Back in 1996 I had an opportunity to meet Charles Reep at his home near Plymouth in the United Kingdom.
I spent a day in his company discussing his involvement in the analysis of association football and corresponded with him thereafter.
The paper reproduced here is from proceedings of the International Society of Notational Analysis (1997). Charles commented on the early drafts of this paper. It is written in the present tense five years before Charles’ death.
I have been thinking about this paper for some time given my interest in goal scoring at the FIFA World Cup 2010 and the Asian Football Cup 2011. We have a number of research projects exploring goal scoring underway in UCNISS too.
Charles Reep died in 2002. Richard Pollard wrote an appreciation of Charles’ work in the Journal of Sports Sciences. In his introduction , Richard notes:
Seldom can the birth of a new activity be pinpointed with any accuracy, but at 15.50 on 18 March 1950, a spectator at Swindon Town’s home game against Bristol Rovers took a pencil and notebook out of his pocket. Wing Commander Charles Reep was at that moment beginning to create the first comprehensive notational analysis system for football. In the years that followed, he quickly saw how the information he was collecting could be used to plan strategy and analyse performance. He soon became the first professional performance analyst in football and later co-authored the first scientific paper to apply statistical analysis to football. Charles Reep died recently at the age of 97; the aim of this memorial paper is to review the existing published work both by and about this remarkable man, much of which is scattered in relatively obscure locations.
The paper I wrote in 1997 was titled The Long and Direct Road: Charles Reep’s Analysis of Association Football. (Please note that I have written this post in February 2012 to address issues raised by Neil Lanham about the contents of this paper.)
This paper is an exercise in what some people call the ‘history of ideas’, that others call the ‘sociology of knowledge’ and still others call the ‘social construction of knowledge’. I am fascinated by the process by which a person becomes a researcher and then shares the product of research with an audience. I am interested particularly in those who established careers in the notational analysis of performance in sport.
My interest in notational analysts as people arises from my own background in qualitative research. By inclination I am an ethnographer and I am constantly intrigued by how people make, reproduce and transform culture. My first attempt to link qualitative ‘life history’ approaches to notational analysis (Lyons, 1994) focused on the life and work of an American pioneer of notation in sport: Lloyd Lowell Messersmith. I want to extend that approach in this paper to investigate the work of a notational analyst of association football: Charles Reep.
My access to Lloyd Messersmith’s life work was through his family archives and the extant literature. Lloyd died in 1977 at the age of seventy-two. At the time of writing this paper, Charles Reep was an active, alert ninety-one year old looking forward to celebrating his next birthday with a round of golf. Incredibly he was working harder than ever at the hand notation of association of football. He had in September 1996 completed his 2194th real-time analysis of a match: the Juventus v Manchester United Champions’ Cup game.
This paper benefits from Charles Reep’s revisions of early drafts. It is, after all, his life we discuss. It is a celebration of sixty years’ endeavour in the analysis of association football. It has been a long and direct road to the present.
2 Charles Reep: Some Biographical Data
Thorold Charles Reep was born in Torpoint, Cornwall on 22 September 1904. He was one of three brothers. As a young boy he was a regular spectator at Plymouth Argyle, his local association football club. At the age of ten he won a scholarship to the Plymouth High School. Shortly after he enrolled at that school his eldest brother was killed at the Battle of Ypres in France in the First World War.
At the High School Charles developed an interest in association football, golf and tennis. Later in his life he became a county tennis player and represented Devon and Cornwall and other counties. He also played in the annual combined services tennis tournaments at the Wimbledon All England Club. To this day his passion for football is intense and drives his wife Evelyn to distraction.
Charles left Plymouth High School in 1923 to take up employment as an articled accounts clerk. He worked from 9am to 6pm during week days and had two weeks’ holiday a year. In the evenings he studied for his examinations. The mathematical skills and the attention to minute detail he was to use in his analysis of association football were developed at this point in his career. He qualified as an accountant in 1928 and shortly after that won the first prize in an entrance competition for the newly formed Accountancy Division of the Royal Air Force (RAF). Charles attributes his success in this competition in part to his keen interest in reading. He was able to answer a question about flying boats that had everybody else in difficulty.
