Words: Huw Davies, Alex Hess, Jon Spurling, Seb Stafford-Bloor, Andrew Murray, Richard Edwards.
The cliché that every Brazilian plays beautiful, carefree football hasn’t been accurate for 30 years, but in England at least, its continuing popularity owes a lot to Juninho.
It was impossible not to be charmed by the effervescent way in which he lit up Teesside after choosing newly promoted Middlesbrough over myriad European suitors, all eager to sign this 22-year-old midfielder who’d already won the Copa Libertadores, Intercontinental Cup and Brazilian league title.
What made ‘The Little Fella’ special wasn’t his delectable first touch, nor his unique (and necessary) ability to hurdle a tackle, nor his hip-wiggling forward runs, baggy shirt billowing in the wind – though special they certainly were. It was his love for the game and his adopted home, palpable in his joyful kickabouts with local children and his painful tears upon Boro’s relegation.
This was a world-class footballer, capped 49 times by Brazil, yet he signed for Middlesbrough three times until they finally won the club’s first silverware in the 2004 League Cup. He was one of a kind. HD
29. Xabi Alonso
Some players strike the ball with venom. Alonso passed it with venom. And with profound intelligence, too – his ice-cool awareness was vital in the Liverpool side that soared for a few seasons under Rafa Benitez before the effects of ruinous ownership took hold.
Few Anfield regulars were in much doubt about what their club was losing when Alonso left in 2009, but one senses that English football's wider world only came to appreciate the midfielder's resplendency after he'd started to assemble a clean sweep of football's major trophies with Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Spain. That any discussion on these shores about Alonso inevitably turns to his contentious departure from Liverpool is testament to his influence while he was here.
It's no coincidence that both Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres enjoyed their best form – and by a country mile – alongside the Basque playmaker, nor that the side fell off a cliff as soon as he left. "By some distance, the best midfielder I ever played alongside," said his former captain. AH
28. Robert Pires
He may not have been the quickest winger that ever graced Highbury, but Pires had a style and elegance to his game that granted him hero status in N5. Some lukewarm displays in his first season were quickly forgotten when he dispatched the winner against Tottenham in the 2001 FA Cup Semi-Final, and the Frenchman retained his happy knack of scoring in north London derbies throughout his six-year Arsenal career.
In 2001/02 he was devastatingly effective, the highlight being his lobbed goal over a bewildered Peter Schmeichel at Villa Park in 2002 as Arsenal closed in on the Double. Although a knee injury ruled him out of the end-of-season celebrations, Pires was as potent as ever in the ‘Invincibles’ season. His Arsenal career ended in the 2006 Champions League Final in Paris, when he was controversially substituted following goalkeeper Jens Lehmann’s sending off.
He had a brief spell with Aston Villa in the 2010/11 season, but it is for (and at) Arsenal that he will forever be remembered. JS
27. Nemanja Vidic
Arguably the best British-style centre-half of the last two decades was a Serbian who arrived from Russia. Nemanja Vidic bore all the hallmarks of a defender schooled in the blood-and-thunder traditions of the English game: a towering leap, a complete absence of frills, a Terminator-like inability to sense physical pain.
Even so, Vidic’s introduction to England was anything but smooth; in his first few months, he struggled badly with the pace and fury of the Premier League. But he refined his focus, adapting and growing stronger – literally. "Every time I walked past the gym, I would see Nemanja in there lifting weights,” said Paul Scholes, recalling the defender’s response to that tricky early period.
Improvement came quickly and alongside Rio Ferdinand, Vidic became one half of the best centre-back partnership of the Premier League era. United’s 2008/09 side is remembered for a sparkling forward line of Tevez, Rooney, Ronaldo and Berbatov, but perhaps even more impressive was the defence which kept a frankly ludicrous 14 successive clean sheets that autumn. AH
- ONE-ON-ONE Nemanja Vidic: 'I was interested in going to Liverpool... but then Manchester United came'
26. Claude Makelele
"Why put another layer of gold paint on the Bentley when you are losing the entire engine?" So despaired Real Madrid’s Zinedine Zidane as his colleague was shipped off to London in 2003, making way for the incoming David Beckham. Zidane’s wisdom – and Madrid’s myopia – was confirmed over the next half-decade as Makelele helped himself to two Premier League titles and three domestic cups while his former club’s “Galacticos” project became a byword for posturing underachievement.
Despite being perhaps the best defensive midfielder of all time, Makelele rarely made a tackle – unless he was taking a calculated yellow on the halfway line to halt a crucial counter-attack. More usually, he specialised in stealing possession through subtler, more sophisticated means: nicking it off the toes of an opponent, or appearing from nowhere to intercept a pass and start Chelsea’s attacks.
