Every superhero needs a sidekick; we delved into the numbers to bring you the most fruitful player partnerships in the Premier League this season.
It’s all well and good having one superstar player who’s head and shoulders above the rest of the team in terms of ability, but what truly maximises that talent is being on the same wavelength as others.
The Premier League has seen some iconic player partnerships on the pitch, duos with an almost telepathic understanding that not only yields danger and chances, but above all, goals.
Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard’s on-pitch relationship was key for Chelsea during their glory years; before them, Teddy Sheringham and Darren Anderton flourished together at Tottenham, while Andrew Cole and Dwight Yorke bounced off each other for Manchester United, with their combination playing an integral part in the club’s 1999 treble-winning successes.
But the Premier League was robbed of its most fruitful partnership during the summer when Harry Kane – of Kane and Son fame – left Spurs for Bayern Munich, leaving behind Son Heung-min. They’d combined for 47 goals in England’s top flight, a record since the Premier League began in 1992.
While their crown looks safe for a while, new combinations are being forged all the time. So, which duos have been thriving during the early months of the 2023-24 Premier League season?
Mohamed Salah and Darwin Núñez
These two can hardly put a foot wrong at the moment. Granted, Darwin Núñez may not yet be quite the reliable finisher Liverpool hoped for, but his rapport with Mohamed Salah has evolved rapidly.
They linked up once again in Sunday’s 3-0 defeat of Brentford, with Núñez receiving a pass into feet on the edge of the box before playing a reverse ball into the area for Salah to collect and finish with aplomb.
That took them to a total of five assists for each other this season in the Premier League, and it was the fourth time in 2023-24 Núñez has teed up Salah for a goal – he’s not assisted anyone else. No other combination of players has yielded more than three in the competition this season, with Liverpool’s dangermen displaying an unrivalled coherence.
It’s no fluke either; it’s not like these five assists just happen to have come from five chances created.
No, altogether they’ve set up 19 shooting opportunities for each other this season, which is also the most in the Premier League, and they’re doing so at a frequency of one just over every 30 minutes; again, among pairings that have teed up at least four chances for each other, this is the best record in the top flight this season.
Their on-pitch telepathy goes beyond the opening months of the 2023-24 campaign, though. Including his four this term, all seven of Núñez’s Premier League assists have been for Salah, making this only the third instance in the competition’s history of a player’s first seven assists all being for the same teammate after Kevin Campbell for Ian Wright (first 10) and Troy Deeney for Odion Ighalo (7).
They’ll probably never get themselves into the all-time reckoning, but Salah and Núñez might challenge single-season records if they keep this up.
Bukayo Saka and Leandro Trossard
Perhaps not the Arsenal pairing you expected to see so high considering Leandro Trossard’s only made three Premier League starts this season and played a grand total of 302 minutes, but he and Bukayo Saka have proven a reliable route to goal.
Saka and Trossard have combined for three goals this season, all of which have fallen to the Belgian. The first was an instinctive first-time finish across goal from a Saka cut-back against Everton in September – a little over a month later, Trossard got on the end of an in-swinging Saka cross from the right away to Chelsea, prodding home Arsenal’s late equaliser in an entertaining 2-2 draw at Stamford Bridge.
They then linked up at the weekend against Burnley; Saka’s header put the ball into the danger zone and Trossard selflessly threw himself towards the ball, nudging it in while colliding with the goalkeeper and upright to open the scoring in an eventual 3-1 win.
This may not be a partnership that Arsenal explicitly look to exploit, though, as between them they’ve only laid on four chances for each other, with Trossard’s deliveries accounting for just one. After all, the former Brighton forward is unlikely to ever be a regular starter for the Gunners.
Nevertheless, finding useful patterns and habits in your teammates’ play can be invaluable, and the signs are Trossard has a good comprehension of where Saka wants to put the ball.
Pervis Estupiñán and Kaoru Mitoma
Another of five pairings to combine for three goals in the Premier League this season, Pervis Estupiñán and Kaoru Mitoma represent Brighton’s all-action and attack-minded left flank.
Estupiñán set Mitoma up twice in September’s 3-1 win over Bournemouth, first with a tremendous cross that was headed home and then with a neat, intricate pass into the box from the left that the Japan winger took in his stride before stabbing into the bottom-right corner.
Their roles were the other way around against Wolves in August when Mitoma pounced on a rebound and cut a disguised pass back to Brighton’s marauding left-back for an easy finish.
Had Estupiñán not been ruled out for a while in early October, he and Mitoma would’ve probably combined for more than seven shots this season. Nevertheless, linking up once every 63 minutes is a good frequency, highlighting a fine understanding developing between them on the left.
