Premier League 100: Introducing our countdown to the best player of the modern era

Miguel Delaney
The Independent

For all the great moments in Premier League history, that add up to the grand box-office show the competition has become, you can still bring the best of it right down to key individual interventions.

Manchester City’s last-second 2011/12 title ultimately came down to Sergio Aguero’s sensational goalscoring nerve. Arsenal’s 2003/04 invincible season was set by Thierry Henry’s hat-trick against Liverpool. Manchester United’s epic 1995/96 comeback against Newcastle United was energised by Eric Cantona’s clutch match-winner against the same team, if also Peter Schmeichel's series of defiantly impossible saves.

It is this virtue that lies at the core of this question of who is the greatest ever Premier League player.

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While the idea of judiciously elevating individuals in a team game has always been somewhat elusive due to the many intangible variables involved, it is clearly possible. Some players obviously matter more than others. Some have obviously been greater than others. Some have just more often made the difference.

It is this that is also at the core of trying to actually figure out this question. In voting for the greatest ever Premier League player, the Independent Sport staff generally considered a few broad factors: a player’s ability and the actual application of that ability; the consistency of that application; the level they reached; their influence on the competition and - of course - their level of achievement.

A certain element of this is naturally about showing your medals. Winning the Premier League is ultimately what it’s all about, which should explain the positioning of certain famous names on this list by the time we get to number one on Friday, but it doesn’t explain it all. Nor is it about longevity or presence.

If mere victory was enough, the top of the list would be completely dominated by Manchester United players, and Ryan Giggs would be alone at the top with his 13. But this is where we get to that complicated argument of separating collective context from individual influence.

As fine players as Nicky Butt or Wes Brown were, for example, their direct responsibility for five United titles was not as great as Cristiano Ronaldo for three at the same club, or Henry for two at Arsenal.

From that perspective, there are a few obvious names that you can reasonably predict will finish in the top 10, because of the extent of their influence and the excellence they reached.

Ronaldo probably reached a higher level than any other Premier League player between 2006 and 2009, as reflected by those successive titles and that symbolic Ballon D’Or.

Ronaldo achieved much during his six seasons at United (Man Utd via Getty)
Ronaldo achieved much during his six seasons at United (Man Utd via Getty)

Henry didn’t win that or as many league titles, and there will be debate over whether he quite got to Ronaldo’s best level, but he was at something close to that level for far longer - a full half-decade. It fired a double, the Premier League’s sole unbeaten season and some of the best title rivalries the competition has seen.

Frank Lampard and John Terry were meanwhile at the heart of the majority of Chelsea’s commanding title wins, with the fact they were both there before the transformation of the Roman Abramovich money - and thereby the purchase of so many title-level players - emphasising another relevant point in all this. If Chelsea obviously needed such expenditure to become a champion club, that expenditure needed the exacting influence of such players to have that effect.

This is what it’s really about: where a player’s influence was discernible enough that it directly produced feats and achievements that wouldn’t otherwise be achieved. And this is why it is about more than titles won, even if that remains a base arbiter.

This is why no such list would be complete with Matt Le Tissier’s marvels for Southampton, Paolo Di Canio’s show-stealing at a series of clubs and Gareth Bale’s brilliance for Tottenham Hotspur.

Bale appears high up on our list of 100 (Getty)
Bale appears high up on our list of 100 (Getty)

This, however, is why you might notice a slight tilt in the list. There is a dominance from players that performed in the last 15 years, but this is no recency bias. It is based on the hard fact that the Premier League transformed as a competition in that time. Just like when N’Golo Kante hunts an attacker down, there’s really no escaping that.

What was a thoroughly parochial competition for much of the 1990s has become the most global event in the game in the new millennium, with everything that entails. Whereas the Premier League used to just get the best players from UK and Ireland, with a certain level from Scandinavia, it now gets the best from all over the planet. That means the best level of the competition has risen immeasurably.

It also means what was astounding in 1993 is really that bit more mundane in 2019. We’ve seen much more, and players are capable of doing that much more. Imagine, in that regard, dropping someone as dazzling as David Silva into the earthier Premier League of the 1990s.

Silva is a very modern kind of superstar (Getty)
Silva is a very modern kind of superstar (Getty)

Well, you’re close to imagining Cantona, but that was his effect. This was the perception.

This was the level those from that time who are on this list reached.

This was their influence, in that it changed the game around them, and thereby the Premier League. That is what this list is about: the individuals that made the collective, the grand show.

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