FourFourTwo's 100 best foreign Premier League players ever: 50-41
Words: Richard Edwards, Seb Stafford-Bloor, Jon Spurling, Alex Hess.
50. Roberto Di Matteo
With his immaculate hair and cultured range of passing, Di Matteo was the epitome of Italian sophistication for supporters used to the rather more earthy attributes of Dennis Wise.
A record signing when he was signed by then-Chelsea boss Ruud Gullit from Lazio in the summer of 1996, Di Matteo in many ways signalled the start of a new era – not just in west London but also in the Premier League.
Then at the height of his powers, the Italian graced Stamford Bridge for six seasons, offering goals (often spectacular) from midfield and famously scoring after 42 seconds in the 1997 FA Cup final win over Middlesbrough. He retired from playing in 2002, and later guided Chelsea to an unlikely Champions League triumph as manager in 2012. RE
49. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer
Solskjaer's arrival at Manchester United was such a minor event that it barely warranted a mention on Ceefax. Buried deep in the News in Brief pages, the Norwegian's signing was announced in throwaway fashion – that was, after all, the Alan Shearer summer at Old Trafford and attention was very much elsewhere.
Only once (in 2002/03) did he reach the 20-goal threshold in all competitions, but that was illustrative of the role he played at United. Yet, while he's often remembered for his interventions as a substitute, he was neither just an impact player nor a fresh pair of legs; his mental approach and ability to identify weaknesses from the sidelines, when married to his natural instinct for goal, made him lethal.
Solskjaer's career was as much a product of his mind as anything he did on the training pitch; he read the game better than most and and that's why so many of his goals came from situations where he was unmarked or surprisingly open. But he was more than just simple opportunism: he took goals efficiently, yes, but also with periodic class which has largely been forgotten. SSB
48. Luka Modric
One of the under-appreciated aspects of Modric's career in England is the adjustment he had to make for it to be a success. A known quantity when he arrived from Dinamo Zagreb in 2008 thanks to his success with the Croatian national team, he nevertheless struggled under the weight of the physical burden. Juande Ramos's Tottenham were collectively dreadful, but Modric was worryingly peripheral; in those difficult early months, his suitability looked to have been horribly misjudged.
But what a response. Physical resilience developed in time and Harry Redknapp's carefree attacking beliefs amplified his talent to a level of technical accomplishment rarely seen before or since. He hardened over time, certainly, but never to the point at which it compromised the aesthetic beauty of his passing range or close control.
His sale to Real Madrid broke hearts. His behaviour in forcing the transfer left its mark and the void in the team was certainly felt, but neither was as lasting as the sense of loss at seeing such an elegant player being ripped away. Modric represented mastery of football's purest parts and remains one of the finest players to ever wear a Spurs shirt. SSB
47. Freddie Ljungberg
After arriving at Highbury in August 1998 (and scoring on his debut against Manchester United), the spiky-haired Swede drifted in and out of the side, and occasionally frustrated with his inconsistent displays.
That was until the Double-winning 2001/02 campaign, that is, when for several months he was the most devastatingly effective forward in England. Linking superbly with Dennis Bergkamp, Ljungberg – complete with eye-catching red stripe through his hair – scored a glut of goals, mastering the art of latching onto the Dutchman’s slide-rule passes and slipping the ball beyond a goalkeeper.
Arsenal’s victories against Tottenham, Bolton, West Ham and Liverpool were in no small part due to Ljungberg’s marvellous anticipation and clinical finishing. A hip injury sustained while with Sweden in the 2002 World Cup sapped his subsequent effectiveness (“It took about 20% of the edge from my game,” he admitted), but he was still a potent force during the ‘Invincibles’ campaign and beyond. But the less said about his later spell with West Ham, the better. JS