In professional football, statistics play more of a role now than they ever have before. The growth of data and analytics in football has meant that most big soccer fans are well versed in some of the more technical terms and metrics banded about by pundits, coaches and journalists.
However, assists are hardly a niche aspect of the football vocabulary; they've been a commonly-seen part of the game for a while now. But despite that, many people are still unaware of exactly what an assist is. How do you record and track assists? Is there always an assist before a goal? Which soccer players and positions are most likely to get assists?
This article will tackle all those questions, providing you with everything you need to know about assists in soccer, thereby strengthening your knowledge of how the beautiful game works. Let's get started with the basics.
A soccer assist is a pass that leads directly to a goal — it's as simple as that. This metric was first recorded officially by FIFA in 1994, so it's a fairly recent addition to the world of soccer statistics. However, it's now been adopted across the board.
Whether intentional or not, any pass from an offensive player that leads directly to a goal for their team is counted as an assist. These basic requirements mean that as you can imagine, assists are a very frequent occurrence in football.
In fact, even if the scorer of a goal is almost totally responsible for putting the ball in the back of the net — let's say they dribbled past 5 defenders before smashing it into the top corner, for example — the player who gave them the ball would often still technically notch an assist, as long as it was the final pass made to the goal scorer.
That being said, it's also important to note that there is no standardized system for awarding assists, as it's not an official part of the Laws of the Game, so assists can be recorded differently by different statisticians, organisations or competitions. Things aren't always as black and white as they are for a goal, that's for sure.
There's no easy answer to this question. While goal scorers inevitably grab most of the headlines, sometimes it's the pass that leads up to a goal that steals the show — think about Joao Cancelo's ridiculous trivela assist for Manchester City against Borussia Dortmund, or Lionel Messi's exquisite pass to Crameschi for Inter Miami last week.
Assists and goals are both essential within football, but certain players will have preferences about which is more important to them.
For example, prolific out-and-out strikers such as Robert Lewandowski or Karim Benzema will be more interested in scoring goals, whereas more creative players focused on playing that killer pass (like Kevin De Bruyne or Luka Modric) will tend to be more concerned about the number of assists they're recording. It ultimately comes down to the individual.
It's possible for a goal to have no recorded assist, but this ultimately comes down to who is recording the statistic and how lenient they are. Assist statistics can be recorded by competition organisers, journalists, or fantasy football leagues, and whether or not a player is credited with an assist can vary depending on where the stats are coming from.
In the case of a clean, simple cross into the box being tucked away by an attacker, it becomes pretty obvious how the assist is awarded; however, when it comes to some of the stricter organisations, there are a few situations in which an assist won't be recorded.
For example, you won't always see an assist given for a penalty kick goal, and when the FIFA World Cup first introduced this stat they didn't award assists if the goalscorer took advantage of a missed pass by an opponent.
In general though, the rules are pretty lenient; there's no time limit for how long the scorer can be on the ball before netting, so theoretically a player could dribble around for 10 minutes before scoring and the person who gave them the ball in the first place would still end up grabbing an assist. What is clear is that as soon as an interception is made by another player, no assist is given.
When it comes to penalties, the general rule is that an assist will be awarded to the player who ends up winning a penalty, as long as the goal is then converted by another player. That being said, if the player who wins the penalty also takes and scores the spot kick, no assist will be given.
In the Premier League's official FPL (Fantasy Premier League) app, players who are adept at winning penalties can therefore be very useful. Quick, clever dribblers like Wilfried Zaha or Raheem Sterling can wind up being awarded an assist for a penalty win on a regular basis, becoming an asset to any smart fantasy soccer league manager.
It's worth taking a look at the work of statistical experts Opta during our analysis of assists in football. The definition of an assist according to Opta is "the final touch (pass, pass-cum-shot or any other touch) leading to the recipient of the ball scoring a goal.
If the final touch (as defined in bold) is deflected by an opposition player, the initiator is only given a goal assist if the receiving player was likely to receive the ball without the deflection having taken place. Own goals, directly taken free kicks, direct corner goals and penalties do not get an assist awarded."
So there you have it: you can't have an assist from an own goal. At the same time, it's worth noting Opta are harsher than some other statistic recorders; for example, unlike FPL they don't count it as an assist when a player wins a penalty that leads to a goal.
This brings us back to the fact that not every goal will have an assist. For example, if a defender plays a dodgy backpass which a striker picks up on and then finishes, or a goalkeeper rolls out the ball and gives it straight to an onrushing attacker who then converts the chance, there is no registered assist.
A second assist is defined by Wyscout as the last action of a player from the goalscoring team, prior to an assist by a teammate. Basically, when a player gives the ball to a player who then sets up a goal, that original passer has recorded a second assist rather than the primary assist.
However, this isn't a widely recorded statistic and has nowhere near as much weight or respect as an ordinary assist. You'll rarely hear anyone within the game referring to second assists with much seriousness.
Expected Assists are a statistical metric used to measure the likelihood that a pass will end up being a primary assist. Essentially, it judges the situation that a creative player is in to help get a better idea of whether they'll be able to create a dangerous chance from that space, based on comparisons with historical information.
The data model for Expected Assists (also known as xA) is based on a variety of factors including the finishing location of the pass, and the type of pass played. It doesn't matter whether a shot is actually taken after the pass is made, so all creative passes can be judged according to xA regardless of what the end result is
Another football statistic that's closely linked to Expected Assists (xA) but is arguably much more well-known is Expected Goals.
Expected Goals (also known as xG) is a metric designed to measure the probability of a shot resulting in a goal. This statistic helps show when a player should be converting certain chances by rating the quality of a certain goal-scoring opportunity.
xG is calculated based on historical information, with those who create each data model taking a look at thousands of shots with similar characteristics to estimate how likely a goal is in any given situation based on a scale from 0 to 1. 0 would mean that on average, if 10 shots with similar characteristics had been taken in the past, none of them had been scored, while 1 would reflect that all of those 10 shots had gone in.