Ankersen ready to challenge football’s status quo
Brentford’s unique approach to player recruitment could undo Chelsea
Simon Kjaer was not much of a footballer. Danish Superliga team Midtjylland took him on only because 2004’s youth intake lacked strapping centre-backs. When Midtjylland’s coaching staff each listed five of that intake likely to make it, none selected Kjaer. Five years later, they reviewed their picks. “The guy at the top of my list?” shrugs one of those coaches, Rasmus Ankersen. “He runs a pizza parlour.” Meanwhile, Kjaer captains Denmark and has starred in Serie A, the Bundesliga and Ligue 1. He now anchors Fenerbahce’s defence.
Midtjylland’s staff also dismissed Winston Reid. Being so wrong as a conventional coach intrigued Ankersen, whose Midtjylland playing career had been ended by a knee injury. It haunted him even as he went on to study for his Uefa A coaching licence, while launching a publishing house and a career as a motivational speaker and business consultant.
Financially secure, he quit coaching to visit places that disproportionately spawned elite sportspeople, from South Korea (female golfers) and Jamaica (sprinters), to Ethiopia (middle-distance runners) and Brazil (footballers) as research for his 2012 book The Gold Mine Effect. On the promotional trail, Ankersen connected with Matthew Benham, Oxford graduate, professional gambler and Brentford’s owner. On Ankersen’s advice, Benham bought Midtjylland and installed his new friend as chairman. In 2015, Midtjylland won their first Danish championship and Ankersen took on roles as Brentford’s co-director of football and board member.
Ankersen is pony-tailed, entrancing company and just 33. His current polemic, Hunger In Paradise, details how hubris and complacency sunk Newcastle United from fifth in 2011-12’s Premier League to 16th a year later with the same management and almost the same players.
“There’s randomness in football. It means the best team wins less often than it should, so the table lies,” he says. “My coach will never have a problem if our league position is low but the underlying performance indicators are high.”
As a result, Brentford do not wholly define themselves by results. Those underlying performance indicators — goal difference, goal distribution (scorelines) and shot differential (the difference between the shots each team manages) — must be strong. If they are, argues Ankersen’s theory, results will follow.
“Football is so conservative,” he says. “The notion of the ‘football man’ is overrated. I’m not a ‘football man’, I’m a challenger. Matthew’s not a ‘football man’, he’s an outsider. People say we just use analytics, that we’re robots walking around the training ground, but that’s not the case. Look, 35% of goals come from set pieces, yet teams spend 10 minutes on them after training. That doesn’t make sense, so we have a full-time set-piece coach. If you complete 6% of set pieces, like Real Madrid, rather than the usual 3%, that’s perhaps the difference between promotion and not promotion.”
Brentford scrapped their academy in favour of a B-team who play in an identical formation to the first team; they sign young players with a view to inculcation via the B-team. The approach is similar to Jurgen Klopp’s Anfield overhaul. Brentford may not be run by “football men”, but they are run and staffed by Brentford men.
“There’s a saying: culture eats strategy for breakfast. If you don’t have the right, unified culture, your strategy will never have an impact. Our culture explores the edges and buys into unconventional concepts, so we need hungry, young, open-minded players who don’t feel they’ve reached the mountain top. Before someone signs, I talk to people he’s shared a dressing room with: they know his real character. And there are companies who provide these services. Scouts don’t like it, but we get valuable information from fan forums.”
Ankersen does not see himself in football in 15 years’ time, but he does see the Brentford way as a trailblazing way. On Saturday, Brentford visit Chelsea for a fourth-round FA Cup tie. If the gap between Antonio Conte’s fringe players and Dean Smith’s finest is unbridgeable, perhaps Chelsea’s policy of buying players for other teams — they have about 30 players loaned to clubs from Swindon to Schalke — represents gilded past rather than golden future.
“People who own football clubs have already made their money elsewhere, so they treat their club like their mistress or their boat,” says Ankersen. “Analysing information using different sources and assembling it to make more right decisions is the range of skills McKinsey consultants have. That’s why there’s more outsiders coming into football. It won’t make the game less attractive.”
As seen in The Times, online