experiences. But we simply can’t be as definitive as the data.

It’s well documented that statistical based approach came to Brentford with the arrival of owner Matthew Benham. Initially the approach, and the introduction of new ideas, came with a fair amount of criticism from fans, managers, journalists and pundits alike. Five years down the line and Brentford finds itself comfortable in upper-mid table with guaranteed Championship football for the fourth consecutive year.

Lots of questions have been answered by the relative success and yet some fans are not 100% convinced. Sure, we all have moments where we think, “I don’t need a spreadsheet to tell me that Big Nick is a donkey”, but with the fine margins between success and failure, is it time to admit that we just can’t know the definitive answer all of the time?

Some of the more ‘traditional’ fans amongst us are perfectly happy to continue as a friendly little tinpot Brentford – plugging away, content to live in a nostalgic world of familiar surroundings. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. It’s what we know. And it’s served us ok in the past to a certain extent. 

Admittedly, most fans probably would like to maintain at least an element of that, and many of us admit that it’s going to be very difficult to leave our home – Griffin Park. However, it’s become clear from the amount of debt that most clubs have – plodding along isn’t a viable option and we need to seriously compete for some of that increasingly valuable TV money or risk an uncertain future.

Unfounded rumours have been wafting around about Matthew Benham running out of cash. He’s pumped in a huge amount of cash into Brentford so far (reportedly circa £90m) and we surely can’t blame him for looking at investors and options for long-term sustainability. I’m personally more than happy to trust our innovative owner, and his track record so far has been almost spotless.

Twitter enthusiast, ex-Brentford Head of Recruitment and football data warrior, Ted Knutson, shared some fascinating insights into the inner workings at Brentford this week and, more specifically, player identification as can be seen in this article on his Stats Bomb website.

Ted had a big part in the signing of cult favourite midfielder Konstantin Kerschbaumer a couple of summers ago. Below the radar, Kersch came to Brentford with some standout stats – particularly in his passing. However,  he started slowly, admittedly out of position. Recent performances, according to the data, have been more convincing. But to many fans, his contribution has been inconclusive. Ted’s glowing appraisal (even if a little biased) prompts us examine the metrics, on which we qualify success.

Romaine Sawyers has come in for a lot of stick this season too – often somewhat unfairly in my opinion. His somewhat languid and considered approach has been often  judged as a lack of effort by sections of the Griffin Park faithful. However, the stats and management would often disagree.

This compounds a somewhat contentious point, that our judgements are influenced by not only experience, but unconscious bias. I’ve seen many describe Sawyers with terms like “lazy b*astard” both on Twitter and Facebook and at the games, which strikes me as an opinion based on a pre-formed bias and not solely the player’s performance.

It’s not just us mere punters watching from the stands that can get proven wrong by hard facts. Pundits like Jermaine Jenas are also lost in a new world of instinct versus evidence, as shown by his emotional defence of a Tottenham team that were on the receiving end of a 4-2 defeat to rivals Chelsea.

Post- match, ex Tottenham regular Jenas, tried to convince the rest of the studio team that Tottenham were the better side and should have won. He protested that Spurs had played better, and based on the amount of possession that they had, didn’t deserve to lose.

The point is not really about whether Alan Shearer or Jermaine Jenas was right, but more about the fact that Jenas was clearly disappointed that his old team had lost and this clouded his judgement. We’ve all been there when emotions take over, but thankfully, it’s not normally captured, unless Dave or Billy from Beesotted are knocking around with their microphone of course.

 

Coincidentally, Jenas also had a lively discussion on BBC Radio 5Live recently with the aforementioned ex Brentford Recruitment exec – Ted Knutson – talking analytics in football (as can be heard in the podcast below).

It’s clear from some of Jenas’ fairly sneering remarks about Ted’s process, and credentials, that he still needs further convincing. In a similar way to some fans, his attitude feels like a defensive reaction to a step into the unknown. He gave the impression (to me at least) that he’s not really willing to learn or listen. The role of the ex-pro in the world of football seems pretty safe for now, but I’d expect to hear more from the football data nerds and their facts in the near future.

