Brentford: Playing Football Manager in real-life

This weekend, Brentford beat 22nd placed Wigan by three goals to nil and secured a place in the playoffs. Brentford, a favourite among the analytics scene due to their chairman’s data-led approach, now have a chance at back to back promotions. Regardless of what happens over the coming weeks, Brentford appear to be a smartly run club with a bright future. Part of this forward-thinking approach is present in their squad construction, which shares similarities with Alex Stewart’s recent Moneyball/Football Manager mashup.
Brentford age plot

This chart shows each player in Brentford’s squad in relation to their age and the percentage of the maximum minutes that they have played this season. What is promising about this is the cluster of players just approaching peak age (shown in red). While definitions of peak age vary depending on position, injury history and other factors, the majority of first team players in Brentford’s squad are just entering their peak production years. This bodes well for the club on the pitch and on the balance sheet.

As any Football Manager veteran will no doubt tell you (see point 7 in the piece by Alex Stewart), players signed before they hit peak performance will tend to cheaper than more experienced players. While it’s obviously not as easy to sign the next Maradona in real life as it is in a video game, by signing players in their early 20s, you can eliminate some of the risk associated with youngsters due to the larger sample of games played, while still being less expensive than a “proven” 26 year old.

Rplot10

One example of this is the signing of Andre Gray. Gray was signed in the summer for a fee of around £550,000 (Transfermarkt) on the back of 30 goals and 14 assists in 45 appearances for Luton in the Conference. This has since proved a smart acquisition as he has performed well in 2014/15 and, at 23, is likely to improve; Gray’s 2014/15 haul of 0.61 Goals+Assists per 90 minutes is highly impressive, especially considering the low fee. Moreover, players in this age range are likely to command lower wages than older players with similar output (point 1).

Rplot09

As well as having more years of high performance remaining, players in their early 20s have a greater resale value (point 9, sort of) and are therefore more likely to make a profit for the club. While there are naturally benefits to having a balance between youth and experience in a playing squad, most of Brentford’s signings have landed in the Moneyball sweet-spot of 20-23 (see above chart).

The flip side of this is that there are fewer old players playing big minutes. According to the Transfermarkt data on the age-minutes plot, there is only one player over 30 who has played over half the available minutes for the club. Because there are fewer players declining due to age, there is less turnover pressure on the club; fewer players need to be replaced. Likewise, the only player with significant minutes on a contract of a year or less was Alex Pritchard. This is further evidence of the team’s stability and suggests good management of contracts; good, young players are secured for beyond just the short term, with little reliance on players in decline.

These two characteristics of having a young squad, having an improving first team and high retention of playing minutes, mean that a stable squad can continue to play and develop together. I believe that this is evidence of a club run well beyond the level of manager or head coach (and therefore less reliant on one person). This bodes well for the future, with or without Warburton, with or without promotion.

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