- Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for ESPN.com.
Today, we’re continuing the Top 100 Premier League transfers series. After running through the best transfers from 100 to 51, we’ll hit the top 50 today. Signings from 19 different clubs are represented on the list, with a likely source leading the way. Fourteen different Manchester United signings are in the top 100, the most of any team; 10 of those signings are still to come.
As a reminder, I looked at every permanent transfer made by a Premier League team since the modern top-flight was created in 1992 and graded it on the player’s productivity and longevity, his legacy with the club, the titles he played a role in winning, how much the transfer cost, and whether the player was sold for a significant profit. In addition, the following rules apply:
1. Was the player extremely productive during his time with the club? Was he considered among the best players at his position in the division?
2. Did he become a club or league legend? Is there something iconic that leads him to stand out from a similar signing in terms of talent or success?
3. Did the player win silverware? I considered each of the titles and cups won during his time with the team, weighing Champions League and Premier League success heaviest. I also made the executive decision of awarding Liverpool the 2019-20 Premier League title for the purposes of analyzing their players.
4. Was he a bargain? Given the transfer market of the time, would we look back and consider his fee to be laughably cheap given his level of production?
5. Did the team sell him for a profit?
6. Did the player spend a long time with the club?
The last two categories do push some current players down the rankings, which is fine. Stars like Raheem Sterling and Virgil Van Dijk have already made an impact in a relatively short time with their clubs, and they’ll continue to rise up the rankings as they continue to win trophies and gain more longevity. This is looking back over the past 28 seasons, not looking into the future.
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Finally, I need to clarify which players aren’t included. If you’re angry that a notable star isn’t somewhere on this list, please keep the following rules in mind:
1. The player must have been purchased while the club was in the Premier League. In other words, players who were signed before the Premier League was formed (like Peter Schmeichel and Ian Wright) and players who were signed while their club was in a lower league (like Kevin Phillips and Jamie Vardy) don’t qualify.
2. The player must have established himself in senior football before joining the club. Obviously, players like Steven Gerrard who came directly from their own club academies don’t count. I’m also not including players who were signed out of another team’s youth academy, which would exclude Cesc Fabregas’ transfer to Arsenal in 2003, since he hadn’t played a first-team match in La Liga for Barcelona.
3. No loans. Only permanent transfers count. If a player is initially signed on loan and then inks a permanent deal, like Christophe Dugarry’s run with Birmingham, I’m only considering what they did after the full transfer was completed.
4. The team gets credit for what you accomplished while you were at the club under this specific transfer. What happens elsewhere doesn’t matter. Chelsea doesn’t get credit for what Thibaut Courtois did on loan at Atletico Madrid or how Kevin De Bruyne blossomed after being sold. And if a club rebought a player for a second time, I split those careers into two separate transfers, so David Luiz’s two Chelsea spells are kept separate for the purposes of this list.
Let’s hit the top 50:
50. Darren Anderton, MF, Tottenham
Signed from Portsmouth for £2.4 million, 1992
Anderton doesn’t get his just due for a number of reasons. Injuries cost him chunks of five different seasons during his 12-year run with Tottenham, which only won a lone League Cup over that time. Anderton could have moved to Manchester United, only for club chairman Alan Sugar to refuse sanctioning the move. Anderton was squeezed out of his preferred role on the right side of the attack at international level by one David Beckham and came within a goalpost of what would have been a career-defining Golden Goal in the Euro 1996 semifinals against Germany. In a slightly different universe, Anderton is a legend for club and country. Here, he’s a great signing and wonderful servant for Spurs, where he played 299 times and scored 34 times.
49. Wilfried Zaha, FW, Crystal Palace
Signed from Manchester United for £3.4 million, 2015
Zaha started his career in the Crystal Palace academy, of course, but after his move to United went pear-shaped, the Ivory Coast international returned to his original club on loan before sealing a permanent transfer in 2015. Zaha has been Palace’s most essential player, helping to steer the club away from more serious relegation fights during his second stint in South London. The 27-year-old has requested a transfer away from Palace in the past year, but Palace should be able to recoup a club-record fee north of £50 million.
48. Teddy Sheringham, FW, Tottenham
Signed from Nottingham Forest for £2.8 million, 1992
The Premier League Golden Boot winner in the competition’s debut season, Sheringham scored 76 goals in just over four seasons with Spurs. He also helped Spurs reach two FA Cup semifinals in his four years with the club, although they failed to advance to the finals or win any silverware before Sheringham left for United on a £3.5 million deal to replace Eric Cantona. While Sheringham would eventually return to White Hart Lane, his comments on the way out about wanting to win hardware didn’t endear the 6-foot-1 striker to Spurs fans, who called Sheringham “Judas” before repurposing the nickname for Sol Campbell.
47. Paolo Di Canio, FW, West Ham
Signed from Sheffield Wednesday for £2 million, 1998
It’s difficult to isolate Di Canio’s play at West Ham amid the other controversies which hover over his career as both a player and manager, but the five years the Italian spent at Upton Park were generally the Italian’s most consistent and effective years outside of his home country. Anyone who saw it remembers that volley, but Di Canio’s brilliance often lent itself to more practical and repeatable applications. Watch his West Ham goal compilation and you’ll see Di Canio repeatedly use one touch to disarm the nearest defender and the second to finish. The Italian scored 47 goals in 118 appearances with the Hammers before leaving after the club were relegated in 2003.
46. Luka Modric, MF, Tottenham Hotspur
Signed from Dinamo Zagreb for £18.9 million, 2008
You might argue that Modric has shined brightest on the international level, but over his four seasons at White Hart Lane, he created 262 chances, the fourth-most of any Premier League player over that time frame. Modric missed time with a broken leg and wasn’t able to lead Spurs to a trophy, but Tottenham did nearly double their money when they sold Modric to Real Madrid in 2012.
