The controversial findings of soccer’s first analyst


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Charles Reep, pictured in 1962
Reep, pictured right here in 1962, was a pioneer of soccer evaluation

Unlikely as it could appear, a navy airfield in Bedfordshire utilized in World Battle One might be recognized as the situation the place British soccer evaluation discovered its spark, nearly a century in the past.

RAF Henlow was the nation’s first parachute check centre and future jet-engine inventor Sir Frank Whittle studied there. It was solely a decade previous when Thorold Charles Reep arrived as a brand new recruit in 1928.

Reep would go on to turn out to be a controversial determine in English soccer historical past. His revolutionary research led to the premise of soccer knowledge assortment and evaluation as we all know it immediately, however the motivation behind his work was usually incorrectly interpreted.

Normally stereotyped as a long-ball loving zealot who ruined the sport, his solely objective was to uncover soccer’s inside workings and in the end set up essentially the most environment friendly and attacking model of play, which he arguably achieved to a higher diploma than anybody had earlier than.

Even in immediately’s data-intensive sporting panorama, 20 years on from his loss of life on the age of 97, Reep’s affect might be felt. However his fame doesn’t mirror the achievements of a person usually misunderstood.

Short presentational grey line

Born in Cornwall in 1904, Reep grew up an avid fan of Plymouth Argyle. On the age of 24 he joined the RAF as an accountant and was posted to Henlow.

It was too far for him to journey to Argyle dwelling video games so he visited Highbury to observe Arsenal as usually as he might. This was a golden interval for the Gunners; after profitable their first FA Cup in 1930 they had been league champions 4 instances over the following 5 seasons.

It was subsequently a coup when Arsenal captain Charles Jones agreed to provide two three-hour lectures on soccer techniques at RAF Henlow in 1932. In a drafty hut, beside a big blackboard and easel, Jones spoke eloquently about supervisor Herbert Chapman’s strategies for achievement, aside from a small hiccup when he retired behind the board to regulate his newly fitted false enamel. Reep was within the entrance row, ferociously making notes.

Jones’ speak impressed him to seek out new methods of scrutinising what he was watching on the soccer pitch, and he started to experiment by making analytical match notations. He referred to as his first try a ‘Tactic Crime Chart’.

Having noticed gamers usually failing to benefit from sure openings at Highbury, he additionally designed a system of grading the issue of possibilities across the goalmouth – a really early model of the anticipated objectives (xG) metric extensively used immediately.

Reep took on board the basics of Arsenal’s model of play beneath Chapman earlier than the supervisor’s sudden loss of life in 1934 on the age of 55. Gamers had been advised to hit lengthy balls out to the wingers, who had been to remain simply onside with out monitoring again. As an alternative the staff would attempt to win the ball as far up the pitch as doable, with the forwards chasing down defenders in possession.

When Reep was posted to Iraq in 1936, he was put in control of the RAF base staff and carried out the Arsenal techniques Jones had defined. The rewards had been prompt, however Reep’s dedication to experiment additional was curtailed by battle.

After World Battle Two, he returned to RAF Yatesbury in Wiltshire in July 1947 and was appointed head of soccer. There he had an opportunity to form a staff round a system of his personal design that he referred to as ‘Unfastened Balls within the Goalmouth’. In essence, gamers had been drilled to capitalise on varied eventualities the place wingers might choose up ‘simple’ tap-ins when the ball got here throughout from the other flank. Yatesbury had nice success – and a number of other gamers signed with league golf equipment.

When in 1950 he was posted to the RAF base in Bushy Park close to Kingston upon Thames, which only a few years earlier had been Normal Eisenhower’s European base of operations, the station staff was urged to comply with his concepts. They had been quickly profitable video games by large margins, with the wingers commonly scoring hat-tricks.

On the identical time Reep was persevering with to gather and analyse soccer knowledge, advancing the distinctive shorthand technique he had devised at Henlow and making use of it to as many First Division video games as he might.

He arrived at various findings: seven out of 9 objectives got here from strikes of three passes or fewer; strikes beginning with an extended go from your personal half meant a objective was twice as prone to be scored when in comparison with utilizing solely brief passes to progress up the sector; most objectives got here from profitable the ball again within the attacking quarter of the pitch, one thing Reep referred to as a ‘regained possession’.