Roberto De Zerbi is hopeful Estupiñán will be back in action soon after getting injured again on his return against Ajax on 9 November. Mitoma presumably wants the same after a less fruitful October.
Julián Álvarez and Erling Haaland
Last season, Haaland was one half of the most threatening partnership in the Premier League. He and Kevin De Bruyne teamed up for 10 goals in the English top flight alone, four more than any other pairing.
At times, the marriage of their unified understanding and ability was almost cheat code-like, so when De Bruyne was ruled out for a few months after lasting just 23 minutes into their Premier League opener versus Burnley, they weren’t just losing a great player but also half of a brilliant and blossoming duo.
Julián Álvarez has stepped up brilliantly in De Bruyne’s stead, and not just with respect to developing his own rapport with Haaland. Clearly, though, that has been a big part of it.
Their link-ups have yielded three goals from 13 chances created, which is a total only Salah/Núñez (19) and Moussa Diaby/Ollie Watkins (18 – more on them later…) have been able to better to date, and those opportunities are coming at a rate of one every 73 and a half minutes.
With De Bruyne expected to return to action imminently, it’ll be intriguing to see whether Haaland can continue to build his relationship with Álvarez and pick up where he left off last season with the crafty Belgian.
Either way, Álvarez deserves real credit for establishing himself and essentially ensuring De Bruyne’s absence was only felt minimally.
James Maddison and Son Heung-min
Well this is nice, isn’t it? He might’ve seen his best mate depart for Germany, but Son’s wasted little time buddying up with someone else.
Good for him.
James Maddison and Son are one of only five pairings to reach double figures for chances created for each other, tallying 11 with the England midfielder just tipping the scales with his six to Son’s five.
They’re another partnership to yield three goals; two of them came in the north London derby, with Maddison picking out Son with a well-placed cut-back, and later releasing his pal into the box after robbing Jorginho.
Alas, their budding friendship has had to be put on hold, with Maddison out until 2024 due to injury, while Son will likely be away on Asia Cup duty from mid-January; few would bet against them quickly re-establishing that affinity when they’re both back in the team, though.
Whether it’ll be enough to make a jealous Kane return, it’s too early to say…
Pedro Neto and Hwang Hee-chan
Here are two players enjoying really strong starts to the season in their own right.
Hwang Hee-chan has already scored six times in the Premier League, meaning he’s two off the eight he managed across the past two seasons combined.
Similarly, Pedro Neto is continuing to thrive since we highlighted his electrifying early season form; with seven assists, he’s set up more goals than any other Premier League player this term, and his 25 chances created is the joint-ninth highest.
Three of Neto’s seven assists have been for Hwang, which is the second most from one player to a specific teammate in the competition this term behind Núñez to Salah.
They actually combined against Liverpool, though Hwang would be the first to admit Neto did much of the heavy lifting with his brilliant solo run and inch-perfect pass across the face of goal.
Nevertheless, Hwang’s turned into a reliable source of goals in 2023-24, and showing evidence of great understanding with your team’s chief creator is certainly a good habit to be in.
We couldn’t possibly finish this piece without saluting Aston Villa and Watkins, who has been involved in three partnerships that have produced at least two goals each.
We highlighted in pre-season that the signing of Diaby was an exciting one, and he’s quickly built a strong connection with Watkins; they’ve set each other up for a goal each and combined for 18 chances, second only to Salah and Núñez.
On average, they team up for a shot once every 52 minutes, which, among pairs to feature for at least 250 minutes, is the third most frequent.
Watkins has also been party to two-goal combinations with John McGinn and Matty Cash this season, while Diaby and Leon Bailey have both assisted the other once.
We Don’t Talk About…
Bruno Fernandes is one player perhaps curiously absent from the upper echelons of any of these metrics. The reason this is somewhat surprising is that last season he teed up Marcus Rashford for 36 shots in the Premier League, nine more than any other player to an individual teammate.
Altogether, they combined for 40 chances, three more than Kane and Son, and eight more than Haaland and De Bruyne, averaging one every 70 minutes roughly.
Fernandes’ 20 chances created for Antony was also good enough for joint-fifth over the whole season, but Manchester United have struggled this term to make the most of their talisman’s creativity despite him being the most relied-upon creator in the Premier League.
The Portugal star teaming up with Rashford for eight chances certainly isn’t terrible, but their on-pitch relationship is only resulting in one shot every 117 minutes, far less frequent than 2022-23, and they’re yet to combine for a goal.
If Erik ten Hag can rediscover the destabilising magic of Rashford and Fernandes’ partnership from last season, United might finally become the attacking entity they ought to be.