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What can Fulham learn from Brentford?

Let’s talk about every Fulham fan’s favourite team. Brentford. Yes, Brentford. The plucky outfit from down the road that has risen from the depths of League One to the brink of the Premier League over the past decade, despite regularly selling their best players. What is the key to their success? And how can Fulham learn from it?

First of all, to understand the key to Brentford’s success, you must understand game theory, as well as how it is applied to football business. In simple terms, game theory is the mathematical analysis of decision making in competitive circumstances. You don’t really need to know much more than that, but you’ll have to understand how it affects a football club and how the operate.

Off of the pitch, game theory can be applied to football clubs in one-off events, such as the negotiation of a transfer or a contract, as well as the entire outlook on football which a club possesses and how that impacts upon their strategy.

In Fulham’s case, the club has a ‘finite’ game theory. That is a short-term strategy focussing on the event at the end of the season. Namely, promotion to or survival in the Premier League. Therefore, the club takes actions based on these objectives, such as 2018/19’s high transfer spend and then sacking of both Jokanovic and Ranieri in an effort to avoid the drop. However, as we are finding out now, this is detrimental for the future.

This is because Fulham are caught in a cycle caused by the huge broadcast revenues in the Premier League and the relative financial poverty of the Championship. The massive returns that come with being in the Premier League mean that the top flight regulars are comfortably established. Promoted clubs often find that they must spend big to be able to compete. Otherwise, in the cases of Norwich and SC Paderborn, they will spend little instead recouping the one-off top-flight revenue in order to build for the future.

If the promoted clubs who spend big fail to survive, they become trapped in an ongoing ‘yo-yo club’ cycle, as their costs are too high for the Championship and therefore must focus on a short-term plan of promotion back to the Premier League to avoid financial ruin. However, this short-termism is detrimental for the future, trapping the club in said cycle.

So, this is the situation that Fulham is in, but how can we learn from our next-door neighbours?

Since gambling magnate, Matthew Benham, assumed full control of Brentford in 2012, the club has instilled the same values that has made him so successful at playing the bookies. This involves trusting the numbers and writing off any short-term setbacks in favour of sticking to the long-term ‘infinite’ plan. In other words, they have patience in their project which uses slow and sustainable growth as they look past the end of the current season.

Brentford have a well-documented ‘Moneyball’ style of recruitment, involving recruiting players who other players have missed via statistical analysis. However, it is their plan after the simple recruitment which is the genius and that really differentiates Brentford and Fulham’s moneyball techniques.

First of all, Brentford aim for low cost, high reward transfers, aiming to uncover young hidden gems to develop and integrate into the side over multiple years. Whereas, under Tony Khan, Fulham’s strategy has been to identify players to buy using stats, with seemingly little thought to cost or age – as long as they are under 28.

It is the slow development and integration of talent which makes Brentford successful, as the player learns the club culture and playing philosophy through the B team and by working with players further ahead of them in their development cycle. It is this slow, patient approach with unparalleled continuity that breeds success into the future.

For example, after the play off final, Brentford sold Ollie Watkins and Said Benramah, two of their best players, for huge fees and impressive profits. They kept Thomas Frank as their manager and picked up Ivan Toney from Peterborough for just £5 million – an impressively low fee for a player who is currently the league’s top scorer. They also promoted Sergi Canos to a starting role, to replace Benramah, who they have been slowly developing through the B team and then first team since 2017. They have also promoted Marcus Forss, a highly rated young prospect, to a rotational role at centre forward. Marcus Forss is now learning from Ivan Toney and has worked alongside the other Griffin Park success stories like Watkins and Neal Maupay since he joined the club in 2017.

Brentford have managed all of this change whilst remaining one of the Championship’s top sides – currently third in the table on an eighteen-match unbeaten run. They undoubtedly contingency plans to replace every player in their squad as they leave for bigger clubs and it is this consistency that is key. It is a testament to their long-term planning and project as they have committed to incremental improvement whilst leaving within their means. Although the final step has so far eluded them, I can’t help but feel that they will eventually become an established top flight team capable of punching above their weight, even if it takes another decade.

