Feb 19, 2016

A football club run by data

Following Manchester United’s humiliating exit from the Champions League couple of months ago, the club has now suffered defeat in the Europa League at the hands of FC Midtjylland.

A club only formed in 1999, FC Midtjylland is a force to be reckoned with. It came in between the powerhouses of Danish football winning the Superliga last year and in the 2015/16 Europa League the club managed to kick Southampton out in the first playoff round and qualify for the 32-phase finishing behind SSC Napoli in the group stage.

The club’s majority shareholder Matthew Benham, who also owns Brentford FC, is an Oxford graduate and a great believer of achieving footballing success without having to break the bank. He is also the owner of Smartodds, a company providing statistical research and sports modelling services. For this reason, it is not a surprise that the club puts statistical analysis at the centre of its operations.

FC Midtjylland follows a ‘Moneyball’ model composed by complex algorithms analysing stats, to assist in the recruitment of players. Chairman Rasmus Ankersen is also a strong advocate of this approach and is at the forefront of using data to find undervalued players in undervalued markets. Part of the club’s success is also down to its excellent youth academy, using mathematical modelling, as well as traditional scouting methods, to sign players who they believe are undervalued.

Furthermore, FC Midtjylland uses data to monitor its success with certain key performance indicators (KPIs), including set-pieces. Incredibly, half of the team’s goals last season came from set-pieces, a record only bettered in Europe by Atletico Madrid with an average of 1.04 per game. Data also informs what the coaches say to the players, with team talks preceded by text messages outlining how the team are measuring against set key metrics.

While football is one of the hardest sports to predict and enhance with statistics, FC Midtjylland is proving that it can be done efficiently, showing how a data-driven approach can be applied into the everyday running of a football club. Although this number-crunching approach needs to be proven in the long-term, it seems reasonable for the Midtjyllands of the world, who are battling harsh financial environments and pitting themselves against the giants of the game, to use data to take advantage of inefficiencies in the transfer market, enhance their performance and, as the team showed last night, punch above their weight.

Written by @VasPoulios

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