50 best bargains
Everybody loves a bargain – and in our opinion, the 50 transfers here are the shrewdest in Premier League history.
But let’s clear something up first and foremost: this list is not ordered by playing ability, but perceived value for money. Many of the clubs involved here bought low and sold high. Some found value while their rivals splashed immense sums on comparable players. Others simply enjoyed the talent they bought and were rewarded with years of diligent service. The lucky sides managed all three of those things.
So, without further ado…
50. Luis Suarez – Ajax to Liverpool, 2011 (£22.7m)
Suarez may be one of the priciest players on this list, but there’s no doubt that he represented superb value for money at £22.7m. Not only did Liverpool make an enormous profit on him when Barcelona came calling in 2014, but the Uruguayan’s exploits in his three and a half years at Anfield make him one of the club’s greatest players of the Premier League era.
Those racism and biting incidents dampened a glorious reputation, but it’s impossible to argue with Suarez’s goalscoring prowess. Only Mohamed Salah has scored more goals in a 38-game Premier League season than Suarez’s 31 in 2013/14 – when he missed the first five games through suspension.
49. Demba Ba – Hoffenheim to West Ham, 2011 (£500,000)
It’s not often that a Premier League club will sign someone two weeks after he failed a medical elsewhere, but West Ham’s high-risk decision paid dividends in 2011/12. Stoke’s loss – the Potters pulled out of a £7m deal in January 2011 due to concerns over the striker’s fitness – was the relegation-threatened Hammers’ gain.
Signed from Hoffenheim for just £500,000, Ba was handed a pay-as-you-play contract until the end of the season. The Senegalese stayed fit, scored seven goals in 10 league starts and helped to keep West Ham up. A win-win all round, then – unless you’re Stoke.
48. Demba Ba – West Ham to Newcastle, 2011 (Free)
A relegation-release clause in his West Ham contract sent Ba to Newcastle, who promptly and inexplicably finished fifth. Countryman Papiss Demba Cisse arrived in January, triggering an odd quirk: Ba had nabbed 16 goals in his first 20 Premier League games for Newcastle, and both players scored on Cisse’s debut – but then Ba didn’t score again that season in 14 starts, while Cisse netted 12 in 13.
Ba was still performing, though, and the goals returned in 2012/13 (13 in 20 matches) before he fetched Newcastle £7m from Chelsea.
47. Cesar Azpilicueta – Marseille to Chelsea, 2012 (£6.5m)
Roman Abramovich hasn’t been shy in splashing the cash since his arrival at Stamford Bridge in 2003, but one of his best ever signings arrived for a relative pittance. Chelsea paid Marseille just £6.5m to sign the versatile defender in 2012, a fee which Azpilicueta has since repaid many times over.
A winner of two Premier League titles, a League Cup, an FA Cup and a Europa League in west London, the Spaniard has thrived at right-back, centre-back and left-back under a number of different managers. Still only 29, he has plenty more to give the Blues having signed a new four-year contract earlier this season.
46. Paolo Di Canio – Sheffield Wednesday to West Ham, 1999 (£1.75m)
After Di Canio was handed an 11-game ban for pushing over referee Paul Alcock (who did go down rather easily, it must be said), Sheffield Wednesday concluded the Italian was more trouble than he was worth.
West Ham were delighted to take the fiery striker off the Owls’ hands for just £1.5m, with Harry Redknapp praising his new recruit as a player who “can do things with the ball that people can only dream of”. He wasn’t wrong: Di Canio’s sensational scissor kick against Wimbledon remains one of the Premier League’s most famous goals, while his 51 others for the Hammers guaranteed him cult-hero status.
45. Yakubu – Everton to Blackburn, 2011 (£1.5m)
The Yak wasn’t a player famed for a love of tracking back, and he’d had his injury issues at Everton, but when fit the Nigerian was a proven Premier League goal-getter. Blackburn’s nabbing of the burly striker for £1.5m always looked good business.
