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Charles Reep: Football Analytics’ Founding Father

How a former RAF Wing Commander set into motion football’s data revolution

24Feb

In March 1950, Swindon Town beat Bristol Rovers by the perhaps uninspiring scoreline of 1-0 at the County Ground. The win was one of just 15 managed by Louis Page’s side that season as they went on to finish 14th - a disappointing return having hit the heights of fourth in the preceding campaign.

As thousands of fans grew frustrated with their side’s first-half display - the goal came in the second - one man in particular found Swindon’s pattern of failed attacks frustrating. Charles Reep, an RAF Wing Commander, grew so disillusioned with what he saw as slow, inefficient attacking play, that he decided to note down the second half’s attacks and take a look at where the side were going wrong. Jonathan Wilson, in his Inverting the Pyramid: The History Of Football Tactics, claims that Reep’s notes concluded that Swindon had 147 attacks in the second 45 minutes. ‘Extrapolating this, and assuming 280 attacks per game and an average of two goals scored, [Reep] realized this equated to a failure rate of 99.29 per cent, which meant that an improvement of only 0.71 per cent was necessary for a side to average three goals a game.’

Reep would go on to record and draw analysis from 2,200 games, up until the mid-1990s. His findings - which, anecdotally, saw him sometimes jot down information on rolls of wallpaper - concluded (wrongly) that moves consisting of three or less passes were more likely to result in a goal than longer passing plays. ‘He argued that wingers should remain as high up the pitch as they could while remaining onside, almost on the touchline, waiting for long balls out of defence’ Wilson wrote. The primitive findings are credited with the invention of, and continued fascination with, the English long-ball game.

The strategy has been debunked since, with Wilson one of Reep’s most brutal detractors. Him and his disciples have been criticized for a perceived misinterpretation of data, as well as a wilful ignorance of essentially all other factors that influence the outcome of a particular football match. Why should a tactic that bore fruit in December in Grimsby be applicable to a fixture between Real Zaragoza and Real Gijon in the Spanish Segunda Division? Fundamentalism is as damaging in football as anywhere, Wilson concludes, but what is important is what Reep attempted, rather than what he achieved.

The thought behind his analysis birthed the concept that - as neatly put by Bernard Marr - ‘past performance could be a good indicator of future performance and that the collection of data can aid with the recreation of past situations that led to successful outcomes.’ Since Reep’s findings, evangelists have taken his mentality on board to create successful sides from characteristically limited resources - from Dynamo Kyiv and the USSR’s celebrated coach Valeriy Lobanovskyi to, however surprisingly, Sam Allardyce - for it is generally only the underdog that prioritizes innovation.

But it wasn’t until the late 1990s that analytics - in this context the use of video analysis and data to inform performance - began to catch fire in football. Prozone, founded in 1995, were the early pioneers and, 21 years on, no club worth their salt across Europe’s top leagues is without a dedicated analytics team. VHS footage of last weekend’s defeat has given way to high-quality, statistic-laden video analysis and 1.4 million data points are collected in every Premier League game. Clubs are still chasing Reep’s elusive 0.71 per cent. Objectivity has taken the place of previously accepted adages - English defenders are tough, Brazilian players are skilful, etc. - and the game itself is becoming more competitive as each side looks to squeeze more favourable data points out of what is occasionally chaotic, always fluid competition.

From Swindon’s inability to effectively deploy their wingers to Manchester City’s current 11 strong analytics team, the machine set in motion by Reep’s findings has become something few could ever have imagined. As Roberto Martinez once put it, ‘Every step on a football pitch is measured now’, and the explosion of data-influenced decision-making in not only football but sports the world over shows no signs of slowing. Data alone will never win a football match, but effective analysis of the important statistics can help clubs make informed decisions as they chase even the smallest of advantages.

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