Ranking the best Premier League transfers of all time: 100-51

As a reminder, I looked at every permanent transfer made by a Premier League team since the modern top-flight was created in 1992 and graded it on the player’s productivity and longevity, his legacy with the club, the titles he played a role in winning, how much the transfer cost, and whether the player was sold for a significant profit. In addition, the following rules apply:

  • 1. Was the player extremely productive during his time with the club? Was he considered among the best players at his position in the division?

  • 2. Did he become a club or league legend? Is there something iconic that leads him to stand out from a similar signing in terms of talent or success?

  • 3. Did the player win silverware? I considered each of the titles and cups won during his time with the team, weighing Champions League and Premier League success heaviest. I also made the executive decision of awarding Liverpool the 2019-20 Premier League title for the purposes of analyzing their players.

  • 4. Was he a bargain? Given the transfer market of the time, would we look back and consider his fee to be laughably cheap given his level of production?

  • 5. Did the team sell him for a profit?

  • 6. Did the player spend a long time with the club?

The last two categories do push some current players down the rankings, which is fine. Stars like Raheem Sterling and Virgil Van Dijk have already made an impact in a relatively short time with their clubs, and they’ll continue to rise up the rankings as they continue to win trophies and gain more longevity. This is looking back over the past 28 seasons, not looking into the future.

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– Ranking the Premier League’s best transfers of all time: 100-51

Finally, I need to clarify which players aren’t included. If you’re angry that a notable star isn’t somewhere on this list, please keep the following rules in mind:

  • 1. The player must have been purchased while the club was in the Premier League. In other words, players who were signed before the Premier League was formed (like Peter Schmeichel and Ian Wright) and players who were signed while their club was in a lower league (like Kevin Phillips and Jamie Vardy) don’t qualify.

  • 2. The player must have established themselves in senior football before joining the club. Obviously, players like Steven Gerrard who came directly from their own club academies don’t count. I’m also not including players who were signed out of another team’s youth academy, which would exclude Cesc Fabregas’s transfer to Arsenal in 2003, since he hadn’t played a first-team match in La Liga for Barcelona.

  • 3. No loans. Only permanent transfers count. If a player is initially signed on loan and then inks a permanent deal, like Christophe Dugarry’s run with Birmingham, I’m only considering what they did after the full transfer was completed.

  • 4. The team gets credit for what you accomplished while you were at the club under this specific transfer. What happens elsewhere doesn’t matter. Chelsea doesn’t get credit for what Thibaut Courtois did on loan at Atletico Madrid or how Kevin De Bruyne blossomed after being sold. And if a club rebought a player for a second time, I split those careers into two separate transfers, so David Luiz’s two Chelsea spells are kept separate for the purposes of this list.

Let’s hit the top 50:

50. Darren Anderton, MF, Tottenham

Signed from Portsmouth for £2.4 million, 1992

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As was the case with Firmino, the only thing Mane needs to do to rise further up these rankings is spend more time with Liverpool. It seems crazy now, but it’s fair to remember that there were plenty of Liverpool fans who didn’t want Klopp to sign Mane from Southampton in 2016, owing in part to the middling performances of Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren and Rickie Lambert after leaving the Saints for Anfield.

Of course, Klopp’s subsequent moves to sign Mane and Virgil van Dijk from the same club have worked out pretty well. If there was an insinuation that Mane was too reliant on pace or too inconsistent during his days with Southampton, he proved his critics wrong. If anything, Mane seems to be the player who comes up with goals and creates chances in moments when Liverpool needs them most. Mane, 27, is going to go down as one of the best signings in club history. If he can beat Henderson to the Player of the Year nod, Mane could rise up this list even quicker.

43. Robin van Persie, FW, Arsenal

Signed from Feyenoord for £4.1 million, 2004

Likewise, there’s only one thing missing on Van Persie’s résumé with the Gunners. Unlike Mane, though, the Dutchman’s missing element is hardware. Van Persie joined the club in the summer after the Invincibles campaign, and despite spending eight years at Arsenal, he failed to take home a single medal after winning the FA Cup in his first English campaign. Van Persie was signed as a supplement and eventual replacement for Thierry Henry up front, but when Arsenal sold their star striker, injuries kept Van Persie from maintaining his predecessor’s strike rate. He really only rounded into top-level form over his last two seasons at the club, scoring 48 goals in 63 appearances after which he left for United.

