How does Ole Gunnar Solskjaer measure the success of the midfielders under his stewardship at Manchester United?
Well, the United boss doesn’t use assists to make that judgement, as he explained after United’s 4-1 win against Newcastle on Saturday afternoon when Paul Pogba was responsible for creating – yet again – multiple of his side’s goals.
“What does an assist consist of? A square pass and Bruno [Fernandes] hits the top corner or when Paul plays a great pass through and Mason [Greenwood] runs through,” Solskjaer said. “Paul’s always been a top passer, one of the best in European football, he’s probably got assists from not his best passes this season. I don’t count assists, it’s all this social media.”
There is undoubtedly logic behind Solskjaer’s argument, often supporters on ‘social media’ can attach too much value and worth to assists in football, however, that’s why an advanced statistic has been recently invented to provide a truer measure of creativity.
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That advanced statistic is called Expected Assists (xA) and this metric offers a more accurate measurement of a player’s ability to create chances because the increasingly popular stat takes into account the likelihood that a given pass will become a goal assist.
In layman’s terms, xA still rewards players for getting the ball into the recipient, regardless of whether the chance is converted or not.
Considering that, it’s interesting to analyse Pogba’s assist total this season. The Frenchman has started the new campaign in electric form, having recorded seven assists across just four games and he’s sitting clear at the top of the Premier League’s assist table.
Pogba has recorded just 1.1 xA this season, though, and to make seven assists from such a low sum is exceptionally rare and unlikely.
That means Solskjaer was actually right to play down Pogba’s lofty assist total and the data also suggests that this is unsustainable long-term, which means it would be unrealistic to expect this remarkable level of creation – in terms of assists – to continue.
Despite this, Pogba’s reputation as one of the world’s finest midfielders is well deserved and, with seven assists to his name already this term, the Premier League assist record currently shared by Kevin De Bruyne and Thierry Henry will be attainable.
Manchester City’s De Bruyne equalled Henry’s record of 20 Premier League assists in one season in 2019/20, but Pogba can write himself into the division’s history books and assert himself over his peers by making 14 more assists across the remaining 34 fixtures.
As Solskjaer touched upon, there has been an element of fortune about Pogba recording seven assists thus far, but he now can seize that opportunity by building on that foundation to be considered one of the Premier League’s best playmakers of all time.
Pogba’s xA data suggests he needs to up his game to do so, but if he does it will be a prospect to savour.