They use it to guide transfer market strategy. They use it to choose the starting 11 each week. They've used it to win a Danish Superliga title. They religiously call it "the Model". But what exactly is it?
Written by Marco Zucchetti
Written by Marco Zucchetti
"In how many countries do football fans celebrate a corner kick as if it were a goal? One. England".
Mourinho once expressed this ironic opinion against the British, thier fetish for corner flags kicks and balls flung into the box. Little did he know that there’s a country where even a succesfull backpass - let alone a championship title - is considered a footballing achievement: Denmark. To be precise - the context demands it – the central part of the Jutland Peninsula, where the fans of FC Midtjylland have just celebrated their first title in history. A title which they achieved with three games to spare, thanks to the draw in Vestsjaelland with which they secured arithmetic supremacy ahead of runners up FC Copenhagen. And never has the term “arithmetic supremacy” been more fitting, given that the Danes’s success is deeply rooted in the realm of algorithms, statistics and Big Data.
The story of the Ulvene (Wolves, as they are nicknamed) is not yet long enough to have earned them a name in this epic sport. They are in fact teenaged club, established in 1999 from the fusion of two local clubs, Ikast FS and Herning Fremad. Following their Second Division debut, the club get promoted to the Superliga, they achieve a few second places and an occasional appearance in the qualifying rounds of European competitions, before they sink in a cold sea of financial trouble.
But it’s hardship that brings out the true nature of this region: practical and firmly grounded in its hilly landscape, at the cost of appearing conservative. "Jylland, du er hovedlandet," wrote Hans Christian Andersen, speaking of the "land of the head." And it’s using that head which the frivolous inhabitants of Copenhagen are instead busy adorning with trendy hairstyles – that Midtjylland made it to the top. Using its head, some capital, and a revolutionary idea: to do in football (the worlds most unpredictable sport according to the studies of Los Almos National Library, where favorites win only 50% of games compared to 70% in the NFL) that which Billy Beane and Oakland Athletics did for baseball, in an enthusing sporting adventure later turned into film “Moneyball”, starring Brad Pitt. That is, to achieve success by bringing mathematical and statistical models into the game.
The man at the origin of this utopia, Londoner Matthew Benham, made a fortune bankrupting bookies using probability theory. And what better way to reinvest proceeds than to buy his beloved team, Brentford FC? No sooner said than done. The following year Brentford aviods relegation. Then achieves promotion to the Championship. But by this time Benham has outgrown suburban London; he has been mobilised by a book – “The Gold Mine Effect”. The book is about misunderstood talents and hidden gemms, like that boy named Luis Nazario de Lima, for whom Flamengo couldn’t justify covering the cost of a coach ticket; the boy who later became known as Ronaldo… The author of this book, Rasmus Ankersen, sees performance and potential as two uncorrelated things, and suggests judging youngsters based on their background and character rather than success. After all, as he explains, corporations spend 2% of their time and effort recruiting, and 75% correcting wrong recruits. Ankersen is a Dane in his thirties, sports surfer-like blond curly hair and a hip dress sense. He can also boast a succesfull blog, two best-sellers and the attention of giant brands such as Lego, Ikea and Facebook in matters of strategy consultancy. He’s a man who – in the words of Dutch interviewer Michiel de Hoog – “can come up with more brilliant ideas about football in five minutes, than any average sporting director could produce in a lifetime”.
Benham is so fascinated by this shaman pop-start, that he gets in touch and eventually comes to befriend him. In 2014 he decides to act on his new friends teachings: why not buy Midtjylland, the team where Rasmus played in his youth? A £6,2 million cheque later, the Wolves have two new tamers, determined to transform the wild beasts into the avant-garde of modern football: the first team in history capable of minimising the effect of chance in the game. Rationalising randomness becomes henceforth Ankersens mission.
The Danske Mestre (Danish Champions) title is an indication - albeit not a confirmation - of success. As one of Ankersens many mantras goes: “Do not assume you are doing well because you are at the top. We are doing well when our Model says we are doing well”. Right, because success can often disguise a stroke of luck as a stroke of genius. But not for Ankersen. For Ankersen “the Model rules over the league table”. The question is, what is this Model, this secret and yet all-powerful metaphysical and algebraic entity, similar to the Hal 9000 in Kubriks Space Odyssey? Algorithms, data, equations, statistics: it’s a network of Key Performance Indicators which form a mechanism, a blueprint to guide decisions regarding half-time substitutions (relayed from observer to the manager by text message), player-specific training programmes and targeted transfer operations. It’s been calculated that a single game will be characterised by an average of 2500 actions: the objective of the Model is to encode and synchronise these actions into a database, and suggest strategies accordingly. The results? Midtjylland boasts the best goal-scoring record in the league, with almost one goal per game from set pieces, the best average in Europe alongside Athletico Madrid. Numbers don’t lie.
Football is entering a new era, and the revolution is happening in Herning - a city with a population of 60 thousand - led by a team competing in a minor league. Dragged like a whining child into the age of Big Data, football is changing its skin, and Midtjylland FC is the perfect pioneer of this inexorable colonisation.
The revolution isn’t merely cultural, but also financial. “If we can’t outsmart our opponents economically, we will do it philosophically” is yet another of Rasmus’s commandments; an inevitable consequence of the ethical shift that has been happening in the world of football since the introduction of Financial Fair Play and regulations surrounding profitability and sustainability in the English Premiere League. Attempting to cancel margins of error and financial loss by applying systems commonly used for NASDAQ trading to a business that was until now considered heavily inclined to fluctuations, will allow football to become a tempting enterprise for investors. Julian Dupont from Fitch Ratings Inc. is certain of it. He forsees a future where the true challenge will lie in scouting the most brilliant analyst rather than the most prolific striker. It will be a gradual yet unstoppable process, in accordance with the metaphor of the boiled frog - Ankersens final pearl of wisdom: if you throw a frog in boiling water, it will wriggle and jump to freedom. If, however, the water is cold to begin with, then slowly brought to boiling point, the frog will remain unaware of its imminent fate until it’s too late. And so Midtjylland is raising the temperature, and football continues to cook, on low heat, in the fascinating, ruthless broth of Big Data.