His career in the RAF started at the age of 24 as a Pilot Officer. He retired from the service in 1955 as a Wing Commander. He was stationed throughout England during that period but in the early days he was sufficiently close to London to watch association football at Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur. He represented his station at soccer and played right half. He also helped to organise station teams and it was this interest that led him to attend a lecture that transformed his understanding of how the game of association football was played.
Charles Jones, captain of Arsenal, came to Charles’ camp one evening in 1933 to talk about systems of play used by Herbert Chapman the manager of Arsenal. The talk involved an analysis of wing play and an account of the understanding that had developed between the right and left wingers at Arsenal. Charles was fascinated by this idea and over the next seventeen years observed games of football very carefully to find evidence of how to maximise goal-scoring opportunities. (In later years he thought that an alert, goal-scoring forward might be called Homo-Pomo rather than Homo-Sapiens: POMO was an acronym for position of maximum opportunity.) He became convinced that goal-scoring opportunities could be created by careful lines of running by pairs of wingers. His station teams and local amateur teams used some of Charles’ ideas to good effect to score goals. He often “briefed” wingers about their responsibilities.
Some seventeen years after Charles Jones’s talk, Charles undertook his first live hand notation of association football. On 15 April 1950 he went to the Swindon Town ground to analyse Swindon’s play. He felt confident that he could hand notate one team in real-time without too much difficulty but felt that notating both teams was out of the question. His system recorded some rudimentary actions, pitch position and passing sequences with outcomes. He used a mix of symbols and notes to obtain as complete as record as possible of play. He was so taken by his experience of notation that he sought to develop a system for both teams in real-time and by the end of the 1949-1950 season had such a system.
The following season 1950-51 saw Charles’ first involvement with a football league team. Brentford were having a difficult time and were fourth from bottom of the Second Division (corrected 21 June 2012). Charles was introduced to the club by a friend in the RAF and provided analysis of games as well as suggesting how to play attacking football. He recalls that Brentford subsequently won thirteen of their last fourteen matches. Their only defeat was when the manager decided to rely on defence against Tom Finney’s Preston North End team. Brentford lost 3-0 and this proved an informative lesson for Charles about attacking systems. By having a ‘deviant case’ he was able to check his data against this case. (Note: the record of Brentford’s season can be found here which indicates that Brentford lost 2-4 to Preston, Brentford lost three games in their last sixteen games of the season. For a discussion about Brentford see this Forum Thread.)
The next season Charles was moved by the RAF to a camp at Bridgnorth in Shropshire. This fortuitous change had important implications for his work. Once again through a personal contact Charles met Stan Cullis the manager of Wolverhampton Wanderers. Charles spent the next three and a half years with the club in an advisory capacity. He provided detailed hand notations and data summaries of games for Stan Cullis at a time when Wolverhampton Wanderers were at the forefront of the move to link British and European clubs. One of his memories of this period was his real-time analysis of Wolves v Honved. During this time Stan Cullis was keen to develop a style of play that involved long balls into the opponents’ territory. Charles provided feedback to Stan Cullis about this pattern of play in the week after each match. He describes this time as “sweetness all the way”.
At the end of the 1955 season the then Wing Commander Reep had an opportunity to retire from the RAF. His success with Wolves encouraged him to plan for a new career as a ‘football consultant’. He was approached by Sheffield Wednesday to act as their analyst. Charles was quite clear about the system Sheffield should play and discussed this at length with the manager, Eric Taylor. After some extensive debate at boardroom level Charles was employed for the 1955-56 season on the annual salary of £750. His contract with the club was a one-year renewable contract. He spent three years with Sheffield Wednesday and the club won promotion from Division Two in his first year with them. His links with the club were ended when in the third season and results were disappointing. To this day Charles believes that the refusal of a key player to buy into the system subverted the whole effort of the team, manager and notational analyst.
Charles did not work with another soccer team for the next five years. In that period he worked assiduously to develop his theory of success in association football and the role that random chance plays in this. He watched and notated in real-time 40 games a season in that period. He also attended the 1958 World Cup Final and notated the game in real-time. He kept detailed records of the total number of goals scored, the number of shots and the number of possessions. By 1964 and after this period in the wilderness he had summarised all the data he had collected since 1950. Charles was aware that there was a substantial stability in his data over time.
