Brentford aren’t like Arsenal or Barcelona: How the Premier League’s smartest ever club defied money to think their way to the top – and don’t plan on changing

Brentford fans once sang about being the Barcelona of the lower leagues, but they’re nothing like the Spanish giants.

Riddled with debt and spending way beyond their means? The Bees are far too clever to find themselves in a mess like Barca.

Brentford are coming to a Premier League stadium near you

They’re not in the lower leagues anymore, either. Brentford now stand alongside Pep Guardiola, whose legendary style of play they chanted about from the depths of League Two, little more than a decade ago.

Their journey, however, is about so much more than attractive football. It’s detailed algorithms to find undervalued talent like Ollie Watkins and Said Benrahma. It’s selling them for profit without weakening the squad. It’s using their brains rather than their wallets. It’s a data revolution.

Entering the top-flight’s never-ending arms race to splash the most cash and push the financial ceiling, Brentford will continue to out-think, rather than out-spend, the opposition.

“This is the DNA of Brentford,” their co-director of football Rasmus Ankersen tells talkSPORT EDGE, our new live football app.

Ankersen has written books on talent and recruitment
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“And because we are in the Premier League, that doesn’t mean it will change in any way.”

He adds: “You won’t see Brentford going in and overspending right, left and centre.

“We’re going to try and be clever, and also take calculated risks. One of the biggest reasons for our success has been the courage to take some risks.

“We thought the risks through very well and they’ve paid off for us, those bets.”

Just about the only thing Brentford have in common with Barcelona is their inability to afford Lionel Messi.

Messi’s shock Barca exit was the result of incompetent spending
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“I had a few – actually quite a lot – of messages from fans making me aware that he was available,” Ankersen jokes.

“But I think that’s still out of our league unfortunately.”

Brentford’s charismatic Dane sits down with us the day after signing little-known winger Yoane Wissa from Lorient, someone Ankersen would describe as a ‘whispering talent’.

In other words, an under-performing individual with high potential, but no-one really knows it yet.

For similar results, see former Bees forwards Neal Maupay and Said Benrahma, both nabbed from Ligue 2 for less than £2m and sold for eight figures.

This is such a classic Brentford signing
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That’s just what they do. Brentford didn’t discover Watkins and Ivan Toney by chance.

Data tells them where to find a bargain. And we’re not talking goals and assists. Don’t insult the Bees with such layman statistics.

As early as 2008, Brentford owner and life-long fan Matthew Benham had a mathematical method of evaluating performance more sophisticated than the current algorithm used for expected goals (xG).

The numbers find them low-cost but high-quality markets, a bit like going to Aldi instead of Sainburys once discovering the food is basically the same, but cheaper.

Sometimes Brentford even pop to Waitrose an hour before it shuts and pick up the reduced stuff, inventing a B Team made up of rejects from bigger clubs to replace their academy.

Ankersen and Benham are among the smartest men in football, along with co-director Phil Giles
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Then talented scouts decide whether they can thrive in an environment specifically designed to encourage development, and more often than not, they make Brentford both better and richer.

It creates a chain of constant profit from player trading, but also continuous improvement of the team as the threshold increases, allowing them to climb places and do it sustainably.

Ankersen adds: “We had to find a way to punch above our weight, because if it was only down to the money, we would lose.

“It’s back to that David vs Goliath narrative: if you want to beat clubs with bigger budgets, you have to use different types of weapons than they use.

“Having a data-driven approach to the way we make decisions has been an edge for us.

Watkins and Benrahma were exceptional for Brentford in 2019/20, but their exits only made the Bees stronger
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“It’s not only with recruitment, it’s the way we do strategy and evaluate performance, the way we talk about things within the club.

“We try to be as evidence-based as possible. In football, there are so many opinions. We start with the objective and work our way through a problem from that starting point.”

Ankersen understands the randomness of football. Brentford don’t care much for outcome bias.

Thomas Tuchel blew everyone’s mind by subbing Kepa Arrizabalaga on for Edouard Mendy before Chelsea’s penalty shootout victory over Villarreal, because the data indicated the Spaniard was better at saving spot-kicks.

The Bees have been doing that for nearly a decade, having first experimented to great success with sister club Midtjylland.

Ankersen and Benham did the same thing over in Denmark with Midtjylland
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Sure, they might lose a few games. But how many chances did they miss? Are they playing badly, or just unlucky? Do they need to change, or trust a different day will be theirs?

Contrary to popular belief, in a sport which can give the team with 30 per cent possession victory thanks to a last-minute deflection, the table does lie sometimes.

Those moments, the dodgy decisions or freak incidents, can define the financial status of clubs if they’re not responsible.

It’s what the European Super League was all about: removing all the unpredictability that came with competing for rewards, and instead just trying to guarantee them.

