“What does an assist consist of? A square pass to Bruno and then Bruno hits the top corner? I don’t count assists at all. That’s just from social media.”
So said Ole Gunnar Solskjaer when he was recently coerced to praise Paul Pogba’s remarkable seven assists from an opening four games, a Premier League record no less, and it’s fair to surmise that the Manchester United boss doesn’t overly value goal-creation as a metric of high achievement.
This may constitute a minority view in the modern era but in many respects, the Norwegian’s downplaying of the accomplishment makes perfect sense, for he was a sharp-shooting striker back in the days when solely they were lauded, revered for hitting the ‘top corner’ while the team-mate who set the scorer up was barely mentioned in dispatches. Indeed, Solskjaer epitomised the specialist who — goalkeepers aside — were pretty much the only player to have statistical data attributed to them in the Nineties and prior. He and his rare ilk were ’20-goals-a-season’ finishers with ‘one-in-two’ strike-rates.
Then came the statistics boom, that has enveloped football to such an extent it has almost become an industry of itself, and these days every action from every player, regardless of position or stature, is broken down and analysed. And from that welter of different criterion, it is assists that have risen most in prominence, rivalling the art of scoring in terms of how much respect it garners and how much attention an assist-king of the Premier League receives.
Acknowledging this makes Solskjaer’s dismissal of the skill-set ironic given that his side possesses two of the best players around at serving up gilt-edged chances on a plate. Since arriving at Old Trafford in January 2020, Bruno Fernandes — he who smacks home the Exocet missile in his manager’s analogy — has assisted 26 times in 85 games across all competitions, an overall ratio that equates to one in every three matches. Last season, the Portuguese architect fell just short of topping the Premier League assist chart, finishing level with Kevin De Bruyne, whose ability to thread an imaginative throughball and create a goal out of nothing has furthered the assist cause substantially in recent years.
Kevin De Bruyne in his last eight games for Belgium:
⚽ 5 goals
🎯 9 assists pic.twitter.com/Oln44j3Tea
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) March 24, 2021
As for Pogba, he too has always been capable of carving out openings from seemingly nowhere, but if quality has never been an issue, quantity has. In the French star’s five seasons back in Manchester, he has completed an average of 6.4 league assists per campaign, and even if some of them have been inventive and brilliant, that’s not enough.
That shortcoming has certainly been addressed of late, and the midfielder’s seven at this early juncture is already making a mockery of his distant 50/1 odds back in August to finish 2021/22 as the top-flight’s top assist-maker. Yet still he languishes behind Fernandes in the betting, with last term’s runner-up competitively priced at 12/1. The question is: is it worth pursuing the longer odds on Pogba? Can he continue his creative exploits and ultimately be crowned the Premier League’s assist king come May?
United supporter Adam Sweeney thinks so and puts forward a reasoning that is hard to argue with.
“Paul Pogba always had it in his locker to thread the eye of a needle, but it feels as if there’s finally an understanding between him and the players around him. Bruno has assumed the scruffier, ballsier role of getting himself stuck into everything (and everyone) and Pogba has been freed to see the bigger picture, with the game in front of him.
His work rate has been questioned in the past, and justifiably so, but if Pogba is pre-occupied with gritty battles, you won’t get the best out of him. Instead of being expected to pull a rabbit out of the hat week-in-week-out, he has players around him that take self-responsibility in a) creating opportunities for Paul to thrive and b) understanding how clinical they must be if the ball finds them. For once, he’s allowed to be a master of his craft, rather than a jack of everyone else’s.”
7 PL assists for Paul Pogba so far in 2021-22 equals Paul Scholes' highest total in a complete PL season
— Duncan Alexander (@oilysailor) September 11, 2021
Should either United star go on to win the footballing equivalent of the Best Supporting Actor Oscar while Lukaku, Kane and Co. compete for the main prize, they will need to out-assist De Bruyne who remains a firm 4/1 favourite, along with an array of other Manchester City creatives in the running, from Grealish to Mahrez.
In the mix too, at a generous 20/1 from some quarters, is a 22-year-old talent plying his trade down the M62 who has twice been included in the PFA team of the Year and walked the Young Player of the Season merit in 2019/20. He is an outstanding and consistent performer who influences games per norm so of course he should be considered a genuine contender to out-assist his peers. Only what makes Trent Alexander-Arnold’s inclusion on the short-list so astounding is that he is of course primarily a right-back.
This Is Anfield’s Henry Jackson however, insists position is a secondary factor to excellence when it comes to racking up the assists.
“Trent Alexander-Arnold is a phenomenon. He’s obviously rated incredibly highly, but if he was Brazilian we’d be talking about him as one of the best full-backs of his generation. He is the creative force for Liverpool, possessing a better passing range than anyone in the squad and crossing the ball like Kevin De Bruyne. Often, he finds himself in those De Bruyne-esque areas in the inside right channel, and like the Man City superstar, he simply sees passes that most are incapable of spotting.
The relentlessness at which he assists and creates chances is unbelievable — no player in any position has created more so far this season, which is no great surprise — and an injury to him now would derail Liverpool’s season badly. At 22, he is a future Liverpool captain and he can hit whatever heights he wants.”
Trent Alexander-Arnold has now provided more Premier League assists (35) than Cristiano Ronaldo (34). 🤐 pic.twitter.com/61gOxQvytj
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) September 12, 2021
Such a glowing testimony puts that 20/1 price into sharp context and highlights the immense value within, and that’s before it’s remembered that Alexander-Arnold in 2018/19 created the most assists ever from a defender (12) while his second of this current campaign means that only three other players have assisted more at his young age — Wayne Rooney, Cesc Fabregas, and Ryan Giggs.
Lastly, if the player’s starting position remains a sticking point, consider this: last season Harry Kane topped the chart by the season’s end; a forward renowned mostly for hitting the ‘top corner’.
Logic and recent history inform that playmakers excel in the art of the assist, and subsequently De Bruyne and Fernandes should never be discounted. But sometimes momentum, and a player’s special role in their team matters also. That puts Pogba in the frame, and Alexander-Arnold.