How to understand The Radar, The Athletic’s World Cup player guide


Last week, we released The Radar — The Athletic’s guide to 100 players at the Qatar World Cup we think you should keep an eye on.

They range from well-known superstars such as Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappe, to rising stars like Jude Bellingham and Pedri, with plenty of under-the-radar players in between who we feel have the talent to wind up at some of football’s biggest clubs.

At a time when all eyes are on the World Cup, we want to ensure that all readers can digest our analytics content as easily as possible, including those who are fairly new to the sport. 

Whether you watch one game a year or one thousand, football is for everyone. So let’s walk you through the different sections in a player’s profile, and explain what you’re looking at.

This is how to read The Radar…

The profile section

First up is the profile section — that’s the part of the player card you’ll start on when you click on the player’s name; in this case, the Poland and Barcelona striker Robert Lewandowski.

For each player, we’ve written a short profile explaining their style, career and what to expect from them in Qatar.

In each profile section, there is a bespoke visualisation that highlights something impressive about that player.

In the case of Lewandowski, his bespoke visualisation is a “beeswarm plot”, which shows how his goalscoring compares to other forwards in Europe’s best leagues. As you can see, only Manchester City’s Erling Haaland (who is not in The Radar as he is Norwegian, and Norway failed to qualify for the World Cup) has a better strike rate than him since the start of last season.

If you click on the visualisation it will open up and fill your screen, allowing you to zoom in if needed.

“But what are non-penalty goals?”, we hear you ask.

Well, penalty kicks have an extremely high success rate. An uncontested shot from 12 yards is very different to shooting at goal when there are lots of opposition players in the way or attempting to take the ball off you.

Goals scored from penalty kicks can inflate a player’s statistics and make them look like the best goalscorer in the world when really they might just play for a team who are awarded lots of penalties and are good at taking them when they get the chance.

That’s why non-penalty goals — their total with the successful penalties removed — is a better way of gauging a player’s goalscoring prowess. (Lewandowski will be inclined to agree, having missed a penalty for Poland in their first game of this World Cup…)

Also, using per-90-minutes statistics gives a more accurate idea of how players compare to their peers.

If we used per game, there would be no context to the minutes played — one player could have played 10 minutes as a substitute and another played the full 90 minutes, but both would have played ‘one game’.

The data section: explaining our pizza charts

First up, you will all have seen the circular “pizza charts” in the data section of every player’s profile.

This uses data from smarterscout, a free-to-use site that breaks down elements of a footballer’s game into different performance, skill and style metrics using advanced analytics.

A full explainer of these metrics is provided in our smarterscout guide, but this data simply gives a series of ratings from zero and 99, relating to either how often a player performs a given stylistic action (for example, volume of shots per touch), or how effective they are at it (for example, how well they contribute to their team’s chance creation) compared to others playing in their position.

We can use an example below for Lewandowski.

As you can see, he contributes strongly to his club Barcelona’s creation of shots (xG from shot creation rating: 97 out of 99. Don’t worry, we’ll explain what xG is soon) compared with other strikers, and is quick to shoot with the attacking touches he has (shot volume: 92 out of 99).

The future section

This one is the simplest of the three.

No visualisations, just information on the player’s contract and transfer status — when their current deal at their club expires, if there have been negotiations over a new one, and which clubs are/might be interested if the player were to leave.

Explaining some of The Radar’s other data visualisations

Player positions

Footballers can play in lots of different positions on the pitch. Some are more set in their ways than others and will only play one or two, but others may play in five or six different positions over the course of a season.

There are 13 positions which smarterscout, that site we mentioned earlier that uses advanced analytics to break down elements of a footballer’s game into a number of metrics, refers to in order to capture each player’s profile.

They are listed and referred to in the visualisation below, which plots the area they occupy on the pitch. The minutes-share line outlines what percentage of their minutes played were spent in each position.

  • LB – Left-back
  • LCB – Left centre-back
  • CCB – Central centre-back
  • RCB – Right centre-back
  • RB – Right-back
  • LM – Left midfield
  • DM – Defensive midfield
  • CM – Central midfield
  • RM – Right midfield
  • LW – Left wing
  • CM – Central attacking midfield
  • RW – Right wing
  • ST – Striker

The remaining position, which is not part of smarterscout’s dataset, is goalkeeper, and is often abbreviated to GK.

Player ball progression

One of the key attacking metrics in the smarterscout pizza charts we spoke about earlier is “xG from ball progression”. This simply shows how much a player’s actions increase the likelihood of their side scoring when in possession, by getting the ball upfield and into dangerous areas.

To dig a little deeper, smarterscout’s “ball progression breakdowns” allow you to see how a player’s actions get the ball into dangerous areas, either by passing or carrying/dribbling the ball forward, receiving it in advanced positions on the pitch, winning key aerial duels, or making tackles and interceptions to regain possession.

This is broken down into a neat waffle chart to show the proportion of these actions for a player.

For example, you can see above that Tunisia midfielder Anis Slimane’s method of progressing the ball is rather varied.

His off-ball runs mean that he is a threat at receiving the ball in dangerous areas, and his strength out of possession tells us that his defensive interceptions contribute well to his team’s ability to win the ball high up.

What are expected goals?

Ah, the headline act of football analytics.

Put simply, expected goals (xG) is a way to measure the likelihood of a shot becoming a goal.

Not all shots are equal in their quality — one shot might be a speculative 40-yarder and another might be a two-yard tap-in. Therefore, xG measures the quality of each shot before the player shoots, taking into account many factors, including:

  • The shot angle
  • The distance from goal
  • Whether it was with the head, or with the weaker/stronger foot
  • Whether it was from a cross, through ball, short pass et cetera
  • Whether there were multiple defenders in the way

In practice, we can then explore whether a player has been scoring more or less than they should have based on the quality of chances they had.

For example, Tottenham Hotspur’s Son Heung-min, who will be playing for South Korea at this World Cup, has had notable patches of form where he has heavily outscored his xG number across a 900-minute period (a sample size the equivalent of 10 full matches).

For a more detailed breakdown of these metrics and other key football analytics terms, check out The Athletic’s football analytics glossary.

And finally, what is an international “cap”?

Avid football fans may take this for granted, but it’s worth noting what a “cap” means in international football, given how much we and other media refer to them during the World Cup.

A player’s number of caps is simply how many games they have played in at senior international level.

The term originates from the United Kingdom, where players used to receive an actual cap (hat) for each game in which they represented their country, to commemorate the achievement.

The commemorative cap presented to England striker Wayne Rooney when he reached 100 ‘caps’ for his country (Photo: Michael Regan – The FA/The FA via Getty Images)

This is no longer the case in the modern game, but the term “cap” survives when referring to a player’s international career.

There are a whole host of other metrics and data points that we discuss in The Radar, many of which include their own explainer alongside it.

Ultimately, we want to ensure that you understand every metric, every term, and every graphic that we include within The Radar.

Please do comment below if there any further terms you would like explained.

In the meantime, enjoy!



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