With six games remaining in the Danish Superliga, FC Midtjylland are 12 points clear of their nearest rivals, FC Copenhagen. Since the club’s promotion to the Superliga, two second place finishes have been the highlight of their league success. Barring a complete meltdown, they look likely to lift their first ever Superliga trophy. The man behind their new approach and instant success is Matthew Benham, who took a majority shareholding in the Danish outfit in July 2014. The former hedge fund manager and professional gambler is also the owner of Brentford, who recently clinched a spot in the Championship play-offs.
Benham invested £6.2m in Midtjylland last summer and immediately began changing the structure of the club. He appointed Rasmus Ankersen, a 31-year-old former player, Uefa A-licence coach, entrepreneur and author, as the chairman. Ankersen was put in place to challenge the conventional ways of running a football club and make FC Midtjylland a known quantity, not just in Danish football but all around Europe. He has done his job with aplomb so far. One of the key facets of the new Midtjylland is their heavy use of statistics and data.
“When I am being provocative I tell people that our coach, Glen Riddersholm, will never be sacked based on our league position,” Ankersen says. Instead, the coach’s performance is based on his achievement of certain key performance indicators (KPIs). Benham and the club’s management believe these KPIs are more indicative of success in the long-term. Ankersen won’t reveal everything about the club’s use of data but coyly let it be known that Midtjylland pay particular attention to “dangerous situations” in games. The club use the services of E4talent, who track shots in the ‘danger zone’ – the area between the six-yard box and 18-yard box- from which 77% of Premier League goals are scored.
Particularly interesting within FC Midtjylland’s new approach is the amazing amount of goals the club has scored from set pieces. After 21 games this season, 22 of their 43 goals came from set pieces, an astounding average of 1.05 set piece goals per game. At a recent balls.ie talk on data in sport in Trinity College, Simon Kuper – author of Soccernomics and Financial Times sports columnist – put forward a key reason behind this deluge of set-piece goals. Kuper explained how Midtjylland, with their obsessive use of data, have realised that shooting directly from free-kicks is a statistically poor option. Kuper made the point that “even Cristiano Ronaldo, who many consider one of the best free-kick takers in Europe, has a poor conversion rate”.
In fact, according to WhoScored.com, the most prolific free-kick taker in Europe is Zlatko Junuzovic of Werder Bremen, who boasts a conversion rate of 23.5%. Kuper went on to explain Midtjylland’s philosophy: “A free-kick immediately takes three or four of the opposition’s players out of the frame with a simple pass”. It is this kind of thinking and use of statistics that has propelled Midtjylland to the top of the Superliga table, having scored 23 more goals than second-placed FC Copenhagen. There is no ball wasted, no statistical avenue unexplored, no shot fired in anger. Data even informs what Midtjylland coaches say to players at half-time – coaches are sent texts outlining how the team are performing on the basis of key metrics. Mathematical models, intertwined with traditional scouting, are essential to the signings made by the club. This had led to many comparing Midtjylland to the Oakland A’s of Moneyball fame.
Benham is the driving force behind this radical approach. Ankersen once asked Benham whether or not Brentford would get promoted from League One, and got a fascinating response. “From a football guy you would expect a yes or no, or an answer with emotion. But he just looked at me and said: ‘There is a 42.3% chance that we will go up.’ I knew then he thought very differently about football.” Benham’s perspective on the game is unquestionably unique, and it is starting to produce results. With Brentford manager Mark Warburton set to leave the club in the summer and be replaced by a head coach, promotion to the Premier League notwithstanding, it is clear that the blueprint for the Championship side’s future has been laid out at Midtjylland. The Danish club are firmly on course for their first ever piece of silverware. It may not be long before this data-driven approach takes hold across European football, with Midtjylland and Brentford leading the way into this new world.