The most watched and most lucrative sporting league in the world, it is no surprise that some of the game’s greatest talents have flocked to the Premier League. The league has become by far the most popular in the world, largely attributed to the tempo and intensity of games as much as the quality and ability on display. Almost a quarter of a century old now, there are a plethora of world class players who have graced the league, many of whom feature below.
There are, as always with a list of this ilk, a number of notable omissions. While it would be impractical to name them all, some simply have to be mentioned, namely; Petr Cech, Tony Adams, David Beckham, Gareth Bale, Gary Neville, Vincent Kompany, Robert Pires, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Robin van Persie, Nemanja Vidic, Gianfranco Zola and Matt Le Tissier. Undoubtedly, some of you will feel as legends of the league some of those players should have featured, and the game is all about opinions.
Hopefully, once you see the players who have made the top 20, their omissions will seem a little less outrageous. Naturally there are a large number of Manchester United players on the list (9 to be precise) as the club have dominated the Premier League, winning 13 of the 23 Premier League seasons to date. Factors accounted for include ability, success, longevity and influence; here are the top 20 greatest players in Premier League history:
20. Yaya Toure
Given that Manchester City have won two league titles, it is only right that at least one of their players makes this list. Vincent Kompany, David Silva and Sergio Aguero came close, but it is Yaya Toure who ultimately comes out on top. The Ivorian powerhouse appears lethargic at times, but is a very complete players who – at his best – drives Man City on to victory.
He joined the Citizens from Barcelona in 2010, and has since won five trophies, taking his career club total to 15, being named African Footballer of the Year four times and winning 100 caps for his country.
19. Luis Suarez
Luis Suarez ranks poorly on the longevity front, having only spent three and a half seasons in the Premier League and being banned for a fair chunk of that, but his quality and impact at Liverpool earn him a place on the list regardless. His last season in the league, 2013-14, in which he scored 31 goals in 33 league games, ranks as one of the best in Premier League history and he was quite rightly named Premier League Player of the Season.
He scored a total of 82 goals in 133 games for Liverpool and came agonizingly close to winning the Premier League, before making a big-money move to Barcelona.
18. Ashley Cole
Widely regarded as the best left-back in the world over much of his career, Ashley Cole’s solidity and consistency made him a nightmare for opposing forwards and wide men. Cole came through the ranks at Arsenal before establishing himself as a world class defender, winning two league titles before a controversial move to Chelsea.
In total, Cole has won 16 trophies, including three Premier Leagues and has won 107 caps for his country, the fourth highest of any outfield player. Individually, Cole was named in the PFA Team of the Year four times before joining Roma in 2014.
17. Andy Cole
From one Cole to another, Andy Cole is currently tied as the second highest scorer in Premier League history with Wayne Rooney, with the pair both having 187 top flight strikes to their name. That alone warrants a place on this list. Cole was a natural goal scorer, and his most notable spells were with Newcastle, Manchester United and Blackburn. He won the Premier League five times, the Champions League once and won the Premier League once, scoring a career total of 271 goals in 624 games.
16. Rio Ferdinand
A ‘rolls-royce defender’ was the phrase often used to describe Rio Ferdinand, who had composure and technique above and beyond that of most center-halves. The defender is widely considered to be one of the finest of his generation and had big money moves to both Leeds United and Manchester United. With the latter he became one of the most successful players in English football history, winning 17 trophies, including six Premier League titles. He was named in the PFA Team of the Year six times, FIFPro World Team of the Year once and won 81 caps for England.
15. Didier Drogba
Named as Chelsea’s greatest ever player in a 2012 supporters poll, Didier Drogba spent nine seasons with the Blues in total, firstly with an eight year stint before returning in a cameo role under Jose Mourinho. He is the most capped and top scorer in the history of the Ivory Coast national team and Chelsea’s fourth highest scorer of all time.
A two-time African Footballer of the Year winner, Drogba has won 17 trophies, 14 of which came at Chelsea, including four Premier League titles. Drogba scored a total of 164 goals at Stamford Bridge, 104 in the league and won two Golden Boots.
14. Peter Schmeichel
The only goalkeeper to make this list, Peter Schmeichel was a class above even the best other great Premier League goalkeepers such as Petr Cech, David Seaman and Edwin van der Saar. The big Dane spent 10 seasons in England, nine in the Premier League era and seven with Manchester United.
