James Milner seems intent on populating this list entirely by himself, but as Liverpool bid farewell to a club legend we look at the greatest Premier League free agents.
10) Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Manchester United)
In a way, Zlatan Ibrahimovic was emblematic of every wrong turn Manchester United had taken while stumbling through their post-Sir Alex Ferguson apocalypse. A 34-year-old signing for eye-watering wages as a marketable brand and an obstacle to younger players, Jose Mourinho’s explicit attempt to transplant a different mentality into the dressing room at Old Trafford was not particularly successful. It was short-termist thinking at its most damaging.
Yet Ibrahimovic confounded each and every expectation, at least on an individual level. His claims to have “conquered” the English top flight soon grew tiresome but there was some merit to them. His 17 Premier League goals were at least 11 more than any teammate could conjure. There was a match-winning turn in the League Cup final, some wonderful performances and a hat-trick en route to Europa League glory, and a nomination for the PFA Player of the Year award. No Man Utd player has scored more goals in a single season than Ibrahimovic managed in a breath-taking debut campaign since Robin van Persie in 2012/13.
9) Ruud Gullit (Chelsea)
For an insight into the perceptions Ruud Gullit had to overcome at Chelsea, consider the answer he provided to one of the questions at his 1995 press unveiling. Asked whether it was true that he would pick and choose when to play, the Dutchman replied: “Somebody took it the wrong way because I joked that if there was a good soul concert in London I would be unavailable.” When it was then put to him that his fitness might be an issue, he simply added: “If you have possession of the ball you don’t have to run around chasing after it.”
At 32, and with his career winding down, the accusations were inevitable. The Premier League was not then as it is now; foreign talents were still viewed with suspicion. Gullit – voted runner-up to Eric Cantona in the Footballer of the Year vote in his first season – was a trailblazer who did more than most to change that, while transforming the entire sport’s culture and style.
8) Gary McAllister (Liverpool)
Everton will never deploy a two-man wall again, at least not when half of its components move out of the way before the ball is kicked. Liverpool had not won at Goodison Park for 11 years until Gary McAllister lined up a 44-yard free-kick in stoppage time that April 2001 evening.
They had not really done all that much in those barren years before McAllister’s unassuming arrival as a 35-year-old free signing from Coventry the previous summer. Their most recent trophy was the 1995 League Cup; their best Premier League finish was third a season later. McAllister proceeded to score in the 2001 UEFA Cup semi-final and final, assisting three goals in the latter, with similar transformative turns as a substitute in FA and League Cup final successes contributing to that plastic Liverpool treble.
Merseyside’s favourite namesakes remember him incredibly fondly. Manager Houllier described McAllister as his “most inspirational signing”; midfielder Steven later recalled a “masterclass on legs”, the “master” to his “awestruck pupil” and a Liverpool role model “I could learn from both on and off the pitch”. Even if he was initially furious at the arrival of his future assistant manager, telling his agent: “‘McAllister can f*****g well learn off me!'”.
7) Jay-Jay Okocha (Bolton)
Nine players have scored more Premier League goals for Bolton, including Ivan Klasnic. Among the 14 to have made more Premier League appearances for the club are Nicky Hunt and Gretar Steinsson. Yet none had the same impact, nor courted anything close to a similar level of neutral respect or adulation, as the man they named twice.
That iconic Bolton side offered a smorgasbord of brilliant players the shot at a career revitalisation. Ivan Campo, Fernando Hierro, Youri Djorkaeff, Bruno Ngotty, Gary Speed and Nicolas Anelka all enjoyed Indian summers under Sam Allardyce, but the greatest period in the club’s modern history was synonymous with Jay-Jay Okocha.
A free signing from Paris Saint-Germain, Okocha took a team which had just finished 16th in 2002 before his arrival into Europe by his 2006 departure. The skills and tricks guaranteed his place in nostalgic highlight reels and Ray Parlour’s psyche, but there was plenty of substance to accompany the style: four goals in the last nine games of his first season, including a stunner against West Ham, to drag Bolton clear of relegation; two stunning free-kicks to shatter Aston Villa in the 2004 League Cup semi-final; and even a turn as Allardyce’s “mature” captain.
6) Marc Albrighton (Leicester)
Nigel Pearson was not shy in exploiting the free agent pool to bolster his Leicester squad for a first Premier League campaign in more than a decade. It was an eclectic selection which joined the Championship record-breakers, from Matt Upson and Ben Hamer to Mark Schwarzer and Esteban Cambiasso.
One player remains on the King Power books nine years later. Marc Albrighton might not have expected to become a Premier League champion, FA Cup winner and Champions League goalscorer as a specific consequence of being released by Aston Villa in 2014, but those cunning Foxes saw something in the winger that Paul Lambert did not.
Nor did Nigel Pearson at first, with Albrighton given no consistency in terms of game time until the penultimate month of his first season. After helping pull them away from the relegation zone, the winger did not miss a match as they unfathomably won the title in the next campaign.
Jamie Vardy (306) and Kasper Schmeichel (276) are suitably the only players to ever make more Premier League appearances for Leicester than Albrighton (224): those more obvious faces of the club’s remarkable success know it would not have been possible without Lionel Messi’s understated inspiration.
