For Louis Van Gaal, Monday’s draw proved a hard pill to swallow. Had Manchester United successfully negotiated their Champions League group in top position, a winnable two-legged knockout tie against Gent would have been all that stood in their way of a lucrative Champions League Quarter-Final.
Instead, as the Dutchman tuned-in from his Carrington HQ, one by one he witnessed the main course being served at a party he wasn’t invited to. Having dropped out of the Champions League, United find themselves dining with less-appealing guests.
Glance through the Europa League draw and yes Borussia Dortmund vs. FC Porto, Galatasaray vs. Lazio and Fiorentina vs. Tottenham appear the standout glamour ties. However, of the 16 Europa League fixtures, it was the sixth drawn out that stimulated interest of a different kind.
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Even Siri would have struggled to answer Van Gaal’s queries of ‘where and who are FC Midtjylland?', Yet United’s intriguing trip to Denmark has a certain romanticism about it, a fascinating match-up between two polar-opposite teams.
Party Like It’s 1999
For many fans, Midtjylland are an unknown quantity, a club that may randomly crop-up every now and then on Football Manager. Fans on social media took great delight in enlightening the Twittersphere that FC Midtjylland were formed a mere three months prior to Manchester United famously securing their historic treble in 1999.
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Minutes after the draw at the UEFA Headquarters in Nyon, FC Midtjylland’s official Twitter account aptly summed up their emotions, succinctly screaming ‘MANCHESTER UNITED!!!!!’
Situated in Herning in the Jutland peninsula, FC Midtjylland were established from the merger between Ikast FS and Herning Fremad, yet what they may lack in prestige and history, they more than make up in their data-driven revolutionary approach.
Midtjylland are led by Jess Thorup, a highly regarded former Danish Under-21 coach who took over from his title-winning predecessor Glen Riddersholm. Currently third in the 12-team Danish Superliga, they trail leaders FC Copenhagen by four points.
Leading The Way
Considered the poster club for analytics in football and a breath of fresh air in the game, Midtjylland’s unconventional attitude to sourcing and developing players proved a huge contributing factor in gaining a vital edge and helping secure a euphoric first top-flight title in their brief history.
Injecting a great deal of pride for their raucous supporters and keen observers from afar, their dominant 14/15 campaign proved all the more rewarding with not a sheikh owner in sight.
The catalyst for the club’s transformation can be traced to the arrival of owner and majority shareholder Matthew Benham, who reportedly investing £6.2m into the club when he arrived in 2014.
Helping place Midtjylland on the map, those familiar with the shrewd 47-year-old Englishman will be aware of his association to English football, as Benham is also owner and lifelong supporter of Championship side Brentford.
Far from your usual stereotypical football club owner, Benham, a former hedge fund manager, made his fortune with enormous success beating the gambling system with statistical evaluation and professional sports betting on football results.
With similar statistical strands to the analytical approach recognised as Moneyball, Benham’s methodical style had revolved around calculating his own odds on data collected from teams. The collated data culminates in metrics, which ultimately reveal a team’s strengths and weaknesses. If his data differed considerably from the bookmakers and should he be able to benefit, he would then place a bet.
Ultimately developing a deep understanding of why teams win matches, Benham created statistical models to exploit inefficiencies and errors in bookmakers pricing, a novel approach he has attempted to apply to running his football clubs.
Previously perennial underachievers, Midtjylland were recognised for fluctuating league positions and falling short at the final hurdle. Those at the helm at FC Midtjylland came to the conclusion that there are big inefficiencies across football in general, inefficiencies to exploit.
Utilising a mathematical model supposedly far more reflective of a team’s strengths than the league table itself, Midtjylland’s approach has shaken-up football, offering optimism to those teams thriving to punch above their weight.
Competing in their own domestic league with the third/fourth largest budget, it’s an innovative blueprint to follow. Already paying dividends through domestic dominance and silverware, Midtjylland will hope for a continued upward trajectory in Denmark and in both the Champions League and Europa League.
New Way of Thinking
Gone are the days of chalkboards and magnets on a whiteboard. Employing a new found professionalism and psychology around the club, Midtjylland leave nothing to chance and have been lauded for their precise and accurate analysis across numerous departments, happily silencing the cynics.
In-game bespoke statistics delivered by analytics experts now dictate half-time team talks, delivering key metrics via texts to highlight everything from pressing, to chances and expected scoreline.
Utilising statistics and video footage, meticulous set-piece analysis, painstakingly put in place by assistant manager Brian Priske, conjures routines that combine vintage with modern. With frequent set-piece meetings and an open attitude to specialised outside consultants, this process ultimately helped contribute to a vast quantity of Midtjylland goals in the last campaign, rivalling that of Spanish giants Atlètico Madrid.
The name Bartek Sylwestrzak may not ring any bells to you or I, however here’s another crucial cog in the Midtjylland machine. Brought onboard as a specialist kicking coach, Sylwestrzak assesses each and every player across all levels from youth to first team at the club, devising specific programmes tailored to each player’s respective kicking style.
After implementing the advanced analytics model at both Brentford and Midtjylland, the speed of the respective clubs upturn in fortune has been promising. The latter secured their first title and the West London side surpassed all expectations to reach the Championship play-offs in 2015, having won promotion from League One just the previous season.
David and Goliath
Over the coming months, Midtjylland will no doubt be belittlingly labelled as lowly minnows, outsiders and underdogs, however that would certainly be doing them a disservice, as the more studied football fan will recognise their innovative take on the beautiful game.
Let's put the upcoming fixture into perspective. Hailing from a region with a population of less than 50,000, FC Midtjylland find themselves up against Manchester United, who according to Sky Sports, amassed a total summer spend of a reported £108m this year.
