Denmark’s FC Midtjylland is testing the thesis of Rasmus Ankersen that a football club could be run based on statistical analysis.
"We can’t outspend our competitors,' Ankersen says. "So we have to outthink them. And we think that careful analysis of data on leagues, teams, and players can give us an edge."
Soccer has been one of the toughest sports to quantify statistically, but strides have been taken in recent years.
"Ankersen has been in charge at Midtjylland for just nine months, but already he and the data analysts he employs have left their fingerprints all over the Danish club," writes De Hoog. "Players have been signed because algorithms helped identify them as undervalued prospects. Coaches’ evaluations of games are now primarily informed by the mathematical models the club employs. Free kicks have become something of a science project, with monthly set piece meetings between players, coaches, Ankersen, and the occasional outside consultant."
Midtjylland is currently leading the Danish Superliga by nine points over FC Copenhagen, the traditional power of the league.
The revolutionary experiment here began last summer, when the English former hedge fund manager and sports bettor Matthew Benham bought a majority stake in the near-bankrupt club. Benham had made a fortune beating the sports bookies through use of statistical analysis.
Ankersen was friends with Benham and encouraged him to buy the club. Ankersen played for the club as a youth player and believed the existing management would be open to trying new things. Ankersen was appointed as president and his message was that both long-term and short-term decisions would be made based on analytics.
"We redesigned the club based on a question: what would a football club look like if it had no human eye and ear? Of course, it turns out you need a human element. But if you say from the start that ‘Oh, it has to be a combination of stats and humans,’ then you won’t be radical enough to be able to make a difference."
Tim Sparv is called "the no stats all-star" and is basically Midtjylland's version of Shane Battier. Sparv spent several years in Southampton's youth academy.
Midtjylland has also made strikes in practice and on set pieces.