Sadio Mane will leave Liverpool as one of the greatest African players in Premier League history. Jay-Jay Okocha misses out on the top ten.
10) Wilfried Zaha
Sir Alex Ferguson’s last signing is Crystal Palace’s best. Wilfried Zaha’s future frustrations have been played out on the most public stage possible but when he looks back on his career, the 29-year-old might be thankful that Selhurst Park was far more difficult to leave the second time around. The greater chance of personal and team success he could have had at Arsenal, Tottenham or any of the numerous other clubs linked over the last half-decade is outweighed by his icon status and historic exploits in south-east London.
Zaha has a healthy 26-goal lead as Crystal Palace’s all-time top Premier League scorer, with more strikes in the top flight than David Silva, Marcus Rashford and Gianfranco Zola. The club’s longest stint in England’s highest division has been fuelled sometimes exclusively by his excellence. His last two seasons have both represented a career-best in terms of goals as the Ivorian is starting to benefit from actually having a team built around him as opposed to underneath him. And no player angers opposition fans quite so effectively.
9) Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang
It was brief but beautiful. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang came to the Premier League in January 2018 and left in February 2022. He won one Golden Boot, single-handedly settled an FA Cup semi-final and final, became only the 14th player to have consecutive 20-goal seasons in the top flight and ranks 13th for ratio of minutes per goal (152). He is one of just 10 players ever with 50 or more Premier League goals at a rate of more than 0.5 per appearance. Across four years with Arsenal, he scored against every single team he faced in English competition bar one: Sheffield United.
He might well have been one of the last honest representations of a dying breed. A box-centric centre-forward and counter-attacking cheat code, Aubameyang was a supreme finisher whose responsibilities rarely extended to pressing from the front or shutting off passing lanes. He was relied upon solely to take whatever chances the Gunners could create. No other foreign striker has moved to the Premier League during their peak years – he was 28 when he signed – with an established reputation at a substantial cost and subsequently been a success, never mind to the extent that Aubameyang was before his protracted departure. The Gabonese is genuinely in a group of one, with Andriy Shevchenko jealously looking in.
8) Michael Essien
In the summer of 2005, the clubs which had occupied the three highest positions the previous Premier League season found themselves targeting the same player. Lyon president Jean-Michel Aulas typically enjoyed playing that field. “The longer Chelsea take to make up their minds, the more exposed they are to a bid from another English club who have lost a key midfielder,” he said, referring to Arsenal. “Essien is a bit mixed-up. Manchester United are after the player as well,” he added.
Chelsea wanted Michael Essien as an alternative to Steven Gerrard after failing to crowbar him from Liverpool. Arsenal targeted the Ghanaian as a direct replacement for the departed Patrick Vieira. Manchester United had long seen the player as Roy Keane’s successor, having been unable to convince a teenage Essien to join them and move to Royal Antwerp on loan for work permit-related reasons after a one-week trial in 1999. That legendary Premier League midfield Venn diagram of Gerrard, Vieira and Keane would have Essien placed neatly in the middle, taking the box-to-box brilliance of all three and tying it into a devastatingly dynamic package. For a couple of years he was one of the best players in the country and had the trophy haul to show for it at Stamford Bridge. His only weakness was the knee knack which shortened the explosive career of perhaps the most Streets Won’t Forget footballer in history.
Kids of today won’t know how good Essien was. One of the most underrated midfielders in Premier League history. pic.twitter.com/9qfcxe5UzG
— Conn (@ConnCFC) May 11, 2022
7) Kolo Toure
Ten different players have won the Premier League title with two different clubs but none have come as close as Kolo Toure to completing the hat-trick. Nicolas Anelka finished a relatively distant second with Liverpool in between lifting the trophy with Arsenal and Chelsea. Francois the used car salesman was an irregular starter for the Reds as they claimed an agonising runners-up spot in 2014, having helped guide the Gunners to an invincible championship a decade prior and then Manchester City to their first crown in 44 years.
“He was a monster,” Arsene Wenger once said of one of his most pride-inducing signings. “He is a good guy, a serious professional player and fantastic man,” was Roberto Mancini’s take. “He is a wonderful professional with big experience,” as Brendan Rodgers had it. “One of the most impressive people I ever met,” was the opinion of Jurgen Klopp, a matter of weeks before Liverpool released the Ivorian. But “Kolo, Kolo Kolo, Kolo Kolo, Kolo Kolo Toure” is how the world should remember him.
6) Emmanuel Adebayor
Cristiano Ronaldo, Raheem Sterling, Sadio Mane and Mo Salah all passed the mark this season but Emmanuel Adebayor might forever remain the highest body up the 100-goal Premier League mountain. Not even five ill-fitting months with Alan Pardew at Crystal Palace in 2016 could lift him beyond 97, where he sits directly above Yakubu Aiyegbeni, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Dimitar Berbatov but below that remarkably important three-digit line.
