There is a sneaking suspicion that Erling Haaland might just have got the hang of Our League. A few others made it look easy straight away.
10) Fernando Torres (Liverpool, 2007/08)
The most goals a foreign player has ever scored in their debut Premier League season was the 24 plundered by Fernando Torres for Liverpool in 2007/08. At his current rate, that is a tally Erling Haaland will surpass in six more games – or Manchester City’s final fixture before the World Cup.
That should do little to negate the prowess of Torres, whose fire burned remarkably bright at Liverpool despite never catching at Chelsea. It was the Blues who first tasted the Spaniard’s brilliance on his home debut, when the flickers of that potent combination with Steven Gerrard were evident from the moment the captain released a sublime assist for the opening goal of a 1-1 draw.
“What a ball he’s just played through,” exclaimed Andy Gray. “Now have you got enough in your locker to beat, I think, one of the best defenders around?” he asked, before adding two words that you, dear reader, absolutely do not expect to read next.
He did. Few defenders got the better of Torres in that imperious first campaign for the Reds, which featured consecutive Anfield hat-tricks, a Merseyside derby winner and a whole boatload of goalkeeper-deceiving dummies.
9) Diego Costa (Chelsea, 2014/15)
In the early stages of every Premier League season, Diego Costa and Micky Quinn are inseparable. The otherwise strange bedfellows have become synonymous with strong starts from English top-flight rookies, even though Haaland is currently in the process of devouring that bar and setting a new one out of ordinary reach.
Diego Costa was a perfect fit for both the Premier League and Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea from the off. There was no acclimatisation period. He was Player of the Month in August 2014, a hat-trick scorer by September and a master of the dark arts well before October, with PFA Team of the Year membership, a 20-goal title-winning season and a League Cup winner’s medal to boot by May.
8) Jens Lehmann (Arsenal, 2003/04)
When David Seaman vacated the Arsenal gloves in 2003 with a view to pursuing his ultimate dream of advertising doors and windows, the Gunners had a decision to make. They could have replaced him with a young, hungry goalkeeper. The opportunity was there to actually sign Sebastien Frey in concept as well as theory. Or they had the option of supplanting the outmoded and outgoing 39-year-old with a fresh, up-and-coming 33-year-old.
The maverick Jens Lehmann button was activated and Arsene Wenger had once again seen what many others struggled to. “I am pleased because he is used to playing under big pressure, he is intelligent and we got him at the right price,” said the manager of his positively lavish £1.5m addition – the biggest signing Arsenal made that summer.
By the end of the season, Lehmann was an ever-present Invincible who only occasionally smothered Robbie Keane while trying to defend corners. No-one kept more clean sheets than the German in 2003/04. No-one dared.
7) Gianfranco Zola (Chelsea, 1996/97)
Despite joining Chelsea in November 1996, Gianfranco Zola famously made enough of an impression on an insular English top flight that he was named FWA Footballer of the Year ahead of teammate Mark Hughes, Golden Boot-winning PFA darling Alan Shearer, emerging celebrity David Beckham and, as Michael Briggs of The Independent put it, fellow ‘pocket-sized overseas star’ Juninho Paulista.
His was not a swashbuckling, goal-laden entrance on the scene but a classy, skilful catalogue of tricks and flicks which endeared him to even the most miserly rivals and assured him a place in Chelsea’s soul well before he guided them to their first major trophy in 26 years, the FA Cup.
Two juggernauts of the sport put it best. Sir Alex Ferguson dubbed him “a clever little so-and-so, much better than I thought” after one particularly egregious goal in February 1997 left Denis Irwin sprawling. Daniel Storey once described him as ‘the perfect poster boy for change’. It takes one to know one.
6) Petr Cech (Chelsea, 2004/05)
Things could have been slightly different for Petr Cech. When Chelsea announced his signing in February 2004, Claudio Ranieri was their manager and Carlo Cudicini was the firmly established starting goalkeeper. A pre-season injury to the latter and the predictable sacking of the former paved the way for Cech and Mourinho to form a parsimonious bond.
It is a record that will likely never be broken. Cech missed three games of the 2004/05 Premier League season but kept 25 clean sheets and conceded only 13 goals. The extensive list of players who beat him proves the theory that some people can have a great time simply listing old footballers: James Beattie, Nicolas Anelka, Zoltan Gera, Papa Bouba Diop, Kevin Davies, Radhi Jaidi, Thierry Henry (twice), Leon McKenzie, Aki Riihilahti, Kevin Phillips, Walter Pandiani and Collins John.
That was genuinely so f**king fun.
