England’s Premier League was founded in February 1992 when the Football League First Division decided to follow its own path to take advantage of TV rights by breaking away from the Football League. It is the most-watched sports league in the world by a distance with more than half of the world’s population tuning in.
The league has seen some top players in each era (not to forget, some top managers too) and has been majorly dominated by one Manchester United under the reign of Sir Alex Ferguson. The Red Devils have won the most titles in the Premier League era, 13 of them, all under the Scot, way ahead of second-placed Chelsea with 5.
During this time, the Premier League has seen incredible talents. From the likes of Jurgen Klinsmann to Paolo Di Canio to Paul Scholes to Sergio Aguero and to now, Jamie Vardy. The league has been privy to some of the best and most unique players in world football.
Since the inception of the league, there have been many arguments on who are the Premier League era’s greatest ever players. Here are who we believe, fits the bill for the 5 greatest in the era of England’s top division of football.
#5 – Cristiano Ronaldo
“Viva Ronaldo! Viva Ronaldo!” was a familiar chant week in, week out in England from 2003 to 2009 before the Portuguese Captain decided to join his dream club, Real Madrid for a then, world-record transfer of £80 million, one that has been termed as the biggest steal in football. Cristiano Ronaldo is one of the greatest ever to have played the beautiful game.
He became Manchester United’s first ever Portuguese player back in 2003 when Sir Alex Ferguson brought him to Old Trafford from Sporting Lisbon for £12.24 million, making him the most expensive teenager in English football back then. Ronaldo was given United’s prestigious number 7 jersey and had huge boots to fill that were vacated by England’s very own, David Beckham. But Cristiano Ronaldo did more than that. Not only did he fill in Beckham’s boots, he needed new ones. He was just that good.
No player has been as dominant in the Premier League era as Cristiano Ronaldo was from 2006 till, he left in 2009. He was just magical to watch. He had 17 goals and 15 assists in the 2006-07 season in just 34 Premier League games and led United to the Premier League title, which was his first. This was the Portuguese winger’s breakthrough season. There was no looking back after this for Ronaldo. He followed up the 2006-07 performance with an even better year that saw him net 31 goals in just 34 games along with 7 assists in the league! He won the Golden boot and was the catalyst as United went on to win their 3rd UEFA Champions League title and retain the Premier League trophy as well, completing the famous “double”. His surreal season earned him the PFA’s Player’s Player award, the Fans’ Player of the Year award, and the Young Player of the Year awards, as well as the Football Writers’ Association’s Footballer of the Year award, making him the first player to win all four main PFA and FWA honours.
There were talks after United won the Champions League in 2008 that Ronaldo would be moving to Real Madrid as he won everything there was to win with the club barring the FA Cup, which they missed out on by losing in the final to Chelsea in what would have otherwise have been, a second treble for Manchester United. Ronaldo was also awarded the Ballon D’Or that season, but Sir Alex Ferguson convinced the Portuguese man to stay for one more year. He featured in 33 Premier League games, scored 18 goals, and bagged 7 assists helping United win their 3rd consecutive Premier League title, which was only the 2nd time a team won 3 in a row in the Premier League (no surprises, the previous one was also Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United side that did it from 1998-2001).
Ronaldo may have been a showman at the start of his Manchester United career, but he matured into one-of-a-kind. His desire and ambition were only matched by his hard work to be the greatest in the world. He was (and is) good with both feet and was the king of misdirection. He used to put defenders on skates with his dribbling ability but he elevated his game to the next level by adding the poaching instincts that Manchester United needed once Ruud van Nistelrooy left the Theatre of Dreams back in 2006.
Cristiano Ronaldo ended his Manchester United career with 84 goals and 45 assists in 196 Premier League games over 6 seasons. Not too many players have had a story like Cristiano Ronaldo’s and it would be absolutely unjust to not consider one of the greatest ever football players, on the list of one of the greatest to have ever played in the Premier League. There will never be another Cristiano Ronaldo. Manchester United fans still sing his name in the stadiums. That is the true greatness of the 5-time Ballon D’Or winner.
