Football Features

From Cantona to De Bruyne: The Premier League assist-king succession line

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 20:23, 16 May 2020

The assist is one of the most perplexing but crucial statistics in football.

Obviously, it can be deceptive. A five-yard pass that is followed by a 30-yard strike will sometimes count for the same as a scything through-ball that leaves the striker with a tap-in. But an assist is an assist, and the players who can consistently provide them are as valuable as gold dust.

The assist hasn’t always been tracked, but since the Premier League came into being in 1992, it has been recorded. It didn’t enter common parlance until a decade later, sure, but the data is all there. This allows us to look back through the Premier League era and find the ‘assist kings’.

More than that, we can chart the line of succession. Who was the first leading assist-maker in the Premier League? And who replaced him when he left the league? Or was he usurped by a greater goal creator? And what happened to the next monarch? And the next? We look back through the numbers — setting the appearance minimum at a nice, regal 100 — and now we present to you the succession history of the Premier League assist king, i.e. the player with the best assist-per-game average in the competition.

1992-1997: Eric Cantona

  • Games: 156
  • Assists: 56
  • Assists per game: 0.36

The Premier League’s first great superstar was the first assist king. Way back before frat-culture buffoons appropriated the popped collar, Eric Cantona wore it with distinction. He was swagger personified. Imagine Zinedine Zidane but with a full head of hair and a more regal air. A player who not only knew he was better than his opponents but cooler, too.

Cantona was a warrior poet, an artist with the ball who established Manchester United as the dominant force in English football. Winning four of the first five available titles. Initially as one of many men, but then leading a squad of boys. Many remembered him for his goals, but Cantona was just as proud of his assists. In fact, he has said (in the largely improvised film, Looking For Eric) that his sweetest moment in football was an assist to Denis Irwin, “an offering to the great god of football.”

1997-2003: David Beckham

  • Games: 265
  • Assists: 80 
  • Assists per game: 0.30 

From the leading man to the matinee idol, Cantona’s abrupt retirement in 1997 saw his No.7 shirt and his place as assist king pass to teammate David Beckham. In one of football’s famous instances of nominative determination, the winger born at Whipps Cross hospital honed his talent for delivering the ball into the box with frequency and flawless execution.

Beckham needed about half a yard, and he could bend the ball like the rest of us bend straws. Hitting the first man’s shins? Never. Beckham would arc his balls like a rainbow into the area, both from set-pieces and open play, and let his teammates arrive to thump home headers and volleys with aplomb. Titles (six of them) followed his crosses as surely as thunder follows lightning.

2003-2007: Thierry Henry

  • Games: 258 games
  • Assists: 74
  • Assists per game: 0.29

The French retook the throne (this is starting to sound like medieval history) after Beckham left for Spain, and they did so with an absolutely ridiculous panache. If Cantona was the leading man and Beckham the matinee idol, then Thierry Henry was both at the same time. Impossibly handsome, ridiculously brilliant and a commanding presence for Arsenal.

Henry was a great goal-creator, able to feed his teammates with supreme timing. While his 0.29 assists per-game was below the level of his predecessors, remember that he achieved those numbers while playing as a striker and scoring a colossal 0.68 goals per-game as well. He won a couple of titles, one of them without losing a single game, and also holds the record for most assists in a single Premier League campaign (20 in 2002/03). Henry was Arsenal’s everything for so long it seemed as though they would fall to pieces if he left. But Arsene Wenger always has a plan.

2007-2011: Cesc Fabregas

  • Games: 350
  • Assists: 111
  • Assists per game: 0.32

Enter the Catalan. At just 20 years old, Cesc Fabregas had already played 106 games and made 21 assists in three seasons for Arsenal when Henry left the Emirates. But seeing that crown up for grabs, Cesc seized his chance and captured the throne for himself.

Cesc was (and still is) an assist machine. His range of passing is as widespread as the Eurasian Steppe. If you were on his team, there was nowhere on the pitch Fabregas could not find you. Fiercely struck passes or deftly weighted chips, this rugged-looking boy (and he was a boy) could do it all, even upon returning to the Premier League with Chelsea — helping them to two league titles — although there was a new king by then…

2011-2013: David Silva

  • Games: 301
  • Assists: 90
  • Assists per game: 0.30

When Fabregas left to chase his dreams in Barcelona, it seemed fitting that David Silva, a fellow Spaniard, would be the one to establish supremacy. Silva arrived a year before Fabregas left, but when he saw the throne ready for the taking he knew what he had to do.

Silva not only took the assist king crown, but he also was one of the driving forces as Manchester City won their first top-flight title since 1968. Silva followed that up with another year of wonderful, perceptive play, but then something happened to him that hadn’t happened before.

A usurper emerged.

2013-2017: Mesut Ozil

  • Games: 184
  • Assists: 54
  • Assists per game: 0.29

The crown had always passed passively before. The king had always departed the league with no challengers, and a new monarch rose up in their wake. But here it was taken by force. Here, Arsenal signed Mesut Ozil from Real Madrid and the German just ripped the thing right off Silva’s head.

During his peak, no one created chances for his teammates quite like Ozil. No one laid them on as delicately as he could. A leftie like Silva, his cut-in-and-pass is as deft and breathtaking as his lack of work-rate is frustrating. But really, who cares about work-rate?

In 2015/16, as Arsenal finished second for the first time since 2005, Ozil recorded 19 assists, just one fewer than Henry’s Premier League record with many Arsenal fans cursing the finishing of their strikers for denying the German a place in the English football history books.

But heavy is the head that wears the crown. Ozil was first challenged by the return of Fabregas in 2014 but didn’t look like succumbing until a new opponent from Belgium emerged, doing to Ozil what he had done to Silva.

2017-present: Kevin De Bruyne

  • Games: 146
  • Assists: 62
  • Assists per game: 0.42

Even before Ozil had endured a slump in form, the assist crown was on its way up north to Manchester, where one Kevin De Bruyne was waiting.

Had Ozil seen De Bruyne’s previous spell in England with Chelsea, he would not have been worried at all about the safety of his throne. But Manchester City’s De Bruyne was a changed beast, moulded by his time in Germany, where he set the single-season record for setting up goals with Wolfsburg.

In just 38 Premier League appearances fewer, the Belgian has beaten Ozil’s assist tally with 62 overall and 15 or more in three consecutive seasons, including the 2019/20 campaign which still has 10 games remaining. With 16 so far, De Bruyne even has Henry’s record in his sights and is keeping challengers such as Trent Alexander-Arnold (25 assists in 84 games) at bay for now.

In the end, the assist is a celebration of generosity. So even this battle for the throne, this mad scramble for power and glory, is one that will play out with a superb team spirit.

As Cantona, the original king, said in Looking For Eric: “You have to trust your teammates. Always. If not, we are lost.”