In this stage of his development Charles investigated whether passing movements, goals, games and championships were determined by the rules of random chance. He made contact with Dr Benjamin who discussed with him at length the fit between Charles’s data and the law of negative binomial distribution. From correspondence with Dr Benjamin, Charles developed an interest in probability and from this emerged two papers in the Journal of the Royal Statistical Society (Reep and Benjamin, 1968; Reep, Pollard and Benjamin, 1971).
The corpus of Charles’ work to date (1950-1964) encouraged him to conceptualise a strategy for winning association football matches. He felt confident that his data was accurate, reliable and valid. His twofold process of real-time notation and subsequent data transcription and analysis provided a rich bedrock for his thinking about association football. Data analysis of his real time notation took as much as eighty hours. One piece of work, a cartographic analysis of the 1958 World Cup Final took three months to complete and write up.
From that period on to the present Charles’ work has been shared with and discussed by many people involved in and interested in association football. During the last thirty years he has met with and worked with a range of managers. The longest working relationships have been with Graham Taylor at Watford and Dave Bassett at Wimbledon (note Neil Lanham’s observations about these claims). Interspersed with these clubs has been an intermittent link with Plymouth Argyle.
Over thirty years, Charles Reep has received many visitors into his home. He was delighted in 1994 to meet Egil Olsen and share his thoughts about soccer. Charles was a guest of honour of the Norwegian Football Association on the occasion of Norway’s 2-0 defeat of England. Most recently he has been in correspondence with the coach of the Norwegian women’s Olympic soccer team, bronze medalists in Atlanta 1996.
During his career in notation, Charles has experienced many of the situations that new notational analysts discover. What is impressive about him is that he has constantly updated his work so that the most recent game fits into a longitudinal data set that stretches from the County Ground, Swindon to the major football stadia of the world. In his archive he has data from 2194 games.
At the age of 86 he decided he should turn his attention to Italy’s Serie A games to check out what was happening. He takes great pleasure in recounting that as the supposed champion of three pass moves or less he discovered an Italian game that decided the Championship for AC Milan that involved a sequence of fifty-seven passes by them then four passes by the opponents and the game ended with AC Milan in possession after forty-seven passes.
Charles Reep celebrates his ninety-second birthday next week. What is remarkable is that he is four months older than Lloyd Messersmith. In two Congresses I have tried to give some biographical information about notational analysts as people. The two I have chosen are separated by an ocean but appear to have been driven by the same imperative: the discovery of universals in performance. In the next section of the paper I discuss some of Charles Reep’s Data and Analysis.
3 Near Constants in Performance
After eight years of hand notation practice, Charles Reep sat in the Stockholm Stadium and notated in real-time the 1958 World Cup Final. His record of that game provided the most detailed account of his work to date. In the iconography of soccer it is a Final that is remembered for Pele’s virtuosity. For Charles it provided an opportunity to produce fifty pages of match drawings and feature dissection. He provides a minute, detailed analysis of each game event to provide a “scientific and objective account” of the Final. He wanted to:
provide a counter to reliance upon memory, tradition and personal impressions that led to speculation and soccer ideologies (personal communication)
He produced a similar cartographic document for the 1966 World Cup Final.
These remarkable documents and his ‘magnum opus’ remain unpublished. His main work League Championship Winning Soccer: The Anatomy of Soccer Under the Microscope was written in 1973. In this tightly typed and tightly argued book he argues that the keystones of the structure of soccer are what he terms the near constants. His search for these constants came about after checking his data over twenty years. In particular he wanted to explore how playing within and understanding of probability empowered teams.
His notation system collects information about pitch position and this provides him with detailed data that can be manually retrieved post-event. He divides the soccer pitch into four sections and identifies a shooting area in each half of the pitch. This shooting area extends approximately 30 metres from the goal-line. Charles discovered that over a number of seasons it appears that:
- It takes 10 shots to get 1 goal (on average)
- 50% of goals are scored from 0 or 1 passes
- 80% of goals are scored within 3 or less passes
- Regaining possession within the shooting area is a vital source of goal-scoring opportunities
- 50% of goals come from breakdowns in a team’s own half of the pitch
These data prompted Charles to think about the territorial requirements of winning soccer. From the 1930s he had understood the creative role wingers could play and with Stan Cullis he had developed a pattern of play that involved long balls played to attacking players. The near constants allowed Charles to conceptualise winning soccer. He suggests that by outfield players sending ‘reachers’ into the shooting area or by goalkeepers sending ‘pitchers’ into that area goal scoring opportunities could be created more quickly. An assertive press by the attacking team could also lead to regaining possession which was an important source of goal scoring opportunities.