5) Ruud van Nistelrooy (Manchester United, 2001/02)
“The price is not heavy for me – it lifts me up because it means United have big confidence in me,” said Ruud van Nistelrooy. He had waited long enough for his moment. Manchester United had planned to announce his record arrival in April 2000 but postponed the deal due to fears over the striker’s knee. They proved to be well-founded and after 11 months out with ruptured ligaments, a five-year contract was evidence that Ferguson’s curiosity never dissipated.
That faith was returned with interest. Van Nistelrooy embarked on a campaign of ludicrous prolific proportions, starting relatively slowly with just five Premier League goals by the start of December, before bursting into life over the festive period with a record-breaking eight-game scoring streak.
There was no tangible prize at the end of it all: 36 goals in all competitions brought a third-placed finish in the league, a Champions League semi-final defeat on away goals, a fourth-round FA Cup exit and a similarly early departure from the League Cup, before intermittent Dutch tournament failure gave Van Nistelrooy the summer off. But on a personal level it was a remarkable success from a phenomenal player.
4) Kevin Phillips (Sunderland, 1999/2000)
In his first three Sunderland seasons, Kevin Phillips scored 90 goals in 118 games. But one of those campaigns was a true outlier: impressive as his exploits were in inspiring the Black Cats to consecutive promotion pushes in the First Division, he took to the Premier League suspiciously well when he finally dragged them there.
“There was a lot of pressure and a lot of talk about whether I could do it in the Premiership. But I think I’m starting to prove people wrong,” Phillips himself noted by September of his debut top-flight season, eight goals deep with Sunderland in 7th.
Sky Sports pundit Rodney Marsh had previously suggested the striker would not reach double figures but Phillips outlined his usual target of 20 goals to “shut everyone up”.
To make absolutely certain, Phillips notched 30 and became the first English league winner of the European Golden Shoe since Ian Rush 16 years prior. Only five players have ever scored more in a single Premier League season. Then again, how many might Shearer, Andy Cole, Cristiano Ronaldo, Luis Suarez and Mo Salah have got with Niall Quinn as their partner?
3) Sergio Aguero (Manchester City, 2011/12)
The final kick of the season alone would qualify Sergio Aguero’s debut Premier League season as one of the absolute greatest, but what came before that wasn’t half bad either.
It started with eight goals and a hat-trick in his opening five games, which seems like a bit of a drought in comparison to Haaland but was considered productive at the time. October slowed to a standstill with just one strike, albeit against Manchester United. November and January similarly brought just one goal each, with December at least churning out three.
It wasn’t really until the run-in that Aguero sparked into life. The first chapter of his story in England opened with a bang and closed much the same with six goals in as many matches, each of which Manchester City unfathomably won to lift their first Premier League title.
2) Jaap Stam (Manchester United, 1998/99)
It is intended as no disservice to Gary Pallister to suggest Manchester United made a slight upgrade in the central defensive department in 1998. A world-record deal for a defender brought 25-year-old Jaap Stam to Old Trafford for £10.6m while Pallister, 33, offset some of that fee with his £2.5m move back to Middlesbrough.
The justification was immediate. Stam lost two of his 30 Premier League games in 1998/99, succumbing to an irresistible Arsenal side at Highbury and failing, slightly more weirdly, to keep Sheffield Wednesday and Niclas Alexandersson at bay a couple of months later.
Stam was otherwise imperious, playing every minute of the club’s Champions League run and featuring heavily in their FA Cup journey. Only Peter Schmeichel (56), Roy Keane (55), Beckham (54) and Gary Neville played more games for Manchester United in that historic season than their Dutch destroyer.
1) N’Golo Kante (Leicester, 2015/16)
There is something glorious about a double signing. Nature will simply not allow both players to succeed and thus the fun is in figuring out whether Luis Suarez or Andy Carroll will thrive, which of Cristiano Ronaldo and Kleberson establishes themselves and who of Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano can put up with Alan Pardew for long enough to make a difference.
Only a fool would have predicted the winner out of N’Golo Kante and Yohan Benalouane at the time Leicester announced their paired arrivals in August 2015. Neither was particularly well known outside of scouting circles and in the case of Kante he was not even Ranieri’s first choice to replace Esteban Cambiasso: Jordan Veretout joined Aston Villa instead.
That inauspicious start continued when Kante was on the bench for Leicester’s first three games, and often used as a left-winger when he did feature. Once it was figured that his energy, anticipation and ball progression might be best served in central midfield, there was no looking back.
It soon became a running theme for every member of that glorious title-winning side not named Jamie Vardy or Riyad Mahrez to be described as the unsung hero. Wes Morgan and Robert Huth had their moments, as did Kasper Schmeichel. Marc Albrighton, Christian Fuchs, Leonardo Ulloa and Shinji Okazaki all pitched in. But in truth Kante was the glue, the unparalleled intercepticon who was plucked from the obscurity of Ligue Un’s bottom half and soon became the lynchpin of a miracle.