From that Manchester City celebration to his genuinely elite season at Arsenal and worryingly prolific period under Tim Sherwood, Adebayor is dripping in an unhealthy level of Barclays energy. He scored on his debuts for the Gunners at Birmingham, for City against Blackburn and for Tottenham versus Wolves. He is the second-highest north London derby scorer behind Harry Kane. He is the only player with hat-tricks home and away against the same opposition in one Premier League season (Derby, 2007/08) and is part of the semi-exclusive club of those who have assisted four goals in a single top-flight match. There was more than a decade between Adebayor’s first and last strikes in the division, a gap into which he also fit a loan with Real Madrid, Togo’s only World Cup appearance and the first European hat-trick in City history. He was something else.
5) Sadio Mane
Six players have reached double figures for goals in eight or more consecutive Premier League seasons. Sadio Mane is unique in that he has never not scored at least 10 times in an English top-flight campaign, whereas Frank Lampard, Wayne Rooney and Harry Kane failed to reach that admittedly arbitrary mark early in their career, while Sergio Aguero and Thierry Henry fell short in their final year. It underlines what a model of consistency and durability Mane has been – and how substantial a loss he would be to Liverpool.
That he has achieved that feat while transitioning from an excellent Southampton team in 7th and 6th to a sensational Liverpool side in the upper reaches of the domestic and continental game is absurd. Mane is the only Senegalese winner of the Premier League, has won every trophy available to him in less than a decade in England and might forever possess the quickest hat-trick in competition history. He has earned his right to leave Liverpool with his head held high.
4) Yaya Toure
There is a difference between being effortless and lacking in effort, as epitomised by the often languid but usually unstoppable superiority of Yaya Toure. The ‘OK holding midfielder’ arrived to general mistrust and scepticism but became a Premier League legend with three winner’s medals.
Toure was decisive in 2011/12, scoring both goals in a 2-0 win over Newcastle on the season’s penultimate weekend, before setting up Pablo Zabaleta’s opener on the final day against QPR. His work in helping establish Manchester City as a legitimate force was done by 2017/18, when Toure’s powers had waned in his mid-30s. But Pep Guardiola put their differences aside and allowed the Ivorian to captain the club in his final home game in May 2018. But it was during the 2013/14 campaign in which he came up more clutch than anyone not named Eric in a Premier League title race. With Liverpool ready to capitalise on any mistakes, Toure dragged City through their final four games: scoring and assisting in a 2-0 win at Crystal Palace; setting up the equaliser in a win over Everton; laying on one goal and netting another himself at home to Aston Villa; then providing the final pass to a nerve-settling Samir Nasri goal against West Ham on the final day. It was a perfect denouement to one of the most impressive individual seasons in top-flight history. Twenty goals and nine assists from midfield is a bit silly.
3) Riyad Mahrez
The only African PFA Player of the Year to date – which is very much subject to potentially imminent change – is a four-time champion with two different clubs and an Arab trailblazer in the Premier League. Riyad Mahrez is still overlooked as a genuine great but his record is favourable to many of his more iconic predecessors, none of whom helped inspire Leicester to an actual sodding title.
That proper recognition might forever elude Mahrez, whose lack of public profile and stubborn insistence on only playing for teams in blue counts against him. Not that it matters too much: the 31-year-old has earned the absolute respect of his peers, colleagues and the majority of his teams’ supporters. Even university students who cannot handle their drink are not able to fake shots so seamlessly. He is a phenomenon.
2) Didier Drogba
“Do not judge him now. Judge him when he leaves the club,” said Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho upon the signing of Didier Drogba in 2004. Little did the Portuguese know that verdicts would thus have to be passed twice: once after he crowned his first spell by scoring a dramatic equaliser and then the decisive penalty in a Champions League final shootout, having reached 100 goals in 226 Premier League games that same season; then again after he returned to win his fourth title in 2014/15. In either case, the initial doubt that greeted his club-record signing was soon forgotten.
Drogba’s 12-trophy haul in England was indicative of his unerring quality in finals and big games, while his pair of Premier League Golden Boots attest to an elite consistency. He had no discernible weakness as either a player or a man. Any defender who spent time in England’s top flight during the2000s is contractually obliged to name Drogba as their most difficult opponent alongside some random like Kevin Davies or Benni McCarthy.
1) Mo Salah
Mo Salah is a better human being than he is a football player. And he’s one of the best football players in the world. That was TIME Magazine’s introduction to the Liverpool forward in April 2019 – before the Egyptian had won a single trophy in England – and it is difficult to argue. His records are numerous, from the highest-scoring single season in Premier League history to the fact he has scored or assisted against every Premier League opponent except for Liverpool and Sunderland. No African player has more Premier League goals and only four of any nationality score at a better rate than his goal every 129 minutes. Only 14 players have more hat-tricks in the division. Only Henry has more Golden Boots. But the statistical cliche is ‘Only Mo Salah…’ for good reason.