Often regarded as one of Sir Alex’s greatest signings, Schmeichel is regarded as one of the best goalkeepers to ever live, and was a four-time UEFA Goalkeeper of the Year winner. He won 23 trophies across his entire career, 15 at Manchester United, five of which were Premier League titles.
13. John Terry
Loved by Chelsea and disliked by pretty much everyone else, regardless of what you think of John Terry on a personal level one cannot question his achievements as a player. He has captained England for five years and Chelsea for 11, winning 78 caps for his country and approaching 700 games for Chelsea. One of the best central defenders of his generation, Terry’s positioning and leadership skills have made him a world class center-half.
He is the most successful captain in Chelsea history and has won 16 trophies with the club, including four Premier League titles and was named UEFA Best Defender in 2005, 2008 and 2009.
12. Eric Cantona
Recently described by Sir Alex Ferguson as one of only four world class players the Scot ever worked with, Eric Cantona is often regarded as the spark that ignited Manchester United’s Premier League dominance under Ferguson. The enigmatic forward earned cult status at Old Trafford for his flamboyant style of play and exceptional technique.
He scored 82 goals in 185 games for the club over five seasons, and was even named their greatest ever player in one supporters poll. Cantona won four Premier League titles at Manchester United and was named the Premier League Overseas Player of the Decade.
11. Steven Gerrard
A Liverpool legend, Steven Gerrard is without doubt one of the greats of the Premier League. On statistics alone Gerrard has been named in the PFA Team of the Year eight times, the most of any player in the Premier League era. Voted by fans as Liverpool’s second greatest player of all-time, Gerrard played 708 games for his hometown club, with a Champions League win in 2005 being his greatest achievement on Merseyside, coming in 2005, the year in which he was named UEFA Club Footballer of the Year and finishing third in the Ballon d’Or.
10. Wayne Rooney
Wayne Rooney has become something of a divisive figure within English football. As a youngster, he was built up to be knocked down, and despite failing to produce his best form for England at a major tournament since Euro 2004, he has still had an exceptional career. Rooney emerged as a 16-year-old at Everton, before transferring to Manchester United in 2004. Rooney has scored more than 10 league goals in every one of his 11 seasons at Old Trafford, and has twice managed 34 goals in all competitions in a season.
He has won 12 trophies at Manchester United, including five league titles and is currently the joint second highest Premier League goal scorer and England’s record goal scorer of all time.
9. Dennis Bergkamp
In terms of technique, grace and control, few come close to Dennis Bergkamp in the history of the game. The Non-Flying Dutchman, as he was nicknamed, spent 11 seasons in the Premier League, all with Arsenal. In that time he provided the perfect foil for both Ian Wright and Thierry Henry, with both describing him as a dream of a strike partner and Bergkamp making a very impressive 116 assists in his time with the Gunners, as well as scoring 120 goals in 423 games.
He came third in the 1992 Ballon d’Or and second in the 1993 Ballon d’Or and is a member of the English Football Hall of Fame.
8. Patrick Vieira
The greatest midfield enforcer of the Premier League era, and one of the greatest of all time, Arsenal have never looked the same since Patrick Vieira left the club. He provided the team with drive, leadership and power in the midfield that Arsene Wenger has never quite replaced since the Frenchman’s departure.
He spent nine seasons in the Premier League with Arsenal, captaining them for three of those seasons as they won three Premier League titles and four FA Cups, with Vieira forming a legendary rivalry with Roy Keane. Vieira made the PFA Team of the Year in six of his nine seasons at Arsenal and briefly returned to the Premier League with Manchester City at the end of his career.
7. Frank Lampard
Chelsea’s all-time leading goal scorer and quite probably the clubs greatest ever player, Frank Lampard is quite rightly regarded as one of the finest midfielders of his generation. Lampard joined Chelsea after 6 years at West Ham, and went on to become a legend at Stamford Bridge, spending 13 years at the club. In that time, Lampard won 17 trophies, including 3 Premier League titles, and was named in the PFA Team of the Year five times as well as the FIFPro World Team of the Year twice. Perhaps Lampard’s most amazing trait was his goal scoring, he scored 262 in total, and is currently the fourth highest scorer in Premier League history, the only midfielder in the top 15.
6. Roy Keane
Love him or loathe him, Roy Keane is a legend of the Premier League era. A born leader, Keane left nothing in the dressing room, and demanded that none of his teammates did either. For that reason, he was pivotal for Manchester United, not to mention the fact that he was a terrific player. He joined Manchester United from Nottingham Forest, and spent 12 full seasons at Old Trafford, winning seven Premier League titles and 10 other trophies. He was named in the PFA Team of the Year five times and was also named in the Overseas Premier League Team of the Decade.
