Performance in the Premier League is the only thing relevant here. So no George Weah or Ruud Gullit, for example. And no current Premier League players. Sorry Kevin de Bruyne. Let’s go.
10) Michu (52 games)
The all-encompassing nature of modern-day scouting networks means that every top-flight club can have an in-depth report on every player in every league in every country at their request. No stone is left unturned in the search for unearthed talent, no corner of the world left untouched in the demand for the next bargain. Everyone has to have heard of everyone: anything short of omniscience is a weakness.
Which is what made Sir Alex Ferguson’s admission in December 2012 all the more striking. “Michael Laudrup is cherry-picking and the boy Michu was a first-class piece of business,” he said ahead of a meeting with Swansea. “Just £2 million and I’d never really heard of him. I should have a word with my scouting department!”
For a time, Michu became a footballing currency, the yardstick by which the value of any and every transfer was measured. The Spaniard scored 18 goals in the 2012/13 season – two against Ferguson’s champions – and was voted Player of the Year both by fellow teammates and by supporters as Swansea finished ninth and won the League Cup.
Michu would never scale those heights either in England or elsewhere again, but his retirement in summer 2017 offered one final opportunity to reminisce over the most unpredictable and fleeting of success stories.
9) Martin Laursen (84 games)
In confirming the arrival of John Terry last summer, Aston Villa joined the recent fad of clubs announcing new signings in increasingly peculiar ways. Their bright idea was a spoof WhatsApp conversation between the owner, the manager, and current and former players, in which Gabriel Agbonlahor declared Terry ‘the best defender we’ve had at this club!’. Within a minute, Martin Laursen, Olof Mellberg and Paul McGrath left the conversation. The lucky b*stards.
— Aston Villa FC (@AVFCOfficial) July 3, 2017
Mellberg and McGrath’s status as Villa Park legends are obvious. They earned their place in club folklore with 232 and 253 league appearances respectively, making Laursen’s stay seem painfully swift by comparison. The Dane started just 25 Premier League games in his first three seasons, the knee injury that plagued his time in Italy returning with a vengeance. Yet with retirement seemingly looming, Laursen was truly excellent in his penultimate season in the West Midlands. With Martin O’Neill allowing a loose, Ledley King-inspired training schedule, Laursen was named the club’s Player of the Year, awarded the captaincy, and enjoyed the best campaign of a Champions League-winning career. He narrowly missed out on this list, but makes the grade here.
8) Demba Ba (99 games)
It feels perverse to confirm that, despite playing for three different Premier League clubs, Demba Ba never reached 100 appearances in the competition. His dalliance with England started in January 2011 at West Ham, the graveyard of strikers under Messrs Gold and Sullivan. Yet Ba managed to defy the curse and finish as the club’s top goalscorer despite playing just 12 games. Even he could not rescue them from relegation however, and a free transfer to Newcastle beckoned.
It was on Tyneside where Ba would enjoy his greatest success, scoring 29 goals in 54 games. Two hat-tricks in the space of two months in late 2011 helped sink Blackburn and Stoke as Ba spearheaded an unlikely and ultimately futile challenge for Champions League football.
The Senegalese would get his chance on that stage the following season, joining Chelsea for £7m in January 2013. He started just 16 games for the Blues in the Premier League however, although his final goal for the club is etched into the memory of us all: it was Ba who punished Steven Gerrard’s fateful slip in April 2014 in the most impressive supporting actor role since Heath Ledger’s turn in The Dark Knight.
7) Javier Mascherano (99 games)
There is a chance that Javier Mascherano cherishes his last 94 Premier League games slightly more than his first five. The Argentinean started the 2006/07 season as back-up to Hayden Mullins at West Ham, and ended it by starting against AC Milan in the Champions League final, where he was voted Liverpool’s man of the match.
From there, the Argentinean established himself as one of the Europe’s best defensive midfielders in one of Europe’s best midfields. The destroyer behind the creator, Xabi Alonso, and the instigator, Steven Gerrard, Mascherano’s role was simple but effective. In his first two-and-a-half seasons at Anfield, Liverpool lost just five of the 59 Premier League games he started.
His exit was “toxic” by his own admission, self-engineered as a result of Rafael Benitez’s departure and Roy Hodgson’s arrival. His emergence was puzzling, unable to break into an average West Ham side. But in the period between, there were few better enforcers than the anus-tearing El Jefecito.
6) Dimitri Payet (48 games)
From a “toxic” farewell to one that was positively poisonous. That Dimitri Payet is not as fondly remembered at West Ham is a situation entirely of his own creation. The Frenchman transitioned from unlikely hero to cast-Iron villain seamlessly, leaving within eight months of being unanimously named Player of the Season. The mural installed in his tribute had to be guarded by security to “prevent it being vandalised”, before being replaced altogether with one to commemorate Andy Carroll’s bicycle kick against Crystal Palace. Oh, West Ham.
The 18 months that preceded his downfall were spectacular. Doubts were raised over Payet immediately, a 28-year-old arriving at his first club outside of France for £10m, initially unwilling to leave Marseille until he was talked into it. He assisted a goal in his first Premier League game, scored in his second, and soon won the hearts of the supporters.
West Ham won only one of the eight league games he missed through injury in his first season, with the PFA Player of the Year shortlist confirming his excellence. Champions Riyad Mahrez, Jamie Vardy and N’Golo Kante were joined by top scorer Harry Kane and assist leader Mesut Ozil. Completing the set was Payet, who led in both metrics for West Ham in their best season since 2002.
