The 10 best Manchester United players of the Premier League era

Seb Stafford-Bloor identifies the 10 biggest contributors to the most successful period in the Red Devils' history

10. Rio Ferdinand

Ball-playing centre-halves are commonplace now, but he was comfortably the most cultured English defender of his generation

In 2001/02, the season before Ferdinand joined from Leeds United, Manchester United fielded a central defence featuring, at any given time, Laurent Blanc, John O'Shea, Wes Brown, Ronny Johnsen, Mikael Silvestre and a converted Gary Neville. They finished third and conceded more goals than five other teams, including Fulham. A year later, even with Ferdinand starting just 28 games, they won the division while conceding fewer goals than any other side.

The improvement relied on myriad factors, clearly, but it emphasised just how important Ferdinand was - and how essential he would continue to be. Ball-playing centre-halves are commonplace now, but he was comfortably the most cultured English defender of his generation and probably the first to break the traditional mould. Crucially, though, that wasn't to the detriment of his actual defending.

It's true: he very rarely left his feet. Ferdinand had anticipatory qualities which probably can't be taught and even in an habitually manic league he appeared startlingly untroubled. Fierce leadership styles can radiate through a side, but that kind of calm can also be infectious. Paul Hayward, now The Telegraph's chief sportswriter, once described him as an "elegant quasi-sweeper, gliding alongside a striker and stealing the ball off his toes". Perfect. That's exactly what he was - smart, stylish, and arguably the best defender in Europe during his prime.

9. Denis Irwin

That his security never depended on forcing opponents towards his stronger side betrayed a quite mastery of an unnatural position

Stability. For twelve seasons at Old Trafford, Irwin was virtually immovable at left-back. Arriving in 1990 and remaining at Manchester United until 2002, he was a foundation piece of Sir Alex Ferguson's success, but also an evergreen player who transcended eras, both at the club and in the game as a whole.

He's easy to overlook, operating as he did beneath a glinting surface layer, but his longevity is testament to how he reliable he was. The centre-backs inside him were chopped and changed, Gary Neville eventually made Paul Parker obsolete, but Irwin was a constant - an extremely stable full-back with some unlikely panache around a dead ball.

Denis Irwin

Irwin was a consistent and reliable figure at Old Trafford

He was a rarity, too: a right-footer on the left-flank. That's unusual because it's difficult and it demands an even greater appreciation for the angles involved in the defensive third. Irwin existed at a time before inverted wingers became fashionable and when the trend was still for wingers to dart for the byline. That his security never depended on forcing opponents towards his stronger side betrayed a quite mastery of an unnatural position - as too, of course, are his 529 United appearances, making him the eighth most-selected player in the club's history.

8. Cristiano Ronaldo

United bought a batch of exciting yet unrefined attributes from Sporting Lisbon rather than a finished product

When a player enjoyed the kind of success that Ronaldo did, it must seem contrary to focus on what he symoblised instead of what he achieved. He won three Premier Leagues, an FA Cup, a League Cup and a Champions League at Manchester United, while his individual 2007/08 season was extraordinary. Unquestionably, he belongs on this list because of what he helped the club to do.

With hindsight, it's easy to assume that Ronaldo was always headed for the game's stratosphere. He wasn't - and therein lies the charm of his United career. He wasn't a homegrown player, but United bought a batch of exciting yet unrefined attributes from Sporting Lisbon rather than a finished product and, as such, he was the last great player built by Alex Ferguson and his coaching staff.

From 2003 onwards, each season would see a layer of the Portuguese's self-indulgence melt away; his tricks would be rationed, his choices became steadily better. Ronaldo is - and has always been - a remarkably driven personality, but in the wrong surroundings his career might have been very different. His ability gave him the opportunity to be nothing more than Nani, but it was United, Ferguson and Ronaldo himself that enabled that created the force of nature he is today.

That's important. Organic success may be a dying principle now and the amount of money in English football may have deprioritised talent production, but United have always had that association. Ronaldo is a generational talent, but picture him in that red shirt and you're reminded of the refinement process which led to him becoming one of most dominant forwards in Premier League history.

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