It looked even better on his debut when Yakubu scored twice in a 4-3 victory over Arsenal. Further heroics followed, including four goals in a 4-2 win over Swansea and a brace against Manchester United. He finished the season with 17 goals from 30 league games, but thanks to the genius of Steve Kean, Blackburn were still relegated and Yakubu left after one spectacular season.
44. Michael Keane – Manchester United to Burnley, 2015 (£2m)
A graduate of the Manchester United academy, Keane only made a single Premier League appearance for his boyhood club. After loan spells at Leicester, Derby and Blackburn, the central defender embarked on another temporary switch to Burnley in September 2014, with the move made permanent following the club’s promotion back to the Premier League at the end of the season.
Keane was a model of consistency during his time at Turf Moor, most notably during a brilliant 2016/17 campaign as Sean Dyche’s side avoided the drop. Everton paid £25m for his services the following summer, earning Burnley a very tidy profit.
43. Emmanuel Adebayor – Metz to Arsenal, 2006 (£3m)
The last great bargain of Arsene Wenger’s tenure in north London? Adebayor’s acquisition in 2006 was, at the time, another example of Wenger doing what he’d become renowned for: plucking a youngster from semi-obscurity in France and fast-tracking him to the sharp end of English football.
And while Adebayor’s career derailed some years ago – and neither is he remembered particularly fondly around the Emirates Stadium these days – it’s worth remembering just how good he was in his unplayable pomp. He peaked in 2007/08, netting 24 Premier League goals in the Gunners’ last sustained title tilt.
42. Gary Cahill – Bolton to Chelsea, 2012 (£7m)
Not many players get a relegation and Champions League win in the same season. Cahill started 2011/12 at Bolton, who ultimately went down, and ended it anchoring a patched-up Chelsea backline to European glory.
The defender showed that January purchases need not be overpriced and can have an immediate impact. Cahill went on to win two Premier League titles, an FA Cup, a League Cup and a Europa League at Stamford Bridge but looks set to depart for pastures new this month.
41. Jussi Jaaskelainen – VPS to Bolton, 1997 (£100,000)
Jaaskelainen played 530 times for Bolton – a tally topped only by Eddie Hopkinson and Roy Greaves – which, for just £100,000, makes him one of the great value-for-money buys in recent history.
The Finn’s understated style generated few headlines, and he took a while to convince Trotters supporters of his worth, but he was an ever-present in six top-flight campaigns and helped Bolton to four consecutive top-eight finishes. Only four foreigners have made more than his 436 Premier League appearances.
40. Mohamed Salah – Roma to Liverpool, 2017 (£34m)
Despite his prior Premier League struggles with Chelsea, Salah was widely considered a good signing when Liverpool acquired him for £34m in 2017. No one, though, could anticipate the impact he would have in his debut season: the Egyptian broke the record for most goals in a 38-game Premier League season, netting 32 times to win the Golden Boot in style.
He’s continued a similar vein this term, scoring 14 goals in his first 22 appearances to put Liverpool in an excellent position to end their 29-year title drought.
39. Clint Dempsey – New England Revolution to Fulham, 2007 (£1.5m)
A Premier League club buying a player direct from MLS is a risk, but whoever gave the move for 23-year-old Dempsey the go-ahead deserves a fist bump and a bro shake.
‘Deuce’ scored a crucial goal in his first half-season at Fulham, a winner against Liverpool which in effect saved the Cottagers from relegation. A fine all-round attacker and a tremendous threat in the air, Dempsey became more prolific the longer he was in west London, culminating in a 23-goal haul in 2011/12 which earned him a £6m switch to Tottenham.
38. Michael Ballack – Bayern Munich to Chelsea, 2006 (free)
There’s a good argument to be make that among a generation of all-time great midfielders – Roy Keane, Paul Scholes, Steven Gerrard, Xavi Hernandez and the rest – that Ballack was the most complete.
He had brains, brawn, height, two good feet, vision, an eye for goal and a delicious nasty streak. Crowbarring himself into a team built around Frank Lampard meant he never hit his full heights at Chelsea, but to acquire a player that absurdly good for a fee of, well, nothing at all, is quite the deal. The German won four major trophies in London before returning to Bayer Leverkusen in 2010.