From my understanding, the best way to describe Benham’s philosophy at Brentford is:

“Making rational decisions from analysis, using ‘proper statistical methods” (with data being just one aspect of the decision making process)

The ‘methods’ certainly seem to be providing an edge for The Bees in the transfer market and it’s a similar philosophy already used in Benham’s business – Smartodds. So much so that new employees are asked to read a specific chapter of Thinking, Fast and Slow a book by Daniel Kahneman to further embed the process. The book (in the most basic summary) presents a theory around cognitive bias, which identifies two posing ‘systems’ for making decisions:

Fast, automatic, frequent, emotional, stereotypic, subconscious.
Slow, effortful, infrequent, logical, calculating, conscious

Simply, slow thinking uses a more calculating, rational process, over more instinctive/ emotional “fast” thinking. The book also examines other aspects, such as, the innate need in humans to be loss (risk) adverse, which has influenced Brentford’s footballing philosophy, building teams to win games rather than draw them. (often mentioned by Matthew Benham and the Brentford Director’s Of Football in interviews).

It’s obviously so hard to know whether the decisions are all good ones – particularly when we are not at liberty to all of the facts. But if we look at the trend, we look to be in a very good place. From specific players signed/ sold, to the closing of the academy system after the dust settles, it’s hard to dispute many of them. I, for one, will by embracing change, trusting the DoFs to recruit and MB to provide the direction. I won’t even use the league table as an indication of performance anymore.

I’m even more excited to start hearing rumors linking us to unknown foreign players and looking them up on YouTube, only to discover untapped potential – such as the recent signing of Henrik Dalsgaard.

We can only hope Matthew Benham is judging the crowd performance on traditional measures like noise and aggression and not other key performance indicators like number of: jester hats, clappers, half scarfs, Mexican waves, adults with face paint on, brass band songs, fans shining torches on their mobile phones and the rest

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alex Cole

Please share your thoughts on Alex’s article using the comment box below

12 Comments

  1. Loved this article. Excellent perspective on our approach. Personally I hope it’s a case of people like Jenas long continuing to sneer. Let the outsiders not ‘get it’.

    Ian Holloway has changed his tune from less than a year ago and now says he wants his joke of a club to “become more like Brentford”.

    Is Tony Coffee still “worried for us”? Let’s hope so. Can’t wait to see the Bees take three points from The UK Tax-Payers’ Olympic Stadium. Trust me, the only way this won’t happen in the near future is if we pass each other in terms of leagues.

    It’s easy to say In Benham We Trust. He might not get everything right but I’m am completely happy, make that overjoyed, that a fan who has “put in £90million” is the key decision maker at our club.

    Once again, superb article Alex.

    Come On You Bees

    • Thanks, glad you liked it! I personally don’t mind when pundits knock Brentford’s approach as it reminds me that lots of “football people” in big clubs feel the same way. The famous, old clubs, might have bigger resources but I’m sure we make better decisions.

  2. Well written and thought through article, summarises exactly where we are.

    Innovation in football is vital and keeps us ahead of the pack. Wenger, when he first arrived, was sneered at and Arsene who? headlines, he soon revolutionised football in this country with sports science and dietary changes, winning a series of trophies. Problem for him is, everyone has caught up and copied his methods, he also arrived with a database of young players (mostly French) who were ‘up and coming’, this has largely gone, hence the drying up of trophies for Arsenal.

    Of course no system or method is perfect, but standing still isn’t an option. Let pundits sneer and disrespect, while they’re busy being ignorant, we have an advantage. How long for? Who knows, but Matthew Bentham gives us an edge, and will look to innovate and try new things, it’s not perfect, and there will be players who come and go, but standing still isn’t an option.