45. Lucas Radebe, CB, Leeds United
Signed from Kaizer Chiefs for £338,000 (with Phil Masinga), 1994
A club legend, Radebe was one of the first international stars to make their name in the Premier League. Once a central midfielder, Radebe transformed himself into a classy, no-nonsense central defender and added a one-match stint as Leeds’ keeper after Mark Beeney was sent off without a replacement on the bench. Radebe came on and held United to one goal, which was better than most professional keepers did against Eric Cantona and company. Radebe didn’t win a trophy during his time with Leeds, but he did captain the club to the semifinals of both the UEFA Cup and the Champions League. Injuries are the only reason he isn’t higher on this list, as they limited the South African star to 197 appearances over 10 seasons in the top flight with Leeds.
44. Sadio Mane, FW, Liverpool
Signed from Southampton for £37.1 million, 2016
As was the case with Firmino, the only thing Mane needs to do to rise further up these rankings is spend more time with Liverpool. It seems crazy now, but it’s fair to remember that there were plenty of Liverpool fans who didn’t want Klopp to sign Mane from Southampton in 2016, owing in part to the middling performances of Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren and Rickie Lambert after leaving the Saints for Anfield.
Of course, Klopp’s subsequent moves to sign Mane and Virgil van Dijk from the same club have worked out pretty well. If there was an insinuation that Mane was too reliant on pace or too inconsistent during his days with Southampton, he proved his critics wrong. If anything, Mane seems to be the player who comes up with goals and creates chances in moments when Liverpool needs them most. Mane, 27, is going to go down as one of the best signings in club history. If he can beat Henderson to the Player of the Year nod, Mane could rise up this list even quicker.
43. Robin van Persie, FW, Arsenal
Signed from Feyenoord for £4.1 million, 2004
Likewise, there’s only one thing missing on Van Persie’s résumé with the Gunners. Unlike Mane, though, the Dutchman’s missing element is hardware. Van Persie joined the club in the summer after the Invincibles campaign, and despite spending eight years at Arsenal, he failed to take home a single medal after winning the FA Cup in his first English campaign. Van Persie was signed as a supplement and eventual replacement for Thierry Henry up front, but when Arsenal sold their star striker, injuries kept Van Persie from maintaining his predecessor’s strike rate. He really only rounded into top-level form over his last two seasons at the club, scoring 48 goals in 63 appearances after which he left for United.
42. N’Golo Kante, MF, Leicester
Signed from Caen for £8.1 million, 2015
How much can a player do in one lone season at a club? Kante is the last one-and-done player on this list, and while plenty of the players below him were more productive over the course of their careers, few were as essential to a Premier League title as Kante. Leicester couldn’t have known what they were getting; On the day Kante signed in 2015, he shared headlines with the news that future Leverkusen midfielder Charles Aranguiz wasn’t interested in joining the Foxes. Kante was a substitute in each of Leicester’s first three Premier League matches that year, but when he replaced Andy King in the starting lineup — well, you know what happened next. Leicester would have loved to have kept Kante around, but when Chelsea triggered his release clause, the champions were forced to settle for £32.2 million, nearly four times his original purchase price.
41. Diego Costa, FW, Chelsea
Signed from Atletico Madrid for £34.2 million, 2014
Things were rarely boring for Costa during his three and a half seasons at Stamford Bridge. Even that’s a stretch, given that Antonio Conte froze Costa out of the side — a message the manager conveyed through text message — leading Costa to spend time in Brazil before making a £59.4 million move back to Atleti. On the pitch, Costa scored 52 goals in 89 appearances, led Chelsea to two league titles in three years, and wound up countless opponents with his aggressive antics. In a modern league where many often complain about the lack of characters, Costa was an exception. He would have fit — and scored — in any era of English football.
40. Raheem Sterling, FW, Manchester City
Signed from Liverpool for £57.3 million, 2016
The deck is weighted against Sterling in an analysis like this, given that he was purchased for a massive fee and is only finishing up his fifth season with City, a club which would likely be competing for titles every year even without Sterling. The drop-off from Sterling to Leroy Sane or even Phil Foden might not seem like much, but Sterling’s essentially a perfect player in his role. He made it in the Team of the Year last year, would likely return to the team this year if there’s ever an awards ceremony, and is still only 25. If he stays in the Premier League and continues to win trophies with City, Sterling is going to set records and be one of the most legendary players in the competition’s history.
39. Freddie Ljungberg, MF, Arsenal
Signed from Halmstad for £4.1 million, 1998
Ljungberg struggled as Arsenal’s caretaker manager and might be remembered most in some places as the Premier League’s foremost underwear model, but on the pitch he was a valuable member of Arsene Wenger’s most successful sides as both a scorer and creator from the wing. Ljungberg won the league’s Player of the Season award in the 2001-02 campaign, when he scored 12 goals, including this chipped finish against Manchester United. Injuries slowed Ljungberg, reducing him to a rotation role at times, but with apologies to the brief tenures of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Henrik Larsson at United, Ljungberg has to be the most successful Swedish player in Premier League history.
38. Xabi Alonso, MF, Liverpool
Signed from Real Sociedad for £14.4 million, 2004
The much-beloved Spanish midfielder was Rafa Benitez’s first signing and surely the manager’s best during Benitez’s six years in charge of Liverpool. Forming an irresistible midfield partnership with Steven Gerrard, Alonso instantly reassured the Liverpool legend that he had been right to resist interest from Chelsea to stay at the club. Alonso remained with the Reds for five seasons and led them all the way to second in the league before Benitez sold him to Real Madrid for £31.1 million. Few players seemed more cool and collected than Alonso, which came in handy when he responded to missing a penalty against Milan in that fateful Champions League final by tucking in the rebound for Liverpool’s equalizer.
