BARLOW: The 'Moneyball' feud driving the top flight's talent factories
MATT BARLOW: The ‘Moneyball’ feud that is driving the Premier League’s talent factories… with Brighton and Brentford upsetting the established elite and in the running for Europe
- Brighton and Brentford have both enjoyed very positive campaigns this year
- Both clubs are powered by extremely successful data-led recruitment models
- They have a rivalry that comes from off-pitch bitterness between their owners
Like all the best offbeat rivalries, it started with a grudge. Matthew Benham quit working for Tony Bloom’s company to set up in competition and by the time he bought Brentford had made an enemy of his former boss.
Bloom, usually private and remote, would change his normal routine when his Brighton team travelled to play Benham’s, riding on the team bus and making it abundantly clear to the players that this one was personal and he was desperate to win.
He would swerve the directors’ box to watch from the away end. Back then, clashes with Brentford were the biggest of the season and though animosity may linger the horizons have changed.
European football will be in the air when they meet again at the Amex Stadium on Saturday and football’s biggest clubs are now scrambling after the secrets of Bloom and Benham, the algorithms created to give them an edge in their gambling businesses, then fine-tuned and adapted to proffer the Midas touch when it comes to data-led recruitment.
Brighton’s Kaoru Mitoma has been the breakthrough star of the Premier League season, his data in possession, crossing, dribbling and creating chances almost a perfect match for Jack Grealish who plays in the same position for Manchester City, arguably the best possession team in the world.
Long-time rivals Tony Bloom (L) and Matthew Benham (R) are enjoying very successful seasons with Brighton and Brentford respectively as both clubs are in contention for European football
Brighton are also in the FA Cup semi-finals and have a vibrant team under Roberto De Zerbi
Brentford keep on impressing during their second Premier League season under Thomas Frank
Mitoma’s data was off the scale in his final season at Kawasaki Frontale in the J-League, but who was looking? Bloom’s recruitment team were. Brighton signed him for £2.5million in 2021 and sent him on loan for a year to feeder club Union Saint-Gilloise (USG) in Belgium.
Wealthier clubs will clamour for him, Moises Caicedo and others. It will be intriguing to see how Bloom plays it in the summer.
Earlier this season, one respected former Premier League striker told a colleague of mine he thought Brighton were only a top centre forward short of being genuine contenders for a place in the top four. That was before Evan Ferguson burst through on his accelerated development curve. Ferguson played men’s football for Bohemians in Dublin at 14, joined Brighton at 16 and has been impressive this season. He scored his first Republic of Ireland goal in a friendly against Latvia last week and goes up against France in Euro 2024 qualifying tonight.
Viktor Gyokeres, scorer of 18 Championship goals for Coventry this season, was signed by Brighton at the age of 19 from Brommapojkarna in Sweden. Perhaps they regret letting Gyokeres leave for a fee of about £1m after a successful loan in 2021 but it is further proof the talent identification formula is strong.
Data never stops. If football is played it keeps pouring in from around the world, and Bloom’s army of brilliant mathematical minds keep crunching it down and filtering the results through the football department because none of this would work without total inclusion.
If there is clarity, inclusion and faith in the culture, the club should survive changes in personnel. That’s the theory and perhaps easier to impose upon clubs free from the pressure of expectation, able to make low-key signings without fuss. Twenty-five years ago, Brighton were finishing 91st in the Football League for the second successive year.
Now they have the beginnings of an empire, with USG acting as a finishing school if necessary. Victor Boniface and Simon Adingra are shining for Bloom’s Belgian club, challenging Genk for the title and into the last eight of the Europa League.
Boniface is a Nigerian striker signed by USG from Bodo/Glimt in Norway, Adingra an Ivorian winger who has just received his first international call-up, signed by Brighton last summer from Nordsjaelland in Denmark and on loan at USG.
Benham, since the split from Bloom, has instilled a similar culture at Brentford: data-led recruitment from obscure markets, faith in EFL talent and a sister club in Denmark, trading players such as Ollie Watkins and Said Benrahma for healthy profit and still looking the part in the top half of the Premier League.
Ivan Toney is behind only Erling Haaland and Harry Kane in the goal charts, goalkeeper David Raya wanted by Tottenham, and Rico Henry discussed as a possible England player.
The Moneyballers are marching on the Premier League, and with their stories entwined by the simmering bitterness and creative tensions of their owners this is a very modern rivalry.
Kaoru Mitoma has been the breakthrough star in the top flight this season and he is another example of Brighton’s superb data-led recruitment model that keeps on bringing success
Ivan Toney is now a member of Gareth Southgate’s England squad after shining for Brentford
CREWE PUT THEIR FAITH IN RISING STARS
Crewe Alexandra, flagbearers for youth development in the lower leagues until reputational damage caused by abuse scandals and the Sheldon Report, want to recapture a philosophy trusting young players in the first team.
Teenagers Joel Tabiner and Connor O’Riordan, both 19, are attracting scouts. James Beadle, 18 and on loan from Brighton has impressed.
Their League Two fixture against Bradford on Saturday was postponed because centre half O’Riordan is with Republic of Ireland’s Under 21s, Beadle is with England’s Under 19s and Lachlan Brook, on loan from Brentford, is at training with Australia’s Under 23s.
LEABURN HAS CHARLTON IN HIS BLOOD
Miles Leaburn, the top scoring teenager in the EFL with nine goals despite missing two months with an injury, was born to play for Charlton.
His dad Carl spent more than a decade playing for them. His mum Tracey is head of player care at the club.
And Miles, 19, has been in the youth ranks since he was seven.
Miles Leaburn is Charlton born-and-bred and he is the latest academy star for the Addicks
HOSKINS ENDS 36-YEAR WAIT FOR NORTHAMPTON
No club in the top four tiers of English football has been waiting longer than Northampton Town to see a player score 20 in the league.
Richard Hill, the last to do it, in 1986-87 will be 60 later this year. But the wait is over because Sam Hoskins scored his 20th League Two goal of the season for the Cobblers on Saturday.
Earlier this season, Chuba Akpom become the first Middlesbrough player to reach 20 goals since 1989-90, leaving Sheffield Wednesday now at the back of the queue.
No Wednesday player has reached the 20-goal mark since David Hirst in 1990-91. Top scorers for the Owls Josh Windass and Michael Smith (both on 11) have some way to go.
Sam Hoskins (L) became the first Northampton player to score 20 league goals since 1986-87
NATIONAL LEAGUE HIGH-FLYERS NOTTS COUNTY BRING IN THE FANS
More than 16,000 watched Notts County beat Scunthorpe 4-0 in the National League. Only League One Portsmouth had a bigger crowd in English football on Saturday.
At Meadow Lane they saw Macauley Langstaff score twice to reach 39 league goals for the season.
Macauley Langstaff scored his 38th and 39th league goals this season for Notts County in front of more than 16,000 fans at Meadow Lane in their 4-0 victory over Scunthorpe United
NAT LOFTHOUSE WAS ONE OF THE GREATS
One crotchety friend from Bolton wanted to know why Nat Lofthouse was overlooked in a Sportsmail feature last week paying homage to a golden post-War generation of England forwards who won 4-0 in Italy, in 1948. T
he main reason being the mighty Lofthouse did not make his international debut until 1950.
His 30 goals in 33 games stands scrutiny, however, in the all-time list doing the rounds once again since Harry Kane climbed clear at the top.
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