During his Theatre of Dreams tenure, Van Gaal’s overall shopping spree is reported to be somewhere in the range of an estimated £250m - £280m. United famously concluded their business in the last window by parting with a risky £36 million punt on forward Anthony Martial, in what was widely considered a huge transfer window. In an era where many players are purchased for figures far outweighing their true worth, financial risks for clubs can often prove harmful and in some cases catastrophic, especially when not blessed with the riches of a Premier League side. Midtjylland have honed a cost-effective method to be applauded.
Scouting By Numbers
With numerous wealthy European sides now a regular presence at Midtjylland’s games, it comes as no surprise that the Danes’ widely admired young talisman Pione Sisto and Mikkel Duelund are amongst those that have captured the attention.
The club will hope to soon reap the rewards by making extensive profits on their talent, paving the way for the next cycle of assets. Luckily already blessed with a burgeoning academy, Midtjylland’s first-team squad is also supplemented by a number of home-grown talents, which certainly bodes well for the future.
Undoubtedly Midtjylland’s plan will be to replicate deals akin to those seen at Griffin Park. Brentford managed a huge profit on £500,000 import Andre Gray, a player identified utilising the data approach, before they enticed what was believed to be £9 million from Burnley. England Under-20 starlet Moses Odubajo was another sold on at a profit, joining Hull City for £3.5 million.
Ditching the traditional scouting set-ups utilised by the vast majority of professional clubs, Midtjylland’s player targets are now recommended via player-tracking data from their number-crunching wizards.
Former Southampton academy product Tim Sparv is frequently highlighted as one of Midtjylland’s success stories. Having previously plied his trade in the German second division, the little-known Finish midfielder was identified and soon became an integral addition to the team.
The likes of Austrian Daniel Royer and Danish defender Kian Hansen, purchased from Nantes and Austria Wien respectively, are further prime case studies for analytics-influenced signings, high-quality relatively unknown players at affordable prices.
Irrespective of their performance, one thing is for certain, Sparv, Royer and Hansen won’t be the last.
When Southampton were drawn against Midtjylland in the first playoff round of the Europa League in August, giddy Saints fans no doubt envisaged two straight-forward ties before preparing themselves for future European away days to fill their autumn.
However, buoyed by a much-deserved 1-1 draw away at St Mary’s, Midtjylland secured their place in the Europa League main draw by disposing of Southampton, winning 1-0 at home for a 2-1 aggregate victory. Ronald Koeman’s men are testament to the fact that you underestimate Midtjylland at your peril.
The same can be said for European football old-timers Club Brugge and Legia Warsaw, as having made it to the Europa League group stages, Midtjylland surprised many to progress to the last-32, finishing runners-up in Group D behind high-flying Napoli. For a club so stat-driven, thier rather meek total of seven points, (the lowest total of any team to progress), a -12 goal difference and a mere six goals scored didn't make for massively positive reading, however Midtjylland qualified and their reward is Manchester United.
Whilst this will be the first time United have faced Midtjylland, those from the Blue side of Manchester will recall close encounters in August 2008 during the Europa League’s previous incarnation, the UEFA Cup.
Whilst the Danes crashed out on penalties, Midtjylland do have pedigree when it comes to winning in Manchester, turning City over 0-1 in the first-leg at the Etihad. Seven years on, Midtjylland like City, are unrecognisable from those days.
Roll on February 18th
It remains to be seen how seriously Manchester United treat the unfairly maligned Europa League. Forced to reset the Sat Nav, United’s troublesome road to Lisbon has becoming the road to Basle, with the first port of call being the Jutland peninsula of Denmark.
With the first leg taking place on Thursday February 18th, shortly after Valentine’s Day, will United treat the Europa League as a brief Thursday night fling, or a rebound with heightened desire?
A far cry from Old Trafford, when the time arrives for Midtjylland to welcome LVG and Co. to the 11,800 capacity MCH Arena, even the stubborn Dutchman would be wise to take on-board some words of advice regarding the analytical approach that has seen FC Midtjylland thrive, an approach not foreign to some Premier League teams, including the likes of Liverpool under owner John Henry and Aston Villa.
It remains to be seen whether others in England will follow.
United’s domestic position will surely dictate how serious Van Gaal’s men take the Europa League. Should the Premier League title race and top-four chase remain as open as currently, the Reds’ eyes will be firmly on duty on home soil. This should add fuel to the fire that FC Midtjylland stand as good a chance as any to run United close, especially when you take into account United’s dreadful form of late.
Following Monday’s draw, having had time a few minutes to digest the daunting yet exciting outcome, Midtjylland’s Chairman Rasmus Ankersen, also Brentford Co- Director, told BT Sport: “Obviously we beat an English team already this season with Southampton, so here’s another big challenge for us and we are ready to take it on.”
Already the furthest they’ve ever progressed in European competition, Ankersen added: “We are a small club with a small budget and we can’t win by outspending the competition, so we have to outthink them. That’s why we have been successful competing at this stage so far in the Europa League.
"We will take up the challenge. If we can beat Southampton, we have a chance of beating Manchester United. They (Midtjylland) deserved to win against Southampton. That gives them the belief that they can do it again, so it’s going to be a great experience for us.”
In an age where envy, hatred and ridicule of rival teams is sadly commonplace, in FC Midtjylland, here are a team with lofty aspirations that you can’t help but feel obliged to root for. Surely only a matter of time before they rival Lego and Carlsberg as one of Denmark’s favourite exports, come February, odds are a high percentage will be tuning in, eagerly anticipating this intriguing European contest.