Brentford’s focus on the human touch belies Moneyball reputation | Brentford

Rasmus Ankersen, the director of football at Brentford, often likes telling the story of his first meeting with Matthew Benham, the club’s owner. It was 2013 and with Brentford third in League One, Ankersen decided to make some small talk. “Do you think you’re going to go up?” Ankersen asked. Benham turned to him. “Well,” he replied, “at the moment we have a 42.3% chance.”

This is the sort of story people like to tell about Brentford: a club bought by a gambling tycoon with a lust for numbers, staffed by a small army of analysts and disruptors applying regression curves and game theory to the EFL on a rainy Tuesday night. The frequent refrain you will hear is that Brentford’s most successful era since the 1940s is based on a “data-driven”, “Moneyball-style” approach: both of which evoke the notions of shortcuts and magic recipes, of success generated painlessly by computer code.

Yet, as Thomas Frank’s squad prepare to take on Tottenham in the Carabao Cup semi-final on Tuesday, on the back of a 16-game unbeaten run, perhaps it is worth peering under the bonnet a little. A sparkling new stadium, a sound financial footing and promotion within their grasp: this may be a club with a firm grasp of the numbers. But there is a human side at work here, too: one that has bound together its various constituent parts – first-team, boardroom, backroom and fans – into a single devastatingly coherent whole.

Josh Dasilva, the club’s influential midfielder, will not be able to tell you a great deal about the science behind Brentford’s rise. What he does know about is what it is like on the inside. “The culture we’ve got going on here is so good,” he says. “Everyone’s on board, everyone’s looking in the right direction. Everyone that works here is just a good person. And it shows on the pitch. Good people do good things.”

Dasilva signed from Arsenal in the summer of 2018 after playing 62 minutes under Arsène Wenger. Aged 19 and looking for his next challenge, he was ready to take on the cut and thrust of men’s football. But there was a problem: he was injured and would not be fit again for several months. “Other clubs might have looked at that differently,” he says. “But Brentford just wanted to get me fit and see what I could do.”

You can see tales like Dasilva’s all around the Brentford dressing room: of young players who had fallen on hard times. Whose big break had come and gone. Who were just one wrong decision away from slipping through the cracks. Who just needed a little time and a little love. Sergi Canós, once of the Barcelona academy, was plucked from the Liverpool reserves and is now one of the best wingers in the Championship. The Danish midfielder Mathias Jensen signed for Brentford after failing to establish himself in La Liga with Celta Vigo. The Finland forward Marcus Forss was signed for Brentford’s B team after being released by West Brom in 2019, and with seven goals this season is already attracting interest from Borussia Dortmund.

Like Neal Maupay or Ollie Watkins or Said Benrahma – players who hit their stride at Brentford before making the big move to the Premier League – none of these was remotely guaranteed to be a success. After all, identifying talent is only the first stage. Character assessments play a big role in the recruitment process, to the extent that the club will often trawl fan forums for rumours about potential signings. Once a player is inducted into the Brentford family, they are nurtured and encouraged to explore the full extent of their potential.

A head of individual development has the specific brief of improving the club’s most valuable assets with personalised training sessions and one-to-one guidance. The B-team structure offers a clearer pathway to first-team football than the youth academy it controversially replaced in 2016. “As soon as you come to the club, you improve,” says Dasilva. “Every day I see Ivan Toney working on his finishing after training. You improve, you enjoy.”

The temptation here is to spy in the rise of Brentford a template for other aspirant clubs to copy. But ultimately there is little archetypal or transferable about their success, which is simply one club’s response to one unique set of circumstances. For a small club in one of the world’s most heavily scouted cities, packing up the academy was a no-brainer. For a bigger club, with a more distinguished history and a greater resistance to new ideas, it might make less sense.

In any case, it is possible to get a little hung up on learnings and winning formulas. After all, this is a turbulent and random game. Perhaps, like many clubs of its size, Brentford will get picked off once too often by bigger rivals. Perhaps Tottenham will demolish them and all this will look a touch silly. All we can say with any sort of certainty is that whatever Brentford are doing, it seems to be working right now.

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