#4 – Eric Cantona
Love him or hate him, there has never been a man like Eric Cantona. Whether you talk about the infamous kung-fu kick or the chip against Liverpool or the “collar up” style, the French forward was simply different! He was an icon in the truest sense and was a joy to watch on the pitch. Cantona joined Leeds United in the 1991-92 season, the season prior to the formation of the Premier League, and featured in 8 games where he scored 2 goals. In his first Premier League season, the man from Marseille bagged 6 goals in just 13 league games for Leeds before being picked up by Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United.
Cantona had an immediate impact and how! He played 22 games for United in the 1992-93 season and found the net 9 times. He also had 11 assists to go with it. The club went on to lift their first league title of the new era and the French striker had a huge role to play in the team’s success. Eric Cantona would just not stop after. He finished as United’s top scorer featuring in 34 games the following season and had 18 goals along with 12 assists as they went on to retain the title with a comprehensive victory in the league, 8 points clear of 2nd place Blackburn Rovers.
In the 1994-95 season, Manchester United went through a bit of turmoil as Eric Cantona was suspended for nine months from football after kicking a Crystal Palace fan in the stands at Selhurst Park in January 1995! This cost the club dearly in their quest to win the title for a third consecutive time. Before that incident, Cantona had 12 goals and 5 assists in 21 Premier League games. United lost out to Blackburn, finishing 2nd by just 1 point and there is no doubt that had Cantona been there, United would have certainly completed the hattrick of titles. Such was the influence of the Frenchman.
After the long layoff, Eric Cantona was back with a vengeance. He had 14 goals and 10 assists in 30 games in the 1995-96 season as Manchester United regained their crown, once again, ending the year as United’s top scorer in the Premier League. Cantona’s last season in the Premier League was with Manchester United. The 1996-97 season saw him play the most games in a United shirt as he featured in 36 of the 38 games. He ended up with 11 goals and 12 assists as young Ole Gunnar-Solskjaer broke onto the scene to become United’s leading scorer with 18 goals. United went onto win the Premier League title once again, making it 4 titles in 5 seasons for the club in the Premier League era and Eric Cantona was at the centre of all of them.
One must not forget that the French legend was also a part of the Leeds United side that won the League title prior to the formation of the Premier League and Cantona was a key member of that side as well. Eric Cantona may have had a short Premier League career but his impact on and off the pitch was so immense that he was the most integral part of Sir Alex Ferguson’s success at the start of his managerial career.
#3 – Alan Shearer
England’s greatest ever striker, no arguments. Alan Shearer was lethal in front of goal. To put things into perspective, just his records jump out off the page. He finished as the Premier League’s top scorer 6 times in 15 seasons. Shearer had 112 goals in 138 games for Blackburn Rovers over 4 seasons! 112! People underestimate just how good a forward he was. He had over 30 goals in his first 3 seasons in the Premier League! No one has ever done that, and no one probably ever will either in the Premier League. Simply outstanding and incredible.
Shearer’s sensational performance in the 1994-95 season, led Blackburn to the Premier League title, the only league title that the club and Shearer ended up winning in the modern era. After his stellar career at Blackburn, Shearer joined Newcastle United, where he spent the rest of his career at. Everyone associates the Englishman with the Toon and rightfully so. He spent 10 seasons at Newcastle and was prolific there too, in every sense.
Shearer had 148 Premier League goals for Newcastle in 303 games. With an average of a goal almost every second game, over a decade is something that must be admired by all. He may have not had a great career internationally but there is no doubt that not too many strikers had the ability to notch up goals as Alan Shearer did.
Shearer ended his Premier League career with 260 goals in 441 games. He is the record-holder for the most goals in the league with Manchester United great, Wayne Rooney, in second, the only other player to amass 200 or more goals in the Premier League. It seems like this record of Shearer will always stand and his name his etched in the history books as the best goal-scorer to have ever played the game in England.