42. N’Golo Kante, MF, Leicester

Signed from Caen for £8.1 million, 2015

How much can a player do in one lone season at a club? Kante is the last one-and-done player on this list, and while plenty of the players below him were more productive over the course of their careers, few were as essential to a Premier League title as Kante. Leicester couldn’t have known what they were getting; On the day Kante signed in 2015, he shared headlines with the news that future Leverkusen midfielder Charles Aranguiz wasn’t interested in joining the Foxes. Kante was a substitute in each of Leicester’s first three Premier League matches that year, but when he replaced Andy King in the starting lineup — well, you know what happened next. Leicester would have loved to keep Kante around, but when Chelsea triggered Kante’s release clause, the champions were forced to settle for £32.2 million, nearly four times his original purchase price.

41. Diego Costa, FW, Chelsea

Signed from Atletico Madrid for £34.2 million, 2014

Things were rarely boring for Costa during his three and a half seasons at Stamford Bridge. Even that’s a stretch, given that Antonio Conte froze Costa out of the side — a message the manager conveyed through text message — leading Costa to spend time in Brazil before making a £59.4 million move back to Atleti. On the pitch, Costa scored 52 goals in 89 appearances, led Chelsea to two league titles in three years, and wound up countless opponents with his aggressive antics. In a modern league where many often complain about the lack of characters, Costa was an exception. He would have fit — and scored — in any era of English football.

40. Raheem Sterling, FW, Manchester City

Signed from Liverpool for £57.3 million, 2016

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As was the case with Van Dijk and many of his teammates, the only knock you can possibly place on Salah is sheer time spent with the club. Van Dijk has spent 2½ seasons at Anfield; Salah is finishing his third campaign. Since I’m crediting them with this year’s Premier League title, they’ve each won the league and Champions League — the two biggest competitions they could possibly win — before finishing their third season. They’ve each played brilliantly. Everybody ahead of them was a perennial Player of the Season candidate, just like Salah and Van Dijk. Many won multiple pieces of silverware. They just have more time under their belts, and the ones who lasted about as long returned a significant fee.

16. Gareth Bale, FW, Tottenham

Signed from Southampton for £13.2 million, 2007

One of those players, of course, is Bale, who netted Spurs £90 million when they sold the Welsh star to Madrid in 2013. Bale arrived in London as a scrawny, 18-year-old left-back and — in the sort of physical transformation we had previously seen from Cristiano Ronaldo — left looking “like a light heavyweight boxer.” That opinion came from no less of an authority than Sir Alex Ferguson, who tried to sign Bale and never heard back from Southampton before Saints sold him to Spurs.

The beginning of Bale’s career with Tottenham was a mess. In addition to struggling with injuries, he was regarded as a jinx, with Spurs failing to win in 24 consecutive Premier League appearances by Bale. Manager Harry Redknapp subbed Bale on with Spurs up 4-0 to break that streak and then pushed Bale forward to play as a left winger. What happened next was a revelation, with Bale famously scoring a hat trick at the San Siro in a 4-3 Champions League loss to Inter. That performance drew global attention and gave Bale all the confidence he would need. After scoring 21 goals at White Hart Lane in 2012-13, Madrid came calling. While things haven’t always gone well for Bale in Spain, his ascension at Spurs was unforgettable.

15. Vincent Kompany, CB, Manchester City

Signed from Hamburger SV for £7.7 million, 2008

While City fans would often wonder just how dominant they might have been over the past decade if Kompany hadn’t struggled with injuries, those same injuries might have created the opportunity to sign Kompany in the first place. The future City captain struggled to stay fit during his time at Hamburg, playing 28 matches over his first two seasons. Kompany then insisted on going to the 2008 Olympics with Belgium, and when he was slow to return, a frustrated Hamburg decided to sell Kompany to England.