37. Claude Makelele, MF, Chelsea
Signed from Real Madrid for £18 million, 2003
Real Madrid’s foolishness was famously Chelsea’s gain, as manager Claudio Ranieri signed Makelele to serve as Chelsea’s destroyer in midfield. Success wasn’t instant, as Chelsea failed to win the league and lost to Monaco in the semifinals of the Champions League, but Makelele would thrive after Jose Mourinho’s arrival and claim a Premier League title, an FA Cup and a League Cup over his five seasons with the club. Makelele was the definition of the midfield destroyer before Kante arrived in the Premier League; one of the greatest compliments you could pay the Chelsea star is that he’s a worthy successor to Makelele, now a Chelsea coach, for both club and country.
36. Juninho, CM, Middlesbrough
Signed from Sao Paulo for £5.0 million, 1995
Nine years removed from the third division and liquidation proceedings, Middlesbrough were somehow in the Premier League and signing the Brazilian Player of the Year. Boro characterized Juninho as the most sought-after player in the world when they signed him from Sao Paulo, and it was an enormous coup for the newly promoted club. In 1995, flair players like Juninho were supposed to go to Italy or Spain, or one of the clubs in London. They certainly weren’t supposed to go to Teesside, where the Boro mascot curiously celebrated Juninho’s arrival by donning a sombrero.
All the 5-foot-5 Brazilian did was become the most beloved player in club history. Juninho was the creative force in a Boro team which struggled in the league but made it to the finals of both the League Cup and FA Cup. Middlesbrough lost both finals, and when they were docked three points for failing to show up to a match after most of their first team was stricken by flu, Boro were relegated. Proving that the English love nothing more than a good cry after a brutal loss, Juninho followed Paul Gascoigne’s lead and wept on the pitch after relegation was confirmed. He left for Atletico Madrid after the season but returned twice more to Middlesbrough.
35. Yaya Toure, MF, Manchester City
Signed from Barcelona for £27 million, 2010
Toure was a useful player at Barcelona, but serving in a rotation with Sergio Busquets as the defensive midfielder behind the legendary duo of Iniesta and Xavi, it was a bit of a surprise when City signed him and made Toure the highest-paid player in the Premier League. It was an even bigger surprise to see Toure become a wildly influential attacking midfielder before moving back to a central role.
After scoring four goals in 74 league appearances with Barcelona, Toure had a 20-goal campaign with City in 2013-14. He scored the lone goal in both the FA Cup semifinals and finals to win his first medal with City in 2011 and added six more trophies during his time with the club. Toure wasn’t quite the same player during his last couple of seasons with City, but the Ivorian star was a two-time Team of the Year nominee and one of the best players in the division at his peak. How many other players could viably put in a shift at any position in the middle of the pitch?
34. Andy Cole, FW, Manchester United
Signed from Newcastle for £8.6 million (and Keith Gillespie), 1995
Another player who I think was overlooked for either sexier strike partners or the promise of one arriving, Cole won every trophy imaginable over his eight seasons with United, overcame the deliberate breaking of both his legs in a reserve match by Neil Ruddock, and formed successful partnerships with everyone from Dwight Yorke to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Cole scored 93 goals in 195 Premier League appearances with United, including the winner to fend off Arsenal in the final week of the season as they won their Treble in 1998-99. Cole would have scored even more if United had let him take penalties, which were usually given to Eric Cantona or Teddy Sheringham.
33. Jay-Jay Okocha, MF, Bolton
Signed from Paris Saint-Germain on a free transfer, 2002
The definition of a club icon, Okocha played like he was on a different planet from most of his teammates outside of fellow unlikely arrival Youri Djorkaeff. The Nigerian captain wasn’t supposed to end up leaving PSG for a low-level Premier League club like the Wanderers, but Okocha became the creative force for an otherwise dour team under Sam Allardyce. Eventually taking over as club captain, Okocha kept Bolton in the Premier League, led them to the finals of the League Cup and even managed to coax the club into the knockout stages of the UEFA Cup. Okocha remains one of the most influential and successful African players in league history.
32. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, ST, Manchester United
Signed from Molde for £2.3 million, 1996
I am obligated by law to mention “super sub” and “that night against Munich” if I’m going to discuss Solskjaer’s career with United. The current United manager was more than that role and that goal, though; Solskjaer scored 84 goals in 200 appearances for United, most of which weren’t starts (and some of which came as a right-sided midfielder), before injuries slowed him down in his final five years with the club. Over that pre-injury run between 1997 and 2003, Solskjaer scored once every 146.3 minutes. Among players with 10,000 minutes played or more over that time frame, the only strikers who scored more frequently on a per-minute basis were Michael Owen and Thierry Henry. Arsene Wenger famously said that he was hoping to sign his “fox in the box” when Arsenal made their ill-fated move for Francis Jeffers in 2001. United never would have sanctioned the move, but the guy who Wenger was describing was Solskjaer.
31. Kevin De Bruyne, MF, Manchester City
Signed from Wolfsburg for £68.4 million, 2015
Like Sterling, I find De Bruyne almost impossible to place on this list. I don’t need to tell you how talented City’s star midfielder is; if you wanted to argue that De Bruyne is the best player in the Premier League on his day, I wouldn’t argue with you. He’s been extremely productive when available and helped City win two league titles, an FA Cup, and four League Cups during his five seasons with the club. And yet, when you consider that De Bruyne was injured and off his usual form for almost all of the 2018-19 campaign, this is really only his fourth season playing a meaningful role with City. As the second-most expensive player on this list even after adjusting for inflation, it’s impossible to push De Bruyne much higher given that many of the players ahead of him played critical roles and won title after title for longer stretches of time on much cheaper fees.
