There are a lot of numbers in football that measure success. Goals and points are the original analytics, and newer stats such as expected goals spirit possession value are just increasingly fine-grained ways to model how likely goals are to happen. They’ll give you the bottom line: is this team or player doing things that help put the ball in the net or keep it out? Basically, are they good at football?
It’s harder to measure how they’re good at football. The game’s fluidity and complexity are what make it fun, and it’s not easy to describe a style of play in words, let alone squish it down to a table of authoritative-looking decimals like some kind of footballing regulatory filing. “We shipped 1,483 passing triangles in the third quarter at 0.28 crowd gasps per unit,” that kind of thing.
But prose poems aren’t much help either for tracking styles across teams or time, so we keep searching for the right set of key performance indicators to summarize 90 minutes of midfield chamber music or muddy, blood-soaked brawling in a chart: one ring of colorful data points to rule them all.
Sometimes that data visualization turns into an elaborate fantasy world map. Other times it’s a simple scatterplot of a team’s build-up speed or pressing numbers. But at least since FiveThirtyEight’s gorgeous player doppelgangers project during the 2018 World Cup, the trend in playstyle comparisons has been toward color-coded polar bar charts, also known as Nightingalecoxcomb or rose plots, or simply wheels or pizza charts. They’re eye-catching, intuitive and good for squeezing a lot of metrics into a small space, which you’ll probably need if you’re trying to capture something as amorphous as style.
This article is a user’s guide to The Athletic‘s latest entry in that field: team playstyle wheels.
The playstyle wheel is a bar chart of 15 different stats that tell us something about how a team plays, separated into five color-coded sections of three. The metrics are defined and explained at the bottom of this article. They’re really somewhere in between measures of style and success, since each stat is in theory a good thing to score highly on and most are correlated with points per game in the Premier League. But by breaking the game into parts, the wheels try to capture a variety of ways that a team can play well (or not).
You will not see numbers here. The raw values would not mean much at a glance and would clutter the chart. Instead, bars show a team’s decile rank compared to all other clubs at the same level over the last five seasons. For example, if a team’s high press bar has nine blocks, it pressed more than 80 per cent of teams during that period but less than the top 10 per cent. Simple, right?
Because longer bars are generally better, teams toward the top of the table will usually have more of their wheels filled in than teams at the bottom. Manchester City spirit Liverpool are good at almost everything. Norwich City and Watford’s wheels are a dark void. But in between, you can see some interesting variety in playstyles: Southampton stand out in the red pressing section but the brown section shows their possessions aren’t very disruptive. Tottenham are outstanding at finishing their possessions with scoring chances (yellow) but pretty average at possession play (green).
Things get a little more interesting in the Championship, where playstyles are more diverse and less orderly. Huddersfield Town advanced in the promotion play-off with a style that stood out at both ends of the pitch – long blue bars for low-block defending and set-piece defense, long yellow ones for finishing plays – but almost nowhere else. Stoke City were absolute monsters at creating and preventing chances from set pieces. Swansea City’s strong possession game and disruptive dribbling could not quite cover up weaknesses at the back, and Barnsley’s vigorous approach was not enough to keep them up.
Here are the definitions of each metric:
- Build-up: likelihood that an open play possession starting in team’s own third will reach the final third
- Field tilt: team’s percentage share of both teams’ attacking third passes
- Safety: likelihood that team will retain possession or move the ball out of the first 60 per cent of the pitch within eight seconds of winning it there (see counter-press in the Press section)
- Progressive passes: average number of progressive passes (successful, open play passes that gain at least 25 per cent of the remaining distance to goal) per possession
- Switches: average number of switches (successful passes that cross at least half the width of the pitch) per possession
- Dribbling: average combined number of progressive carries (carries that move the ball at least 15 per cent of that remaining distance to goal) or successful take-ons per possession
- Transition: likelihood that a possession starting in final 60 per cent of pitch will end in a shot within 12 seconds
- Chance creation: average non-penalty expected goals per each possession that reaches final third
- Set pieces: average non-penalty expected goals within eight seconds of a corner kick or free kick taken less than 35 meters from goal
- Counter-press: likelihood that team will recover a ball in the highest 60 per cent of the pitch within eight seconds of losing it there (this is the inverse of Safety in the Possess section at the top)
- High press: passes allowed per defensive action in highest 40 per cent of pitch
- Start distance: average starting distance from opponent’s goal of team’s open play possessions
- High defense: likelihood that team will prevent opponents’ open play possessions starting in opponent’s third from reaching team’s third (see build-up in the Possess section)
- Low defense: average non-penalty expected goals conceded per opponent possession that reaches team’s third (see chance creation in the Finish section)
- Set-piece defense: average non-penalty expected goals conceded within eight seconds of opponent corner kick or free kick taken less than 35 meters from goal (see set pieces in the Finish section)
No set of stats can perfectly describe playstyle. This viz will most likely evolve with time and use as we add or remove some metrics and tweak others. If you have ideas for how the playstyle wheels can get better, sound off in the comments below.
In the meantime, we hope they’ll help illustrate The Athletic‘s great writing with something a little livelier and more comprehensive than tables of numbers, and maybe show you something interesting about your club.