Bossing a league obsessed with aggression, the 5ft 6in France international soon established such hegemony over his position that it was named after him. Vital to Jose Mourinho’s dominance of English football and thus to recent footballing history, Makelele was a one-man lesson – in tactics, in positioning, in recovering possession – to an entire country’s football culture. AH
25. Dimitar Berbatov
In time, it might be considered that Berbatov belonged to a different era. Manchester United would eventually give him the stage his talent deserved, but it was an opportunity which his personality probably stopped him from taking. He had success, plenty of it, but his lasting reputation was established at White Hart Lane as Tottenham's talisman.
To see him play live was to know what he was: to hear the crowd gasp their admiration for one of his gentle touches or celebrate the artistry of his goals. Berbatov was part-footballer, part comic book hero; a ridiculous blend of ability and indifference.
Spurs, Manchester United and Fulham supporters vary in their affection for him, but all will have the same appreciation for his swaggering class. SSB
24. Cesc Fabregas
It remains a source of regret and bitterness for many Arsenal fans that the Spanish midfielder won the Premier League title with Chelsea and not with the club for whom he became the youngest-ever debutant, aged 16 years and 177 days in October 2003.
Displaying a level of maturity far beyond his years, Fabregas brought a creativity and range of passing which established him in the Gunners’ first team; Patrick Vieira’s departure in 2005 made the 18-year-old Arsenal’s midfield lynchpin. For some, it was a symbol that Wenger was sacrificing power for guile, but as Arsenal skipper, Fabregas was frustrated at his side’s inability to land the title.
1:25 for Cesc vs Spurs
Rumours had always been rife that he would return to boyhood side Barcelona, and his 2011 departure to Catalonia confirmed that Arsenal had morphed into a giant selling club. The World Cup and European Championship winner returned to the Premier League in 2014 after the Gunners passed on the option of re-signing him. Fabregas claimed “I will always be an Arsenal fan,” but his quest for silverware saw him seek fulfilment elsewhere. JS
23. Fernando Torres
It’s impossible not to think of Fernando Torres in the Premier League without remembering his first goal in English football, on a sodden Merseyside August afternoon in 2007. Picking the ball up halfway inside the Chelsea half, the Liverpool No.9 sped past Tal Ben Haim and curled a perfect shot around Petr Cech for the opener in a 1-1 draw.
Torres had caught the eye with Atletico Madrid; Manchester United were said to have scouted him in detail, but Rafa Benitez took the risk with a club-record fee and a six-year deal. He was richly rewarded: in three-and-a-half seasons at Anfield, Torres exploded. He plundered 81 goals in 142 games and formed a telepathic understanding with Steven Gerrard. In 2008/09, the pair nearly delivered the club’s first league title since 1990 and terrified domestic and continental defences alike. The sight of Torres in full flight against Manchester United centre-back Nemanja Vidic was Keystone Cops stuff.
If Torres’s peak arrived at Anfield, the trophies came after his acrimonious transfer to Chelsea in January 2012 – the same window in which he was replaced at Anfield by Luis Suarez and Andy Carroll. His record at Chelsea in all competitions is better than you’d think – 45 goals in 172 games – but Blues fans will always remember that goal in the Camp Nou en route to the 2012 Champions League triumph. As will Gary Neville: “Uuuuuuuuuuuuhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh…” [repeat to fade] AM
22. Jurgen Klinsmann
A story in two parts: the arrival and return. Given who he was and who they were, Tottenham fans will cheerfully admit that Klinsmann didn't fit the picture when he signed from Monaco for £2 million in 1994. History tells us that he blended brilliantly with Ossie Ardiles's lopsided team – and he did – but he was arguably the best in Europe at the time and neither Spurs nor the Premier League could make any such claim. Like all the best fairy tales, this one was framed with vague absurdity.
His volley against Everton remains on steady rotation to this day, as does his combination with Teddy Sheringham at Anfield, but rewatch those moments again and take note of the some of the players he celebrates with. Really, this was Led Zeppelin playing the village fete.
He would return from a prolific two-year stint with Bayern Munich in 1997/98, jaded and without the glint in his eye. He wasn't the same, but his goals still lifted Christian Gross's dismal side away from the relegation zone and provided the heroic bookend to his professional career. SSB
21. Jaap Stam
Now aiming to return to the Premier League as a manager with Reading, Stam was a defensive colossus for Manchester United during a trophy-strewn period for the club.
The Dutchman had arrived at Old Trafford from PSV Eindhoven with an already sizeable reputation, and despite moving for a world record fee for a defender (£10.6m), the price tag – like countless Premier League strikers – was brushed aside dismissively. Stam spent three seasons at the club and was part of the side that created history by winning the League, FA Cup and Champions League in 1999.
The end came abruptly: Stam made only 79 appearances in the Premier League before being shown the door by Sir Alex Ferguson in August 2001. A series of revelations in his autobiography eventually did for the centre-back but Fergie would later admit to Stam’s release as being one of the few mistakes of his managerial career. RE
FourFourTwo's 100 best foreign Premier League players ever
Get the best features, fun and footballing frolics straight to your inbox every week.
Thank you for signing up to Four Four Two. You will receive a verification email shortly.
There was a problem. Please refresh the page and try again.