He additionally discovered that, it doesn’t matter what the usual of play, on common it took round 9 pictures to provide a objective. His subsequent transfer was to calculate how these pictures may very well be created. Getting the ball into the ultimate quarter was one thing he referred to as a ‘Reacher’, which means the staff had reached a capturing place.

He discovered that a mean of three ‘Reachers’ had been wanted to provide a shot, and as 9 pictures had been required to provide a objective, a staff would want to achieve the attacking quarter 27 instances to attain. These weren’t issues that may very well be relied on in particular person matches however had been merely the averages attained over a collection of matches or an entire season.

Reep’s deconstruction of the sport by means of numbers may appear apparent now, but it surely had not been damaged down like this earlier than.

He was quickly attracting wider consideration.

Reep's shorthand notes from the 1953 FA Cup final
Reep’s shorthand notes from the 1953 FA Cup remaining between Bolton and Blackpool

In January 1951, Reep’s RAF staff had been rampaging by means of their matches. 5 miles away in west London, Brentford supervisor Jackie Gibbons was in hassle and wanted some assist for his failing Second Division facet. With no cash to spend and a squad low on confidence, he was determined for inspiration.

A scout advised Gibbons in regards to the staff down the highway that had lately gained 12-1.

“There’s some loopy fellow who stands on the touchline with bits of paper making notes,” he reported. “[He] produces a tactical plan which appears to work.”

Gibbons visited Bushy Park and two days later Reep was on the staff coach to Doncaster.

Brentford had been sixteenth in Division Two and had not gained away from dwelling since September. On that day, the primary time {that a} Soccer League staff was taking discover of Reep’s recommendation (and with Ron Greenwood and Jimmy Hill of their enjoying ranks), the Bees gained 3-0. Gibbons was delighted.

The younger supervisor agreed to completely undertake Reep’s tactical plans.

Bury at dwelling was the following match and Brentford gained 4-0. Press reviews described their “whirlwind assaults”, which immediately may be in comparison with the high-intensity urgent favoured by groups equivalent to Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool.

“An unbelievable and prompt success,” wrote Reep. Brentford jumped up the desk. Having gained solely 9 of their 29 league matches (31%) earlier than Reep’s involvement, scoring 1.3 objectives per recreation, they then gained 9 of their final 13 (69%) whereas scoring 2.9 objectives per recreation, guaranteeing they completed a cushty ninth place.

For Reep, it was simply the beginning.

Charles Reep, pictured in 1962
The Journal of Sports activities Sciences describes Reep as ‘the primary efficiency analyst in skilled soccer’

In August 1951, he was posted to RAF Bridgnorth and shortly contacted the native facet, Wolverhampton Wanderers. They had been led by Stan Cullis, the ‘Iron Supervisor’; a bodily intimidating man with a nostril that had made acquaintance with many centre forwards’ elbows. A religious Christian, he was recognized to rejoice massive wins with a cup of tea.

Cullis had gained Wolves the 1949 FA Cup and was already on the best way to nice issues at Molineux. Quickly after assembly Reep, he started working together with his wingers on the ‘Unfastened Balls within the Goalmouth’ system. Wolves scored 25 objectives of their subsequent seven matches.

Reep was introduced in nearer for the 1952-53 season, however nonetheless recalled being “regarded with uneasy suspicion by the administrators, who understood completely nothing of the elemental ideas that had been bringing the staff’s nice success”.

With Reep and Cullis working in the identical path not less than, by early November Wolves had been prime of the First Division following a 7-3 win at dwelling in opposition to Manchester Metropolis. A number of video games earlier they’d crushed Manchester United 6-2.

Reep was nonetheless engaged on methods to realize extra info from his knowledge and his weekly deliveries of charts and tables had been eagerly awaited by the supervisor. By now his shorthand notes contained greater than 2,000 symbols per match.

After driving dwelling from video games he would spend Saturday evening and most of Sunday hunched over his knowledge, producing his breakdowns generally on sheets of paper two ft extensive, all handwritten in his spidery, nearly unreadable script.

What Reep provided was the analogue equal of the information obtained by top-class groups immediately. On the time it was simply as innovative.