30. Ashley Cole, LB, Chelsea
Signed from Arsenal for £6.7 million (and William Gallas), 2006
Cole was villainized for forcing through a move from Arsenal, where he had broken into the first team at 20, but if you’ve read this entire list, he’s hardly the only Premier League star to insist on leaving his club. Cole wasn’t quite the attacking force at Chelsea that it seemed like he was on the way to becoming with the Gunners, and he only made one Team of the Year at Chelsea after making three with Arsenal. But he was also a reliable defender on what was typically an excellent defense under Jose Mourinho and the various managers who followed him. Cole made 229 league appearances for Chelsea and is one of the precious few players to win the Premier League, FA Cup, League Cup, and both the Champions League and Europa League.
29. Fernandinho, MF, Manchester City
Signed from Shakhtar for £36 million, 2013
Shortly after arriving at the club, Pep Guardiola said Fernandinho could play 10 positions. If the 34-year-old were a bit younger, City might actually give him the opportunity to try. Instead, after serving as more of a true central midfielder in the Ukraine, the brilliant Brazilian has moved further and further towards his own goal with City. While Fernandinho is clearly more skilled as an attacker than players like Makelele or Kante and could have justified a box-to-box role earlier in his career, he is now a center back and easily preferred by Guardiola to several of City’s expensively acquired alternatives.
28. Pablo Zabaleta, RB, Manchester City
Signed from Espanyol for £7.8 million, 2008
While Zabaleta was technically signed the day before Abu Dhabi United Group took over City and launched the club’s new era, I suspect he was more likely the first signing of that regime. Zabaleta was quickly overshadowed by the signing of Robinho from Real Madrid. Long after Robinho and many of City’s other prominent signings had faded and moved away, though, Zabaleta was still holding down right-back for the Sky Blues. A complete, fearless right-back, Zabaleta only scored nine goals amid his 230 league appearances for City, but one of them was particularly important: the first of three City would need to beat QPR in the final week of the 2011-12 season to claim their first Premier League title. Over his nine seasons with City, only Gareth Barry and Lucas Leiva recorded more tackles than the Argentine star.
27. Robert Pires, LW, Arsenal
Signed from Marseille for £8.8 million, 2000
The only things that seemed to stop Pires from creating chance after chance for Arsenal were injuries and age. A healthy Pires was unplayable on his day, as he was both a devastating scorer and one of the primary reasons Thierry Henry emerged as one of the best strikers in Premier League history. Blessed with the pace to terrify teams on the counter and the ball skills to make magic happen out of nothing when teams packed their defenses tight, Pires was named in the PFA Team of the Year three times across his six seasons at Arsenal. He was the FWA Player of the Year and Arsenal’s Player of the Season in 2001-02 despite missing the final two months of the season with a torn ACL. Pires was only a starter for five years before falling into a rotational role and leaving the club as a 32-year-old for Villarreal. If Arsenal had signed him at the beginning of the Wenger era, Pires would be closer to the top 10.
26. Alan Shearer, FW, Newcastle
Signed from Blackburn for £18.9 million, 1996
The idea of Newcastle spending enough money to make a world-record signing seems absurd in the Mike Ashley days, but before Ashley bought the club he neglects today, Shearer became the most expensive player on the planet when Newcastle pipped Manchester United to his signature in the summer of 1996. Shearer’s local ties and the influence of Blackburn chairman Jack Walker led the star England striker to choose Newcastle over United, a move which arguably went better for the latter. United signed Teddy Sheringham and later Dwight Yorke and proceeded to win eight of the next 13 Premier League titles.
Shearer didn’t win a single trophy during his 10 seasons at his hometown club, but it wasn’t for a lack of scoring. He netted 148 times in 303 appearances for Newcastle, becoming the division’s record scorer in the process. He won the Premier League Golden Boot in his debut season with the Magpies and scored 20 or more goals four different times while chipping in 30 goals in 49 European appearances. An utterly instinctual goal scorer, Shearer was still a productive player when a knee injury brought forward his previously announced retirement in 2006.
25. Philippe Coutinho, MF, Liverpool
Signed from Inter Milan for £11.7 million, 2013
Coutinho’s Liverpool legacy is fascinating. One of the few players to bridge the gap between both the Steven Gerrard/Luis Suarez side and the Mo Salah/Sadio Mane side as it ascended to greatness, Coutinho was really best in the years between those two teams, as manager Jurgen Klopp rebuilt the team in his image. Coutinho was voted by both the fans and his fellow players as Liverpool’s Player of the Season in 2014-15 and 2015-16, but he failed to win a single trophy during his time on Merseyside, coming up short in the Europa League final. I think we’ll also probably look back on the Liverpool attack from this era as a Big Three with Firmino, Mane, and Salah as opposed to the Big Four it originally formed with Coutinho in the fold. While Coutinho was a one-man force at a time when Liverpool needed him to be one, the best thing he might have ever done for Liverpool was force through a move to Barcelona for £130.5 million, which helped Liverpool sign both Alisson and Virgil van Dijk.
24. Petr Cech, GK, Chelsea
Signed from Rennes for £11.7 million, 2004
United fans will vouch for Peter Schmeichel, but Cech would be my first-team keeper if I were making an all-Premier League team. The Czech legend really only became globally known when he excelled as his country made it to the semifinals of Euro 2004, at which point Cech was already on his way from mid-table Rennes in Ligue 1. Cech instantly won the starting job and held it for the next decade, winning every single honor and medal along the way. Injuries, most notably the fractured skull which led Cech to start wearing his famous protective helmet, were the only competition Cech faced until Thibaut Courtois took over the job in 2015. It’s a testament to Cech’s ability that Chelsea were able to turn a profit on their legendary keeper by selling him to Arsenal as a 33-year-old. Cech’s 202 clean sheets are the most in Premier League history, with no active keeper particularly close to his mark.
