Josh Hobbs explores another one of TransferLab’s novel metrics, looking at some of the most ‘clutch’ assisters in world football.
Back in 2019, Analytics FC’s Managing Director, Jeremy Steele, wrote a piece about ‘clutch’ goal scoring’. Using TransferLab’s ‘Goal Importance’ metric, he was able to analyse who the most ‘clutch’ goal scorers were in the 2018/19 season. Returning to this idea in this article, we will use TransferLab to identify the players who take on their team’s creative burden when they’re needed most, using another metric, ‘Assist Importance’.
Firstly, let’s revisit the term ‘clutch’. The term is used regularly in US sports to describe a successful in-game action where the athlete is under pressure, usually in the last minutes of a game. An athlete who delivers ‘in the clutch’ is one who performs when it matters most, in the ‘do or die’ moments.
In football, these ‘clutch’ moments are usually reserved for last minute goal-scoring feats: Steven Gerrard in the FA Cup Final in 2006 or the “Aguerooooo!” moment when Manchester City won the Premier League late on in 2012. However, the players who lay on the chances for last minute winners should not be forgotten.
Ok, so Gerrard’s last minute equaliser in the FA Cup Final was pretty much all him. But the composure shown by Mario Balotelli to roll his man and slide the ball into the path of Aguero to fire past Paddy Kenny should not be underestimated:
Of course, the players we’re likely to uncover are generally going to be those who take on the role of chief creators in their teams. That said, this metric will help us to identify the difference between those players who are ‘flat-track’ bullies—inflating their statistics in big wins—and those who can think ahead clearly enough to come up with the killer pass when the chips are down.
How should we measure a creator’s ability ‘in the clutch’, then? Our data-scouting platform, TransferLab, features a ‘clutch’ metric. We use the name ‘Assist Importance’ for this metric but it refers to the same thing.
‘Assist Importance’ expresses the points added from a player’s assist for a goal based on two variables: time of assist/goal and score line. This is based on historical observations across thousands of matches which are used to generate ‘Expected Points’ curves based on the goal difference at a given time in the match:
When an assist is made and a goal is scored, the points added from that goal can be calculated as the difference between the curve for the previous points difference and the curve for the new points difference at the minute in which the goal was scored.
For example, in the 1st minute of the game the Expected Points for the average home team is about 1.5 pts if the scores are level. If the home team scores, this raises the expected points to about 2.5 pts meaning that, on average, this goal—and subsequently the assist—gives one additional point for the home team.
Conversely, an assist for a goal scored by the average away team in the 90th minute at 0-0 raises the Expected Points from 1 pt to 3 pts. This is because, as the clock ticks down, the Expected Points value tends towards the actual points given the score line at the time. As a result, a last gasp winner has the highest possible impact on the Expected Points value of the game, adding 2 pts.
However, if the home team are 3-0 up when a goal is scored, then the probability of not winning from that position is almost zero at any time in the game. Hence a goal scored at 3-0 up is effectively worthless in the context of gaining points.
The Data: the English Premier League
With a filter set to a minimum of 1000 minutes played, here are the top performers for ‘Assist Importance’ from last season’s Premier League:
Unsurprisingly, many of the top assisters in the league are featured in the list. Harry Kane was the highest provider of assists in the Premier League last season with 14 assists and his rank of third in the list demonstrates that his assists were largely of high value. Likewise with Kevin De Bruyne who had 12 assists. Raphinha, Pascal Gross, Marcus Rashford and Timo Werner were also in the top ten providers of assists in the division, so it isn’t surprising to see those on the list either.
De Bruyne, Raphinha and Kane also ranked in the top ten for expected assists as well, so this demonstrates that they were consistently creating quality chances for their teammates, rather than just benefitting from playing alongside clinical finishers.
Before concentrating on the top-performer on the list, a word on two notable absentees: Bruno Fernandes and Jack Grealish. Both are widely regarded as two of the best creators in the league and both rank in the top ten for xA and for assists in 20/21. However, clearly their assists were of lesser importance to their team’s results.
