Brentford: Popular, prudent and just a little smart

BRENTFORD should be heading for a third successive Premier League campaign in 2023-24, a scenario few would have predicted five years ago, or even in 2021 when they won promotion to the top flight from the Championship. Since they arrived in the Premier, however, Brentford have won admirers throughout English football for their approach, their business model and the attitude of their every agreeable manager, Thomas Frank. In short, Brentford have shown how a club outside of the elite group can enjoy relative success on and off the field. As their annual report emphasised, they are all about “thriving, not just surviving”.

The Bees have just announced their financials for the 2021-22 season and they make good reading. Brentford made a pre-tax profit of £ 29.9 million, a £ 38 million turnaround from their £ 8.5 million loss in 2020-21. This was not only evidence of Brentford’s firm management of their finances, it also dramatically underlined the difference between the Championship and Premier League and how it can transform the very fabric of a club. 

Brentford’s revenues in 2021-22 totalled £ 140.9 million, a rise of more than £ 125 million (+921%) on the previous season. The total of the club’s income from 2017-18 to 2020-21 was just over £ 50 million.

Broadcasting, needless to say, was the main contributor, accounting for 81% of total earnings. In 2020-21, TV money amounted to just £ 10.6 million. But every revenue stream was up substantially, with matchday rising from less than £ 0.2 million to £ 10.4 million, thanks to a return to full stadiums once more, and commercial income up from £ 4.6 million to £ 15.5 million. 

Brentford moved into their new stadium in September 2020 but with the pandemic preventing normal conditions, it wasn’t until 2021-22 that they enjoyed a full season of crowds at their new home. Brentford had 11,111 season ticket holders and the average crowd at the Gtech Community Stadium was 16,912 , the lowest in the Premier League.

In all probability, Brentford also had the lowest wage bill in the division in 2021-22. When they won promotion, they were paying £ 41.4 million, representing 270% of income. With the massive increase in revenues, wages of £ 68.2 million became a more acceptable 48% of earnings. In five years, Brentford’s staff costs have gone up by 377% from £ 18 million to £ 68.2%, but it is clear they are not assuming their current situation can go on forever.

These figures highlighted the impressive performance of the club in their first Premier campaign. In fact, including the current season, Brentford have beaten Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City and Manchester United. They have failed to defeat just five clubs.

In the past few years, Brentford have boosted their income through player trading. Between 2018-19 and 2020-21, they made profits totalling almost £ 100 million from selling talent into the market. In 2021-22, they managed to retain their best players, but the club has acknowledged they may need to revert to their trading model in the future. Players who have been sold for sizeable fees include Ollie Watkins (Aston Villa £ 28 million), Said Benrahma (West Ham £ 21.7 million) and Ezri Konsa (Aston Villa £ 12 million). 

They’ve also shown they can be shrewd in their acquisitions, signing Ivan Toney from Peterborough United for just £ 5 million plus add-ons. Toney has scored 64 goals in 116 games for the Bees and has won an England cap. In 2022-23, they broke their transfer record when they paid £ 16.7 million for Sampdoria’s Denmark international Mikkel Damsgaard.

Damsgaard is one of seven Danes in the multi-national Brentford squad, hardly surprising given the club’s links with Denmark. Brentford’s owner is Matthew Benham, a former hedge fund manager and derivatives trader (Deutsche Bank and Bank of America) who took full control of the club in 2012 and two years later, became majority owner of Danish club Midtjylland. Benham has an analytical approach to the game, developed from his career in banking. Christoph Biermann in his book, Football Hackers, describes him as a “football scientist” and a “highly gifted nerd”. Whatever the secret, his methods seem to work.

Brentford have a smart new stadium and they are doing their best to leverage its revenue generating potential. They host rugby union games for London Irish and they were a designated venue in the women’s Euro 2022 competition. The club is also developing a new training centre and aims to relaunch its youth academy.

Maintaining Premier League status is essential to keep the ball rolling at Brentford. They have shocked a few people so far, but the element of surprise will surely be gone in Premier season three. Much will depend on their recruitment skills and ability to reintroduce player trading into their model to increase income. In 2021-22, their profit on the disposal of players was just £ 4.6 million, a little more than 10% of the amount raised in 2020-21. The club has been something of a breath of fresh air to the Premier League and long may that continue – they have shown there is another way to judge success.

Brazil set to dominate Copa Libertadores again

THE DRAW for the group stage of the Copa Libertadores was made recently and of the 32 remaining teams, 12 are from Argentina and Brazil. In all probability, the winners of the 2023 competition will come from these dozen clubs, but it is hard to see a potential winner from outside an even smaller group of clubs that includes Brazil’s Palmeiras, Flamengo and Corinthians and Argentina’s River Plate and Boca Juniors.