5. Ryan Giggs
The most decorated player in the history of the game, with 25 trophies at Manchester United, Ryan Giggs has 13 Premier League winners medals, more than any other player and one of only two players in double figures. The Welshman spent 24 seasons at Old Trafford, 22 in the Premier League, and played 963 games for Manchester United, scoring 168 goals. Giggs has by far the most assists in Premier League with history with 131 (next highest is 99) and is the 20th top scorer in the competition’s history, the third highest ranking midfielder.
In terms of longevity and achievements in the Premier League, no-one comes close to Giggs. A six-time PFA Team of the Year member, Giggs was also named in the PFA Team of the Century, the Champions League 10 Seasons Dream Team, the Premier League Team of the Decade and has made the most appearances in Premier League history.
4. Alan Shearer
Alan Shearer’s goal scoring feats alone mean he is well worth his place in the upper reaches of this list. His record of 260 Premier League goals is a whopping 73 higher than Andy Cole and Wayne Rooney, and it would take some effort for Rooney to overtake Shearer before the end of his career. In total, Shearer scored 379 goals in 734 games with Southampton, Blackburn and Newcastle. He only won one Premier League title, with Blackburn, in 1995.
Had he joined Manchester United as he twice came close to doing, he would have won countless trophies, and likely scored many more goals, with the likes of Beckham, Scholes and Giggs putting them on a plate for him. Shearer won three Premier League Golden Boots and was named both Domestic Player of the Decade and Overall Player of the Decade, as well as holding the records for most goals in a Premier League season and most Premier League hat-tricks.
3. Paul Scholes
The only man to come close to Ryan Giggs in terms of Premier League winners medals, Paul Scholes picked up 11 in his 20 years at Manchester United. Widely regarded as one of the greatest players of his generation, Scholes was an exceptional midfielder who had remarkable vision, understanding and passing ability. He was described by Barcelona legend Xavi as “the best central midfielder I’ve seen in the last 15, 20, 25 years”, while Thierry Henry stated that he considered Scholes to be “without doubt” the greatest player in Premier League history, saying “he knows how to do everything”.
In 20 seasons at Old Trafford, Scholes played 718 games, winning 25 trophies, including 11 Premier League titles. Scholes dictated the tempo of Manchester United’s play in the years in which they reigned supreme in English football, and was often cited as the reason they scored so many late goals, as Scholes’ passing had tired the opposition out. Scholes was often regarded as a very complete player, having many top class attributes, with the notable exception of his tackling which was often comically poor.
2. Cristiano Ronaldo
Some may consider Cristiano Ronaldo to be too highly placed on this list given that he only spent six seasons in the Premier League, and in terms of longevity he ranks nowhere near that of Giggs, Scholes, Gerrard and many more. However, Ronaldo is quite simply one of the greatest players to have ever lived, and for that reason alone, he finds himself almost at the top of this list. He is one of only two players to have won the Ballon d’Or while playing in the Premier League, winning the award in 2008 and since winning two more at Real Madrid.
He arrived at Manchester United as a slim, tricky 18-year-old and left as the most expensive player in history and widely regarded as being the best player in the world along with Lionel Messi. He scored 118 goals in 292 games at Manchester United, and has a career total of 449 goals in in 639 games. He won nine trophies in six years at Old Trafford, including three Premier League titles, making the PFA Team of the Year four times and being named Manchester United Player of the Season three times.
1. Thierry Henry
Thierry Henry is the greatest player in Premier League history. He spent eight seasons in the league at Arsenal, where he played 369 games and scored 226 goals. He won seven trophies in that time, two being Premier League titles and one being Arsenal’s historic Invincible season. After an unsuccessful spell at Juventus as a left winger, Arsene Wenger transformed Henry into the greatest striker of his generation. He had pace, technique, grace, balance and was ruthless in front of goal.
Henry won four Premier League Golden Boots, more than any other player, and was named in the PFA Team of the Year in six of his eight seasons in the Premier League. He finished second in the 2003 Ballon d’Or and third in the 2006 Ballon d’Or; not only is Henry the fifth highest scorer in Premier League history, he also has the sixth most assists, and holds the record for the most assists in a single season. Henry also won both Euro 2000 and the 1998 World Cup with France and is his country’s all-time record goal scorer.
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