10) Diego Costa
Alvaro Morata might have scored his second Premier League goal of 2018 against Arsenal on Saturday, but Chelsea are still missing their last Spanish striker. Antonio Conte had his reasons for banishing Diego Costa – and he was hardly shy about pushing for a move back to La Liga – but their loss was always Atletico’s gain.
Costa is not a perfect centre forward and certainly not for Sarriball, but he was well worth the considerable hassle during his time at Stamford Bridge. The full list of players to score 20 or more goals in two Premier League title-winning seasons: Thierry Henry, Sergio Aguero, Diego Costa. That Costa did so in the space of three campaigns, and with his manager attempting to freeze him out in the second, speaks volumes of his hunger to succeed.
9) Fernando Torres
Both deserving of a place in this list, and yet one of the biggest failed transfers in Premier League history. Chelsea supporters understandably cherish Torres’ goal against Barcelona that helped them reach the Champions League final, but a) someone else might also have scored it, b) they would have won the tie without it, and c) it doesn’t mean that the rest of his spell at Chelsea wasn’t wretched.
Still, there was a reason that Roman Abramovich spent the big bucks. At Liverpool, Torres was close to unplayable from 2007 to 2010, scoring 56 league goals in 79 league games despite occasional injuries in a team that managed more than 70 as a whole in only one of those three seasons.
For a time, Torres seemed to have everything. He ran the channels and worked hard, played with his back to goal but had the speed to turn in behind defences. In 2008, when he scored the winner in the European Championship final and was named third in the World Player of the Year vote behind Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, Torres was the best striker in the world.
8) Santi Cazorla
A six-year spell in England that was undeniably spoiled by serious injury, but we shall remember the very, very good times. In the three seasons that Cazorla managed 30 or more league appearances, Arsenal finished third, fourth and fourth and won two FA Cups. Cazorla was named the club’s Player of the Year in 2012/13.
Cazorla’s brilliance lay in his ability to extricate himself from a tight spot with quick feet or the expert vision for a pass. In many ways he is a throwback footballer: small, stocky and not particularly quick, but with the technique and speed of thought to make a team play to his beat. Cazorla was the advanced central midfielder that we always wanted Jack Wilshere to be. Both have had careers decimated by setbacks.
Now back at Villarreal after release by Arsenal, it would be wonderful to think that Cazorla can again regain full health and reach similar heights. But at 33 and after almost three years without regular football, it is a monumental task with the bar set so high.
7) Juan Mata
An attacking midfielder who is forever destined to be too easily overlooked, Mata probably pays the price for being too nice. There is very little edge to his play, no surges of pace or grabbing the game by the scruff of its neck. He is simply a player who does the basics brilliantly and very rarely lets down a manager.
Take last season, for example. Romelu Lukaku, Paul Pogba, Anthony Martial, Alexis Sanchez, Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard all took more headlines than Mata. But in fewer than 2,000 minutes, Mata created 12 more chances than any other Manchester United player and three more than Lingard and Rashford did combined.
And then there’s the honours list: A Champions League, two Europa Leagues, a World Cup and European Championship. Only seven players in history (five Germans, Mata and Torres) can boast that particular collection. Nothing sums up Spain’s embarrassment of riches quite like him only receiving 41 international caps.
6) Mikel Arteta
A criminally underrated midfielder, who improved Arsenal after joining at the age of 29 having established himself as one of Everton’s very best. Arteta never earned a senior international cap for Spain, but that need not be a stinging insult given their central midfield options.
Arteta’s career in England came in two distinct parts. The first saw him as an adventurous central midfielder who would look to link play in the final third; he registered 12 assists in 2006/07. Then when Arteta suffered a serious knee injury in February 2009 that would keep him out of the game for almost a year, it persuaded him to convert into a midfield stroller, making play from deep and providing authority in central midfield but with less of the adventure.
Even at Arsenal with years advancing, Arteta controlled play effectively and suffered from the club’s failure to purchase a box-to-box tackler that would have allowed him to thrive. In 2012/13, Aaron Ramsey and Abou Diaby largely played with him. In 2013/14, Ramsey and Mathieu Flamini shared the job but neither were ideal fits for the role.
