The best player each Premier League club has had on loan. Simple as that. Only rule: only loans while they were in the Premier League count, which proved far more restrictive than we had naively originally thought and that we now bitterly regret. On we go, then.
ARSENAL – Martin Odegaard
Arsenal do not have a great history with loans. Arsene Wenger’s naked mistrust of the loan system meant that across their first 27 Premier League seasons, Arsenal brought in just ten players on temporary deals and one of those was Kim Kallstrom. Another one was Thierry Henry, which was lovely and all but he played a total of 161 minutes in his brief second spell at the club.
Arsenal love loans now, though. They’ve had six in the five seasons since, including two years experiencing the unique delights of Dani Ceballos. There was also Denis Suarez, and Pablo Mari. So it’s still not a total triumph. Martin Odegaard, though. That’s turned out well. hasn’t it?
His actual loan spell, in the second half of the 2020/21 season, was decent rather than spectacular, but what’s happened since would make it a clear winner even if the rest of Arsenal’s loan signings weren’t awful shit. Odegaard joined permanently in the summer of 2021 and is now the inspirational club captain and playmaker who did much of the heavy lifting to propel Arsenal’s unlikely and sadly ultimately bottled title bid.
Still. It’s really quite lovely to see Odegaard turn out to be genuinely properly good, because for the longest time he appeared to be walking the hackneyed path of ‘child prodigy scooped up at irresponsibly young age by Superclub, struggles to adapt, washed up at 22’. We thought he was going to be another Freddy Adu, basically, a player we remain convinced was entirely invented by nefarious Big Media just so they could do ‘Much Adu About Nothing’ headlines.
ASTON VILLA – James Milner
Did an absolutely wild amount of loaning in 2018/19 to get back up to the Premier League and had a very decent hit rate. Tammy Abraham hit 25 goals in the Championship and another against West Brom in the play-off semi-final, while Tyrone Mings wasn’t a bad shout either.
But none of that was in the Premier League so none of it counts, and their post-promotion efforts have not been as good. Ross Barkley? Ross f**king Barkley? And the initial excitement about Philippe Coutinho wore off fast, didn’t it? Long before they totally spoiled it by making it a permanent move. So it’s all the way back to 2005 we go. It was as part of a clause in Nolberto Solano’s return to Newcastle that Aston Villa received his ready-made replacement. A 19-year-old James Milner was sent to work with David O’Leary for the season, the two having narrowly missed out on crossing paths at Leeds three years earlier. The midfielder’s development at St James’ Park had been stunted by the departure of Sir Bobby Robson and subsequent appointment of Graeme Souness, but he would flourish at Villa.
By the summer of 2006 the future European champion was the subject of a tug of war. Villa, now managed by Martin O’Neill and still desperate to keep Milner, agreed a £4m move, only for Glenn Roeder’s Newcastle to renege on negotiations. He stayed – but only until 2008 when he was finally unveiled as a £12m Villa signing. And he’s still going.
BRENTFORD – Kevin Schade
Wasn’t amazing but did enough to turn his loan move from Freiburg into a club-record permanent one. Given the main condition that had to be met for that was Brentford not getting relegated, it was always likely. As was his taking the honours here because quite literally all he had to beat was Alvaro Fernandez (24 goals conceded in 12 Premier League games) and Jonas Lossl (five goals conceded in two Premier League games).
BRIGHTON – Levi Colwill
The Seagulls have brought in only five loan players in their six seasons of Premier League football. The first three all came in their first season and the fact Izzy Brown, Leonardo Ulloa and Tim Krul combined for a total of 23 uninspiring Premier League appearances between them might explain that subsequent reluctance. Aaron Mooy was… okay, though, wasn’t he? They signed him permanently after his loan spell anyway.
Levi Colwill was better, though, even if it did take a little while for him to get fully to grips with the Premier League which is fair enough because it’s hard and he’s very young. Whether he can get a permanent move to Brighton or be forced to take a step down and stay with Chelsea remains to be seen. Chelsea want to keep him, of course they do, but it’s hard to stand in a player’s way when they get the opportunity to better themselves.
BURNLEY – Jack Cork
Not a club with a great record of Premier League loans and take the place on the list of shame having been one of the clubs to take Danny Drinkwater briefly off Chelsea’s hands. The good loans they have done – Ben Mee, Kieran Trippier – have generally come in the Championship stage of the Burnley lifecycle, so we’ll go with Cork who spent half a season not quite managing to keep Burnley up in 2010 before finally finding his way back to the club via Southampton and Swansea seven years later so that’s a nice tale, isn’t it?
