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BLOG God Assist Me

Nothing seems to raise the hackles more in the world of football statistics than the assist. Originally derided as an Americanism, its entry into football parlance has come courtesy of the fantasy game and the need to have extra categories to give points to midfielders. Since then, it has become part of the fabric of football-speak and the most debated category by football fans contacting Opta, (usually because it means they have fewer points than expected on their fantasy team).

But, because no-one set down the definitive definition, fantasy games, statistics suppliers and even self-appointed sages among the football fan universe have adopted the category and adapted what exactly constitutes an assist.

Opta set down its definition in 1996 in conjunction with former Arsenal and England coach Don Howe when the company was formed and it is simply "the final pass or pass-cum-shot which directly leads to a goal scored by recipient of the ball."

This definition is generally mutually agreed by everyone as an assist, but since then, others have sought to expand the definition, as if a goal isn't somehow "complete" unless a player has set it up.

So, now some suggest winning a penalty is an assist. The flaw in this is that you could win the penalty and step up to score it, thereby assisting yourself. Also, if winning a penalty is an assist, then why not winning the free kick on the edge of the penalty area for a direct free kick goal?

Some suggest that deflected passes should be given as assists, but no matter how good a player is it is unlikely that he intended to do so, so how does this constitute an intentional pass? And now, some people have started logging free kicks that rebound off the woodwork or the goalkeeper as assists for a player who scores on the follow up! 

In Spain, it is argued that if a pass is made on the halfway line and a player (Maradona 1986 v England) dribbles the length of the pitch, how does this constitute an intentional attempt to set up a goal? To this end, Opta logs the assist, but also logs a qualifier "Intentional" which is applied when the pass is clearly intended to put the scorer in a goal-scoring position. This allows clients to select which definition they wish to apply, whether it is really narrow as in this example, or very wide to include penalties won etc..

In discussion with clients in the professional game, they look at things differently too, with some suggesting the "pre-assist" of legend (the pass to the Assister) or even the pass to the player who wins the penalty should be included.

It seems everyone has an opinion and that opinion changes over time. And that's where Opta differs. We have been collecting data since 1996 and our definition has remained consistent, so if you want to compare Pele's assists from the 1970 World Cup with Kaka's from 2010, or Cantona's assists with Bergkamp's assists and with Lampard's assists in the Premier League, you know it will be like for like and consistent right across the 3000 or so games we analyse in full detail every year across the world. 

Posted by Rob Bateman at 09:57