Maybe Barcelona should take a leaf out of Brentford’s book instead.

Brentford have no issues balancing the books and achieving their objectives
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“It’s very difficult in football to keep your costs under control,” Ankersen continues. “In big clubs, like the ones you mentioned [Barca and Inter Milan], there is an extreme outside pressure from fans and the media.

“At Barcelona and also in South America, the executives are elected by the fans and it’s a lot of pressure.

“It’s all about winning. That’s a dangerous cocktail. It’s very tempting to drive up your costs in your pursuit to win.

“But I think football is about being disciplined on that side of things, being disciplined with your spending and keeping a rational approach to where the value is in the market and how you negotiate.

“Football is a tricky business model. Your largest revenue streams are variable and very transactional, and your biggest costs are fixed.

Brentford got promoted with one of the lowest playing budgets in the Championship
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“So you have to be very disciplined with the way you spend the money so you don’t take on too much risk. There are clubs who have done that and it takes years to work your way back to sustainability.

“At Brentford, we don’t have a massively, massively rich owner, so we’ve been pretty clear that we can’t spend too much above our means.

“We learned to live with that discipline on the cost side and it’s important we keep that mindset even now that we have even more revenue than we’ve had before.”

That’s the thing, though, their approach was born out of necessity: with no Premier League broadcasting deal or hospitality facilities at Griffin Park.

Having reached the promised land of both a new 17,250-seater stadium and England’s lucrative top-flight, it’s notable that the Bees haven’t sold anyone so far this summer.

Brentford’s new stadium, opened at the start of last season, is all part of the plan
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Following a pattern dating back to the sale of Clayton Donaldson in 2014, this feels like the time when, traditionally, they would cash in on Toney amid big-money links to other Premier League clubs.

Ankersen says: “With the broadcasting revenue of the Premier League, you don’t necessarily have to sell before you buy, which has been our reality for the past six or seven years.

“I don’t think our mentality is going to change. Brentford has been about finding undervalued talent, bringing them into a system, really accelerating their development, giving them an opportunity to play and then eventually selling them on with a profit.

“We’re still going to do that, we’re just going to do that at a higher level. Maybe we’re going to buy a bit more expensive to also be able to sell a bit more expensive.”

He adds: “It’s not that we are definitely going to hang on to all our players. It’s healthy to have some turnover in your squad, to replace players from time to time and get a fresh energy.

Toney is the latest star player at Brentford that every club wants
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“It’s a process. We were a bottom Championship side, then we sold players for profit, we reinvested that into better players and became a mid-table side, then a top-ten side, and then eventually we got two third places before getting promotion.

“I think there will be the same evolution in the Premier League, hopefully. We start establishing ourselves and then as we evolve as a club, as we are able to generate more profit, we can start to invest in more expensive players and climb the ladder.”

Falling down that proverbial ladder after years of poor investment are Brentford’s opponents on Friday.

Arsenal have been mainstayers in the top-flight ever since they last faced Brentford in the division in May 1947, but bad decisions in recent years have thrown them into obscurity.

It’s difficult to imagine Brentford ever sanctioning a deal like £72m for Nicolas Pepe, no matter what heights they reach, given their knowledge of the French market.

Arsenal have misspent a lot of money in recent seasons
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And while the Gunners will command respect from their little London neighbours, admiration would appear to go the other way.

Mikel Arteta nabbed both goalkeeper coach Inaka Cana Pavon and set-piece specialist Andreas Georgson from the Bees, while Arsenal were also thought to be interested in Brentford goalkeeper David Reya.

Ankersen jokes: “I’d love Arsenal to come and buy our players in the future, that’s not a problem, they are always welcome!

“It’s true, we lost a few coaches to them, and they’ve had interest in some of our players in the past.

“You can only have respect for Arsenal and the club’s history. We’re really looking forward to getting the opportunity to measure ourselves against teams like that to see where we are and how far we’ve come.”

Thomas Frank and Mikel Arteta share similar ideas

On that note, Toney recently told talkSPORT he expects nothing less than a title challenge from Brentford this season.

Having no doubt crunched the numbers, Ankersen approaches the campaign with slightly more realistic ambitions.

“We are confident that we are going to go and make a mark in the Premier League,” he adds.

“We are not there to be tourists. We are really humble and we know we are going to face the best teams in the world. We are excited about the opportunity to play against them and see where we are.

“We will try and surprise a few people. Where we end up? It’s difficult to say.

Who knows how far Brentford can go?
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“Can we get relegated? Yeah, we can get relegated like a lot of other teams can. But we also have a chance to make an impact on the league and that’s our ambition.”

It’s still David vs Goliath for Brentford, if anything they’re an even smaller fish in a bigger pond this season.

But while Goliath may have spent more time in the gym, David’s done his research.