Identifying ‘Clutch’ Players: Assist Providers

Assessing the impact of goals and assists has real value. In this piece, Alex Stewart looks at creators

A few weeks back, we revisited an article that Analytics FC Managing Director Jeremy Steele had written in 2019 about ‘clutch’ goalscorers. These are athletes who come up big when it matters, “usually in the last minutes of the game…in the do or die moments.” You can find the piece here and you can find the follow-up piece on last season’s ‘clutch’ scorers here.

Jeremy’s piece explains the methodology for goalscorers, a metric called ‘Goal Importance’ that uses “historical observations across thousands of matches…to generate [an] ‘expected points’ curves based on the goal difference at a given time in the match”.

And TransferLab also has this for assists, so we thought we would have a look at that too and see which players can deliver ‘in the clutch’ by creating chances for others that yield valuable goals.

Last season’s Premier League saw a mix of players popping up with ‘clutch’ assists. Mo Salah was also a ‘clutch’ scorer last season, underlining his immense value to Liverpool. Ayoze Perez only managed three assists last season, but two were crucial set-ups for Caglar Soyuncu and Jamie Vardy (a clutch scorer) in the last 12 minutes of what became a 4-2 win against Manchester United. Ciaran Clark’s one assist salvaged a draw for Newcastle United against Brighton and Hove Albion, while Brighton’s Enock Mwepu registered four assists last season, most notably two in a 3-2 win against Everton.

There is also a large range of assists by volume in the list: Salah managed 13, the most in the league, while Paul Pogba and Reece James assisted nine, and Dejan Kulusevski eight. But between them, Perez (3), Vydra (3), Bamford (2), and Clark (1), managed as many assists as Pogba or James did in total; this metric is about importance, not volume.

Ayoze Perez delivers for Jamie Vardy

The Championship’s ‘clutch’ assisters shows this too. The top five are as follows:

Millwall’s Jed Wallace is the highest assist provider by volume in our list, with 12 in total, which put him joint-third in the league last season behind Harry Wilson (19) and John Swift (13), and tied with Antoine Semenyo. But none of Wilson, Swift, or Semenyo make our top five for ‘clutch’.

Ian Poveda’s two assists secured a draw against Middlesborough and put Blackburn ahead against Sheffield United. Jordan Rhodes set up a crucial goal for Sorba Thomas to equalise late in the day against Blackpool; Thomas then score again to secure Huddersfield’s win. Cafu’s one assist came in the 87th minute against Q.P.R. in a key promotion battle for Nottingham Forest, while Bradley Dack assisted the goal that put Rovers ahead against Derby County.

It is worth saying, too, that the top assisters by volume, Wilson, Swift, and Semenyo, did provide important ones too: the latter is eighth in our list of ‘clutch’ assisters, while Swift came in 16th and Wilson 19th; this again goes to show that if you achieve enough volume, some will almost certainly be important, but they don’t necessarily count as much as one or two absolutely do or die moments of creativity.

LaLiga is worth highlighting for two reasons: the first is that none of the top five managed over 1400 minutes, with Ousmane Dembele getting the most minutes and coming second for ‘clutch’ assists; his 13 assists at 0.83 per 90 was a superb tally in relatively limited game-time (the maximum possible minutes for a LaLiga player are 3,420, so Dembele played just over 40% of those). The second thing to note is veteran Dani Alves, once again coming up with the goods when it mattered. His three assists at 0.25 per 90 were key for Barcelona and showed why, even at 39, he is still a superb attacking full back.

Lastly, let’s look at Europe’s top five leagues, or Tier 1 in TransferLab’s categorisation.

Again, players with limited minutes like FC Koln’s Kingsley Schindler, Roma’s Eldor Shomurodov, and OGC Nice’s Evann Guessand dominate the top of the list.

Kinglsey Schindler with a ‘clutch’ assist

The Premier League’s Ayoze Perez is a top five player, while Domenico Berardi and Lionel Messi stand out for their volume of minutes played as well as ‘clutch’ assisting; they both registered 14 assists in their respective leagues, some of which were key.

Lastly, a plot of expected assists per 90 versus assist importance highlights a few more interesting players.

Dembele is streets ahead with his expected assist numbers, while Schindler’s two assists were crucial, but his overall xA numbers are low. And note those two Ligue 1 players, Edon Zhegrova of Lille and Reims Arber Zeneli. Zhegrova (23-years-old) over-performed on his xG and xA last season in limited minutes but his position on this plot is interesting and he’s worth keeping an eye on. Zeneli, another Kosovan, put up impressive numbers, again in limited minutes, although at 27 he’s not a prospect; he could, nonetheless, probably do a great job for a Tier 2 club looking to recruit a skilful forward or attacking midfielder.

Assist impact, like goal impact, is an interesting metric. It can highlight players with consistently important performances, like Salah or Dembele, or players who make use of limited minutes but deliver when it matters most. The latter are probably more interesting for scouts, as they can make use of other metrics, like expected assists, to see which players could transition from doing it when it matters most to producing regularly when given the chance.

Image credit: Shutterstock/Edward Thomas Bishop

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