If one glances at the Premier League table this autumn, there is a surprising name right up there in the form of Brentford.
The London club are not known for playing top-flight football. This is their first stint in the Premier League and only their second in the top flight since World War II. Their achievements have not been down to a rich benefactor but a solid trading model based almost entirely on statistics.
Stats are either a football fan’s best friend or their worst enemy. After a result, you can pour over the numbers as much as you want, but purists will tell you there’s only one stat that matters; goals. To a degree, that is true, but only on a match-by-match basis. The Brentford ideology has its roots in poker; each match is like a hand, and whilst one hand can go bad, you will come out on top if you calculate the odds correctly. That’s all The Bees are doing; using the numbers to ensure that they progress long-term. They take each match at a time and let the numbers dictate success, just as a card player would calculate poker odds. If the xG data suggests they’re on the right track, a few defeats don’t matter. If the data doesn’t stack up, then Thomas Frank has a case to answer. It’s the same theory as poker; making mathematically incorrect decisions repeatedly will lead to becoming a losing player. Make the right choices, whatever the outcome of an individual hand, and you’ll be a winner by the end of the session. Brentford make their decisions based on simple maths.
They do this by putting all their chips on xG stats. The term xG stands for expected goals, and it is a metric by which a team can determine if they’re doing the right things on the field. Each chance is analysed by a statistical expert and awarded a score depending on how good it was. For instance, one-on-one with the keeper is likely to draw a high xG rating, but a long-range punt for 35-yards a lower one, as it is less likely to go in. If Frank loses a couple of games, he won’t have a case to answer if their xG is acceptable, as they’re doing the right things. If he wins a couple, but the xG is weak, then he might have to speak to the club’s owners, despite being on the right side of results.
The xG metric alone isn’t how they have climbed the leagues; they have gone all-in on stats analysis. Like calculating those poker odds, they look at the numbers to ascertain whether a player will fit their profile. He doesn’t need to be scoring more goals than everyone else; they’re hunting someone with the right metrics to develop into profit for them. Often, they sign players who appear to be underperforming but whose numbers suggest otherwise. Essentially, they’re looking for those who have had a few bad hands but who have the numbers to suggest they can turn them into aces. They’re using numbers to determine their stake and where to put their chips, with a big cash-in the desired outcome.
It works too. They turned a profit of £150m from transfers over five years but still kept one of the most entertaining and talented squads in the Championship. That squad got them into the top flight, and now they’re hoping to stay there.
Can they remain at the high-stakes table simply by calculating the odds, juggling the numbers and using stats, not performance, as their metric for success? The early indications are they might just be able to do that.