7:01 PM IST
With inputs from Jayaditya Gupta, Karthik Iyer, Saket Parekar and Anirudh Menon
Welcome to another edition of ESPN’s lockdown diaries, where we put down our journalist caps and let the sports fan inside take over. After dealing with existential crisis due to no live games, we revisited the Battle of Old Trafford in 2003, as well as the 1986 World Cup in Mexico where Diego Maradona pulled a John Wick on England.
This week, we used our very own infinity stone to look through 14000605 different timelines and assemble the greatest XI in Premier League history. There is one catch, though: you can select only one player per club.
That meant long, tireless and, inevitably, heated debates over who made the final cut. With dozens of stars available but only 11 spots to fill, sacrifices had to be made and biases put aside.
The biggest challenges were picking just one player each from Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City, who boast 25 league titles between them. The goal was to find the right balance for the team, rather than picking the biggest name. As a result, there was no room for the likes of Ashley Cole, Frank Lampard, Eric Cantona, Paul Scholes, Wayne Rooney, Yaya Toure and many, many others who have as much right to be in the XI as anyone else.
The one guiding philosophy in selecting the list was simply to gauge which player could potentially have the maximum impact in his position. For example, Peter Schmeichel, one of the greatest keepers in the PL era, had to miss out since there were more enticing options for Manchester United in other positions.
After hours of deliberation, this is the team that we came up with, in a simple 4-3-3 formation. Of course, like any list about greatest XIs, this, too, is subjective.
Nigel Martyn (Leeds United, 1996-2003)
Britain’s first million-pound goalkeeper when he moved to Crystal Palace, former England international Nigel Martyn had his best years at Leeds United. In six seasons at Elland Road, Martyn was named in the Professional Footballers’ Association Team of the Year three times — all coming in the three years that ended the old millennium. During this period, Leeds were regulars in European competitions, and Martyn is best remembered for his performances in their run to the UEFA Cup and Champions League semi-finals. With the calibre of our defence, we expect more shots from distance. And Martyn was positionally astute and one of the safest pair of hands around.
Leighton Baines (Everton, 2007-present)
Perhaps one of the most underrated players in the Premier League, Leighton Baines is defensively solid (an oft-overlooked attribute for the modern fullback) and a potent attacking threat, capable of hugging the touchline and whipping in pinpoint crosses. His natural inclination to overlap also sits well with our wingers, both of whom liked to drift inside. His wand of a left foot also brings with it excellent set-piece capability, which is a must in a team full of great headers of the ball. It was no surprise he made the PFA Team of the Year in back-to-back seasons, in 2012 and 2013.
John Terry (Chelsea, 1998-2017)
Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea revolution would have happened anyway but having John Terry as his captain, at the heart of the most miserly defence in Premier League history (Chelsea conceded 15 goals in 2004-05), made it a lot easier, more memorable and certainly more lasting. The team changed, so did the managers, but Terry, a hard and smart central defender who also scored off set pieces, was at the heart of five Premier League titles in 12 seasons. Captain, leader and legend for all of them.
Vincent Kompany (Manchester City, 2008-2019)
Picking a Man City player turned out to be the toughest of tasks. We were initially divided between Sergio Aguero and Kompany, with the Belgian just sneaking ahead, partly because we couldn’t leave out Shearer or Henry. Regardless, during a decade-long stay at City, Kompany was instrumental in every single one of the club’s title-winning campaigns, scoring crucial goals along the way — the screamer against Leicester last season the latest in that line. City’s lack of stability at the back in his absence and their struggles this season only underline the importance of his massive presence during this time.
Kyle Walker (Tottenham, 2009-2017)
Perhaps not the most glamorous option, but with Gary Neville sidelined, Kyle Walker made the cut at right back, having carved a name for himself during eight solid years at White Hart Lane. Though not as comfortable bombing forward as he was defending one-on-ones, Walker had a mean cross in him, and pace to boot. He was named the PFA Young Player of the Year during his breakthrough season in 2011-12, and went on to reinforce himself as one of the first names in Maurico Pochettino’s revitalised Tottenham.
Steven Gerrard (Liverpool, 1998-2015)
You don’t have to take our word on Steven Gerrard. Jose Mourinho courted him almost every summer. And Sir Alex Ferguson was quite keen on the Liverpool midfielder as well, despite being ‘not a top, top player’ (go look that up). Explosive, creative and incisive, there aren’t many who go box to box better than Stevie G and opposition teams will know to be wary of his mean shot. When Gerrard looks up with the ball at his feet, you can bet Shearer or Henry are making that off-the-shoulder run.
Matt Le Tissier (Southampton, 1988-2002)
Our engine will run with or without Matt Le Tissier. But when it’s creaking, drying and in need of a bit of the sublime, we will look to the man from the south coast. Effortless on the ball, Le Tissier was known for his eye for goal, hitting the back of the net 102 times in the Premier League era. He was also brilliant from the penalty spot, having missed just once. Who’s going to tell Ronaldo or Shearer that though?
