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World Cup Assists

England's Goal Assists


What is an 'assist'?

In the Laws of the Game, there is no meaning to an 'assist'. There is also no mention of a goalscorer. At first, it was only the total number of goals scored that was important, as this obviously decided the winner of the game. It was only later, when the press began to report the games, that individuals were named and credited with the last touch. Inevitably, this led to players being recognised as top scorers, or 'heroes' in the big games for a winning goal. The concept of an 'own goal' was also introduced where a defensive player had inadvertently sent the ball over the line, but it was all at the discretion of the press's interpretation in their match reports. There were disagreements among supporters, but the press usually made the call, as there were many of them, and they had the best views. Historians and yearbooks would then reproduce the press interpretations in list form for easier reference at the end of each season.

The advent of film recording and ultimately, high-definition video allows us to look back on some of those early games, and occasionally see where the press got it wrong. We will usually point these out within these pages, but it was not until the 1986 World Cup that FIFA began to recognise the concept of an 'assist' being of significance, probably influenced by American football and/or rugby where it is easier to identify the assist within a set play. They even awarded the World Cup's Golden Boot to Thomas Müller by using his assists as a tiebreaker when he finished level on goals scored with two other players in 2010.

In football, there are multiple different types of situations leading up to a goal. The popular view of an assist is the midfield playmaker providing that telling through-pass for the scorer to dispatch. In days gone by, it would be the winger putting a cross onto the head of a centre-forward. Should all goals have a credited assist? Well, unless a team manages to somehow get the ball into its own net from kicking off, there is always a player on the attacking side who was the last to touch the ball, so the option is there to always credit someone.

A more pertinent question is, probably, whether one assist is as good as another. Sometimes, for example, a simple short pass might lead to the player receiving the ball going on a mazy dribble before scoring. Does the player passing the ball deserve credit? Well, yes, because they have enabled the opportunity for the scorer, even if it was a straightforward touch of the ball. We don't distinguish goals in this way, although these are being analysed much more thoroughly in the modern game, but assists are different, in my opinion. Over a season, they tell us the real creative strength of the team, the unsung hero, but if we're looking at a single game, as we usually do with England internationals, is it enough to just list who to credit with an assist? The Premier League tells us that Kevin De Bruyne had 16 assists in the 2022-23 season, but not what sort of assists they were. Knowing the way that Manchester City play, I suspect that they were mostly that final pass to the scorer, the popular view of an assist, but if we are going to be accurate about this, surely 'assist' is too vague as a term in the media, and open to too many different interpretations.

According to Wikipedia, FIFA identified the following six scenarios in 1986 for identifying 'assist points':

1.      An assist was awarded to the player who had given the last pass to the goalscorer.

2.      In addition, the last-but-two holder of the ball could get an assist provided that his action had decisive importance for the goal.

3.      After goals from rebounds those players were awarded an assist who had shot on target.

4.      After goals scored on penalty or by a directly converted free-kick the fouled player received a point.

5.      In case that the goalscorer had laid on the goal for himself (dribble, solo run), no assists were awarded.

6.      No assists were awarded, either, if the goalscorer took advantage of a missed pass by an opponent.

The 1990 World Cup technical report adopted similar criteria, but changed the free-kick/penalty criterion:

Where goals resulting from penalties are concerned, the player who is fouled in the area receives an assist point (unless, that is, the player who is fouled subsequently executes the penalty himself).

I believe that there are holes in these definitions, namely:

Number 2 above is very subjective - what does 'decisive importance' mean? Open to debate.

Number 3 - what if it hits the post or bar? - shouldn't that also count?

Number 4 - what if the player fouled hadn't touched the ball e.g. wrestled to the ground by an opponent at a corner - is that an assist?

Number 5 - if the player took a pass from a team-mate, that team-mate has still 'assisted'.

Number 6 - true, but the opponent may have just received the ball from an attacking player who could be worthy of an assist credit?

More importantly, is it really fair to just award one point for each of these scenarios? You could award more points for the first scenario above, but adding them all up could still mean that the player constantly being fouled (or expertly 'bouncing off' a defender) gets the most credits. Therefore, we have the following proposed list of grouped scenarios to break down the assists provided by England players:

a) creative assist (e.g. intended cross, pass to the scorer),

b) accidental assist (e.g. mis-kick or deflection),

c) rebound (e.g. off a defender (including own goals) or the woodwork),

d) incidental (e.g. a simple pass, but then the scorer does all the work),

e) dead-ball assist (e.g. corner or free-kick where the ball is just launched into an area),

f) off-the-ball foul (e.g. resulting in a penalty or free-kick from which the goal is scored),

g) direct foul (e.g. on a player with the ball and resulting in a penalty or free-kick),

h) initial assist (e.g. where a player is fouled and scores from the penalty or free-kick themselves).

i) no assist (e.g. where the ball has been deliberately played by two opponents before the scorer).

One good test of these scenarios is England's equaliser against the USSR in the 1958 World Cup. A long ball from Bryan Douglas hits a defender before Tom Finney makes an intended pass to Johnny Haynes, who is fouled before he can reach the ball. Finney scores from the resultant penalty, but who gets the assist? There could be an argument to say that it should be Douglas, but if we accept that players being fouled without touching the ball are credited then it has to go to Haynes.

We can then highlight this as category f) and to make it simpler, we can group the above scenarios into the following:

 Creative (a), Fortunate (b, c, d and e), Fouled (f and g), Initial (h) and None (i).