So, what can Fulham learn from this? The first objective has to be breaking the ‘yo-yo club’ cycle. This can be done either by avoiding relegation from the Premier League long enough to become an established side that is comfortably better than any newly promoted teams each year, or by spending a few seasons in the Championship to develop and implement a long-term strategy that promotes low and sustainable growth. Whilst I’m sure that the second is the less popular option amongst fans, it might prove more profitable in the longer term.

To implement this plan, Fulham should shift their recruitment strategy to something more similar to Brentford. The club already heavily uses data within its recruitment, so it just needs a slight change in what to look for. We have seen from the summer window that low cost ‘uncovered gem’ signings utilise Tony’s data system more effectively than the high cost signings that we have previously seen – witness the success of integrating Tosin Adarabioyo into the first team, for example.

However, not only should Fulham be looking to buy cheap young talent, but we should be looking to develop the talent that we produce from our academy. This is a massive strength over Brentford, who scrapped their academy some years ago, and if done correctly we could see youth players constantly breaking into the first team – similar to Southampton in recent years. Ryan Sessegnon is the only real success story from the academy in recent years as players are rarely trusted in the first team, due to our short-term plan. We have seen brilliant prospects leave in recent years – O’Riley, Elliott, Dembele and Drameh for example. If the club gave youth its head and allowed a young manager more freedom without being worried about the impact of relegation then some of these talents might thrive. What’s more, any youth player sales are financially deemed as pure profit – where is the downside?

Finally, could the club restructure and add people with footballing experience to help with workloads and decision making? Could a technical director and a vice-director of football help avoid the mistakes from the past and implement a long-term strategy? Someone with the knowledge and experience being added into the mix couldn’t hurt – especially if it allows the club to complete transfers faster.

The Premier League is clearly the place to be and we all hope that Fulham can stage a recovery to remain among English football’s elite, but if dropping into the Championship prompts a rethink that persuades the club to pursue a long-term plan to achieve sustainability it could deliver real rewards. On the bright side, those glorious Championship away days are better, aren’t they?

Benrahma brace flattens Fulham

Scott Parker will tell you that the League Cup isn’t very high on his list of priorities – as evidenced by the ten changes for tonight’s trip to Hounslow – but an embarrassing defeat at the hands of their local rivals only served to heighten the sense of crisis engulfing Fulham. Brentford extracted a modicum of revenge for their Championship play-off final defeat at Wembley 58 days ago but the most worrying element of another frail capitulation for Parker would have been the lethargy of his second string.

Barring a fifteen minute period when Ademola Lookman’s arrival from the bench enlivened a ponderous performance, Fulham were horribly flat – a damning indictment of a side presumably selected to put pressure on Parker’s previously under par first teamers. Neeskens Kebano curled a free-kick against the top of David Raya’s near post, but the most dangerous of Fulham’s attacking moments came via the Spanish goalkeeper’s interventions. Raya, famously beaten by Joe Bryan’s Wembley free-kick, was fortunate to escape punishment for fouling Kebano after he attempted to clear the danger by the corner flag and then miskicked a clearance straight to Jean Michael Seri but Anthony Knockaert’s snapshot from the right angle of the penalty area flashed into the side netting.

The French winger’s next contribution was to play Seri into trouble with a hospital pass on the halfway line. Marcus Forss, who had handled in the box moments earlier to rule out an opening goal, showed far more desire to win the ball and Brentford quickly exploited oceans of space on the right wing. Iranian international Saman Ghoddos drove into the penalty area and cut out Maxime Le Marchand and Michael Hector with a cut back that Forss thumped past a helpless Rodak.

Parker sent on Lookman, signed on loan from RB Leipzig yesterday, and the ex-Everton winger briefly gave Fulham some dynamism in the final third. He immediately linked up impressively with Stefan Johansen down the left and pulled back a cross for Kebano, who was denied by a splendid save from Raya. Ola Aina, who looked rusty on his first Fulham appearance, sent a speculative shot wide before Lookman darted clear down the left flank and picked out Seri in the centre, only for the Ivorian to spoon a glorious chance over from ten yards out.

