Data-driven approach taking Midtjylland to heady heights
They are among the poster boys for analytics in European soccer, a team that scores nearly half of its goals from set pieces and operates a “justice league” that has nothing to do with superheroes.
Now, FC Midtjylland — an upstart that has already upended the Danish game in its 21-year existence — is about to find out how its data-driven and statistical approach fares in the Champions League after qualifying for the competition’s group stage for the first time.
Getting drawn in a group containing six-time champion Liverpool, storied Dutch team Ajax and ascendant Italian club Atalanta is holding no fear for Midtjylland, whose outlook on soccer could easily be termed an experiment.
“For us,” captain Erik Sviatchenko said, “it’s about looking underneath the surface.”
In 2014, Matthew Benham, a former professional gambler who owns a company that uses mathematical models to predict the results of sports matches, took a controlling interest in Midtjylland — a club from central Denmark formed 15 years earlier as a result of a merger between two rival teams.
The arrival of Benham, who already owned second-tier English club Brentford, meant Midtjylland had access — via his company, Smartodds — to a database of players across all teams and leagues in Europe, and even beyond. The deep analysis of the players’ performances, using metrics such as chances created and quality of crosses, helped Midtjylland pinpoint prospects who may have been undervalued because their underlying statistics suggested they were better than they appeared.
“For instance, take a player in the third division in Germany,” Sviatchenko told The Associated Press. “All the statistics they have, you put into the formula and you see this player would actually be able to cope at Bundesliga level.
“At the moment, he is only playing in the third division but we might take this guy because we know his potential is greater than other clubs will see, and he is maybe not as expensive as a player would be in the Bundesliga.”
An example? Luca Pfeiffer, a striker who was with Würzburger Kickers in Germany’s third tier last season, joined Midtjylland this month for a reported 1.5 million euros ($1.75 million).
To Svend Graversen, Midtjylland’s sporting director, the club’s approach is a case of “taking the data from Smartodds and combining it with our eyes (of scouts) who know which players can fit into Midtjylland.”
“The best of both worlds,” was how Graversen described it.
The analysis doesn’t stop there. The team’s performances are judged on players meeting certain underlying indicators that are as important as the results themselves.
Click on the profile of star midfielder Pione Sisto on Midtjylland’s official website, for example. Along with getting typical data such as games played, goals scored, red and yellow cards and his height and weight, one can also see his expected goals for the season, the success rate of his long passes and the percentage of passes to his right or left, backward or forward.
Midtjylland’s players work so hard on set pieces, which are regarded by the club’s analysts as a potentially huge difference maker, that the team scored 49% of its goals last season from that source, according to Sviatchenko.
“We have playbooks almost like you see in American football,” Sviatchenko said.
Analysts even feed in-game stats to coaches so they can be used in halftime team talks.
“You can have a feeling on the pitch, or at halftime, that isn’t corresponding to what the facts actually are,” said Sviatchenko, who added that the club has a “justice” league table where one can see where a team would be in the standings based on its stats.
The results of this analytical drive under Benham have been stunning. At the end of his first full season as owner in 2015, Midtjylland won the Danish league for the first time. It did so again in 2018, and again this year in a season disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.
There have been impressive results in Europe over the years — a 2-1 win over Manchester United in the Europa League’s last 32 in 2016 stands out — but reaching the lucrative group stage of the Champions League had been beyond Midtjylland until this summer, when the team beat the champions of Bulgaria (Ludogorets), Switzerland (Young Boys) and the Czech Republic (Slavia Prague) in qualifying to advance.
A home match against Atalanta, at Midtjylland’s 12,000-seater MCH Arena awaits on Wednesday in the first round of matches. Then, the following week, a trip to Anfield.
Graversen said the club’s statistical modelling no longer just compares Midtjylland to its rivals in Denmark but also now to teams it wants to soon be competing with on the continent. He name-checked Ajax, Lazio and Salzburg.
“We have created our own league to try to hit higher targets,” Graversen said. “We can measure these targets and evaluate if we are on the right track.”
Midtjylland, created as the result of a merger between Ikast FS and Herning Fremad, will be the fifth Danish team to play in the Champions League group stage, and the first since FC Copenhagen in 2016-17.
Sviatchenko said his team has yet to be fully embraced by the Danish nation — “In general, people are skeptical to Midtjylland because they think it’s a new club,” he said, “and there’s not the romantic feeling of a football club” — but is sure that would change should it qualify for the knockout stage.
Should that happen, Midtjylland’s reliance on stats really would be regarded as a game-changer.
“There’s a lot of data out there that is available, but I think the main challenge is how to break it down and use it in your way of playing. And that’s the difficult part,” Graversen said.
“We’re not there yet. At Midtjylland, we have a lot of work still to be done but I’m sure football in general will take this statistical approach even further.”
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Steve Douglas is at https://twitter.com/sdouglas80