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Analytical approaches in the pursuit of excellence: How can Sunderland be smarter?

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Emblazoned on every piece of Sunderland merchandise, memorabilia, and branding is the phrase Consectatio Excellentiae. It’s high time Sunderland started pursuing the excellence it professes to chase.

FBL-ENG-PR-SUNDERLAND-DI CANIO Photo credit should read GRAHAM STUART/AFP via Getty Images

Brentford can’t win by outspending the competition so we have to outthink them. And the question that comes from that is how can we be different? How can we do things in a different way? So, what are the inefficiencies in the system in football, and how can we exploit those?

- Rasmus Ankersen, Brentford’s Director of Football


Ask fans of English football who the most savvy team is in terms of player recruitment and a large proportion will point to Brentford. In recent years the London-based side have made a name for themselves with their intelligent approach to signing relatively unknown players who they then develop and sell before beginning the cycle all over again.

Owned by Matthew Benham - a Brentford fan who made his millions through professional gambling before developing a betting company that utilised data to inform decision-making - Brentford fell at the final hurdle this season, succumbing to a late loss against Fulham in the Championship Play-off Final.

The two clubs couldn’t be further apart in terms of the manner in which they operate, though.

Back in 2018, Fulham had spent £105 million as they failed to secure Premier League survival, and according to the club’s website the Cottagers made a loss of £20.2 million. Brentford, though, made a £20 million profit during the same time.

As such, many have suggested that Brentford are the model for modern football sides to try and emulate - or at least analyse - as they look at ways in which they can better make their own clubs more sustainable.

But for Sunderland, who now face the uncertainty of potential squad limitations and a £2.5 million salary cap, what lessons can be learned from Brentford across the board? How can Sunderland begin to think different?

FC Midtjylland vs Randers FC - Danish Alka Superliga Photo by Lars Ronbog / FrontZoneSport via Getty Images

It takes financial commitment

It’s worth immediately knowing that Brentford’s owner, Matthew Benham, has so far committed around £100 million into the club - of which almost 20% is secured loans linked to the development of the club’s new ground.

The point worth noting here, is that Brentford aren’t some miracle club operating outside the realms of reality. Their owner has pumped serious capital into the club in order to get it to the position it’s in today, and that’s something Sunderland likely need, too.

Kudos should be given to Sunderland’s current owners who have effectively increased commercial revenues by impressive sums during difficult times with help from the fanbase - as well as making tough decisions to help minimise costs. Looking at the club’s most recent accounts, though, the picture painted suggests a very difficult task to keep the club on a sustainable footing at this level.

There’s also still some confusion as to just how much money has been put into the club by Stewart Donald et al. The parachute monies debate still raises many an eyebrow - and so too do the Close Brothers and FPP loans.

It will likely take another two years’ worth of financial accounts to help fans understand exactly what’s going on behind the scenes. Right now, there is far more confusion than clarity, and that doesn’t bode well for productivity.

In the meantime, the question has to be asked: is the current ownership group able to invest the kind of capital required in order to transform Sunderland into a competitive Championship side? We’re not talking about £100 million and challenging for the Championship title, but equally we don’t want to be scrapping for survival.

Giving the current ownership their due, many fans will remember that Donald and Methven noted very early on in their stewardship of the club, on the Roker Rapport podcast, that they didn’t have the financial clout to get Sunderland beyond the Championship.

However, as Mark Campbell was pictured sitting with Donald at a Sunderland game before Sunderland’s initial campaign in League One had even drawn to a close, rumours of a potential sale began to swirl. Since then, rumours have consistently persisted of a sale lingering tantalizingly on the horizon, close enough to keep everyone interested.

Simply put: stability and investment put Brentford into the position they’re in today - from the outside looking in, Sunderland arguably don’t appear to have either right now and that doesn’t bode well for our future.

Sunderland AFC

Data & Analytics

For all we know, behind the scenes at Sunderland AFC data and analytics drive the majority of decisions being made. However, being entirely honest, there is little evidence to suggest this is the case.

