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leeds united 1-1 brentford: experiments

leeds united 1-1 brentford: experiments

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Brentford are an experiment; can the moneyball method that shook baseball be made to work in football?

Matthew Benham is described a ‘former hedge fund manager and professional gambler’, who assessed Brentford last season as having “a 42.3% chance” of going up. The idea of moneyball is to focus on increasing that percentage chance, by influencing the key performance indicators that are used to calculate it. If better stats mean anything, they mean better stats. Whether they’ll ultimately mean promotion for Brentford is part of the experiment.

Leeds United got a draw out of this game thanks to a quick bit of calculation of their own, but there was no team of sports scientists involved in this nifty analysis. One player assessed the indicators, one players processed the percentage chances, and one player made the decision: I’m going to go and get the ball off that ginger wimp.

Ryan Woods was that wimpy little sub; you’d call him a diminutive redhead if he was Barbara Stanwyck, but as he’s Ryan Woods, 21 year old signing from Shrewsbury Town making an uncertain debut for Brentford, we can stick to ginger wimp. Plus Stanwyck was nails. Woods came on in the 74th minute; and I’m sure Brentford factor in the risks involved with bringing on a young player fresh from League One for his debut midway through the second half of a Championship match at an intimidating stadium like Elland Road, so they won’t have been surprised when they conceded an equaliser in the 76th minute, and that it was his fault.

Or rather, it was Stuart Dallas’. Perhaps he has a habit of bullying the small and ginger; in which case, he is lucky not to have played when Billy Bremner was around. The goal wasn’t the only time he made straight for Woods, determined to frighten him into giving the ball away. I wondered at first whether they’d been teammates at Brentford, and Dallas was acting on prior knowledge when he saw a player coming on with a weakness he could exploit; it was later that I found out that they’d missed each other at Brentford and that Dallas had spotted that weakness just by looking at him.

All that drama was supporting act once Wood, taking a pass from Dallas, fed Antenucci who scored another unnecessarily beautiful goal. Antenucci celebrated with his shirt off as if he’d scored a league winner, when what he’d actually done was give his manager a pain in his side. Well, he’d earned Leeds a point, but he also gave him a pain in his side.

“We’re not having a discussion every week about if we play with one central striker or two central strikers,” insisted Rosler after the game, but we are, even if he is not. The season and the system is panning out very simply so far: we start 4–3–3, we labour, we change to 4–4–2, we score. Come the next game we begin again, and Rosler is clear: he’s not in any mood to discuss changing the system.

If he won’t change the system, he might find himself forced to change the personnel, and that means either having another chat with Antenucci about not playing on the wing, or putting him through the middle in place of Wood; who, although he was back to indifferent form after the high, hazy end to the game at Derby, doesn’t deserve to be dropped.

You could probably call this a nice problem; one young, up and coming £3m striker, playing his way into confidence; an experienced, 31 year old striker, with something to prove after last season’s controversies, who keeps scoring beautiful goals. Only Rosler doesn’t seem to be enjoying the situation. “We’re not having this discussion every week,” he told reporters who tried to engage him in a fairly normal conversation about the football: which good striker will you play?

Sam Byram, Leeds United • photographed on Beggar's Hill by Shang-Ting Peng

Sam Byram, Leeds United • photographed on Beggar’s Hill by Shang-Ting Peng

Elsewhere, the key performance indicators for United were skewed by outside factors; Sol Bamba played as if he was drunk, and Sam Byram as if his dog had died, neither an occurence in the moneyball playbook. Bamba was fortunate that Liam Cooper was having a good day beside him, because Marco Silvestri behind him certainly was not, and he’ll sober up soon enough; what, though, of Byram?

While Leeds improved when Antenucci and then Luke Murphy came on, and they switched to an almost 4–4–2, they did it mostly without little Sam, who played as if he’d been left out of the half-time teamtalk and didn’t know what to do or where to stand. He was notionally on the right of midfield, but there was a great aching gap on the right wing that he wasn’t filling, and when he did pop up in between the midfielders and the strikers, he was ignored, because he wasn’t needed there. Occasionally the ball would drop near him and he’d welly it at the Kop, where people muttered about getting Botaka on, and others muttered back that he wasn’t on the bench.

It’s either the Devs or the first team for Botaka on Tuesday, and for all our sakes I hope it’s the first team. For the fans, because I don’t want to hang around to see what this guy can (or can’t, I suppose, but I’m curiously optimistic about this signing) do; and for Byram, because he needs some time away from all this. He’s one of our best players, perhaps still our best after Lewis Cook, but he’s not playing anywhere near that level, and keeping on playing him doesn’t seem to be helping.

While Leeds might not be embracing moneyball, I’m sure the players are analysed with KPIs and statistics of Rosler’s own devising. Whatever the evidence of those spreadsheets, Rosler could do perhaps with relaxing a little, and following the evidence of his own eyes. Antenucci, Murphy and two central strikers is working well. Neither Byram nor 4–3–3 are working as expected. A change is not an admission of defeat. That’s the whole point of experiments; you do them to find out what works.

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