That miss proved pivotal. Brentford, peripheral in the second period until that point, doubled their lead three minutes later from a simple set play. Fulham’s defending was shambolic. Ethan Pinnock flicked a free-kick across the area and Said Benrahma, making his first start of the season after failing to agree a move away over the summer, strolled towards the loose ball to stroke home a simple finish. The Algerian winger’s second was altogether more magical as he fired an unerring finish into the far corner from 25 yards after embarrassing Hector with an outrageous Cryuff turn, but it still looked far too easy.

Parker had sent on Aleksandar Mitrovic in an attempt to present more of a formidable forward threat, but it was Brentford who looked more likely to add further goals. Rodak made a magnificent save to deny Emiliando Marcondes a fourth as time ticked by, but the hosts had long since done enough to reach the last eight for the first time in their history. It was hardly the sort of warm-up Parker would have envisaged for Sunday’s trip to Wolverhampton Wanderers, which is increasingly looking like a crunch fixture. With no new centre halves on the horizon, even picking up a first Premier League point of the campaign looks a tall order – and, regardless of how unfair it seems, the pressure will be mounting on the Fulham boss. That magical night at Wembley feels a long way away now.

BRENTFORD (4-3-3): Raya; Fosu, Thompson, Pinnock, Sorensen; DaSilva (Norgaard 69), Marcondes, Jensen; Benrahma (Stevens 80), Ghoddos (Canos 68), Forss. Subs (not used): Daniels, Jansson, Stevens, Toney.

BOOKED: Fosu, Jensen.

GOALS: Forss (37), Benrahma (62, 78).

FULHAM (4-2-3-1): Rodak; Aina (Odoi 69), Robinson, Hector, Le Marchand; Johansen, Seri; Knockaert (Mitrovic 69), Kebano, Onomah (Lookman 45); Kamara. Subs (not used): Fabri, Bryan, Francois, Cairney.

BOOKED: Kamara, Johansen.

Jon Moss (West Yorkshire).

Fulham mount late Benrahma bid

Fulham have made a late move to sign Brentford forward Said Benrahma from under the noses of Crystal Palace, according to a Daily Mail report this afternoon.

The Eagles were thought to be front runners in the race for the Algerian winger, but Fulham have apparently made contact with Benrahma’s agent ahead of submitting a formal offer for his services. The former Nice forward has been widely tipped to make a Premier League move after Brentford were beaten in the Championship play-off final last August, but the Bees are holding out for several suitors to match their valuation, which is believed to be around £30m.

Benrahma, who was linked with a move to Chelsea towards the end of last season, scored seventeen goals in 46 games for Brentford last season, including hat-tricks against Wigan and Hull City, and laid on eight more for his team-mates. The 25 year-old, who has won five senior international caps for his country, had a series of domestic loans after struggling to make an impact with Nice before moving to Griffin Park for around £2.7m in July 2018.

Brentford League Cup tie live on Sky

Fulham’s League Cup fourth round tie at Brentford has been selected for live coverage by Sky Sports.

The fixture, a repeat of the Championship play-off final won by Joe Bryan’s brilliant brace in August, will take place on Thursday 1 October at Brentford’s new Community Stadium, with kick off at 5.30pm.

Fulham enter Watkins race

Fulham are the latest Premier League side to register their interest in Brentford forward Ollie Watkins, according to reports this afternoon.

The Whites are understood to have made an approach to their local rivals regarding the availability of the 24 year-old, who scored 26 goals as the Bees’ hopes of making the Premier League were dashed in the closing weeks of the regular season before Thomas Frank’s side were beaten by Joe Bryan’s brace in the play-off final at Wembley.

Fulham are in discussions with Brentford about Watkins, who has also attracted interest from the likes of Crystal Palace, Aston Villa and West Brom. Villa are thought to be at the front of the queue to sign the former Exeter City forward as boss Dean Smith was the man who took Watkins to Griffin Park in July 2017 for a reported £1.7m fee. The Midlands club have been rumoured to be ready to table an £18m offer – with Brentford understood to be hoping to recoup £50m for Watkins and winger Said Benrahma if the pair make expected moves to the Premier League this summer.

Watkins scored 26 goals in 78 senior appearances in three years at Exeter and was gradually converted from a left-wing role to a more orthodox centre forward last year. He finished second to Fulham’s Aleksandar Mitrovic in the Championship scoring charts this season – and the Cottagers are now keen to try and pair them together ahead of the new Premier League campaign next month.