How One Man’s Bad Math Helped Ruin Decades Of English Soccer

Friday, November 4th, 2016

Charles Reep, the father of soccer analytics, made one big, glaring mistake that changed the course of English soccer for the worse:

More than 60 years before player-tracking cameras became all the rage in pro sports, Reep was mapping out primitive spatial data the old-fashioned way, by hand.

Poring over all the scraps of data he’d collected, Reep eventually came to a realization: Most goals in soccer come off of plays that were preceded by three passes or fewer. And in Reep’s mind, this basic truth of the game should dictate how teams play. The key to winning more matches seemed to be as simple as cutting down on your passing and possession time, and getting the ball downfield as quickly as possible instead. The long ball was Reep’s secret weapon.

“Not more than three passes,” Reep admonished during a 1993 interview with the BBC. “If a team tries to play football and keeps it down to not more than three passes, it will have a much higher chance of winning matches. Passing for the sake of passing can be disastrous.”

Did you spot the mistake?

Reep’s mistake was to fixate on the percentage of goals generated by passing sequences of various lengths. Instead, he should have flipped things around, focusing on the probability that a given sequence would produce a goal. Yes, a large proportion of goals are generated on short possessions, but soccer is also fundamentally a game of short possessions and frequent turnovers. If you account for how often each sequence length occurs during the flow of play, of course more goals are going to come off of smaller sequences — after all, they’re easily the most common type of sequence. But that doesn’t mean a small sequence has a higher probability of leading to a goal.


  1. Watcher says:

    Reep’s famous dictum of finding the POMO (Position Of Maximum Opportunity) may have spawned a generation of long bay plays — though I was always amused how Watford played the long ball and Liverpool, say, benefitted from the ‘early ball’ because reporters loved Shankley and hated Taylor — but it was just a trend. Just as attacking centre-halves, deep-lying number nines and overlapping full backs were trends, I have seen many shifts in how footy is played over the years.

    But in a way Reep wasn’t utterly wrong: the more team gets locked into passing the more a defence has time to organise. If professional football relies on one thing it is organised defences, which is why the likes of Messi would command such a high transfer fee as individual brilliance and one perfect pass can penetrate even the most well-organised defence. In a traditionally low scoring game one goal can, and does, win a game.

    The more a team passes the ball the greater the chance of error, either inaccuracy, mis-control, interception or tackle. My contention is that football now has become obsessed with tip-tap short pass football in midfield, and stats that ‘prove’ a team has more possession are waved round like they are impeccable indications of quality, or even winning, play.

    I am no fan of the long ball game, but surprise can catch an opponent off guard as opposed to trying to break down a team content to pull players back into defence and who then waiting patiently for the inevitable breakdown.

    Three passes, in a sport of high exchange and potential positional or control error, may be roughly accurate leading to a goal scored. But seeing a team make twenty passes in midfield and then lose the ball is neither entertaining nor effective. Football, as always, should be about mixing things up and looking for the one advantage that will tilt the game. And if you start putting faith in stats, then an own-goal probably counts as one pass for a goal just as a penalty does. My view is entertaining though they may be, you can’t always trust football stats no matter how seemingly comprehensive they may seem.

  2. Lucklucky says:

    I’ve never seen England play any other way than “kick the ball to the front” or some variation of it. So this is overblown.

    It is explainable by the fact that English players have subpar footballing individual technique compared to continentals.

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