Goal Scoring in Association Football: Neil Lanham's Research

One of the posts on this blog that receives regular hits is a post about Charles Reep.
I based the post on a 1997 article I wrote after meeting Charles.
Recently I have heard from Neil Lanham about Charles’s work and this post addresses some of the issues Neil has raised with me. Neil met Charles for the first time in 1962. Neil has pointed out that:

    • Charles Reep did not analyse a single game for Wimbledon Football Club or had any influence on their play.
    • Neil took Charles to meet Dave Bassett for about half an hour one afternoon when Wimbledon were in Division 3. Neil had been working for them for some time.
    • Neil kept his head below the parapet “as professionally requested by Dave Bassett and others” and did not publish his work in academic circles.
    • Neil’s work as a professional soccer performance analyst is the subject of a forthcoming book.
    • His paper at the 2003 World Congress of Science and Football reports on some of the teams with whom he worked.
    • Neil’s network of colleagues includes Simon Hartley (the first full-time match analyst at Watford) and Richard Pollard (who worked with Watford prior to Simon’s appointment).
    • Neil produced an unpublished book on the effect behind every possession in every match in Wimbledon’s first season the former English League Division 1. Neil’s data were hand notated and then computer analysed.

In a paper written in 1991, Figures do not cease to exist because they are not counted,  Neil reports data from 500 games (including Wimbledon games). He notes that “the ball changed sides 180 times for each team on average in between goals with 1.33 average goals/team”.
In his correspondence with me (February 2012) Neil suggests that:

the big thing about Reep is that the pundits seem to think that he invented a sort of winning game that included long balls. Not so – what Reep invented was a method of recording what happens to every possession of both teams on a soccer field that over a series shows the truth of how goals come. (My emphasis in bold.)

Neil hand notated and then computer analysed every touch of the ball in all 52 games of the 1990 World Cup … “the ratios were exactly as Reep predicted”.
In a paper published in 2005 in Science and Football V, Neil presents further detailed evidence about his own work. He notes that:

Employed since 1981 in a professional capacity, by League and International teams, over 3000 games have been fully recorded by using a previously noted shorthand code of every move in every possession in each match for both For and Against teams.  Since 1985 this has been fed into a database computer system programmed to average long runs of matches so that rate and quality can be examined.  The 15 teams selected for this paper were all recorded in long runs and all had success in either achieving promotion or top of the table status.  From their figures we can pinpoint the measured difference that brought success.

The 2005 paper presents data from:

  • 2001/2002 English Premier League
  • World Cup and Euro Cup 1978-1996
  • Wimbledon 1986/1987 and 1987/1988

Neil uses his data from these data sets to argue that:

… there is a Near Constant Law of Chance that 180 possessions on average are lost and won back supporting the single possession of ‘goal’.  At an assumed 240 possessions per match this represents 1.33 goals on average for and against.  This is the same at all levels of the game, however it is played, and whether fast or slow…

I am delighted to have corresponded with Neil about these matters. At present I am supervising a PhD student, Ron Smith, who is investigating goal scoring in football. Ron has had a distinguished career as a coach and performance analyst. I am hopeful that his work will add to the community of practice that has flourished as a result of Neil’s, Charles’, Simon’s and Richard’s foundational work.
Photo Credits
Wales versus Ireland football international at Wrexham
San Mames



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