CHELSEA – George Weah
It is not every day that a former Ballon d’Or winner and future Liberian president rocks up to play alongside Kevin Hitchcock and Emerson Thome. Yet there Chelsea were in January 2000, unveiling George Weah on a loan deal until the end of the season. A day after joining, the forward immediately endeared himself to the fans by scoring four minutes from time in a 1-0 home win over Tottenham, before adding crucial goals against Wimbledon and Liverpool en route to finishing fifth. The forward also started the FA Cup final victory against Aston Villa, having netted in the fifth and sixth rounds at home to Leicester and Gillingham. Radamel Falcao, Alexandre Pato Joao Felix and Saul Niguez could barely lay a glove on him.
CRYSTAL PALACE – Wilfried Zaha
We were going to put Conor Gallagher here because he really was tremendously good for Palace, wasn’t he? And then we remembered Zaha returned to Palace from Manchester United on loan not once but twice. The second one, subsequently made permanent for an undisclosed fee of something very close to f*** all is possibly the best Premier League loan move full stop. Ah, well. Nevertheless, well done Conor.
EVERTON – Kevin Campbell
Andre Gomes has been a decent recent one; Mikel Arteta was tidy enough as well going a bit further back. Steven Pienaar scores bonus points for having two separate successful loan spells at Goodison but really none of these can come close to Campbell’s impact in 1999. He didn’t even join until March in those crazy pre-transfer-window times with Everton seemingly doomed to relegation. Then he scored nine goals in the last eight games of the season, four of which Everton won, to keep them up. He was Everton’s top scorer for the campaign, which is objectively funny for a player who doesn’t turn up until March. Then, having made his transfer permanent that summer he scored in what was until last season Everton’s most recent win at Anfield. Scored 45 league goals for the Toffees in all, which remains enough to put him fifth on Everton’s all-time Premier League scorers list.
FULHAM – Joachim Andersen
Again, we’ve boxed ourselves into a corner that means we can’t have Aleksandar Mitrovic here because his initial loan move from Newcastle came when Fulham were in the Championship. It’s a stupid rule and we’re only hurting ourselves, but we’ve started now so might as well just keep going but grumble constantly and ineffectually about our own foolishness. It’s the British way. So it’s to the other end of the pitch we go with Joachim Andersen.
Couldn’t keep Fulham up in the end in 2020/21 after a last-gasp season-long loan move on deadline day but had an almost instant impact on Fulham’s previously leaky defence. Having shipped 10 goals in three games with an unsustainable defensive pairing of Tim Ream and Michael Hector, Fulham kept their first clean sheet of the season by happy coincidence in Andersen’s first game. By his fourth appearance – a 2-1 win at high-flying Leicester – he was wearing the captain’s armband and continued to impress throughout what was an ultimately doomed campaign for the club but which could have been truly humiliating without the big Dane.
LIVERPOOL – Javier Mascherano
Brought in on loan due to the, ahem, complexities of his arrangements at West Ham and immediately added steel and bite as well as class to Liverpool’s midfield, helping them to the Champions League final in his first half-season. After a year at the club his contract situation was resolved formally and in February 2008 he signed a four-year deal at Anfield. He stayed for two more years before heading off to Barcelona, becoming a centre-back and dedicating a Champions League final win over Manchester United to Liverpool fans. Which probably all puts him just a c**k hair ahead of Arthur Melo.
LUTON – N/A
As soon as they sign one, we’ll stick him here and crown him thanks to the greatest word in the English language: default.
MANCHESTER CITY – Marc-Vivien Foe
“I have to say at this moment that the two clubs are a long way apart,” said Manchester United chairman Martin Edwards in May 1998, the Premier League runners-up having seen Lens reject a £3m bid for midfielder Foe. The Cameroon international missed out on the chance to take David May’s place in the Treble celebrations 12 months later, but would eventually find his way to Manchester by 2002. Kevin Keegan’s City had just been promoted as First Division champions and sought the temporary services of the Lyon midfielder, who would score the club’s final goal at their Maine Road Stadium the following April. Foe’s devastating death two months later in June, the 28-year-old collapsing on the pitch during a Confederations Cup game against Colombia, came as City were negotiating his permanent signing.
