You need to be a bit of a European geography expert to pinpoint the city of Herning – population 50,000 – in Denmark.
But if you’re a football fan you’re likely to be aware that the city’s football club FC Midtjylland is doing a pretty good job of putting Herning on the map.
Formed in 1999 after a merger of two rivals clubs in the city that’s situated in central Denmark, Midtjylland was taken over by Matthew Benham, who also owns English Championship side Brentford, in 2014.
Under his watch, the club has pioneered the use of data and specialized coaching to rise up the ranks of European soccer.
It’s a philosophy that has quickly reaped rewards. The club has now won three domestic titles and qualified for this season’s Champions League for the first time in its history. Midtjylland will play Liverpool at Anfield on Tuesday.
Midtjylland’s remarkable rise is testament to the David versus Goliath mentality installed in the team, according to the club’s chairman Rasmus Ankersen.
“We’re a small club in a small town, but we compete with the bigger cities,” Ankersen tells CNN Sport’s Alex Thomas.
“That’s the DNA of the club, to try and get more from every resource, to try and do things differently, to try and see if you can make an upset.”
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Being a small team with limited resources has meant Midtjylland has emphasized the pursuit of marginal gains.
Ankersen says the club focuses heavily on set-pieces – an often underlooked element of the game – which he says leads to 35% of goals scored.
Though Midtjylland might have to tweak that approach in the Champions League. According to UEFA’s recently released Champions League Technical Report reviewing the 2019/2020 season there’s been a reduction in the number of goals from set-pieces, with just a single one scored by the taker of a direct free-kick. That report’s goalscoring analysis highlighted the importance of crosses and cutbacks – which accounted for 29.3% of all goals scored.
Midtjylland has also been a pioneer in employing specialist coaches – namely for throw-ins and for striking the ball.
“Wherever we think there is an edge to be found, we will seek it out,” Ankersen says.
“Could you imagine a company that spent a fraction of its time on the activity that generated 35% of its revenue? It’s probably unheard of in business but that happens in football.
“So these are some of the things you try and go in and you challenge. There’s been this perception that a really bad team can be good at set-plays because they don’t have much else to offer.
“But it’s more difficult for us to accept that a good team can become outstanding because of set-pieces.”
The innovative methods were once sneered at but are being increasingly adopted by some of the biggest clubs in the world.
Notably in 2018 Liverpool started using long-throw coach Thomas Grønnemark, who worked extensively with Midtjylland, and has benefited from the appointment. The Premier League champion has seen its ability to retain possession from throw-ins rise from 45.4% to 68.4%, according to the Guardian.
“There was a couple of seasons where we had scored nine or 10 goals per season from long throws,” says Ankersen. “It’s been very effective.”
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Setting an example
It’s a similar story when it comes to recruitment.
Midtjylland leans heavily into using metrics to unearth hidden talent and find bargains from around the world, in what Ankersen describes as “buying cheap and selling expensive.”
A good example is the transfer of Alexander Sørloth to Crystal Palace for over $10 million, after Midtjylland had bought the Norwegian for $390,000.
The club also benefits from using Benham’s company Smartodds to help analyze matches and players from around the world.
“In the last five years, it’s been organic growth,” reflected Ankersen. “I think we found a model that has worked also for us financially.
“We just have to try and find our place and try to keep pushing the boundaries.”
Two years before buying Midtjylland, Benham took over English club Brentford and appointed Ankersen as the co-director of football.
The London-based club, playing in the second division of English soccer, has adopted similar methods as the Danish side.
Last season Brentford came close to winning promotion to the Premier League and it’s a testament to the the Championship club’s success that it’s already lost two set-piece coaches to Arsenal and Manchester City.
Despite being proud to see bigger clubs try to copy their approach, Ankersen admits its frustrating to lose talented employees.
“It is the way it is. That’s where we are on the food chain,” he says. “We accept it and try to progress as a club. Maybe one day we get to a stage where it becomes tougher and tougher for our staff members to leave when they get offers.”
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Champions League dreams
Midtjylland’s debut in this season’s Champions League didn’t exactly go to plan – the Danish club was thrashed at home 4-0 by Atalanta in its opening group stage game.
It’s now looking forward to taking on Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool side on Tuesday, considered one of the best teams in the world.
Ankersen will travel with the squad for the match and says it’s “devastating” the club won’t get to experience a packed Anfield stadium, with games in England still being played behind closed doors amid the pandemic.
Despite this, he says the team will go into the match with the same mentality that has got the club into its current position.
“It is obviously a massive gap [between the two teams]. But listen, bigger miracles have happened in football,” he says.
According to reports in recent weeks, FIFA is proposing to launch a European Premier League competition.
In statement sent to CNN, UEFA said it strongly opposes a “Super League,” but Ankersen fears that any future reforms will be in “favor of the big clubs” in a “closed league.”
“That’s the way it’s going, unfortunately,” added Ankersen. “I think it’s great for football that you have these fairytale stories and it’s really important for clubs like Midtjylland and all these other clubs to have big dreams and that you keep that dream alive and make actually realistic to get to play at the biggest stage.”