If you look at the Championship promotion race at the moment, there’s one unexpected club that’s undergoing a quiet revolution at the top of the table.
Fighting alongside the second tier’s regular big-name outfits such as Middlesbrough, Leeds United and Sheffield United, is little old Brentford. Often overshadowed by their west London neighbours Fulham and Chelsea – who both currently play in the Premier League – the Bees are making gallant strides in an attempt to catch up with their rivals. They currently sit second in the Championship after a positive start to the season.
But how can a club with a 12,000-seater stadium (the second smallest ground in the top two divisions and a lower capacity than 17 League One and Two clubs) be dreaming of Premier League football? Let’s take a look at the Brentford project which shows that the Bees are more than simply over-achievers…
The upper echelons of the Championship are not unfamiliar to the west London side. Brentford have finished in the top ten places of the division in each of the last four seasons. The first of those came in 2015, when they reached the Championship Play-Off semi-finals just twelve months after gaining automatic promotion from League One. And it was after this season when owner Matthew Benham began his project.
Despite an incredible 2014-15 campaign which saw the Bees nearly reach the top-tier in unpredictable circumstances, Benham made the staggering decision to relieve manager Mark Warburton of his duties. The Brentford owner went on to completely reshape the structure of the club.
Moneyball Mk. 2?
A well-known gambler, Benham is also the head of sports analytics company SmartOdds. SmartOdds collect statistics with the aim of helping gamblers in trying to determine where they should put their money. The Brentford owner has been a fan of the club all his life, having grown up in Slough, West London. He then took charge of his boyhood club in 2012.
The owner founded a new way in which a football club should be run – by recruiting new players based on their statistics, and in particular, their Expected Goals (xG) ratings. This type of data is not your basic passing accuracy and interception stats, but are a very specific collection of statistics which help to determine how teams win matches.
Benham tested this system with FC Midtjylland, a team in Denmark where the Brentford owner is a majority shareholder. The formula worked – as the Ulvene (the Wolves) upset all the odds by winning the Danish Superliga in 2015. This was clearly enough for the owner to begin to revolutionise the west London club in a similar way. So, when Benham realised that Warburton could not conform to this type of football club – he was dismissed.
Benham has combined his professional career with his love for Brentford to allow his boyhood side to become one of English football’s big overachievers – and not by accident.
The New Scouting System
The Bees have managed to avoid the phenomenon of over-spending in the ever-inflating transfer window whilst still managing to rise up the Championship table at a considerable rate. In partnership with SmartOdds, the Bees have identified which players can be deemed as hidden gems at cheap prices.
The west London club’s transfer policy is simple – buy a player when they are undervalued, and sell when they are overpriced. This has helped the club with the fourth-lowest playing budget in the second-tier finish consistently at the top end of the Championship table.
An example of their unique policy can be seen through the transfer dealings surrounding Scott Hogan. The striker was signed by the Bees in 2014 from Rochdale for around £750,000, and when Aston Villa came in with a £12m bid for Hogan in January 2017 following a good run of form, Brentford willingly accepted that bid for their star striker.
While Hogan’s departure to Villa Park severely damaged their promotion hopes, the west London club used these funds to purchase a brand-new strike force on the cheap during the following transfer window. This included Saint-Etienne forward Neal Maupay, who currently leads the division’s scoring charts with seven goals in five matches.
Other hidden talents in the current Brentford squad includes Ollie Watkins, who was signed for £1.6m from Exeter City in 2017 and now has four goals in seven league games this season and Chris Mepham, who is now a senior Wales international after being plucked from the Chelsea academy aged 14.
The New Manager
Brentford’s scouting system is not limited to the players; but to the manager as well. While many of the big Championship teams have looked abroad to find a unique and successful style of play (see Leeds’ Marcelo Bielsa or Wolverhampton Wanderer’s Nuno Espirito Santo), the west London club went against this particular trend and instead searched for a manager with solid experience of improving individual players from lower league backgrounds.
The trusted figure comes in the form of Dean Smith, who took Walsall to the top end of League One against the odds before becoming the Brentford boss in November 2015. Smith is now the Championship’s second longest-serving manager (behind Neil Harris of Milwall who only became a Championship club under Harris twelve months ago).
Smith has helped to embrace the modernity of Benham’s Brentford, as the west London side continue to adopt a more European style of football club. The former Walsall boss has been more than happy to work with the club’s directors of football who focus solely on recruitment, while Smith has even banished the role of club captain at Griffin Park. Instead, he has created a ‘leadership group’ as a different Brentford player skippers the side on a week-by-week basis.
Overall, Brentford’s unique patience in modern football and willingness to look at the bigger picture has allowed them to perform consistently in one of Europe’s most unpredictable leagues. Whether they achieve promotion this season under Smith is a completely different argument, but with a new stadium set to be ready for the start of the 2020-2021 season – there is even more reason to be excited if you’re a Bees fan.