In the case of Fernandes, 6 of his 11 assists came in games where his side won by two goals or more with 4 of those coming games won by a margin of greater than 3 goals.
Meanwhile, Grealish claimed 3 of his 10 assists for Aston Villa in the wild 7-2 victory against Liverpool. He assisted the opening two goals of the game for Ollie Watkins with the first being the most valuable to his side as it put them in an early lead in the game. His third assist later in the game extended their lead to 5-1 at the time and so would have been of negligible value according to the metric. In fact, Grealish only assisted one goal in all of his side’s single goal victories throughout the season, this being a cross for Ross Barkley to score late in the first half of a 1-0 victory over Southampton.
Comparing Fernandes and Grealish with Said Benrahma—the top performer in the metric—we can see how the Algerian’s assists had a direct effect on the amount of points his side won.
His first assist of the season came in only his second appearance as he came on as a late substitute against Fulham:
As you can see above, the clock was ticking on towards the 92nd minute as the ball dropped to Benrahma in the area. He brought the ball down with a deft touch before playing a square pass for Thomas Soucek to score the winner. Whilst the assist might have been fairly simple, West Ham’s number 9 demonstrated good technique and a clear head at this moment. Rather than try to score the goal himself, he got his head up and made the right choice to provide the winner for his team.
Benrahma also assisted two further winners in the Premier League with half of his assists coming in games which West Ham won by a single goal.
After taking a while to fully integrate the ex-Brentford man into his side, David Moyes seems to have recognised how Benrahma’s impact benefitted the team and has subsequently picked him to start in each one of the seven Premier League games of 21/22 so far, resulting in him picking up two assists.
The Data: Young Talent Around Europe
Changing up the search filters a little, here are the top performers in Europe’s Big 5 Leagues Under the age of 23:
Again, many of the players featured here are not surprising: Borna Sosa’s 9 assists were instrumental to VfB Stuttgart’s strong season, Jadon Sancho was in the top 10 assisters in the Bundesliga with Borussia Dortmund, and we already saw Raphinha in the Premier League’s top 25 ‘clutch’ assisters list.
High performer Manu Sanchez might not be a player very well known to many:
The left back went out on loan to Osasuna from Atletico Madrid in January and provided 4 assists in the second half of the 20/21 season. All of these came as Osasuna scored the opening goal of the game and 3 of them were created in matches which his side won by a single goal.
Sanchez is on loan at Osasuna again this season. He has 1 assist in the 7 games he has played so far, providing the 88th minute winner against Mallorca.
The Data: The English Football League
Finally, here are the top performers in the English Football League (EFL) in 20/21 according to Assist Importance:
It might seem a little strange to see this list topped by a centre back from Swindon Town. But when you find out Tom Broadbent assisted two stoppage time winners, it makes a lot more sense.
It’s also notable that Harvey Elliott and Michael Olise have made Premier League debuts since last season. Olise signed for Crystal Palace after an excellent season at Reading and Elliott’s performances at Blackburn (and subsequently in Liverpool’s pre-season) were enough to convince Jurgen Klopp that the teenager should be part of his plans in the Premier League this season. This looked like being an excellent decision as the youngster started the season very well before dislocating his ankle in a game against Leeds United.
During his time at Blackburn, Elliott assisted goals on six occasions where his contribution was crucial to his team’s result as they drew the game or won it by a single goal.
Notably, the top assister in the Championship from last season, Emi Buendia is not included on this list. However, if changed to Championship only instead of including League One and League Two, the Argentine ranks in 11th place.
As we have seen, looking at ‘Assist Importance’ can show some interesting differences to simply looking at which players produced the greatest volume of assists or expected assists.
This metric is one of many within TransferLab which looks to bring further insight to a player’s value to their team. To find out more about TransferLab, why not sign up for a free seven-day trial?
Header image copyright IMAGO / PPAUK