    COYB’s

  3. Condescending and arrogant article by Cole, falsely equating “traditional fans”, with being content to exist as a “tinpot Brentford”, an absolutely ludicrous statement.
    Not one original thought, as everything said is a rehash of numerous articles, stating the same arguments; I don’t recall any recent debate on this subject, so the author must be trying to be “clever”, by reinventing one, or is just keen to get his name on the page.
    Statistics, can be manipulated to prove anything, or nothing; previous performance, is no guarantee of future success. Benham makes it clear that traditional recruiting methods are just as important in the player recruitment process; statistics, which by the way, have always been used by “the traditionalists”, e.g. An obvious one, goals scored, goals conceded, are an indicator, they cannot be relied on as an absolute, or a panacea for success, ever.

    • “Yawn”,like you Brian not original, same old negative rhetoric.
      Four years in the championship,not a bad stat that?(much to your disappointment I sense).
      Thank you Mr Benham.

    • Oh dear – more drivel.
      The obvious one measure of success you make a lame attempt to identify is points won in a season. I seem to recall that when MB began his very large investment in Brentford that points won were a very scarce commodity indeed.
      The trend is unmistakable and is leading to the Premier league but you cannot understand that quite simply because you cannot understand the factual evidence in the article by Alex Cole, which is proof positive of the accuracy of his comments.

  4. Blimey, that was an unnecessarily aggressive and intemperate response.

    There has been a recent debate on the subject – listen to the recording of the 5Live conversation between Knutson and Jenas. I’m glad you agree that Matthew Benham uses traditional methods alongside analytics. The author never suggested that he didn’t. The point is to use the stats to make better decisions and identify talent that may not be picked up by traditional methods. And looking at the current Brentford team as it approaches its fourth season in the Championship, it’s hard to argue that it hasn’t been a remarkable success.

    Oh and I’m sure the author wouldn’t mind you addressing him as ‘Alex’ rather than ‘Cole’.

  5. There is no definitive in football… keep moving or you’ll be shot! I consider Brentford one of the most progressive thinking of all league clubs. We will never have a massive fan base and even a packed out every fortnight 20,000 stadium (please not an all-seater!) we will still be considered a small club. Nothing wrong in that. Holding our own and being self-sufficient has to be our ultimate goal.The rules must change so that tv/media power doesn’t dictate. (Also not at the mercy of rising rates!). Somebody must take issue with the FA about a fair and level playing field (game scheduling; clubs going out of business for the sake of a million quid other clubs getting millions in parachute payments for failure/relegation). Even match fixtures .. local derbies at the end of a season with good weather!? WHAT? Holiday day periods with (very likely)bad weather/bad travel facilities ….5:30 kick off on NYE for a team from Norfolk!!?? How shit are the FA? Did they not do geography at school? Do they not know bad weather affects travel and matches? But to make up for it lets make it all alright by having all last games played on a Sunday with a 12 o’clock kick-off. Sack the FA they know FA!
    Yours sincerly
    Holding my head high and with pride proud Brentford supporter.(Brentford: small to medium English football club with great, feet on the ground fans, purveyors of quality football!)
    NB All things must change every great model will he copied then will become yesterdays news nothing stays the same forever.

  6. I am a traditional fan, been going since 1961,and could not be more thrilled or grateful to M.B. for all that has happened in the last 6 or 7 seasons. Best football I have ever seen from Brentford and now a Club with a viable long-term future. Mediocrity and having no ambition or hope is now behind us, hopefully for ever.
    No need to be so rude to someone who posts a well-argued article.

    • Never Changes does Boru,as obnoxious as ever.

  7. Hysterical and aggressive reaction to my different viewpoint; a pity more equable and educated supporters, do not engage in these discussion zones, then there might be the chance and pleasure of honest debate, rather than the usual suspects, with their poison and vitriol.

    • The poison and vitriol came from you calling Alex’s article ‘condescending and arrogant’.

      Just what is your beef with the statistical approach when it has given us our highest League position for 70 years and the best football any of us can remember?

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