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Do Brentford’s methods hold lessons for Man Utd?

Lars Friis had just taken a job on Brentford’s coaching staff in January 2018 when he was invited to watch an FA Cup third-round clash against Notts County alongside co-directors of football Phil Giles and Rasmus Ankersen at the club’s old Griffin Park home.

The tie ended in a 1-0 loss for the hosts, despite there being 40 league places, and two divisions, between the two teams. But, more than the result, which irked the locals, it was the reaction of the two men sitting next to him that stuck in the memory of Friis.

“I thought I would see a couple of directors of football going bananas,” he tells Sky Sports. “But they were totally cool and calm. I was a little bit in shock because normally, losing a game like that against a lower team, you would expect anger or disappointment.”

Friis expressed his surprise to Giles afterwards. “Phil just shrugged and said that, playing the way they did and creating the chances they did, they win that game 99 times out of 100. You can do everything right, but sometimes it just comes down to pure luck.”

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Brentford boss Thomas Frank gave an incredible insight on Monday Night Football into how he sets up his side to face top teams

Nearly five years later, having left Brentford to pursue challenges elsewhere, Friis saw the same reaction in reverse when invited back by Giles to watch another game, this time a 2-0 win over Premier League rivals West Ham at the London Stadium in December 2022.

“Again, I sat next to Phil, and again, he was exactly the same.

“Brentford scored the first goal: no reaction, no cheering, no nothing. They scored the second goal: no reaction, no cheering, no nothing. Win or lose, it’s the same. Just cool and calm.

“I like it because it transmits calmness from the top down. And that is what Brentford are. They always see the facts and stats behind the feeling and emotion of the game.”

Friis’s anecdote came to mind when listening to Giles, Brentford’s sole director of football since Ankersen’s departure in 2021, outline the overarching importance of data during a panel discussion on the subject at last week’s Opta Forum in London.

“We try to ignore the results and the league table as much as possible,” he said. Instead, Giles explained, they are guided by the underlying numbers behind their performances.

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Thomas Frank outlined the principles behind how he wants his side to play on Monday Night Football, including having every player forward on corners, pressing high, and putting numbers in the box to attack crosses

This data-driven approach has of course been key to Brentford’s remarkable rise from League One to the Premier League under owner Matthew Benham. It also helps to explain why there is no hint of panic about their current predicament under Thomas Frank.

Brentford sit only five points above the Premier League drop zone in 15th place having lost five of their last six games and not won since early February. Defeat at home to Manchester United, live on Sky Sports on Saturday, could push them closer to danger.

On the surface, the outlook does not look particularly bright. But the data tells a different story. Although results have dipped this season, Brentford, for the third year in a row, actually sit among the Premier League’s top 10 teams in terms of expected goal difference.

The metric, calculated by subtracting a team’s expected goals against from their expected goals for, is seen as a key performance indicator. For Brentford, it offers evidence that, overall, they have not been playing nearly as badly as their league position suggests.

Why, then, do they find themselves where they are, some 17 points worse off than at the same stage of the last campaign? This is where the importance of context, another factor highlighted by Giles during his appearance at the Opta Forum, comes into the equation.

Most notable is that they had to navigate the first four months of the campaign without Ivan Toney as he served his betting ban.

Ivan Toney transfer chat to Arsenal
Image: Ivan Toney has scored four goals in 10 games since his return to action in January

The striker, Brentford’s highest scorer since they reached the Premier League, with 36 goals, was crucial in helping them overperform their expected goal total in the previous two years.

Without him for so much of this season, and with injuries to fellow forwards Kevin Schade and Bryan Mbeumo too, Brentford have gone from overperforming to underperforming their expected goals, scoring roughly six goals fewer than they should have, based on the quality of chances they have created.

It is hardly surprising that finishing has been an issue in the context of those absences and, on top of that, there is the small matter of a defensive injury crisis at the other end, with key figures Ben Mee, Ethan Pinnock, Rico Henry and Aaron Hickey among those sidelined.

It is a credit to Frank that Brentford’s underlying numbers have held up despite all those challenges. The processes are still working. There is reason to believe the long-term prospects of the team remain bright, even if results do not show it right now.

All of which brings us to Manchester United, a club for whom the opposite appears to be true. Erik ten Hag’s side recorded a thrilling FA Cup quarter-final win over Liverpool before the international break, their eighth victory in their last 10 games in all competitions.

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Gerard Pique explains why his former club Manchester United should focus on bringing players through their academy like Sir Alex Ferguson did with the ‘Class of 1992’

For the most part, though, there has been a sense of wins being achieved in spite of performances rather than because of them.

The underlying numbers back that up. Consider the fact that Brentford, although nine places below Manchester United in the Premier League table, have generated a higher total of expected goals and given up a lower total of expected goals against.

Remarkably, United have a negative expected goal difference this season, their total putting them between Bournemouth and Nottingham Forest among Premier League clubs and underlining the gap between their performance levels and those of the top three in Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City.

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So, what next? The latest reports coming out of Old Trafford suggest Sir Jim Ratcliffe, the club’s new part-owner, is planning for Ten Hag to continue in his post next season, even as he implements an exhaustive overhaul of their behind-the-scenes set-up.

But, given the success of their approach, he might wonder what his Brentford counterparts would do in the same position. Ten Hag is riding high after that topsy-turvy win over Liverpool. Strip out the emotion, though, and how much evidence of progress is there?

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Melissa Reddy says INEOS’s big plans for Manchester United currently include retaining Erik ten Hag and giving him an opportunity to work in improved surroundings

Ten Hag, like Frank, has of course had to contend with injuries this season. Their absentee list is lengthy. But the underlying data providing comfort to Giles and Brentford in similar circumstances should be a source of concern to their opponents on Saturday.

Watch Brentford vs Man Utd live on Sky Sports Premier League and Main Event from 7.45pm on Saturday; kick-off 8pm

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