The holders, Flamengo, with their band of 30-somethings, are well placed to retain their crown, and they have a reasonably comfortable group to begin their defence of the trophy. Before they embark on their group games, they have to face their old rivals Fluminense in a two-legged finale to the Campeonato Carioca, the state championship. They have added some new faces to their squad, including Gerson from Olympique Marseille (€ 15 million) and Ayrton Lucas (€ 7 million) from Spartak Moscow. These players are both 26 years old, but they still have David Luiz (36), Filipe Luís (38) and Arturo Vidal (€ 36) in their ranks. 

Flamengo’s biggest hurdle in their group will be Argentina’s Racing, who finished runners-up in their domestic league in 2022. They also face Ecudadorian champions Aucas, a club that used to belong to Royal Dutch Shell, and Chile’s Ñublense, who are known as the “clockwork sausage”.  Flamengo’s record in recent times is impressive, two wins and a runners-up spot in the past four years. They also won the Copa do Brasil in 2022, beating Corinthians. It will be a major shock if they fail to get through.

The most formidable challenge for Flamengo may come from Palmeiras as the competition progresses. Palmeiras have won the Copa Libertadores twice in the past three years and were Brazilian champions in 2022. They were surprisingly beaten in the semi-finals of the Libertadores last season by Athletico Paranaense, depriving the competition of a repeat of the 2021 final.

The rivalry between Flamengo and Palmeiras has created a new dynamic in Brazilian football and some are comparing it to La Liga’s clasico, Real Madrid versus Barcelona. But Brazil has a long way to go to create the sort of profile the Spanish derby enjoys, although they have ambitions that include greater levels of overseas investment. Palmeiras also have a reasonable group, including Ecuador’s Barcelona, Bolivar of Bolivia and Paraguayan club Cerro Porteño.

Flamengo’s traditional Rio de Janeiro rivals, Fluminense, have a tougher section to try and get out of, including 2018 winners, River Plate, The Strongest of Bolivia and Peru’s Sporting Cristal.  River are managed by former Uruguayan striker Enzo Francescoli and coached by Martin Demichelis. The club received a 25% sell-on fee on the sale of Enzo Fernandez from Benfica to Chelsea, so they may be flush with cash at present. They are currently top of the Argentine Primera Divisíon, two points ahead of San Lorenzo. 

Fluminense recently signed Marcelo, the veteran former Real Madrid defender, but the man grabbing the headlines at present is the club’s 35 year-old Argentinian striker Germán Cano, who netted 44 goals in 2022, winning the Bola de Prata, and has already scored 14 in 11 appearances this year.

River’s Buenos Aires enemies, Boca, who were champions in Argentina in 2022, should have a smooth passage through their group, although they have had a rocky start to the 2023 season. They are up against Chilean side Colo-Colo, Venezuela’s Monagas and Deportivo Pereira of Colombia. Boca are currently without a coach after sacking Hugo Ibarra, but the club have their eyes on Gerardo “Tata” Martino or Néstor Pékerman and are keen to install a new man before their Libertadores campaign gets underway.

Corinthians are much fancied by a lot of experts after their 2022 campaign that saw them reach the final of the Copa do Brasil, the quarter finals of the Libertadores and finish fourth in the league. In 2023, they were beaten in the quarter finals of the Campeonato Paulista on penalties by Série B side Itauno, which angered their fans. Football director Roberto de Andrade has since stepped down after fans protested against him and invaded the club’s training centre. It wasn’t the first time the  fans have expressed their dissatisfaction in this way. Corinthians face Independiente del Valle of Ecuador, Argentinos Juniors and Uruguay’s Liverpool in the group phase. They should have enough to get past this trio.

Internacional, the so-called “Clube do Povo”, club of the people, should also be too strong for Nacional of Uruguay, Venezualan side Metropolitano and Colombia’s Independiente Medellin, while both Atlético Mineiro and Athletico Paranaense could emerge from a group that also includes Libertad and Allianza Lima, champions of Paraguay and Peru respectively. The other group, arguably the most open, comprises Paraguay’s Olimpia, Atletico Nacional of Colombia, Melgar from Peru and Patronato of Argentina.

With Argentina winning the World Cup, the spotlight shone on South America once more, but football in the region’s countries has become something of a stepping stone for the most talented players. Of the 104 players representing the four CONMEBOL members in Qatar, only 11 played in their domestic football leagues, while 72 were employed in Europe and 14 played elsewhere in Latin America. Another seven were with US clubs.

The Copa Libertadores deserves greater exposure worldwide, especially the latter stages. There has certainly been more awareness in the past few years, but given its status (the second most important club competition in the world), there is still plenty of upside to be gained. Perhaps FIFA’s idea of a Club World Cup will increase the visibility of South America’s top teams.