When you discuss the greatest creators in Premier League history, some names crop up more than others, and a specific few even more. Ryan Giggs, Cesc Fábregas and Dennis Bergkamp may well have popped into your mind as you read that first line, but once the dust settles and the boots are unlaced for the final time, it’s likely a certain fair-haired Belgian will come into focus, and it’s not Ruud Boffin.
The Season So Far
Kevin De Bruyne is having what people like to refer to as a big season. The graphic below, which displays his assists and most dangerous passes in open play, goes some way to illustrating that.
On the right of the pitch map, you can see the tendrils of what has quickly been named the ‘De Bruyne assist’ – a fizzed, curling grass-cutter to the back post for an ensuing tap-in. See: Gabriel Jesus’s goal vs. Aston Villa for a prime example.
Heading into the restart he currently tops the competition for goal involvements (24), assists (16), expected assists (10.8), chances created (96) and chances created from open play (72) – to name a few. But using Stats Perform’s advanced sequences metric, the list goes on.
Which player has been involved in the most open play possessions which have ended with his team having a shot? De Bruyne, 220 times. Which player has been involved in the most open play possessions which have ended with his team scoring a goal? De Bruyne, 27 times. Which player has started the most possessions which have ended with his side having a shot? De Bruyne, 13 times. Even when he isn’t directly creating a chance himself, you can find him one pass further back in the sequence a league-high 48 times, with what we term ‘secondary chances created’ (the pass before the chance creation).
Cementing His Place in Premier League History
Take a step back and consider De Bruyne’s Premier League career in full. Of the 41 players to have reached 50 Premier League assists De Bruyne’s record of 181 minutes per assist is top of the tree, and significantly better than second place. In fact, the gap between first and second is actually larger than the gap between second and ninth.
Of course, it’s worth mentioning that De Bruyne is still in the prime of his career and many of the players ranked below him stayed in the league well past their peak. If you’re to be considered the best, it’s nice to have a few records in your back pocket, and there’s one big box De Bruyne can tick in the final stretch of this season that would make him a tough choice to disagree with.
In 2002/03, Thierry Henry decided scoring goals left, right and centre simply wasn’t cutting it, setting up a gargantuan 20 league goals for Arsenal, quadrupling his tally of five from the previous season. In doing so Henry broke the record set by countryman Eric Cantona, who registered 16 assists in the competition’s maiden season 10 years prior. Challengers for Henry’s title have come and gone since – in 2014/15 Cesc Fábregas had 15 assists by matchday 22 but only set up another three goals all season, while the closest of all was Mesut Özil, who in 2015/16 collected an absurd 16 assists after 19 matchdays, but could only manage three more in the second half of the campaign. That level of consistency is clearly difficult to maintain throughout a full campaign.
De Bruyne is the latest challenger, reaching 15 in a season a record three times; to put this into context, the most prolific assister in the competition’s history is Ryan Giggs with 162 in total, but the Welshman never surpassed 12 in any his 22 seasons of Premier League football.
In the graph below, we have charted how each competitor faired week-by-week in their relevant season. The seasons included are only for those who reached De Bruyne’s current 2019/20 total of 16.
After 28 matchdays, only Özil in 2015-16 (18) has had more than De Bruyne. At this stage in 2002/03 Henry sat on 10 assists, going on to double his total during the final stretch. No one does anything quite as stylishly as Henry – on the final day of that campaign he scored the opening goal away to Sunderland before assisting Freddie Ljungberg three times to hit that magic 20.
Partner in Dime(s)
De Bruyne can be as good as he wants, but if he’s to surpass 20 he needs his teammates to continue to put away his chances like Ljungberg did for Henry. It just so happens that in Sergio Agüero Manchester City have a player that’s well-versed in that area, and he and De Bruyne are very much on the same wavelength. De Bruyne has assisted the Argentine 19 times in the Premier League – only four combinations have seen one player assist another more, with Frank Lampard’s 24 for Didier Drogba still leading the way.
Six of those 19 assists have come this season – unsurprisingly it’s the most one player has set up another this campaign. What’s even more impressive is that they haven’t had to spend a huge amount of time together the achieve this feat – 1101 minutes is the equivalent to just over 12 full games.
Two Leagues Mastered?
De Bruyne is no stranger to assist records. The German Bundesliga has full assist data available since the 2004/05 season, and his final season in Germany before moving to Manchester City saw him topple the record in that period, reaching 20 for Wolfsburg in 2014/15. Any hopes that record would last as long as Henry’s has in the Premier League were dashed this season, with Bayern’s Thomas Muller matching KDB’s 20 with a pair against Bayer Leverkusen in matchweek 30. The best revenge for losing supremacy in Germany, then, would be for De Bruyne to set a new landmark in England.
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