For example, the recent season ticket PR debacle could maybe have been mitigated had the club surveyed the fanbase to gauge their opinion on the matter at hand, rather than rushing into decisions that ultimately backfired. Understanding the mood of a situation is key to making astute decisions, and Sunderland failed to do that.

Generally speaking, analytical thinking is the ability to solve problems and issues by analysing and evaluating data and information that has been gathered and organised. It’s a creative way to identify the solution to an issue based on the best evidence available. For Brentford, the majority of the club’s decision making processes revolve around the intelligent utilisation of data and analytics across the club.

Even after finishing fifth back in 2015, Brentford fired Mark Warburton as they argued the underlying data pointed to the fact that the club were simply lucky that year. There was evidence and information available to adequately judge the club’s growth - and someone in charge to make informed decisions.

From a commercial standpoint, Sunderland have evaluated the club with a fine-tooth comb and inched out millions in profit that simply weren’t there before - this was a good example of analytical thinking within the club. Likewise, Brentford’s new stadium has been aided by a data-driven approach, from its capacity being set after work with a leading sports marketing firm, to offering bespoke commercial sponsorship offerings to local businesses, Brentford’s analytical approach to life is impressive.

But Brentford go way beyond the big picture approach, though, and delve deep into the minutiae. Ankersen noted in an interview with Bleacher Report that Brentford have recently invested in cooking classes for their players to help improve their diets, and also worked to improve their player’s sleeping patterns by running a sleep study:

If a player comes in and says, ‘I only sleep five hours a night,’ you don’t want the coach to think, ‘Is he not ready to play?’ If you can get someone to sleep better and more effectively, he will likely perform better. You try and look at all those factors that add to a player’s development.

This is because analytical thinking encourages attention to detail, to pursue excellence in the small-stuff, to strive for success everywhere within an organisation. It’s why Brentford are focused on set-pieces as a means to score goals, because like Ankersen says:

Could you imagine a company that spends 10 percent of their time on where 35 percent of their revenue comes from? That’s what happens in football.

Admittedly, the last two years have been difficult for Sunderland’s ownership team, but outside of our commercial endeavours, have Sunderland developed an analytical culture that pursues excellence?

As a fan it’s difficult to point to specific moments that would encapsulate such a shift in attitude. The changing of the seats was a fantastic start, and buying tickets for those less fortunate was another great step, but beyond that a series of gaffes, arguments, and rumours have filled the space where data, creativity, and growth should have flourished.

The recent lockdown would have been a great example of analytical thinking. The data suggested that people were home with more time on their hands, so why not engage? Merchandise sales, surveys, a campaign aimed at reconnecting with fans. There are a host of plans that could have been adopted to positive effect, both fiscally and socially.

There’s blame to be laid at multiple doors, but ultimately the club’s ownership are in charge of developing a culture of success, and aside from our previously mentioned commercial activities, it’s been difficult to see much to highlight the club’s growth as an intelligent, analytical organisation that moves forward in the pursuit of excellence.

Soccer - International Friendly - Italy v England - Juventus Stadium Getty

Recruitment: it’s ‘not’ Moneyball

Brentford’s owner, Benham, is said to hate the term ‘Moneyball’ when referring to the use of data to identify players that offer value for money. In reality, though, the models are quite similar. Brentford aim to use statistical data to help identify targets, but also believe in in-person scouting to confirm what the numbers are suggesting - perhaps that’s where some differences lie?

Ankersen explains Brentford’s approach very eloquently:

You want to try to sign players who are in their peak or on their way to their peak rather than being a declining asset. We’ve got a young team. I think that’s the philosophy of the club. We want hungry, energetic players that want to prove themselves, that want to learn, are open-minded to buy into the club’s philosophy—doing things different. There’s a lot of resale value in the team we have now, and that’s the idea as well.

