What Is an Assist in Football? The Ultimate Guide to Playmaking

In the world of football, an assist is a crucial aspect of the game that often goes unnoticed. This article will dive deep into what constitutes an assist, its importance in playmaking, and celebrate the creative geniuses who have mastered the art of setting up goals. By the end of this guide, you’ll have a newfound appreciation for the unsung heroes of the beautiful game.

Defining an Assist: When a Pass Leads to a Goal

As a passionate football fan, I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of an assist. In its simplest form, an assist occurs when a player passes the ball to a teammate, who then scores a goal without any significant intervention from another player. The key here is that the pass directly leads to the goal, with the scorer only needing to apply the finishing touch.

It’s important to note that an assist can come from any type of pass, whether it’s a long ball, a short pass, or even a header. The crucial element is that the pass is the final on-the-ball action before the goal is scored. This means that if a player makes a brilliant pass, but their teammate takes several touches before scoring, the pass may not be considered an assist.

In my experience, the beauty of an assist lies in its ability to showcase a player’s vision, creativity, and technical skill. A perfectly weighted through ball or a pinpoint cross can be just as impressive as a stunning goal. As the saying goes, “a goal is only as good as the assist that created it.”

I remember watching a match where Kevin De Bruyne played an inch-perfect cross into the box, finding the head of his teammate who scored with ease. It was a moment of pure footballing brilliance that left me in awe of De Bruyne’s playmaking abilities. That assist exemplified the importance of having a creative force in the team who can unlock defenses with a single pass.

Types of Assists: Crosses, Through Balls, and More

Assists come in many forms, each requiring a different set of skills and vision. Let’s take a closer look at some of the most common types of assists in football:

  • Crosses: A cross is a pass that is played from a wide area into the penalty box, often aimed at finding a teammate’s head or feet. Wingers and fullbacks are often the players who deliver crosses, trying to find their strikers in dangerous positions.
  • Through Balls: A through ball is a pass that splits the defense, allowing a teammate to run onto the ball behind the opposition’s backline. These passes require excellent vision and timing, as the passer needs to anticipate their teammate’s run and execute the pass perfectly.
  • Cutbacks: A cutback is a pass that is played from the byline or the edge of the penalty area, often after a player has beaten their defender. The pass is then pulled back towards the center of the box, where a teammate is waiting to apply the finish.
  • It’s worth noting that an assist can be made with any part of the body, as long as it’s a legal play. This means that a player can use their head, chest, or even their shoulder to make the final pass before a goal is scored.

    As a coach once told me, “An assist is not just about the final pass. It’s about the movement, the positioning, and the decision-making that leads up to that moment. A great playmaker is always thinking two or three steps ahead, anticipating where their teammates will be and how they can create space for them.”

    The Importance of Assists in Football Playmaking

    In modern football, playmaking has become a vital component of a team’s success. The ability to create scoring opportunities and unlock defenses can often be the difference between winning and losing. This is where assists come into play, as they are a key component of playmaking.

    A player who consistently provides assists is often referred to as a “playmaker” or an “assist king.” These players are the creative hub of their team, tasked with orchestrating attacks and finding ways to break down the opposition’s defense. They are often the ones who dictate the tempo of the game and make their teammates look good.

    The importance of assists in playmaking cannot be overstated. A team that struggles to create chances will often find it difficult to score goals, even if they have world-class strikers in their ranks. On the other hand, a team with a brilliant playmaker who can consistently provide assists will always be a threat, regardless of the opposition.

    As the legendary Johan Cruyff once said, “Players today can only shoot with their laces. I could shoot with the inside, laces, and outside of both feet. In other words, I was six times better than today’s players.” While Cruyff may have been exaggerating, his point about the importance of technical skill and versatility in playmaking still holds true today.

    Unintentional Assists and Controversial Cases

    While assists are generally straightforward, there are times when they can be a bit more ambiguous. One such case is the unintentional assist, where a player’s pass may take a deflection or a rebound before finding its way to the goal scorer. In these situations, the assist may still be awarded to the original passer, even if they didn’t intend for the ball to end up where it did.