23. Ruud van Nistelrooy, FW, Manchester United
Signed from PSV for £25.7 million, 2001
I’m not sure there’s anyone in Premier League history quite like Van Nistelrooy, who showed up for United, scored at will, and then left after falling out with Sir Alex Ferguson. United tried to sign Van Nistelrooy in 2000 after he had scored 60 goals in 57 league appearances for PSV, but Van Nistelrooy failed his physical and tore his ACL after returning to the Netherlands. United came back for him the following year, and while some strikers fail to live up to expectations after thrashing the Eredivisie, van Nistelrooy scored 95 goals in 150 appearances for United. He’s one of five strikers with four or more 20-plus goal seasons in the Premier League, joining Harry Kane, Thierry Henry, Sergio Aguero and Alan Shearer. Pretty good company.
Van Nistelrooy has to go down as one of the best strikers in the history of the Premier League, but United won four Premiership titles in the five years before he arrived and won four more in the five years after Van Nistelrooy left. I don’t think the drop-off was Van Nistelrooy’s fault in the slightest, but it’s on his résumé either way.
22. Michael Carrick, CM, Manchester United
Signed from Spurs for £24.5 million, 2006
Carrick served as a steady hand in midfield for United during his 12 seasons with the club and took home 10 major trophies. Nominally the replacement for Roy Keane, Carrick wasn’t anywhere as antagonistic as his predecessor, either with the other team or with his own. Carrick seemed to pull the strings silently at times, linking the two halves of the United team without being noticed. Of course, Carrick could also get forward when the occasion called and was able to score from outside the box with both feet, most notably his brace against Roma in the Champions League. It must still hurt West Ham supporters to imagine a better-run version of their team from the turn of the century if they kept Carrick, Rio Ferdinand, Frank Lampard, Joe Cole, and Jermain Defoe together.
21. Nemanja Vidic, CB, Manchester United
Signed from Spartak Moscow for £9.5 million, 2006
You get the feeling Keane wouldn’t have minded playing with the Serbian international. While Rio Ferdinand seemed to glide through matches, Vidic was the perfect defensive partner as an absolute bulldog in central defense for Sir Alex Ferguson. In terms of awards, Vidic is one of the most-honored central defenders in Premier League history. His fellow players named Vidic to the PFA Team of the Year four times, while Vidic is the only defender to win two Player of the Season awards. United won five Premier League titles while Vidic was with the club and haven’t made it back to the top of the mountain since.
20. Virgil van Dijk, CB, Liverpool
Signed from Southampton for £76.2 million, 2018
Liverpool fans will be angry, but it’s difficult to push Van Dijk any further up this list. He’s the most expensive transfer of the top 100; even after you adjust for inflation, the only signing within £9 million of Van Dijk is De Bruyne. I would have no issues if you suggested Van Dijk has been the best player in the Premier League since he arrived at Anfield, but that’s also only been two and a half seasons. Everyone else ahead of Van Dijk on this list is a game-changing superstar who spent more time at their respective club than the Dutchman has at Liverpool. Van Dijk’s already one of the most immediately impactful transfers in Premiership history; all he needs now is time.
19. Gianfranco Zola, FW, Chelsea
Signed from Parma for £5.6 million, 1997
As the famous story goes, Roman Abramovich was so angry about his favorite player leaving Chelsea to join Serie B Cagliari just before the Russian purchased the club that he first tried to pay Zola £3 million and Cagliari £1.5 million to go back on the move after just 24 hours. When both Cagliari and Zola demurred, Abramovich’s next gambit was to try and buy the whole Italian club. I suspect the story might be apocryphal, but it hints to how important Zola was to those pre-Abramovich Chelsea teams.
Zola was a man before his time in an era where “But can they do it on a cold rainy night in Stoke?” was a real opinion and not a meme. The Italian could and often did, sprinkling magic on muddy pitches. Zola contributed 59 goals and 42 assists across 229 top-flight appearances, but his biggest breakthrough at Chelsea came in the various cup competitions, with the Blues claiming two FA Cups and a League Cup while Zola was at his zenith. While Zola was 37 when he left the club, the 5-foot-6 wizard scored 14 goals in his final Premier League season and did well enough at Cagliari to help get them promoted to Serie A. He absolutely could have had a swan song as an impact substitute for Chelsea over the first couple of Abramovich years and would have surely collected some additional hardware for his efforts. If he had just waited one more day …
18. Luis Suarez, FW, Liverpool
Signed from Ajax for £23.9 million, 2011
It might have felt like Suarez was at Liverpool for a decade given all the controversy that seemed to surround the Uruguayan star, but Suarez only spent 3½ years on Merseyside. His signing was instantly overshadowed by Liverpool’s last-second panic buy of Andy Carroll, but once Suarez got on the pitch, nobody was overshadowing him. He was one of the best players in the division in 2012-13 and surely its best in 2013-14, when he scored 31 goals in 33 matches and dragged Liverpool within one Steven Gerrard slip of winning the league.
After the Arsenal release clause saga, Liverpool had signed Suarez to a new contract and seemed able to move forward with Suarez as the focal point of their attack. But after Suarez followed that Player of the Season campaign by biting Giorgio Chiellini at the World Cup, Liverpool sold Suarez to Barcelona for £73.6 million. You can understand why Liverpool were willing to sell Suarez, who was on a four-month ban, but it took the club years to recover and get back to where they were with him in the side.