5) Arjen Robben (67 games)
“I don’t remember Robben being half as good in the Premier League for Chelsea,” Paul Scholes once said of Arjen Robben, the man who boasts the highest Premier League win percentage of any player with more than 50 games. His 55 wins in 67 matches (82.1%) outstrips that of Paulo Ferreira (72.34%), Claude Makelele (70.83%), Nemanja Vidic (70.62%) and Michael Ballack (70.48%). Remember when Chelsea were really bloody good?
In fairness to Scholes, it never felt as though England truly saw the best of Robben, who joined at 20, left at 23 and aged like the finest of wines thereafter. The Dutch winger marvelled and dazzled in between injuries, not making his debut until November 2004 due to a broken foot, and failing to start any of the last 14 Premier League games of the successful 2004/05 season. But it was at Stamford Bridge that Robben would hone his talents, eliminate his inconsistencies and presumably reply to all of his emails.
As Robben himself said in his excellent Players’ Tribune column last year: ‘It’ll only be two years, but Chelsea will be an important step for you. You were a part of that team, you were important and you did do your job.’ Quite.
Mourinho’s Chelsea would probably be my shout. Impenetrable defence, ruthlessly efficient and Robben was near unplayable https://t.co/5QvSVm2PlD
— Ryan Baldi (@RyanBaldiFW) February 23, 2018
4) Zlatan Ibrahimovic (33 games)
Zlatan Ibrahimovic viewed England as the last obstacle of a long and illustrious career. The striker had won league titles in the Netherlands, Italy, Spain and France, dominating defences in five different countries and racking up some ridiculous statistics along the way. He failed to add the Premier League title to his collection, but scored 17 goals in 28 league games to dismiss any suggestions he could not cut it on these shores. A first major European trophy and a match-winning display in the League Cup final crowned a phenomenal first season.
It is a shame that Ibrahimovic prolonged his stay in England, but the decision was understandable. The lure of Champions League football, the challenge of returning from the first long-term injury of his career in his mid-30s and the desire to keep proving critics wrong was too much to resist. Had he left in the summer, the tributes would have been far more glowing. The encore has ended with him being slowly shuffled out the door, but the performance that preceded it was quite something.
3) Diego Costa (89 games)
Only six players have been top scorer for the champions in more than one Premier League title-winning campaign. Manchester United account for half of those, starting with Eric Cantona and Dwight Yorke, while Cristiano Ronaldo is the only man to accomplish the feat three times. Thierry Henry did it twice at Arsenal, while Frank Lampard managed it in consecutive seasons at Chelsea. Diego Costa feels like an outlier among such luminaries.
The Spaniard played his last game for Chelsea in May 2017, yet only five players have scored more Premier League goals since the start of the 2014/15 season. A player largely vilified by those outside Stamford Bridge, a man who took out a trademark on any phrase regarding ‘the dark arts’ soon after his arrival, helped fire the Blues to glory in his first and last seasons at the club. The less said about the filling in that particular sandwich, the better. But it did not take long for one of the infamous three rats to wriggle from his self-imposed trap and dominate defences once more. Fifty-two goals in 89 league games is the sort of record that perhaps warrants more than a parting text.
2) Jurgen Klinsmann (56 games)
It is easy to suggest that Jurgen Klinsmann won his greatest Premier League battle before he had even kicked a ball. “Maybe I can ask you the first question. Are there any diving schools in London?” quipped the striker at his first Tottenham press conference in 1994, his theatrics from the World Cup four years prior high on the agenda long before he even arrived from Monaco. He celebrated his first goal in north London with an elaborate swan dive, and the transition from villain to hero was complete.
Klinsmann used the press to turn the tide of public opinion, but relied on his goals to ride the subsequent wave. The German ended the season with 30 in all competitions – the most recent Tottenham player to hit that figure until Harry Kane – while he was the first player to ever win the FWA Player of the Year award in his debut season in England. A place in the PFA Team of the Year alongside Blackburn’s SAS, as well as a podium finish in the 1995 Ballon d’Or, cemented his as one of the best individual seasons of all time.
The forward left for Bayern Munich after just one year, returning two-and-a-half seasons later to score nine goals in 15 games and steer Christian Gross’s Spurs to clear of relegation. The untrustworthy foreigner had mastered the English game, and helped pave the way for a different kind of player.
Jürgen Klinsmann scoring his first goal and the winner for us against Sheffield Wednesday on the opening day of the Premier League
20th August 1994
Sheffield Wednesday 3 – 4 Tottenham Hotspur pic.twitter.com/qQ1l5NpFzp
— Spurs Devotion (@SpursDevotion) March 26, 2018
1) Jaap Stam (79 games)
“When I think of disappointments, obviously Jaap Stam was always a disappointment to me. I made a bad decision there.”
Having started with an Alex Ferguson anecdote, it is only right to end on one too. That the Scot, then five months into his retirement, still looked back on the sale of Stam 12 years prior as one of his biggest managerial mistakes was revealing. That United won the title in each of Stam’s three full seasons, and just once in their first five campaigns without him illustrates his remarkable influence. He was present for their greatest period in the Premier League, and absent for their weakest.
Whether that is mere coincidence is impossible to say, but Stam was imperious in England. He played every minute of their 1998/99 Champions League campaign, won six trophies and lost just five of his 79 games in the Premier League. Peter Schmeichel (56), Roy Keane (55), David Beckham (54) and Gary Neville (53) were the only players to feature in more of United’s 63 games in the Treble-winning season; Stam played 51 times.
United’s life in the Premier League is littered with centre-half greats, from Bruce and Pallister to Ferdinand and Vidic, with Johnsen, Brown and Silvestre in the echelon below. Stam was as good as the very best of them.