How to understand The Radar, The Athletic’s World Cup Player Guide

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

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

At a time when all eyes are on the World Cup, we want to make sure all readers, including those relatively new to the sport, find our analytical content to digest as easily as possible.

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

How to read The Radar…

The profile section

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

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

Each profile section has a customized visualization that highlights something impressive about that player.

In Lewandowski’s case, his bespoke visualization is a “bee-warm plot” showing how his goals compare to other strikers in Europe’s top leagues. As you can see, only Manchester City’s Erling Haaland (who is off the radar as he is Norwegian and Norway failed to qualify for the World Cup) has had a better batting average than him since the start of last season.

When you click on the visualization it will open and fill your screen so you can zoom in if needed.

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

Well, penalty shootouts have an extremely high success rate. An undisputed shot from 12 meters is very different from a shot on target when there are many opposing players in the way or trying to take the ball away from you.

Goals scored from penalties can inflate a player’s stats and make them look like the best goalscorer in the world when in reality they are only playing for a team that takes a lot of penalties and is good at taking them when given the chance offers.

For this reason, non-penalty goals – their total excluding successful penalties – are a better way of assessing a player’s scoring ability. (Lewandowski will be inclined to agree after missing a penalty for Poland in the first game of this World Cup…)

Also, using stats per 90 minutes gives a more accurate idea of ​​how players are performing compared to their peers.

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

The data area: explanation of our pizza charts

First off, you’ll all have seen the circular “pizza charts” in the data section of each player’s profile.

It uses data from Smarterscout, a free-to-use website that breaks down elements of a footballer’s game into various performance, skill and style metrics using advanced analytics.

For a full explanation of these metrics, see our smarterscout guidebut this data simply gives a range of scores from zero to 99 that relate to both frequently A player performs a specific stylistic action (e.g. number of shots per touch) or how Effective how they play in their position compared to others (e.g. how well they contribute to creating chances for their team).

We can use an example of Lewandowski below.

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

The future section

This is the easiest of the three.

No visualizations, only information about the player’s contract and transfer status – when his current contract with his club expires, whether negotiations have been held for a new one and which clubs are or might be interested in the player’s departure.

Explanation of some other data visualizations from The Radar

player positions

Footballers can play in many different positions on the pitch. Some are more fixed in style than others and only play in one or two positions, while others may play in five or six different positions over the course of a season.

There are 13 positions referenced by Smarterscout, the aforementioned website that uses advanced analytics to break down elements of a footballer’s play into a series of metrics to capture each player’s profile.

They are listed and labeled in the visualization below, which represents the area they occupy on the pitch. The minute percentage line shows what percentage of minutes played was spent in each position.

  • LB – left-back
  • LCB – Left centre-back
  • CCB – Central defender
  • 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 GK.

Player Ball Progress

One of the key attacking metrics on Smarterscout’s pizza charts that we talked about earlier is “xG from ball progression.” This simply shows how much a player’s actions increase the likelihood of his side in possession scoring a goal by putting the ball up and into dangerous areas.

To dig a little deeper, you can check out smarterscout’s “Ball Progression Breakdown”. how A player’s actions put the ball into dangerous areas, either by passing or carrying/dribbling the ball forward, receiving in advanced positions on the field, winning important aerial duels, or executing tackles and interceptions to regain the ball.

This is broken down into an easy-to-read waffle chart to show the proportion of these actions for a player.

For example, you can see above that the way Tunisian midfielder Anis Slimane passes the ball is quite different.

His off-ball runs mean he poses a receiving threat in dangerous areas, and his strength off possession tells us his defensive interceptions do well to help his team win the ball high up.

What are expected goals?

Ah, the football analysis headline.

Simply put, Expected Goal (xG) is a way of measuring the probability of a shot resulting in a goal.

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

  • The angle of the shot
  • The distance to the target
  • Whether with the head or with the weaker/stronger foot
  • It doesn’t matter whether it’s a cross, a steep pass, a short pass, etc
  • Whether multiple defenders were in the way

In practice, we can then examine whether a player has scored more or less than he should have scored based on the quality of his chances.

For example, Tottenham Hotspur’s Son Heung-min, who will play for South Korea at this World Cup, has had notable streaks of form where he has significantly exceeded his xG count over a 900-minute period (a sample size equivalent to 10 full games).

For a more detailed breakdown of these metrics and other key football analysis terms, see the athlete‘s Football Analysis Glossary.

Finally, what is an international “ceiling”?

Avid football fans may take this for granted, but it’s worth noting what a ‘cap’ means in international football given the number of times we and other media refer to it during the World Cup.

A player’s cap count simply indicates how many matches he has played at international level.

The term originated in the United Kingdom, where players used to receive a real 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 modern football, but the term ‘cap’ survives when it comes 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 have their own explanation alongside.

Ultimately, we want to make sure you understand every metric, term, and graph that we include in The Radar.

Please comment below if you would like more terms explained.

In the meantime have fun!

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(Main Graphic – Photos: Getty Images/Design: Sam Richardson)


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