17. Mohamed Salah, FW, Liverpool
Signed from Roma for £37.8 million, 2017
As was the case with Van Dijk and many of his teammates, the only knock you can possibly place on Salah is sheer time spent with the club. Van Dijk has spent 2½ seasons at Anfield; Salah is finishing his third campaign. Since I’m crediting them with this year’s Premier League title, they’ve each won the league and Champions League — the two biggest competitions they could possibly win — before finishing their third season. They’ve each played brilliantly. Everybody ahead of them was a perennial Player of the Season candidate, just like Salah and Van Dijk. Many won multiple pieces of silverware. They just have more time under their belts, and the ones who lasted about as long returned a significant fee.
16. Gareth Bale, FW, Tottenham
Signed from Southampton for £13.2 million, 2007
One of those players, of course, is Bale, who netted Spurs £90 million when they sold the Welsh star to Madrid in 2013. Bale arrived in London as a scrawny, 18-year-old left-back and — in the sort of physical transformation we had previously seen from Cristiano Ronaldo — left looking “like a light heavyweight boxer.” That opinion came from no less of an authority than Sir Alex Ferguson, who tried to sign Bale and never heard back from Southampton before Saints sold him to Spurs.
The beginning of Bale’s career with Tottenham was a mess. In addition to struggling with injuries, he was regarded as a jinx, with Spurs failing to win in 24 consecutive Premier League appearances by Bale. Manager Harry Redknapp subbed Bale on with Spurs up 4-0 to break that streak and then pushed Bale forward to play as a left winger. What happened next was a revelation, with Bale famously scoring a hat trick at the San Siro in a 4-3 Champions League loss to Inter. That performance drew global attention and gave Bale all the confidence he would need. After scoring 21 goals at White Hart Lane in 2012-13, Madrid came calling. While things haven’t always gone well for Bale in Spain, his ascension at Spurs was unforgettable.
15. Vincent Kompany, CB, Manchester City
Signed from Hamburger SV for £7.7 million, 2008
While City fans would often wonder just how dominant they might have been over the past decade if Kompany hadn’t struggled with injuries, those same injuries might have created the opportunity to sign Kompany in the first place. The future City captain struggled to stay fit during his time at Hamburg, playing 28 matches over his first two seasons. Kompany then insisted on going to the 2008 Olympics with Belgium, and when he was slow to return, a frustrated Hamburg decided to sell Kompany to England.
Then-City manager Mark Hughes had spotted Kompany’s leadership skills in a 2006 friendly. Hughes was managing Blackburn, and Kompany was a midfielder at the time, but Kompany would settle in as a leader from the back. City allowed 0.9 goals per 90 minutes with Kompany in the lineup during his time with the club, a mark which rose to 1.03 goals per 90 without their captain. The injuries limited Kompany to 59 games over his final four years in Manchester. But in addition to his defensive impact, Kompany contributed two title-saving goals: the lone goal in a Manchester derby in City’s first title-winning season; and that legendary strike against Leicester as City held off Liverpool in his last campaign.
14. Alan Shearer, FW, Blackburn Rovers
Signed from Southampton for £4.1 million, 1992
£4.1 million in 1992 amounts to £8.3 million in 2020, and while that’s hardly a lot of money these days, it was a huge statement of intent from Jack Walker just after Blackburn had been promoted to the top flight. As the league’s proto-Abramovich, the 63-year-old Walker wanted to win a title with his hometown club as soon as possible. As such, Shearer was the largest purchase made by any Premier League club that season.
The league was still in its 22-team era for the beginning of Shearer’s run with Blackburn, but it’s staggering to see a player with three 30-goal seasons in four years, which is what Shearer did. No player in Premier League history with 100 matches or more with a club has posted a better strike rate. Salah just completed a century of league matches for Liverpool and has 70 goals, which is the second-best rate with any one club over that time frame. He was still 12 goals off of Shearer’s pace.
The England international also delivered on Walker’s dream, as he scored 34 goals and linked with Chris Sutton to deliver a Premier League title to Blackburn. It’s one of two times a club from outside the Big Six has managed to win the Premier League, with Leicester’s famous run in 2015-16 as the other. Unsurprisingly, Shearer — who was sold for a world-record fee to Newcastle — also is the last transfer from outside the Big Six to appear here.
13. David Silva, MF, Manchester City
Signed from Valencia for £25.9 million, 2010
City fans have been privileged to watch Silva week in and week out for a decade now. Just as Kompany bossed the defense and made the players around him better, Silva was the first major City addition from the Abu Dhabi era to thrive as an attacker. Since the brilliant Spanish international joined City in 2010, he has created 597 chances in the league, the fourth most of any player from the five big European leagues, behind Eden Hazard, Lionel Messi and Mesut Ozil. Messi is the only attacker to complete more passes in the box. Modric is the only prominent attacker who has been more successful taking on opposing defenders one-on-one. Silva has been a truly world-class attacker during his time with the club, which is coming to an end after this season.
12. Dennis Bergkamp, FW, Arsenal
Signed from Inter Milan for £10.1 million, 1995
If Silva was the signing who signified the way Manchester City wanted to attack, Bergkamp was that player for Arsenal. Both comparisons are a little unfair, given that City had Tevez and Emmanuel Adebayor, while Arsenal had Ian Wright and David Platt. But Bergkamp was the player who came to signify where Arsenal were going. He was the perfect Arsene Wenger signing … who just happened to be signed by Bruce Rioch a year before Wenger arrived. Bergkamp was the club’s best player in the early days of the Wenger era, winning PFA Player of the Season in 1998 as Arsenal claimed their first title under the Frenchman.
Wenger rested Bergkamp more frequently after the Dutch international turned 30, with Bergkamp famously refusing to fly to matches on the continent. As a result, he was more of a rotational player by the time Arsenal peaked with the Invincibles team in 2004, but by then, he had already made his point. There are five players in Premier League history to top 80 goals and 80 assists: Wayne Rooney, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, Ryan Giggs and Bergkamp. And while it’s nearly 30 years old, Bergkamp still has my pick for the greatest touch in Premier League history.