#2 – Ryan Giggs
With talks of the Premier League, there is no way that this man can be left out of the conversation. Ryan Giggs is one of the greatest players to have featured in the Premier League simply because of his longevity in not only playing at the highest level but also winning in the process. The current Wales manager and Manchester United’s most decorated footballer spent his entire career at Old Trafford.
Giggs joined Manchester United’s academy in 1987 and signed his professional contract with the club in 1990. After the Premier League was created, Giggs officially represented the club for 22 seasons in the modern era, the longest stint among any players in England’s topflight. Ryan Giggs has been a part of every single Premier League title won by Manchester United in the Premier League era, winning 13 of them as he was an indispensable part of Sir Alex Ferguson’s side down the left flank.
Ryan Giggs was a part of the squad that won the infamous “Treble” in the 1998-99 season, winning the Premier League, the FA Cup and the UEFA Champions League titles, making Manchester United the only English club to have done so. Giggs also won the FA Cup on 4 occasions and doubled his UEFA Champions League tally in 2008-09 as the Red Devils beat Chelsea on penalties in Moscow. He is a 4-time English League Cup (now known as the Carabao Cup) winner, a 9-time English Super Cup winner (the FA Community Shield), an Intercontinental Cup champion, a FIFA Club World Cup champion and a UEFA Super Cup winner. He has won every single trophy there is to win with Manchester United. Manchester United’s success in the Premier League era till date, will feature Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and Sir Alex Ferguson.
Ryan Giggs has the 2nd most appearances ever (632) in Premier League history behind Gareth Barry. In these 632 games, the Welshman scored 109 goals to go along with 159 assists. He scored in every Premier League season barring his last in 2013-14. Ryan Giggs never received a red card in his Manchester United career, which speaks volumes about how he controlled his emotions on the pitch.
More than the statistics, it was the consistency and winning attitude that made Giggs great. Alessandro del Piero once said, “I have cried twice in my life watching a football player; the first one was Roberto Baggio and the second was Ryan Giggs.”. That is certainly high praise coming from one of Italy’s greatest ever strikers.
There will never be a more decorated footballer in the English game and Ryan Giggs deserves a special mention among the greatest ever in English football.
#1 – Thierry Henry
Thierry Daniel Henry is France’s greatest ever striker. He is also Arsenal’s greatest ever striker. He is arguably, the greatest ever striker in Premier League history too. It is almost impossible for anyone to debate this. Henry joined Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal in the 1999-2000 season following the success he had with France in the 1998 FIFA World Cup as they beat Brazil at the Stade de France. Henry spent 8 seasons at Arsenal and was a huge figure during the Gunners’ most successful phase in the modern era and since the time of Tony Adams.
Henry is Arsenal’s all-time leading goal-scorer in all competitions with 228. He won the Premier League Golden Boot 4 times (the most in the Premier League). Henry featured in 254 games for Arsenal between 1999-2007 and scored 173 goals along with 74 assists. The French forward had a Premier League record 20 assists in the 2002-03 season, which was recently matched by Kevin de Bruyne in the 2019-20 season. Henry joined Arsenal on loan to feature for the side in 4 games back in 2011-12 to score twice, taking his total Premier League goal tally to 175.
Thierry Henry was a part of the 2003-04 “Invincibles” side that went unbeaten in the league. A feat that has not been achieved by any team since. His success in front of goal helped Arsenal win 2 Premier League titles and 3 FA Cups. The Manchester United-Arsenal rivalry during Henry’s tenure was a treat to watch.
Henry put on a show and made the league competitive. It shifted the tide from a Manchester United dominated league to having another team at an equal footing. There is no doubt that if it had not been for Thierry Henry, Arsenal would have never been able to reach the levels they did over the period that the Frenchman was at the club.
He must be regarded as one of the best to ever play in the Premier League.