The real story of FC Midtjylland, the club trying to find rationale in the emotion of football

It was not just about what such a fixture represents as regards the club’s journey, which chairman Rasmus Ankersen describes as “a dream”. It is as much about a life of supporting Liverpool for so many, not least kitman Jorgen Kjaer, father of Danish international captain Simon.

“There are Liverpool shirts all over the kit room,” Ankersen explains. “He cried when he saw the draw because this is obviously a very, very big thing for him to go to Anfield. You will have more of these stories here because Liverpool has been a bit part of people’s lives. A lot of people in our area have two clubs they support, and that’s Midtjylland and Liverpool.”

It isn’t the only connection between the two clubs. Midtjylland’s analytics model is seen as like Liverpool’s on a smaller scale, to the point Ankersen praises them for “going against the grain” of big clubs, and the Anfield hierarchy have poached figures like throw-in coach Thomas Gronnemark.

While much has been made of the intelligence of Midtjylland’s model, and the beauty – and good football – they find in numbers, less told is the emotion around it all. That’s all the more pointed because they have sought to embrace emotion. One of Midtjylland’s most recent appointments was “a brain scientist”.

“We thought it would be interesting to see if we could align the way the brain works and learns most effectively with the way we practice on the pitch.”

“At that time, there was a big rivalry, they really hated each other,” Ankersen explains. “Like a lot of these merges in football, it feels unthinkable, it couldn’t become a success. I was yesterday with the two founders of Midtjylland, who were both chairman of the two original clubs – they are still around – and they always have a funny story to tell about the time.

“It happened at the weekend where both teams lost a game, and they were frustrated, both of them. They couldn’t really get to the next level. So they met at one of the guy’s offices, and they wrote down the key principles of a merger on the back of a napkin, they made an executive decision – and the next day they called the press in and said ‘We’ve decided to become one club’.

“At that time they were in the second tier of the Danish League. There was a lot of friction following that because who was going to play for who. There were two coaches, who was going to be the main coach? All that. The first training, they didn’t have a common kit, so there were the blue socks and yellow socks, representing each club.

“When Midtjylland were founded, there were similar reactions to what you saw with Leipzig and with other mergers. Fans of traditional, historic clubs think you are a plastic club. So, but I think there is a lot of respect for what Midtjylland have done in the last six years in Denmark.

“I am sure the country will be behind us on Tuesday because we are the only team in Denmark representing a team in the group stages this season as there is no Danish team in the Europa League group stage so I think we will have the support of most of the country.”

Where “here” is now is the highest level of club football, although perhaps something of a glass ceiling for clubs like Midtjylland. Their opening game was some dose of reality.

“We had a tough start against Atalanta,” Ankersen says of their 4-0 home defeat. “You can talk a lot about now you are going to play some of the big teams in Europe, but you don’t fully understand that until you feel it on your body and our players found that on Wednesday.”

It is just more information for Midtjylland to absorb and adapt to. The story of the club since Brentford owner Matthew Benham’s 2014 takeover – which has represented the real next stage of the club – has been steady experimentation with different innovations as much as intelligent reading of the numbers. Hence the appointment of a “brain scientist”.

“We have done some things in the past, some of them have worked and some have not worked. It’s about seeing how we can get better outcomes by doing things differently. A few years ago we were discussing whether we needed another coach for the group – not a head coach, obviously, but another coach – and we decided to recruit a brain scientist instead. That in turn has raised interesting questions about how football players actually work.

“One thing we’ve been very good at in the last five years, and has been a big part of why we won three championships, is our focus on set-pieces. I haven’t looked at the stats but I think if you look at goals scored from set-plays per game over the past five years we are probably in the top two or three in the world, maybe even the best. That is an inefficiency in football that we try to exploit. Both Midtjylland and Brentford we have been adopting quite a data-driven approach to recruitment and we have been fairly successful in buying talent for cheap, developing it and selling it on much more expensively. There are various ways that we try to be different. We have invested a lot in our academy. In the last two years the Midtjylland academy has reached the quarter-finals of the Youth Champions League. It is against the odds that that should be possible here, how we take local guys from this area and develop them to play against the best teams in Europe and compete very well.

“We worked a little bit with meditation but not as something that gives us a competitive edge. We have a sleep coach who helps players optimise sleep. That is still underrated within elite sports. We have a ball-striking coach who works with the guys’ output on direct free-kicks, but just in general. It is like in golf where players work with their swing. Why don’t footballers do the same with how they strike the ball? In the set-pieces, we take a lot of inspiration from American football and how they have playbooks. An American footballer is meant to remember 100 plays every season. Why can’t a footballer not remember 10 set piece corner combinations? American football has a lot of stop-start combinations you can compare to football. So we try to optimise that.”

This has been the real story of Midtjylland: trying to find rationale in the emotion of the game.


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