    Another controversial aspect of assists is when a player’s pass takes a slight deflection off a defender before reaching the goal scorer. Some argue that this should not count as an assist, as the defender’s touch altered the path of the ball. However, the general rule is that as long as the deflection does not significantly change the direction or speed of the pass, the assist will still be given.

    There have also been cases where assists have been awarded retrospectively, after a game has finished. This usually happens when there is some confusion or uncertainty about who provided the final pass before a goal was scored. In these situations, the league or the governing body will review the footage and make a decision based on their analysis.

    I once watched a game where a player’s shot took a massive deflection off a defender, completely wrong-footing the goalkeeper and ending up in the back of the net. The goal was initially given to the shooter, but after the game, the league reviewed the footage and awarded the assist to the defender, much to everyone’s amusement. It just goes to show that assists can sometimes come from the most unlikely sources!

    Expected Assists (xA): Measuring the Likelihood of an Assist

    In recent years, the world of football analytics has introduced a new metric called “Expected Assists” or “xA.” This statistic measures the likelihood of a pass becoming an assist based on the quality of the pass and the position of the receiver. In other words, it looks at how often a specific pass would be expected to lead to a goal, based on historical data.

    The xA metric takes into account various factors, such as the distance and angle of the pass, the position of the defenders, and the location of the receiver on the pitch. By analyzing these factors, it can provide a more nuanced understanding of a player’s playmaking abilities, beyond just the raw number of assists they provide.

    For example, a player who consistently makes high-quality passes into dangerous areas may have a high xA, even if their actual assist tally is relatively low. This could be because their teammates are not converting the chances they create, or because they are playing in a team that doesn’t score many goals overall.

    Kevin De Bruyne2018.7
    Bruno Fernandes1815.2
    Trent Alexander-Arnold1312.5

    As the table above shows, the xA metric can provide a more comprehensive understanding of a player’s playmaking contributions, beyond just their raw assist numbers.

    Celebrating the Assist Masters: Football’s Creative Geniuses

    Throughout football history, there have been countless players who have mastered the art of the assist. These players are often the unsung heroes of their teams, the ones who make everything tick and bring out the best in their teammates. Let’s take a moment to celebrate some of the greatest assist providers in the game.

    One of the most iconic assist masters of all time is Ryan Giggs. The Welsh winger played for Manchester United for over two decades, racking up an incredible 162 assists in the Premier League alone. Giggs had an uncanny ability to pick out his teammates with pinpoint crosses and through balls, making him one of the most feared playmakers of his generation.

    In more recent years, players like Kevin De Bruyne, Mesut Ozil, and Christian Eriksen have taken up the mantle of the assist king. These players are renowned for their vision, technique, and ability to unlock defenses with a single pass. They are the creative geniuses that every team dreams of having in their ranks.

    Watching De Bruyne play is like watching a chess grandmaster in action. He always seems to be two or three moves ahead of everyone else, anticipating where the space will be and how he can exploit it. His assists are a thing of beauty, whether it’s a perfectly weighted through ball or a whipped cross into the box. He truly is a goal-creating genius.

    Of course, assists are not just the domain of attacking midfielders and wingers. Defenders like Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson have redefined what it means to be a fullback in the modern game, providing countless assists from wide areas. Even goalkeepers have gotten in on the act, with the likes of Ederson and Alisson showcasing their distribution skills with long-range assists.

    In the end, the assist is a testament to the beauty and complexity of football. It is a reminder that the game is not just about individual brilliance, but about the collective efforts of a team working together in harmony. So the next time you see a stunning goal, take a moment to appreciate the assist that made it possible, and the creative genius behind it.

    As the great Eric Cantona once said, “I have a lot of respect for creative players. They take risks. There is a lot of creativity in the way they think about the game, the way they see the game, the way they want to put their stamp on the game. And for people who just score goals, it’s not the same thing.”

    Photo of author

    Jadran Backer