Kevin De Bruyne

The Midas touch

The kind of skill that makes the breath catch in thousands of throats at once


This article is taken from the February 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Every month the Premier League hands out a quartet of awards: Player and Manager, the most influential men on and off the pitch, and Goal and Save, the alpha and omega of the game. But there’s no award for arguably the most beautiful and subtle of football’s many aspects: the assist, the pass before the goal.

“I always like to assist more than scoring,” says Kevin De Bruyne. “It gives me another feeling: I cannot explain it.” Thierry Henry thought similarly (“There is nothing more beautiful than making the assist. You give the ball. You share”), as did Jari Litmanen: “giving an assist was what I enjoyed most. Deep in my heart, I am still the young boy who enjoyed the beauty of it.” De Bruyne, Henry, Litmanen — not just great players but elegant ones too, the kind of men whose skill makes the breath catch in thousands of throats at once.

Lionel Messi bamboozles three Croatian defenders just before his inch-perfect pass to Julián Álvarez n the 2022 World Cup semi-final

Memorable assists can come in all shapes and sizes. There are the pieces of prolonged individual brilliance: think of the ten seconds Lionel Messi spent twisting and turning Joško Gvardiol in the 2022 World Cup semi-final before putting the ball on a plate for Julián Álvarez to score.

There are the tricks and flicks, such as Eric Cantona’s outside-of-the-foot chip for Denis Irwin to run onto and score against Spurs in 1993, an assist so sublime that it prompted John Motson to exclaim, “This man is playing a game of his own.” And there are the precision bombs of long aerial balls, such as Wayne Rooney’s raking right-to-left 50-yarder for Robin van Persie’s unforgettable, thunderous volley against Aston Villa in 2013.

But perhaps the purest category of all is the high-speed trigonometry of laser-guided ground balls: space in four dimensions, football as tesseract, gaps appearing and vanishing, passing lanes opening and closing, the need to see not just where these vortices are at a given moment but where they will be in a second’s time.

Crespo thanks Kaká for the assist

I was in the crowd on the angle behind Kaká in the 2005 Champions League final when he spun Steven Gerrard. In that moment I saw exactly what Kaká did: Hernán Crespo running 40 yards ahead with a defender either side of him. Over that distance the pass was borderline impossible, proper eye-of-the-needle stuff. A yard to the right and Jamie Carragher would cut it out: a yard to the left and Crespo would have to check his run and head away from goal. Kaká was Goldilocks, hitting it so perfectly for Crespo to finish that even the hardened Liverpool fans around me applauded.

It was the best assist I had ever seen, at least until Argentina played the Netherlands in the 2022 World Cup. Messi — who else? — received a pass just inside the Dutch half, a few metres in from the right-hand touchline. As Nathan Aké came to challenge, Messi slowed, checked, went again, still on a diagonal slant across the field. There were six defenders in front of him, two orange-shirted lines of three, trying to shunt him into the harmless prairies away from goal. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a flash of celeste and white as Nahuel Molina sprinted towards the posts.

Pause the footage as Messi plays the final ball, and you can’t detect the option: it’s just not there, there’s no way through. But you’re not Messi. Only he had the vision to see the absurdly difficult reverse pass, only he had the audacity to play it, and only he had the skill to execute it so perfectly. Two touches later, Molina had put Argentina a goal up.

Messi would go on to lift the trophy, of course. Less than a fortnight after he did, Pelé died: Pelé, one of Messi’s few serious rivals as the best player in history and a man whose own most famous assist is the stuff of legend. In the dying minutes of the 1970 World Cup Final, the game secure at 3-1 and the Italians chasing shadows, the ball reaches Pelé just outside the D. Two defenders come to him. For a moment he is the still small point of calm in a frenzied stadium, rolling the ball from foot to foot as he weighs up his options. He could shoot, he could chip, he could dribble: anything to sign off this most stellar of careers with an individual finale for the ages.


He does none of those things. He does what he always does, which is the best thing for the team. He opens up his body and rolls the ball into space on his right — so much space, in fact, that for a moment on the footage you’re not quite sure what he’s done, as all you can see is empty grass. And then Carlos Alberto comes flying into view on the overlap, and the ball sits up perfectly for him as he meets it, and the way he rifles home the shot is just this pure explosion of joy, the greatest moment of the greatest team, the apotheosis of the game itself.

Cantona puts it perfectly: “I have never and will never find difference between [that pass] and the poetry of the young Rimbaud, who stretches cords from steeple to steeple and garlands from window to window. There is in each of these human manifestations an expression of beauty which touches us and gives us a feeling of eternity.”

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