N’Golo Kante (Leicester City, 2015-2016)
You don’t win titles in modern football playing the good ol’ 4-4-2, you just can’t. The two men in midfield were never going to be able to cope with the three that most teams would put out — unless one of those two was N’Golo Kante. Leicester’s miracle season had many key contributors, but none more important than the Frenchman. He did the work of three in midfield — tackling furiously, covering vast distances and even providing incisive passes. A perfect partner for the free spirits that were Steven Gerrard and Matt Le Tissier.
Cristiano Ronaldo (Manchester United, 2003-2009)
Cristiano Ronaldo came to Old Trafford as a scrawny, hungry 18-year-old in 2003 with unmissable talent but questionable decision-making. He left in 2009 as the undisputed best player in the world. During those six years, he put the fear of God in defenders unlike anyone before or after him, producing impossible free kicks, magical step-overs and gravity-defying headers. At his peak, Ronaldo was untouchable, as he fired Manchester United to three consecutive Premier League titles, and was fittingly named the PFA Player of the Year in both 2007 and 2008.
Alan Shearer (Blackburn Rovers, 1992-1996)
For three seasons, Alan Shearer ruled the fledgling Premiership; his 96 goals in 117 matches made him the top scorer for two of these seasons (and the next, after his transfer to Newcastle, making him the only player other than Thierry Henry with a hat-trick of Golden Boots). For that brief period he made Blackburn an EPL powerhouse, and league winners in 1994-95. His physical, strong style of play, especially with headers, makes him the perfect complement to Henry in this team’s strike force.
Thierry Henry (Arsenal, 1999-2007)
Even before we put in the condition of ‘one player per club’, Henry was the first name on most of our team sheets. At his best, Henry was Europe’s premier striker, the continent’s most potent, most feared and most sought after. What was most remarkable about peak Henry was his swagger. You could see that in some of his celebrations. He knew he was the best player on the pitch, almost too good for his opponents.
Aside from his numerous spectacular strikes, people tend to forget Henry is 11th on the Premier League’s all-time assists chart with 74, including the record for most assists in a single season (20 in 2002-03, when he also scored 24). That’s just as remarkable as Lampard’s goalscoring tally from midfield.
Dennis Bergkamp (Arsenal, 1995-2006)
You admire some players for their work ethic, some for their consistency and others for their skill and stamina. Then there are some whom you buy a ticket for. Dennis Bergkamp mesmerised fans on a weekly basis. Delicate, yet devastating, his touches and his vision left you in awe. Both Vieira and Bergkamp missed out because of Henry — and while it’s difficult to imagine Wenger’s success at Arsenal without either of those three, Bergkamp was the first spark of the revolution.
Eric Cantona (Manchester United, 1992-2007)
Cut to 1992: The newly launched Premiership needed an icon, a star that would help sell those expensive TV subscriptions and also get crowds to watch matches. Enter Eric Cantona, who complemented his sublime footballing skills — passing, creating, scoring, power, precision, placement, headers, volleys, left foot, right foot, ugly, beautiful, audacious, the lot — with his personal style. Collar upturned, imperious glare in place, he built the foundation for his club to dominate the first two decades. He exited as he played, on his own terms, leaving us with sardines after a diet of caviar.
Roy Keane (Manchester United, 1993-2005)
Roy Keane spent the first year of the Premier League era at Nottingham Forest as their best defender, midfielder and offensive force. He was a tour de force that kept Forest running, and although he couldn’t prevent the inevitable, he remains the last player to have made the Team of the Year from a relegated club. It was a season that highlighted the very best of his qualities — technical and mental — and convinced Sir Alex Ferguson to break the British transfer record for his signature. Kante and he could have made that midfield an unbeatable, unstoppable machine.
Petr Cech (Chelsea, 2004-2015)
The Premier League Golden Glove award was launched from the 2004-05 season. It was almost as if the powers that be knew how good Petr Cech was going to be, and needed to be celebrated as such. In his very first season at Stamford Bridge, Cech kept a record 24 clean sheets and conceded a staggeringly low 15 goals. The fact that he was more famous for sporting a headgear than the gruesome injury behind it showed how he bounced back without a hitch. If Cech were in goal, the loss of Terry in our four-man defence wouldn’t seem that big a deal anymore.
Sergio Aguero (Manchester City, 2011-present)
The words are all etched in our memory: “I swear you’ll never see anything like it. Watch it. Drink it in”. It was only fitting that Sergio Aguero scored the dramatic goal against QPR in May 2012 that broke Manchester City’s trophy drought and kicked off their revolution. What is more remarkable, though, is how he has kept up that same talent, intensity and drive for almost 10 years now, finding the back of the net with relative ease and plenty of class. Whether it’s Roberto Mancini, Manuel Pellegrini or Pep Guardiola, Aguero has adopted to each manager’s style with minimum fuss, and gone about his business as usual.