The men who made FC Midtjylland a major test for Rangers

When discussing how he maintained the remarkable standards of consistency he achieved during his time as Celtic manager, Brendan Rodgers would often cite the influence of a book he always kept close at hand.

FC Midtjylland celebrate winning the Danish  title in 2018.
FC Midtjylland celebrate winning the Danish title in 2018.

Perhaps ominously for Rangers, the tome which their erstwhile Old Firm nemesis referred to was written by the chairman of Midtjylland, their Danish opponents in the third qualifying round of the Europa League.

Rasmus Ankersen penned Hunger In Paradise as a guide to avoiding complacency in business, but its message rang true with Rodgers, who utilised it in guiding Celtic to an unprecedented degree of dominance in Scottish football.

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As Rangers continue their quest to return to a position of pre-eminence under Steven Gerrard, their hopes of a second successive appearance in the Europa League group stage face a major test in Ankersen’s upwardly mobile club from the Jutland peninsula.

When his own playing career with Midtjylland was cut short by a serious knee injury, Ankersen certainly didn’t feel sorry for himself. He secured his Uefa coaching licence and also became a successful author and entrepreneur.

Still only 35, it has led him to his current role at Midtjylland, which he combines with the position of Director of Football at English Championship outfit Brentford.

The quid pro quo of the relationship between the two clubs has been of considerable benefit to Midtjylland since Brentford owner Matthew Benham became their majority shareholder in the summer of 2014.

A year after professional gambler and statistical sports analyst guru Benham’s takeover, Midtjylland won the Danish Superliga title for the first time to fully vindicate the motivation behind a club formed as recently as 1999.

Named after the region of Midtjylland, it was a merger of two local clubs - Ikast and Herning Fremad - who had struggled to pull up any trees on the Danish football landscape. The impact of the new club, by contrast, was immediate.

They romped to promotion in their first season with a record points total for the Danish second tier and were quick to establish themselves as a credible force in the Superliga. Their fourth-place finish in 2001 took them into Europe for the first time, where they lost to Sporting Lisbon in the first round of the Uefa Cup.

Midtyjlland’s progress was steady and consistent, maintaining a fairly regular presence in Europe which included an unfortunate Uefa Cup exit on penalties against Manchester City in 2008.

But since Benham joined forces with Ankersen, pictured right, they have kicked on significantly. That first domestic title success was followed by an impressive 2015-16 European campaign which saw them defeat Southampton in the play-off round of the Europa League and go all the way to the knockout phase of that tournament before losing to Manchester United.

Benham, who adopts a ‘Moneyball’ style of analytics to both player recruitment and tactical strategy at both Brentford and Midtyjlland, pledged to lead the Danish club into profitability off the pitch as well as success on it.

So far, he has been true to his word. Their most recent accounts, for the 2017-18 season, saw Midtyjlland post a profit of around £8 million, the first time they had been in the black for a decade.

With a wage bill of just under £12 million offset by revenue of just over £12m, Midtyjlland have developed a successful model which sees them develop players and maximise their value in the transfer market.

Striker Alexander Sorloth was sold to Crystal Palace for a club record fee of £9m in January last year, while left-back Andreas Poulsen became the most expensive teenager in Danish football history when he moved to Borussia Moenchenglad-bach for £6.2 m last summer.

The effectiveness of Midtyjlland’s own academy was underlined when four of its products - Simon Kjaer of Sevilla, Everton goalkeeper Jonas Lossl, former Ajax forward Viktor Fischer and Celta Vigo winger Pione Sisto - were included in the Danish squad at the 2018 World Cup Finals in Russia.

The Benham-Ankersen model also impacts on how Midtjylland are coached. Players are fed data analysis, which they study as homework on individually detailed DVDs or USB sticks, designed to increase the ratio of set pieces from which they score.

Even during matches, manager Kenneth Andersen and his fellow coaches will receive text messages from the club’s technical analysis team to advise them which ‘key performance indicators’ the players need to improve upon.

So far this season, the KPIs have been encouraging for Midtjylland, who are in optimistic mood as they welcome Rangers to the MCH Arena in Herning for the first leg of the Europa League third-round qualifier tomorrow night.

They are joint top of the Superliga with reigning champions Copenhagen, boasting a 100 per cent record from their first four games of the campaign.

Former Celtic defender Erik Sviatchenko, a member of Midtjylland’s title-winning squad of 2015 who is now enjoying a successful second spell back at the club, is the most recognisable member of their current side from a Scottish perspective.

Brazilian midfielder Evander, snapped up from Vasco da Gama for £1.85m after a successful loan spell last season, has scored three goals, and the 21-year-old could pose the biggest threat to the Ibrox 
club.

While Rangers will feel confident of their own prospects in the tie, they would still do well to take notice of Midtjylland chairman Ankersen’s wise words and guard against any complacency.