London has an argument for being the football capital of England, with historic teams from Chelsea to Fulham producing some of the best players the country has seen. Out of the 50 teams that have played in the Prem, 11 of them have been from London, the most of any city. Brentford, another London club, is different from its neighbors and has proven to be not only the biggest surprise of the Prrem this season, but the best of the rest.
When Brentford won the Championship playoffs last year, it marked the club’s return to the top division for the first time since 1947. Many expected Brentford to go right back down given their lack of experience at the top level, but the club has been a massive surprise this season.
The idea of moneyball is hard to adapt to football given the innate differences between how clubs and leagues are managed in the US. However, Brentford’s approach towards their transfer strategy and player selection has been driven by statistics. This, in turn, has allowed for the club to find quality players that helped keep them up without the money of other clubs in the league.
One of the more impressive features of this Brentford side has been their defensive prowess, as there seems to be an identity forged in defensive actions. This identity has even spread to their attackers whose defensive numbers rank highly among other forwards. In a way, this has been the result of the club’s transfer policy which has helped the club compete without the resources of other clubs.
Brentford was expected by most to sink back to the Championship given their lack of Prem level players, but they have proven to be a solid Prem team. As teams like Burnley and Everton stave off relegation, Brentford has established themselves as the best of the rest.
Moneyball has inspired generations of sports fans across the world, changing the way many look at sports forever. Brentford are no different from Daryl Morey or Billy Beane in that way, all three sporting institutions have a devotion to the use of statistics as a way to overcome certain issues.
Owner Matthew Benham, whose fortune was made in part due to his prowess in gambling, realized that he could not compete financially with other clubs, so he saw his solution in the numbers. Ever the cautious statistician, Benham decided to buy FC Midtjylland in Denmark to implement his moneyball strategy before fully implementing it in England. Since the implementation of his strategy in Denmark in 2014, the club has won three league titles and become a powerhouse in Denmark.
Realizing that Brentford would likely never see the money of other clubs in the Championship, and eventually the Prem, Benham began to use advanced stats to build his club. One aspect of this strategy was, of course, to scout players for cheap who had stats that fit into what corresponds to success. Another, more interesting, aspect of this strategy has been the focus on rehabilitation projects, players who failed at larger clubs who can then be developed and sold for profit.
Success in the lower leagues and the Championship is not a real indication of success in the Prem, as one can clearly see with Norwich. However, it is easier to adapt a transfer strategy to the Prem than it is to adapt a tactical strategy, as transfers are easier to compare than the tactics of certain clubs.
Compared to the other promoted clubs this season, Brentford spent the lowest on transfers by far, but are the only one of those clubs that is safe from relegation. Brentford spent close to 40 million dollars to bring in just three players. Two of those three, Frank Onyeka and Yoane Wisse, were unknown to most Prem fans while Kristoffer Ajer was always an interesting prospect that warranted a move to the Prem.
Norwich brought in Bundesliga star Milot Rashica and Watford went with Prem stalwart Moussa Sissoko, but both clubs are now relegated with their players failing to help keep them up. On the other side, Brentford’s trio of players have all played well. With Ajer and Wisse being the better of the transfers, Ajer looks at home in the Prem defensively and Wisse has chipped in with 7 goals.
While other promoted teams have thrown money at players with bigger reputations, Brentford’s transfer strategy has paid dividends. With the club confirming its safety, it will be interesting to see how they continue to build off their success in the coming season.
The old adage of “offense wins games, but defense wins championships” is more or less tried and true and Brentford have built a great defensive side. By pairing an elite defense with a potent offense, Brentford has found a path for Premier League stability.
Christian Nørgaard is a great example of the defensive prowess of this side, as he leads the league in both tackles and tackles won and ranks high in other defensive metrics. Nørgaard’s ability to be the first line of the defense is the catalyst for Bretnford’s great defensive play. While he will never be the player N’Golo Kantè is, he could still be a great defensive mid for a top Prem side.
Ajer has formed a great defensive pairing with Ethan Pinnock and Pontus Jansson which has let in less goals than both Manchester United and Leicester City. Even when a player manages to beat that trio, they must have David Raya.
A little known Spanish keeper who has spent the majority of his career in the Championship, Raya has exploded onto the scene and has already earned a cap for Spain. Raya has the league’s second best save percentage and an expected goal against per 90 of 1.09 ahead of both Ramsdale and Pope. In Raya, Brentford have a keeper who can compete with the league’s best.
Great defensive play isn’t limited to defenders and midfielders, as even Ivan Toney’s defensive stats are far above his attacking peers. Toney’s interception numbers up front are elite and show an attacker who is willing to do the dirty work to help his team’s defensive shape. His work is integral to the defensive identity of Brentford.
Toney has been one of the Prem’s most underrated players this season, as the 26 year old has proven to be a quality Premier League forward. While he isn’t the most prolific of scorers, he still has scored 12 in his first full season in the Prem. His involvement in building up play is more impressive in a way that his 5 assists don’t fully show, as his expected assists is in the 81st percentile with an 85th percentile of progressive passes.
Brentford’s defensive identity requires so much out of their players and to the players’ credit, they have stepped up and helped their club to Prem stability. With the season almost over, Brentford have set themselves up for a successful spell in the Prem for years to come.
Promoted clubs have the most difficult task of trying to succeed in a lead where you need money and stature to find some sort of success. By trying to blaze their own path forward, using their unique strategy, Brentford have found success in the Prem where other promoted clubs have failed. Brentford fans will hope that their club’s passion for moneyball doesn’t end like the Oakland A’s.
Featured image: Brentford FC