MANCHESTER UNITED – Carlos Tevez
As good as Andy Kellett was, and as impactful as William Prunier remains, Carlos Tevez was crowned a Premier League, European and world champion at Old Trafford. Henrik Larsson might have induced standing ovations after dropping back to play in midfield against Middlesbrough, but he was usurped a season later. Tevez joined on a two-year loan in 2007, scoring 34 goals in 99 games, netting the opening penalty in the 2008 Champions League final shootout and becoming the shithouse Robin to Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney’s Batmen.
The Argentine would eventually boil all of the piss by crossing the city divide upon his 2009 departure, but he left after winning almost every honour available to him. That elusive FA Cup would soon arrive under Roberto Mancini before he started kicking up another fuss. United fans might be less bothered if Wout Weghorst rocks up at the Etihad.
NEWCASTLE – Joe Willock
Joe Willock’s loan move to Newcastle could end up being one of the great ripple effect moments. Now riding high in the Champions League having barely even begun their journey along a road that could take them absolutely anywhere, but would any of it be happening at all if Newcastle had gone down in 2020/21? That they didn’t is in large part down to Willock. Newcastle were still just two points clear of the dropzone with nine games to go, but took 17 points from those nine games to ease well clear of trouble by the end. Willock scored seven goals in those nine games, including a late winner against West Ham and late equalisers against Tottenham and Liverpool.
NOTTINGHAM FOREST – Keylor Navas
Just a tremendous amount of fun, wasn’t it? The sight of a multiple European Cup winner Keylor Navas rocking up at multiple European Cup winners Nottingham Forest? No wonder he couldn’t stick it at PSG with their shameful zero continental titles. The East Midlands a far more fitting location. And he’s better than Dean Henderson.
SHEFFIELD UNITED – Dean Henderson
The Blades finished one place and two points behind Arsenal in the 2019/20 season after getting themselves back in the Premier League for the first time in ages. A large part of that was the fact they conceded only 39 goals – absurd numbers for a newly promoted team tipped to struggle – and a large part of that was the return of Dean Henderson on loan from Manchester United. He’d spent the promotion season at Bramall Lane, securing the club’s young player of the year award as well as the Championship’s golden glove, and returned to greater acclaim the following year. Again named the club’s young player of the year, his performances during a fine season in Sheffield left few in any doubt he was Manchester United’s future number one. Manchester United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer for one was pretty sure of it. A lot’s changed since 2020.
TOTTENHAM – Jurgen Klinsmann
Dejan Kulusevski has a strong claim here, but there’s also no avoiding the fact his ’18-month loan with obligation’ deal from Juventus was always in all but name a permanent move. He was never going back to Juventus and everyone knew it. Gareth Bale’s return to Tottenham was a proper loan but took just too long to come to life, only fully doing so once Jose Mourinho had been forcibly removed from the situation. Bale’s ten goals in his final 12 Premier League appearances for the club stopped the whole thing being a bad job, but also left an inevitable sense of what might have been.
No such conflicting thoughts exist about Klinsmann’s brief return to north London in 1998, in which it’s no exaggeration to say he saved Spurs from the drop. His 30 goals in 1994/95 came for a team with genuine aspirations, but nine goals in 15 games – including four in a safety-securing 6-2 nonsense against Wimbledon – were probably more important in the long term. That he proceeded to stroll off into the sunset straight after made the reunion all the more fleetingly romantic. Shame his doppelgänger cropped up in America a little while after.
WEST HAM – Tomas Soucek
Yeah, this is one of the very best ones, isn’t it? Signed for West Ham on loan from Slavia Prague on January 29, 2020. That night West Ham lost 2-0 to Liverpool and sat 17th in the table, just barely above Watford and Bournemouth on goal difference. Soucek helped keep them up and has since formed a fabulous central-midfield partnership with Declan Rice that has already taken West Ham from relegation scrappers to European qualifiers and now trophy winners. Not all down to him, sure, but he’s a pretty massive part of one of English club football’s more astonishing recent transformations.
WOLVES – Raul Jimenez
Thirteen Premier League goals in his first season at Wolves on loan from Benfica helped Nuno Espirito Santo’s newly-promoted side finish seventh and qualify for Europe. Seventeen the following season as a permanent signing – plus ten further goals in Europe – helped them repeat that finish.