His detailed in-event notation and post-event analysis has enabled Charles to accurately measure the distance and trajectory of every pass. From his system of reachers and pitchers he devised a formula that stated the relationship between:
- the average goals per match per season (S)
- the average reachers per match per season (R)
- the average number of shots that score goals (N)
- the number of reachers to provide a shot (n)
The system propounded by Charles Reep is one of constant attack. His data encourage him to believe that sustained, repeated pressure produces scoring opportunities. He encourages managers to set up a chain reaction with the system so that long balls and assertive pressing force errors. A team using the above formula should strive to increase R, reduce N to become more efficient and reduce n to minimise unforced errors.
For Charles Reep this system is a ‘fact’. He argues that winning soccer need not be an argument about aesthetics. Since 1973 he has collected a further twenty years of empirical data. Recently he has analysed a season of Serie A televised games and all the games of Euro 96. He suggests that his theory holds and the near constants are empirically demonstrable.
Charles asserts that over time equally matched teams conform to his analysis. He laments that 2194 games, analysed in detail can be dismissed without critics comprehending the precision of the notation process and the painstaking analysis that follows. He is convinced that his system is the winning formula and that others who have sought to use his ideas without discussing them with him have misinterpreted him.
4 The Status of Charles Reep’s Work
This paper has been written about a notational analyst as a person. Like Lloyd Messersmith, Charles Reep has been misattributed or ignored. On some occasions he has been vilified. His career spans sixty years and he retains a passion for soccer that is remarkable. When I last spoke with him he had spent eighty hours analysing his notation of Juventus v Manchester United (Game 2194) and Newcastle United v Halmstad (Game 2193).
By training, Charles is an accountant and has applied the skills of his profession to produce meticulous notations of soccer games. He sometimes spends hours trying to trace any inaccuracy in his data matrix tallies. His work displays a fastidiousness missing in some academic work. In the 1960s he pursued his interest in probability with trained statisticians and one of his co-authors in the Journal of the Royal Statistical Society articles (Dr Benjamin) was a professor of actuarial science at the City University, London.
In his work he spans Herbert Chapman’s Arsenal championship winning team of the 1930s, Pele at the 1958 World Cup, the 1966 World Cup in England and the current soccer scene. He has worked with twenty three soccer managers and at some point has spoken with or worked with national coaches such as Alf Ramsey, Graham Taylor and Egil Olsen.
This paper is intended to celebrate the life and work of Charles Reep. At 92 he is still extremely keen to argue the merits of his system. He has an encyclopaedic knowledge of soccer and is able to recall games and players in detail. He has kept every one of his 2194 notations and his maps of the games are a choreography of mid to late twentieth century British, European and World soccer.
He has no academic degree but has raised fundamental academic issues. He is a self-educated man with a passion for reading about science in general and cosmology in particular. He has acted as a notational analyst/consultant for forty years. He started his work when I was just four years old.
References and Bibliography
Reep, C (1989) Analysis of Scottish Soccer. The Punter, May/June, Issue 1.
Reep, C & Benjamin, B (1968) Skill and Chance in Association Football, Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, 131, 581-585.
Reep, C, Pollard, R & Benjamin, B (1971) Skill and Chance in Ball Games, Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, 134, 623-629.
Pollard, R, Reep, C, & Benjamin, B (1977) Sport and the Negative Binomial Distribution, in S P Ladany & R E Machol (eds) Optimal Strategies in Sport. Amsterdam: North Holland Publishing. pp 188-195.
Pollard, R, Reep, C & Hartley, S (1988) The quantitative comparison of playing patterns in soccer, in T Reilly et al (eds) Science and Football I. London: Spon. pp 309-315.
Reep, C (1958) Anatomy of Soccer: Cartography of Brazil v Sweden 1958. Unpublished A1 Graphic.
Reep, C (1966) Anatomy of Soccer: Cartography of England v West Germany 1966. Unpublished A1 Graphic.
Reep, C (1973) League Championship Winning Soccer: The Anatomy of Soccer Under the Microscope. Unpublished book, final draft.
Reep, C (1974) Simulation of a Team’s Framework of Probability in Soccer. Unpublished mimeograph.
Arsenal v Liverpool