When discussing the ‘Moneyball’ revolution in football, the first club to come to mind for many will be Brentford. Applying a data-driven approach to recruitment within the EFL, the London side have led the nation into a new era of football; one where numbers, innovation, and marginal gains are key phrases in every successful director’s book. Amidst the chaos of the ever-changing processes of clubs, the importance of men on the ground has remained a constant, with Brentford’s small scouting setup in France delivering enviable results.
Brentford’s transfer business since Matthew Benham’s takeover of the club has been nothing short of remarkable, with co-directors Rasmus Ankersen and Phil Giles applying their unique philosophy in the art of recruitment to build a club and structure that is the toast of the EFL. While this article places focus on the success that the Bees have had in France, it should be noted that their positive impact has been seen all over Europe. Numerous players have arrived from Denmark, other EFL sides, and from Europe’s top five leagues, with the recruitment team rarely failing to impress.
Signing on a strict budget, the club acquire players for the team with the aim of replacing departing players – always wanting to recruit a better player than the one that leaves. No player is signed without fitting a clear succession line to the first team, whilst matching the tactical demands of the club’s style of play. The club’s model of building and reinforcing a side is far from unique, as any sensible recruitment setup would look only to sign players that fit exactly what the side needs. Brentford, however, have managed to apply subtle changes to their strategy that have allowed the club to build something that is truly unique.
The case of Saïd Benrahma might be the best example of Brentford’s smart recruitment in practice. The club had been well aware of Benrahma’s talent for some time, noting how the Algerian could develop into a key player for them, well suited to the Brentford style of play, with his intelligence and fluidity on the ball matching the right profile for their wingers; but the left winger was not of immediate transfer interest to the board, who were happy with the performances of Florian Josefzoon and felt change was unnecessary. Following an unexpected bid that exceeded their valuation of the Dutchman from Derby, however, the club’s preparation meant that they were able to react quickly, replacing Josefzoon with
Benrahma. From the deal, the club made an immediate profit of almost £1.3 million, while simultaneously improving the side. Benrahma’s performances for the side could not have been predicted by anyone, but they would not have been possible without the perfect implementation of modern recruitment methods.
One of the most notable facets of the Bees’ transfer strategy is their true recognition of the fact that signing a player is not the end of their ‘move’ to the club – but merely the start. Brentford are able to sign players seeing not only how their strengths can help improve the team, but also how the weaknesses that lower their value can be negated by the intelligence behind the structure of the club as a whole. As specialist sleep coaches, nutritionists, psychologists, and coaching staff are appointed to roles. Brentford take a different approach in tweaking their signings to the needs of the club, only further improving the reliability and effect of their signings.
An example of a Brentford signing that signifies the importance of tweaking a player is Neal Maupay, who scored 37 goals in his two seasons at the club after joining for £1.8 million before being sold to Brighton for 11 times the initial outlay. On first inspection, the signing is an excellent piece of talent identification, as the club unearthed a young player with tremendous talent and potential for a low fee and hugely benefitted from the move; but looking deeper into the Frenchman, it was so much more than this. Maupay was signed as a clearly talented young player, but his reckless nature and poor attitude to the game meant that he would struggle to fulfil his potential. This, of course, did not deter Brentford, who gave the forward the nurturing he needed to truly develop.
The sustained success in recruitment and improvement of players such as Maupay, as well as other success stories from within England – the likes of James Tarkowski and Andre Gray coming to light from within the club – has given Brentford a reputation in the game, not just within the transfer market, but as an attractive destination for young players. The club’s pulling power has improved greatly, while the progression of the side and increasing profits have enabled the Bees to shop in a more premium market, being able to afford and tempt a higher level of young talent.
This summer, Brentford broke their transfer record a number of times, with the £5.8 million signing of Bryan Mbeumo setting a club record. While the signing of Mbeumo is reflective of a change in the calibre of player available – the winger not just costing a premium fee but also rejecting a number of ‘top 5’ league clubs to move to Brentford – the move does not see Brentford move away from the recruitment focus kept when operating on a far lower budget. Instead of settling for big names, the club simply moved for a high potential player with an even better reputation.
The data revolution pioneered by Matthew Benham’s Brentford has seen the recruitment world change massively, as clubs are able to assess more players than ever before with increased reliability. Yet even with the rapid developments in the game, people on the ground remain key within the club’s setup today. The Bees’ traditional recruitment staff, of which there are just two based in France, can identify potential in players in a way that the data does not show, giving an accurate assessment of players from watching games live. Continuing to find marginal gains, Brentford also gain a financial advantage from their use of live scouts, as their staff are able to build a relationship on a personal level with other clubs, relationships that can be utilised to cut out intermediaries from deals to improve the financial deals even further which is yet another strategy many other clubs have failed to implement.
The excellence of Brentford’s scouts can be shown through any one of their signings, the signing of Julian Jeanvier an excellent example of the advantages of their live scouting setup. Signed at 26 years of age, the centre-back was chosen for his current ability, as opposed to being a typical potential-based signing. Despite being an impressive centre-half with Reims in Ligue 2 as well as with former clubs in Ligue 1, Brentford were able to secure Jeanvier for just £1.8 million, and impressive signing for a small fee in for a position in which the data available can struggle to succeed. Jeanvier immediately became a key part of the back three, proving his worth in his first season at the club, and showing – despite the obvious value of data – that scouts can still provide a difference.
Brentford’s activity in France is through no specific preference to a region, and the club look for players all over Europe, but the value for money and the club’s reputation in the country make it an ideal place to shop. Brentford are run as a profitable club, with their wage bill one of the lowest in the league, which has natural benefits – but also means they can find themselves unable to offer wage increases to young players. The typical wage in France, however, Ligue 2 in particular, is much lower than in England – allowing Brentford to offer a below average wage for the Championship, while also massively improving upon their new signing’s previous deal. Furthermore, the success of the likes of Maupay and Benrahma – as well as Mbeumo’s appearances on French TV show ‘Pépites’, which has followed the winger’s journey as a young player moving to Brentford – has only further improved their pulling power in the region.
Brentford’s business in France and the rest of Europe has been of a high standard for a long time and shows no signs of change. While Brentford will always tweak and aim to improve their system, the core philosophy behind their recruitment will always remain a constant. With potential promotion to the Premier League on the cards, their reputation and financial situation may improve even further, in which case we could see the club move for a higher standard of player – but the feeling in the club is that the current structure, one that has brought such rich development, will stay for the foreseeable future.