Midtjylland and its unusual route to the Champions League

In April 1999, after a decade of constant negotiations, Johnny Rune and Steen Hessel, presidents of Ikast FS and Herning Fremad respectively, reached an agreement for the merger of both clubs, which led to the FC Midtjylland. Unknowingly, Rune, a logger, and Hessel, a Mercedes dealership owner, took the first step in putting Herning on the map of European football. In their first year of life, Midtjylland were promoted to the Danish Super League, but it was not until the acquisition of the club by Matthew Benham in 2014 when wolves began to have national relevance. And no, it was not by chance.

Benham, a physics graduate from the University of Oxford, came to Herning after a long career based on data analysis. He made his fortune with Smartodds, a private company that provides sports modeling and statistical research services, and subsequently launched Matchbook, a sports betting exchange community. In 2012 he bought the club of his loves, Brentford, and in 2014 he landed in Midtjylland, where, as in England, he followed a model based on numbers whose effectiveness was demonstrated in 2015, when the wolves raised the first Danish Super League of his history. This title was followed by three more: two leagues (2018 and 2020) and one cup (2019). All based on Big Data.

“We can be one of the revelation teams of this Champions League”

Jordi Rams, Midtjylland analyst

“Data analysis is the present and future of football. Smartodds, Matthew's company, supplies us with data and we shape it through algorithms. In scouting they have one to detect talent and we, the analysts, have developed another to evaluate the training and growth of footballers“, details the canary José Rodriguez, which makes up the group of analysts of the Midtjylland together with the also Spanish Jordi Rams. Corners finished off, passes in the last third of the field, average distance of each shot, signings … In Herning, everything revolves around the data. Even luck. Through the metric 'expected goals' (xG), the club determines how many goals it should have achieved based on the quantity and quality of its chances. Some occasions whose revenue increases from set pieces. “It is part of the culture of Denmark. Almost all teams have players who put the ball on the penalty spot from the throw-in. We have always attached great importance to this phase of the game because that is how a large percentage of our goals arrive, “says Rodríguez.

Finally in Champions

After being proclaimed champion of the Danish Super League in 2020 and beating Ludogorets (0-1), Young Boys (3-0) and Slavia Prague (4-1) in the previous rounds, Midtjylland reached, true to their philosophy, the Champions League group stage for the first time in its history. And Atalanta, Ajax and Liverpool will be their rivals in a group that does not give rise to optimism. “We are realistic,” says Jordi Rams, “but we are not going to walk around or live the experience, but to compete. The club wants to do important things and that invites us to be optimistic. We can be one of the revelation teams of this Champions League“. José Rodríguez, for his part, rules out that the wolves are going to be easy prey:” It is curious, because the value of the most expensive player in Atalanta exceeds that of our entire squad. The difference is great, but we have very talented players and my confidence in the coaching staff is full. Midtjylland have been waiting for this moment for so long that everyone is going to do their best to compete in the Champions League. “

With a squad whose average age does not exceed 24 years, Brian Priske's Midtjylland is a modern team that bases its football on the mix between combinative play and direct play. With nothing to lose, the Herning-based club will seek to bridge the gap between Denmark and the rest of the big clubs on the continent. Anders Dreyer, an international winger with the Danish Under-21 team, is the great pearl of a team whose best-known face is Pione Sisto, formerly of Celta. Wolves will seek to surprise as long as this does not imply neglecting domestic competition. After defeating Slavia Prague and promoting Denmark to 13th place in the UEFA rankings, the local champions will be guaranteed a place in the group stage of the next Champions League. “We have suffered a lot in the previous phase and the objective is to win the league to avoid repeating the experience”, discovers Rams hours before the Midtjylland debut.