That season Wolves pale to complete third however the next 12 months they got here again stronger. After they beat Tottenham 2-0 on 24 April 1954 and had been topped league champions, Reep felt vindicated. The town of Wolverhampton was ecstatic and Cullis celebrated by placing the kettle on. At a civic banquet in honour of the staff, the good supervisor publicly thanked his analyst. Wolves had been one of many groups of the last decade and can be champions once more in 1958 and 1959.

From his first league expertise with Brentford to Wolves profitable the title three years later, Reep had made unbelievable progress within the fields of soccer knowledge and evaluation. This was to be the excessive level.

Reep left Wolves for Sheffield Wednesday in 1955. He had by no means been formally employed at Molineux and the job at Hillsborough provided safety and more cash. He helped the Owls win promotion to the First Division as champions in 1956, scoring over 100 objectives, earlier than leaving two seasons later when the supervisor who introduced him in, Eric Taylor, was sacked.

His journey continued at a number of different English golf equipment, together with Coventry, Torquay and Plymouth within the Sixties and Seventies, then Stoke Metropolis, Chesterfield and Cambridge within the Eighties – however by no means once more would he discover a place on the prime of the English recreation. And his fame suffered.

Reep's handwritten colour coded chart analysis England's crossing in the 1966 World Cup final
Reep’s hand-drawn chart evaluation of England’s crossing within the 1966 World Cup remaining

It was interpreted in some locations that Reep solely needed to hoof the ball forwards rapidly and with out path, a label he has been tarred with to at the present time. Actually there was nothing directionless in regards to the model of play he inspired – wingers and attackers had been advised to be in very particular positions to benefit from any alternatives.

His important perception was that profitable the ball near the opponents’ objective was most vital in creating objectives, though he needed to generate as a lot offensive menace with as little fuss as doable. And in his later years he did start to see positives in possession-based play – making a number of research of Serie A soccer within the Nineteen Nineties.

“I need to emphasise that my strategies usually are not a declaration of how soccer needs to be performed,” he was at pains to clarify. “However it’s the best approach.”

Reep continued to comply with his ardour for soccer knowledge, making handwritten analyses when he was nicely into his 90s. He was a reference level and inspiration for many who adopted – equivalent to Richard Pollard, who collaborated with Reep to provide the sport’s first computer analysis in 1969.

His final telling affect on the sport got here within the build-up to the 1994 World Cup, but it surely was not in support of his personal nationwide facet.

Charles Reep, pictured in his later years, pictured with many old notebooks of football match data stored in his garage
Reep, in his later years, pictured with an enormous archive of handwritten match knowledge saved in his storage

Below the administration of Graham Taylor, a disappointing 1-1 attract Poland on 29 Might 1993 meant England might ill-afford to slide up of their subsequent qualifying fixture 4 days later in Norway.

Then aged 88, Reep was held in excessive regard by Norway’s supervisor Egil Olsen, who was a professor of sports activities science and had taught the topic for 20 years earlier than taking cost of his nationwide staff.

Olsen grew to become the most recent in an extended line of soccer individuals to hunt Reep’s recommendation, flying into Heathrow and travelling right down to his Devon dwelling for a five-hour dialogue on efficiency evaluation.

For the sport in opposition to England, Reep was invited to attend as a visitor of honour by the Norwegian Soccer Affiliation. And Norway performed a model of Reep’s most well-liked model.

Olsen defined: “It is referred to as ‘direct soccer’ however it’s merely an attacking model. We push the ball forwards always, rapidly.”

This emphasis on offence was England’s undoing because the hosts gained 2-0 and went on to qualify for the following summer season’s World Cup as group winners.

The world of soccer knowledge, accelerated by new applied sciences, was already shifting on at warp velocity by the point of Reep’s loss of life in 2002, aged 97.

However he remained linked to that advancing world, and if elite golf equipment immediately take the position of analysts with no consideration, Reep needs to be remembered as the primary to make a significant intervention on the highest stage of the English recreation.

When he died, there have been brief obituaries written right here and there, however like a lot of his profession in soccer, his loss of life principally handed beneath the radar.

“[The English FA] dismiss me as an eccentric chap,” Reep as soon as stated.

“Clearly it is as a result of I’ve put a query mark in opposition to so many facets of the sport.”

Rob Haywood is the writer of the forthcoming ebook Many Unattainable Issues: The Ingenious Evolution of Soccer Information.

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