11. Rio Ferdinand, CB, Manchester United
Signed from Leeds for £41.4 million, 2002
Ferdinand is the third-most expensive player on this list, as his £41.4 million fee from 2002 translates to just under £66 million in 2020 dollars. The prior Premier League record price for a defender had been £23.4 million, which was what Leeds paid for Ferdinand two years earlier. The non-Ferdinand record for a defender to that point was a mere £15.3 million for Jaap Stam, who Ferdinand was purchased to replace. Sir Alex Ferguson fell out with Stam after the Dutchman had the audacity to publish an autobiography, and while Fergie tried to get by with Laurent Blanc as a short-term replacement in what was originally supposed to be the Scottish legend’s final season before retiring, Ferguson’s U-turn and Leeds’ financial troubles led Ferguson to play a club-record fee for Ferdinand.
It was money well spent. Ferdinand spent 12 years at United and was named in the PFA Team of the Year on five different occasions. While he did miss out on winning an FA Cup by virtue of a missed drug test that cost the English international a six-month suspension, Ferdinand was able to console himself with six league titles, two League Cups and a Champions League triumph in Moscow. He is an easy pick as one of the center-backs if you’re making an all-time Premier League XI.
10. Didier Drogba, ST, Chelsea
Signed from Marseille for £34.7 million, 2004
Drogba was a bit of a late bloomer, as the Ivorian was really still a middling striker in Ligue 1 until 2002-03, when he scored 17 goals for Guingamp and followed it by adding 19 in 35 appearances for Marseille. Drogba was 26 when Chelsea signed him in July 2004, which is older than it might seem for world-class strikers. Fernando Torres, for one, was 26 when Chelsea signed him away from Liverpool, only for the club to find Torres was already on the downswing of his career.
Instead, Drogba flourished in London. Chelsea had previously tried to form a strike force around Hernan Crespo and Adrian Mutu, but Mutu was sacked after testing positive for cocaine, while Crespo was sent away on loan. Drogba helped lead the club to back-to-back Premier League titles and scored the winner in the League Cup final. His best season actually came as a 31-year-old in 2009-10, when he scored 37 goals in all competitions while leading Chelsea to a domestic double. Two years later, with the club flailing in the league, Drogba led the club to another improbable double by scoring the winner in the FA Cup and an 88th-minute equalizer in the Champions League final before converting the final spot kick and winning man of the match. (He also gave away a penalty in extra time, but Cech was nice enough to bail his old teammate out.) It was Drogba’s last match for the club before Chelsea brought him back for a second stint years later.
9. Roy Keane, CM, Manchester United
Signed from Nottingham Forest for £7.7 million, 1993
Uncompromising is the first word that comes to mind when I think of Keane, which famously manifested itself in both valuable and destructive ways. Most midfielders wouldn’t take to the in-house television network to bash the club’s younger players. Most wouldn’t leave their national team on the eve of the World Cup because the facilities weren’t up to standard. Most wouldn’t take a shot at their own home supporters and call them the “prawn sandwich brigade.” Just about nobody would wait three years to try to injure Alf-Inge Haaland.
Leaving aside that attack and other unsavory incidents, Keane was the perfect anchor for the most legendary midfield in Premier League history. The Irishman is always going to be remembered for his tenacity and abrasiveness, but he was a more creative and offensively capable player than memories might suggest. United didn’t need Keane to serve as a playmaker with the likes of Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and David Beckham in their side, but he was plenty capable as a distributor. Keane led United to win every trophy imaginable, although he was forced to sit out the Champions League final after earning a suspension against Juventus in the semifinal. United wouldn’t have got there without Keane, who scored the first goal of United’s comeback from a 2-0 deficit.
8. Cristiano Ronaldo, FW, Manchester United
Signed from Sporting Lisbon for £17.1 million, 2003
Ronaldo? Eighth? United realized a profit of nearly £70 million when they sold the Portuguese icon to Madrid in 2009, and Ronaldo won every trophy during his time at Old Trafford. But it’s worth remembering that Ronaldo has changed dramatically over the course of his career. The Ronaldo we’ve known over his time at Madrid and Juventus wasn’t the Ronaldo we saw over the first three seasons of his time at United, when he was more of a tricky winger than an all-purpose attacker.
That version of Ronaldo really only spent three years at United. Those seasons were great — Ronaldo was Player of the Season twice and won a Premier League Golden Boot — but it’s realistic to note that Ronaldo wasn’t quite as influential earlier in his United career. As a result, with the margins so thin here in the top 10, I have to push other players ahead of Ronaldo.
7. Wayne Rooney, ST, Manchester United
Signed from Everton for £33.3 million, 2004
Is it fair to suggest that Rooney was partially the victim of unrealistic expectations? He came of age just before social media, in those last moments before a player with his potential would have been the subject of daily hype. Rooney was still a bit of a mystery when he scored that goal against Arsenal as a 16-year-old; and when Rooney was England’s most important player at Euro 2004 as an 18-year-old, the expectations were that Rooney would be one of the greatest players of his era.