5) Cesar Azpilicueta
If we can all agree that the standard of defending in the Premier League has fallen away badly in the last five years, there is one very obvious exception. Azpilicueta has not only been the most consistent defender in England over the last five years, he’s arguably been the Premier League’s most consistent player overall. His lack of place in any PFA Team of the Year is a scandal.
Azpilicueta’s brilliance lies in his versatility without the performance level dropping. In 2012/13 he played as a right-back in a back four. In 2013/14 and 2014/15 he played at left-back in a back four. In 2015/16 he played both. In 2016/17 and 2017/18 he played as a centre-back in a three-man central defence. So far this season, he has played as a right-back in a back four again. Few other defenders in the world can match this at the top level.
And then there’s the consistency of selection. Website Physioroom.com lists a slight knock in December 2013 and a groin injury that caused him to miss one game in January 2015. Since the beginning of 2015/16, Azpilicueta has played in 10,131 of Chelsea’s 10,440 Premier League minutes.
4) Cesc Fabregas
Now 31, Fabregas’ reputation probably suffers from him still being at Chelsea but slipping down the first-team pecking order. That inevitably causes an unjust recency bias. Instead, remember that young midfielder that established himself as Arsenal’s most exciting young player, and the one who returned to Chelsea surrounded by doubts and yet was sensational as they won the Premier League in 2014/15. Remember Spain’s eighth most-capped player despite not playing for his country since 2016.
Fabregas has the second most assists in Premier League history, an astonishing statistic given that he is only 31 and played for three seasons at his peak in La Liga. Ryan Giggs is the only player with more, and has played 286 more matches in the division. Fabregas is also one of only four players with 50 goals and 100 assists in the history of the Premier League, along with Giggs, Wayne Rooney and Frank Lampard. Again, all played at least 140 more matches than him. These are some Cescy statistics.
3) David de Gea
A difficult 2018, but only in comparison with the ridiculous average. Jose Mourinho is not a man delivering much good news of late, but confirmation last week that De Gea will sign a new long-term contract is music to Manchester United ears. The fax machine saga finally has its happy ending.
De Gea’s excellence since his difficult first season should not be normalised. It is not an exact measure (see the Azpilicueta entrant for details), but only six players in the Premier League era have been voted by their peers into the PFA Team of the Year more often than De Gea: Gerrard, Shearer, Neville, Vieira and Giggs. When you consider that he is still only 27 – younger than a goalkeeper’s typical peak – and joined only seven years ago, that is an imposing statistic. But then what can De Gea not do? The shot-stopping is remarkable – including the saves that he has no right to make – and the distribution and collection of crosses is excellent.
If the command of his penalty area is the only thing that contains slight room for improvement, De Gea is playing in front of a regularly changing cast of defenders, none of whom seem comfortable. In their last seven matches, Manchester United have had six different central defensive combinations, three different right-backs and two different left-backs.
2) Xabi Alonso
You don’t need me to tell you about the magnificent Alonso. His friend and former teammate Alvaro Arbeloa can manage:
“It has been almost 10 years since we met at Liverpool with a half smile and firm handshake. From that day until today, I’ve considered him one of my few very close friends.
“I’ve been able to discover the true Xabi. He was my partner in a thousand battles, someone to count on in the bad times and a great support. I have always enjoyed his friendship and, thankfully, his incredible talent.
“That elegant and precise stroke with which he passed the ball was worthy of being exhibited in the Prado Museum.”
Wipe that tear from your eye, you’re at work.
1) David Silva
The inspiration for the list, and plenty enough loving words were written at the top of Winners and Losers in tribute to a truly majestic playmaker. Stan Collymore has said a few silly things in his time, but his column last December in which he boldly stated that Silva shouldn’t be remembered as one of the all-time great Premier League players was sillier than most.
‘Silva doesn’t dominate games’, Collymore wrote, also comparing him unfavourably to Didier Drogba and Sergio Aguero because he lacked consistency. He also blamed Silva for Manchester City not winning the league in 2012/13, 2014/15, 2015/16 and 2016/17.
We’ll agree to disagree, Stan, and so will every Manchester City fan you’re ever likely to meet. To them, it is Silva that truly defines this era of excitement at watching their team play rather than Aguero, Yaya Toure or Kevin de Bruyne. When they look back in ten, 20 and 30 years’ time, it his his brilliance that they will dwell on most.