Then-City manager Mark Hughes had spotted Kompany’s leadership skills in a 2006 friendly. Hughes was managing Blackburn, and Kompany was a midfielder at the time, but Kompany would settle in as a leader from the back. City allowed 0.9 goals per 90 minutes with Kompany in the lineup during his time with the club, a mark which rose to 1.03 goals per 90 without their captain. The injuries limited Kompany to 59 games over his final four years in Manchester. But in addition to his defensive impact, Kompany contributed two title-saving goals: the lone goal in a Manchester derby in City’s first title-winning season; and that legendary strike against Leicester as City held off Liverpool in his last campaign.

14. Alan Shearer, FW, Blackburn Rovers

Signed from Southampton for £4.1 million, 1992

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If Silva was the signing who signified the way Manchester City wanted to attack, Bergkamp was that player for Arsenal. Both comparisons are a little unfair, given that City had Tevez and Emmanuel Adebayor, while Arsenal had Ian Wright and David Platt. But Bergkamp was the player who came to signify where Arsenal were going. He was the perfect Arsene Wenger signing … who just happened to be signed by Bruce Rioch a year before Wenger arrived. Bergkamp was the club’s best player in the early days of the Wenger era, winning PFA Player of the Season in 1998 as Arsenal claimed their first title under the Frenchman.

Wenger rested Bergkamp more frequently after the Dutch international turned 30, with Bergkamp famously refusing to fly to matches on the continent. As a result, he was more of a rotational player by the time Arsenal peaked with the Invincibles team in 2004, but by then, he had already made his point. There are five players in Premier League history to top 80 goals and 80 assists: Wayne Rooney, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, Ryan Giggs and Bergkamp. And while it’s nearly 30 years old, Bergkamp still has my pick for the greatest touch in Premier League history.

11. Rio Ferdinand, CB, Manchester United

Signed from Leeds for £41.4 million, 2002

Ferdinand is the third-most expensive player on this list, as his £41.4 million fee from 2002 translates to just under £66 million in 2020 dollars. The prior Premier League record price for a defender had been £23.4 million, which was what Leeds paid for Ferdinand two years earlier. The non-Ferdinand record for a defender to that point was a mere £15.3 million for Jaap Stam, who Ferdinand was purchased to replace. Sir Alex Ferguson fell out with Stam after the Dutchman had the audacity to publish an autobiography, and while Fergie tried to get by with Laurent Blanc as a short-term replacement in what was originally supposed to be the Scottish legend’s final season before retiring, Ferguson’s U-turn and Leeds’s financial troubles led Ferguson to play a club-record fee for Ferdinand.

It was money well spent. Ferdinand spent 12 years at United and was named in the PFA Team of the Year on five different occasions. While he did miss out on winning an FA Cup by virtue of a missed drug test that cost the English international a six-month suspension, Ferdinand was able to console himself with six league titles, two League Cups and a Champions League triumph in Moscow. He is an easy pick as one of the center-backs if you’re making an all-time Premier League XI.

10. Didier Drogba, ST, Chelsea

Signed from Marseille for £34.7 million, 2004

There’s nobody who compares to Henry, whom Arsene Wenger famously converted from a winger at Juventus into the most devastating striker in Premier League history. Henry didn’t score as much as Shearer or as quickly as Aguero, but he was a more complete player than either. Henry is the only player in Premier League history to record a 20-20 season, racking up 24 goals and 20 assists for Arsenal during the 2002-03 campaign.

Henry won the PFA Player of the Season in 2003-04 and was the man of the match in their FA Cup victory in 2003, but he raised his game even further the following year. Henry won the European Golden Boot by scoring 30 goals for Arsenal, who went undefeated in their greatest campaign. Henry was named PFA Player of the Season again for the 2005-06 season. The Arsenal legend also was named to the PFA Team of the Year six times across his eight seasons with the club, which is incredible given that Henry missed half of his final campaign through injuries.

Of course, Henry looked good scoring those goals. I’m not sure anybody has combined Henry’s spectacular pace with his ability to routinely finish from outside the box. Henry had incredible balance — watch him shrug off Marcel Desailly early in the clip above — and was a dab hand on both free kicks and penalties, for which he went 24-for-26. He is the best player in Arsenal history and the best signing in the 28 seasons of the Premier League.