A manager might want to have a 29-year-old player who had a cruciate ligament injury two years ago and can probably make a difference now, but does he have any resale value? Will he be a rising financial asset for the club? Those are the questions that we also have to ask. That’s why you need someone to think a little bit ahead. We have to sign players that have a resale value.

It sounds easy, but to find that hidden value is the million dollar problem. How do you identify players that others maybe highlighted as talented enough to make a difference? Well, like Ankersen says, “Football is such an overheated and irrational industry.”

How many teams have actually embraced a data-driven approach to identifying targets? How many organisations still rely on a man and his dog, or a scout with a contact book? That’s not to say those methods are entirely wrong, but they can’t be the sole approach to recruitment.

Instead, why not use all the facts available to analyse the talents available in the UK and elsewhere? Proper analysis of statistical evidence allows clubs to be intelligent in what they’re looking for: potential.

Like Ankersen says:

If players were fully developed, Brentford wouldn’t be able to buy them. You get an unfinished package, and you need to make it better.

You look for players that have potential and analyse the context: why have they not fulfilled their potential?

That’s where the coaching element comes into play. People like Phil Parkinson have to be able to cultivate talent, to give players an opportunity to flourish whilst simultaneously helping to develop and harness a player’s skills. It’s something we’ve been particularly poor at for what feels like an eternity.

Sunderland sit at an interesting juncture in English football. Not in the upper reaches of English football, but a club with a rich history, a passionate and large fanbase, and an impressive stadium and facilities - for any player looking to make their name in English football it’s an attractive proposition.

Sunderland need to stand apart from the crowd and plan for the future. Identify the the rough diamonds ready to be coached into quality players, get the best out of them... and then sell them.

Why? Because a club this size cannot afford to sustain itself without Premier League income. In fact, the majority of Championship sides post millions of pounds of losses every year. Player sales have to be a prime source of revenue for Sunderland moving forward. Brentford have had to aim for £15 million of profit in player sales every year in order to be a sustainable business - Sunderland will have to do something similar. As Leeds’ majority owner Andrea Radrizzani - worth over $550 million - explained about the Championship:

Unfortunately to sustain a club in this league we need to sell one or two players each year.

In the last few years Brentford have generated over £70 million in profit on player sales - Sunderland must aspire to do the same.

Yes, in the short-term it costs money to organize and implement Even a basic structure that allows the club to properly analyse data as a tool to help inform approaches to recruitment. But rather than viewing this as a mere expenditure, it should be viewed as an entirely necessary investment to increase the club’s revenue-generating capabilities. The initial outlay is surely worth the potential income.

Burnley FC v Brighton & Hove Albion - Premier League
Cost: £1.6 million, and Sold: £20 million
Photo by Dave Howarth - CameraSport via Getty Images

Conclusion

The aim of this article isn’t to fetishize Brentford - I remember several years ago people pointed to Swansea as the team to emulate, and then it was Southampton. There’s always a team that’s en vogue, that captures people’s attention. Perhaps right now that’s Brentford.

However, what I did want to highlight was the fact that Brentford’s success is founded upon intelligent design. Analytical thinking - using data and creative solutions to solve complex problems - is a positive step that Sunderland could readily replicate, and not necessarily with vast sums of investment.

This moment in time has presented Sunderland with an opportunity to adapt and change its persona, so to speak. No longer should we be the club that looks to buy its way out of trouble; instead, we should be the efficient side that make calculated decisions that use the best information available to inform the process.

There are things that Brentford do that Sunderland arguably shouldn’t. Scrapping the Academy system in favour of a B side was a good move for a London side losing its best talent to neighbours a matter of miles away. However, if Sunderland can implement proper pathways for development and effectively nurture its top talent, then the Academy could not only sustain itself, but also contribute to the running of the club, too. Again, though, that depends on smart decisions being made throughout the club, and on a culture of success and growth.

Emblazoned on every piece of Sunderland merchandise, memorabilia, and branding is the phrase Consectatio Excellentiae. It’s high time Sunderland started pursuing the excellence it professes to chase.