Messi would be a decent Albrighton replacement pic.twitter.com/N2m9CIDxMG
— Kini🕉️ (@lcfckini) May 3, 2023
5) Joel Matip (Liverpool)
“In a world of big transfer fees, to sign a player like Joel Matip on a free transfer is incredible. It was maybe one of the best pieces of business we did in the last few years,” said Jurgen Klopp of a player who, in a world without Marko Grujic or Steven Caulker, would have been the German’s first addition at Liverpool.
That Matip has made just 139 Premier League appearances in seven seasons sums up a lack of fitness which slightly undermines the centre-half’s legacy – he played just nine games of the club’s title-winning 2019/20 and was a late substitute in the 2022 FA Cup final – but it was precisely the sort of market mastery upon which Klopp established his brilliance. The Champions League final assist for Divock Origi alone made it all worth it.
4) Michael Ballack (Chelsea)
Perhaps it is more instructive of Chelsea’s dominance at the time, but it remains a startling statistic: Michael Ballack never lost a Premier League game to a side in the bottom half. While the Blues suffered setbacks even at their most imperious, they rarely occurred on the watch of a midfielder Alan Hansen once accused of “playing with a huge cigar in his mouth”.
Ballack moved to Stamford Bridge during a strange period for the club. He signed from Bayern Munich in 2006 after Jose Mourinho’s machine had secured back-to-back titles but would have to wait until his final campaign in 2010 under Carlo Ancelotti to add a Premier League winner’s medal to his collection. Heartbreak with Bayer Leverkusen and Germany in 2002 was emulated six years later with defeat in the Euro 2008 final, second place in the Premier League and a role as beaten finalist in both the Champions League and League Cup. He scored his penalty in the former’s shootout, to no avail.
Though never the most outstanding midfielder at any point during his Chelsea tenure, the German was the most consistent. Frank Lampard, Michael Essien, Claude Makelele, Joe Cole, Deco and even Steve sodding Sidwell shone brighter at times but unlike each of those, Ballack never flickered. He was a player with no discernible weakness and precious few peers.
3) Brad Friedel (Blackburn)
Gordon Strachan put it best after watching Southampton dominate Blackburn in November 2002, only to emerge with a solitary point when Andy Cole countered James Beattie’s first-half penalty in stoppage-time.
“If you take Brad Friedel’s jersey off then he’ll have a leotard underneath with a big ‘S’ on it,” said the Saints boss. “He must have changed in a telephone box before this game. Some of the guy’s saves were unbelievable. I was lost for words after the game. Graeme Souness actually apologised at the end and didn’t know where to look.”
It was little wonder Friedel won Blackburn’s Player of the Year award by the end of that season; he was man of the match in the 2002 League Cup final win over Spurs, while earning a spot in the Premier League Team of the Year.
If Ali Dia marks the low point of Graeme Souness’ transfer business, Friedel is the high mark. The American was picked up by newly-promoted Rovers in November 2000 after being released by Liverpool and became one of the country’s most consistent performers, reliable as ever when he left for Aston Villa eight years later.
Only Edwin van der Sar (88) kept more Premier League clean sheets than Friedel (77) during his time at Blackburn, and the Dutchman was certainly not playing behind Craig Short and Andy Todd.
2 – In February 2004, Blackburn's Brad Friedel became only the second goalkeeper in Premier League history to score a goal, doing so in his side's 2-3 defeat against Charlton. Reactions. #OptaPLSeasons pic.twitter.com/KTH5emF6bq
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) April 7, 2020
2) Sol Campbell (Arsenal)
The assembled media, of which there were few, expected little more than the routine unveiling of Richard Wright as Arsenal’s newest signing in early July 2001. Then out walked a fearsome English centre-half whose Tottenham future had dominated the summer headlines. Arsenal supporters still regret that it was Campbell, not Chris Perry, who was explaining why he had turned down Barcelona, Inter Milan and Bayern Munich while being proudly paraded by Arsene Wenger.
“I had Thierry Henry, who used to pass people for fun. But with Sol, there was a wall,” Wenger later noted. “It was as if he was indestructible, such a power spread from him. I wanted him in my side and told David Dein that.”
His wish was the vice-chairman’s command. Campbell crossed the north London divide, won a league and cup double in his first season, became an Invincible in his third and scored a Champions League final goal in his last, provided everyone agrees to ignore that ill-advised encore in 2010. For a time, the country’s greatest centre-half was priceless in more ways than one.
1) James Milner (Liverpool)
When James Milner took a pay cut to swap Manchester City for Liverpool in 2015, many questioned his timing. It seemed like a curious decision to leave the upwardly mobile runners-up, a team with whom he had won two Premier League titles in five years, for a side which finished sixth, 17 points behind and had ended their season with a 6-1 thrashing by Stoke.
Even his motivation behind the move was puzzling at the time. Milner complained of a lack of central opportunities at the Etihad, which Brendan Rodgers was more than happy to rectify. Yet by his second Liverpool season, the vice-captain was the club’s starting left-back.
Manchester City fans booed their former player but there was method in Milner’s madness, even if that only became apparent upon his union with Jurgen Klopp. A bit-part player in one team’s inevitable trophy haul became one of the designated drivers of Liverpool’s transformation.
Milner was 29 when he left Manchester City, where he won four trophies, made 203 appearances and scored 18 goals. Few would have expected him to improve on each of those metrics at Liverpool but eight years, six trophies, 331 appearances and 26 goals later, he leaves as a legend. He might be 37 but only a fool would back against him winning eight trophies, making 400 odd appearances and scoring 30 or so goals as a free agent for Brighton.