I’m not sure Rooney hit those heights, but he was damn good! Rooney ended up as England’s all-time leading goal scorer, and he is second on the Premier League goal-scoring table behind Alan Shearer. In his time at United, Rooney won every single possible trophy he could have. He was never going to be the most aesthetically appealing player, and United used him in more of a support role at times; but Rooney even has one of the signature goals of the Premier League era in that bicycle kick from the Manchester derby. And yet, somehow, I still think most United fans have fonder memories of the guy up next …
6. Eric Cantona, ST, Manchester United
Signed from Leeds United for £1.6 million, 1992
The most difficult signing on this list to place is Cantona, who could rank anywhere in the top 25. Cantona’s numbers aren’t overwhelming, as he scored 64 goals in 143 league appearances with United and seven times across 21 European matches. He was brilliant with the ball at his feet, of course, but even contemporaries such as Bergkamp or Matt Le Tissier who were considered creative geniuses aren’t held in the same hushed tones as Cantona. Surely, Cantona deserves some criticism for assaulting a spectator, which cost United the services of their talisman for eight months and led the Frenchman to briefly request a transfer away from the club.
Cantona’s legacy, beyond the collar and the billboard and the inscrutable quotes, was that he just won all the time. Cantona came to England and won the final edition of the old first division with Leeds. After transferring to United halfway through the first Premier League campaign, he led United to the title. United won the league in three of Cantona’s four remaining seasons with the club, with the only exception coming during the half-season Cantona sat out suspended. He then retired at the zenith of his powers without age impacting the mythology he had formed through that success. He is one of the most unique athletes across all sport of the past half-century.
5. Eden Hazard, MF, Chelsea
Signed from Lille for £31.5 million, 2012
While Chelsea has cycled through manager after manager and tactic after tactic over the past seven seasons, one thing was almost always true: Hazard was at the heart of the attack. Outside of a flailing 2015-16 season, Hazard was arguably the most productive attacking player in the league during his time in West London. Consider that over his seven years at Chelsea, Hazard created 519 chances from open play. Across the big five European leagues, Messi was the closest player to Hazard, and he only created 453. Think about that. Hazard didn’t win a Champions League with Chelsea, but he came away from Stamford Bridge with two Premier League titles, two Europa League medals and both an FA Cup and League Cup victory.
4. Sergio Aguero, ST, Manchester City
Signed from Atletico Madrid for £36 million, 2011
The last active player left in the top 100, Aguero is probably the most clinical goal scorer in the history of the Premier League. The Argentine has scored 180 goals in 261 league appearances across 19,182 minutes for City. Among players with 100 Premier League matches or more, Aguero has the best goals per game (0.69) and goals per 90 minute (0.84) rate in league history. City would be happy with Aguero strictly for his goals, but he also has improved his pressing as part of the team under Pep Guardiola. And he has the most dramatic goal in Premier League history as a showstopper. Aguero’s goal rates will drop if he plays in the Premier League into his mid-30s, as they did for Shearer, but with 16 goals in 22 appearances for City this year, it doesn’t look like Kun is slowing down.
3. Patrick Vieira, MF, Arsenal
Signed from Milan for £4.8 million, 1996
Arsenal sold Vieira in 2005, and they have spent the past 15 years unsuccessfully trying to replace him in their team. It’s about as simple as that. Vieira was signed just before Arsene Wenger’s arrival at the club. Still only 20 and with one full season of first-team football under his belt at Cannes, Vieira stepped right into the Arsenal first team and didn’t leave until the club sold him to Juventus.
With Wenger typically focusing on adding offensive weapons, Vieira was the one who covered the aging back four and the rebuilt defense that followed. More than Makelele or Keane, Vieira had the stamina and the technical ability to bound forward and threaten opposing defenses entranced by the likes of Bergkamp and Henry. Vieira contributed 29 goals and 35 assists during his time in the Premier League with the Gunners. About the only complaint you could have is Vieira’s penchant for picking up red cards, as he is tied for the league record with eight. Arsenal won the league three times in nine seasons with Vieira, and they haven’t sniffed another title since.
2. Frank Lampard, MF, Chelsea
Signed from West Ham for £14.4 million, 2001
I think Lampard had the most complete career with his new club of any of the transfers on this list. There aren’t any holes on his résumé. Lampard spent 13 years at Chelsea and won every single competition he would have wanted to win, including the Champions League and Europa League in back-to-back seasons, three Premier League trophies and four FA Cups. The only other player to rank in the top 10 in both career goals and assists in the division is Rooney. The only outfield player to spend more time on the field in the Premier League than Lampard is Gareth Barry.
Lampard was signed before the Abramovich era began, but along with Drogba and academy graduate John Terry, Lampard became the heart and soul of the Chelsea teams of that period. The only reason he isn’t No. 1 is that his peak wasn’t quite as spectacular as the top player on our list, with Lampard winning Player of the Year once and making the Team of the Year three times at Chelsea.
1. Thierry Henry, FW, Arsenal
Signed from Juventus for £14.5 million, 1999
There’s nobody who compares to Henry, whom Arsene Wenger famously converted from a winger at Juventus into the most devastating striker in Premier League history. Henry didn’t score as much as Shearer or as quickly as Aguero, but he was a more complete player than either. Henry is the only player in Premier League history to record a 20-20 season, racking up 24 goals and 20 assists for Arsenal during the 2002-03 campaign.
Henry won the PFA Player of the Season in 2003-04 and was the man of the match in their FA Cup victory in 2003, but he raised his game even further the following year. Henry won the European Golden Boot by scoring 30 goals for Arsenal, who went undefeated in their greatest campaign. Henry was named PFA Player of the Season again for the 2005-06 season. The Arsenal legend also was named to the PFA Team of the Year six times across his eight seasons with the club, which is incredible given that Henry missed half of his final campaign through injuries.
Of course, Henry looked good scoring those goals. I’m not sure anybody has combined Henry’s spectacular pace with his ability to routinely finish from outside the box. Henry had incredible balance — watch him shrug off Marcel Desailly early in the clip above — and was a dab hand on both free kicks and penalties, for which he went 24-for-26. He is the best player in Arsenal history and the best signing in the 28 seasons of the Premier League.
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