The most recent Brentford implosion needs dissecting. The aftermath of the latest cataclysmic points drop has seen the Bees undertake the roles of, lead, supporting actor, actress, director, screenwriter, script developer, muse and editor in the Nov 2017 remake of Groundhog Day.
It has probably now reached the showbiz world of Hollywood, that Brentford FC has dropped 18 points, yes, 18 whole points from winning positions in the championship, after playing just 19 games. They would be second if, etc etc etc.
In a topical xG backlash, David Sumpter recently penned a fantastic piece https://medium.com/@Soccermatics/should-you-write-about-real-goals-or-expected-goals-a-guide-for-journalists-2cf0c7ec6bb6 on when to football write about the underlying numbers or actual goals to evaluate the performance of a side after differing numbers of games. After 19 games you must look at goals. And Brentford concede far too many of them.
Conceding two goals and dropping two points against bitter rivals from being two-nil to the good after 92 minutes is not a good look at the best of times, but could be dismissed and put down to derby day intensity, the variance of goals occurring in football or playing on a Monday night. If it happened just once, or twice.
Brentford’s late conceding of an equalizer to Burton Albion last week was tough to take, simply because Burton are/were an extremely inferior football team to Brentford. This could be said for all but maybe two of the twenty-four sides in the league. They’re mostly inferior footballing sides and they know the formula for outwitting the Bees.
What we’re seeing in the fallout of these sorry surrendering of points is some fans questioning the goalkeeper (reluctantly), the defenders, the defence as a collective, Dean Smith, the Owner Mathew Benham & Mathew Benham’s dog. All have come under intense scrutiny when trying to pin something or indeed anything on why the Bees are so bad a defending a lead, but amongst the emotional noise of the anger vented at players and senior management, and the refusal to support the club again after what feels like another defeat (18 points from winning positions and we’re not even in December, remember) what’s becoming more and more prevalent amongst what is, let’s be honest, an educated fan base, are valid questions about Brentford’s actual performance in the Game Management department.
It has publically been done to the death, so I won’t bore too much on how Brentford are a stats driven club, depending heavily on shrewd data analysis and has a deeper understanding than most in terms of how probability distorts the way in which we think about football.
So when trying to unravel how poor Brentford are from seemingly commanding positions this year, we’re surely wrong to hurl expletives at individuals and could indeed do things differently. And in doing so comes a need for the evaluation of a problem from a more analytical angle. This is where Game State comes in.
Common understanding of Game State (GS) and the approach to loss aversion is exactly the type of crux you’d expect to be underpinning the decision making of a forward thinking, attacking club that is heavily underpinned by the benefits of statistical analysis.
I’m paraphrasing massively here, but loss aversion theory, which was a discovery by psychologists and behavioural economists, found that we tend to suffer the effects of a loss about twice as severely as we experience a gain. Applying this thinking to a data led understanding of how a team should act during different GSs, eloquently put here by the Statsomb guys, https://statsbomb.com/2015/11/game-states-and-loss-aversion/ you start to see a clearer picture emerge of Brentford’s plight.
Once you gain a lead in a football match, the tendency is to want to protect it, or defend it as you have something to lose. Tactically, you may retreat in numbers making it difficult to find a way to goal. The flip side being, you shouldn’t be so fearful and you should go and hunt out the second or third goals to cement the victory. This is the clear approach of say a Liverpool, for example. Teams simply don’t attack enough when in the lead and teams behind do. (could go some way to explaining the recent 3–3 draw with Sevilla) So what we’re really getting at is statistically, if you attack from the front you’re doing the best you can defensively and that teams that sit back and try to defend leads are detrimental to themselves.
Loss aversion or the fear of losing is not something Brentford want to appreciate. And here may be the nadir. How would yesterday’s match have played out had Mepham been brought on as the second goal from Vibe was scored, with Neil Maupay doing his best impression to be pleased seeing the goal go in, being told to sit down. Even his face showed that he feared a tactical shift in thinking as the Bees went two up, patiently waiting for his chance. Had the fear of losing been recognised, would we have been looking at a different result, a Brentford win.
The tests and theory on loss aversion at different GSs do not take into account the weakness of the Brentford backline as a unit. But they do result in continuing to attack when in the lead. So in applying such aggressive thinking behind its pitfalls, Brentford could be shooting themselves in the foot. Because the Bees have a mind-set to continue to attack, (there was never a moment’s thought towards protecting the lead against QPR), the idea was to refuel the forward line, defend from the front with their last substitution. To thwart the incoming aerial bombardment that any pragmatic side would acknowledge is their weak spot, was never part of the managements thinking.
Qpr’s Smith was a battering ram and the ease at which he continually won headers against Egan, Bjelland and Barbet should have been an indicator that Brentford were again facing a side that knew they couldn’t compete on the floor and it was time to go for the Brentford jugular. Was the madness engulfing Bentley a direct reaction to the chosen means of playing out the final few moments? He certainly performed like he needed reinforcements around him and the goals conceded show that Brentford were outnumbered in vital duals, enabling QPR to create big chances.
If we look at top flight managers Jose Mourinho & Rafa Benitiz we see elite bosses that have proven records of seeing out leads and converting them into points and titles. (Rafa in Spain obviously) They’ve done this through understanding that sometimes you must protect the goals you already have.
It takes a level of arrogance once in a two goal lead to retreat and swap attacker for defender to see out a match. It’s also a level of realism that once reaching a certain point in a match, GS dictates you must do what you can to not lose from here. Playing a side that maximizes your weaknesses means you must protect or reinforce the shielding of this weakness. Brentford are nowhere near showing an understanding of this, as it quite literally goes against their DNA. DNA, as we’re finding out, can be altered.
Brentford’s rise and the leaps and strides undertaken by the club is unprecedented in the English game, but to not acknowledge this evident error in thinking this year (18 points from winning positions if you’ve forgotten) shows a deep rooted flaw of basic proportions and undoes all of the exceptional work in every other department. Brentford’a defenders are simply not at the required level to continue to play out the game plan of not fearing a loss when in the lead.
The similarities between Liverpool in the EPL under Klopp and today’s Brentford are startling. Both obsessed with the forward side of the game, seem to have little regard for the defensive and happy to play out variance by continually attacking.
It’s exhilarating, frustrating and unrewarding football in equal measure and something that with the slightest tactical shift can be put right. A greater respect for the cautious side of the game. Can Brentford ever evolve into a side that learns to fear losing, but only at the right times.
It’s seemingly what separates the winners.