37. Christopher Samba – Hertha Berlin to Blackburn, 2007 (£450,000)
Samba was an unknown entity to English audiences when he first arrived on these shores in 2007. The colossal Congolese had been struggling for game time at Hertha Berlin before his switch to Ewood Park, but Mark Hughes had clearly seen something in the 6ft 4in stopper.
Strong in both the air and the tackle, Samba was the sort of no-nonsense, uncompromising defender every mid-table team needs. He made 171 appearances for Rovers in total, helping them to a seventh-place finish in 2007/08 and another top-half placing two years later.
36. Carlo Cudicini – Castel Di Sangro to Chelsea, 1999 (£200,000)
A series of injury problems restricted Cudicini to just 14 league outings for Castel Di Sangro between 1997 and 1999, so Italian eyebrows were raised when Chelsea brought the lesser-spotted glovesman to England, initially on loan.
Cudicini found himself on the bench for much of his debut campaign, but he was undisputed No.1 by the end of 2000/01 and won the club’s Player of the Year prize the following year. He was voted the best in his position in the league in 2002/03, but was later relegated to the bench following Petr Cech’s arrival in 2004.
35. Marko Arnautovic – Werder Bremen to Stoke, 2013 (£2m)
The Premier League may well have seen the last of Arnautovic, who seems determined to seal a lucrative move to the Chinese Super League this transfer window. He’ll certainly cost any suitors much more than the £2m Stoke paid to bring him to England back in 2013.
The enigmatic forward arrived in the Potteries with a reputation as a trouble-maker, but there was no questioning his ability. Arnautovic helped Stoke to three consecutive ninth-place finishes, before bringing in a cool £18m profit when he joined West Ham in 2017.
34. Youri Djorkaeff – Kaiserslautern to Bolton, 2002 (free)
Bolton’s plan to create a set of aged, discount Galacticos in north-west England didn’t always pay off (see: Jardel, Mario), but it certainly worked with Djorkaeff.
A World Cup winner with France, this exquisite between-the-lines attacker was a month away from his 34th birthday when he signed for Bolton. Yet the hurly-burly of the Premier League rarely seemed to faze a player who always found space, slid in killer passes and produced some spectacular finishes. By the time he departed, Bolton had gone from unfancied newcomers to eighth in the Premier League.
33. Robbie Keane – Leeds to Tottenham, 2002 (£7m)
Keane had only recently turned 23 upon joining Tottenham in summer 2002, but that was already the fourth permanent move of his career. The former Wolves, Coventry, Inter and Leeds frontman settled down in north London, though, scoring 80 Premier League goals over the next six years.
His sale to Liverpool in 2008 boosted Spurs’ coffers to the tune of £19m, but Keane was back at White Hart Lane a few months later as the north Londoners re-signed the Irishman for just £12m. Daniel Levy: genius.
32. Patrice Evra – Monaco to Manchester United, 2006 (£5.5m)
Ashley Cole probably pips Evra to the award of best left-back in Premier League history, but the Frenchman should take that as compliment rather than insult. It’s hard to imagine a foreign player more enthusiastic about buying into the culture of a football club than Evra, who was a cult hero by sheer personality.
He won six league titles and the Champions League, but Evra also played with a semi-permanent smile. He was a reminder that football is supposed to be fun, and he was really, really good at it too.
31. Gus Poyet – Real Zaragoza to Chelsea, 1997 (free)
One of the great free transfers of the Premier League era, Uruguay international Poyet turned up at Stamford Bridge in 1997 and promptly picked up a cruciate injury. An inauspicious start, although he did return to play in the side that beat Stuttgart in the 1998 Cup Winners’ Cup final.
After that, the goals flowed. Many of them important, most of them spectacular; Poyet nabbed a winner against Real Madrid, two FA Cup semi-final strikes to see off Newcastle and more, all while acting as manager Claudio Ranieri’s unofficial translator. He left the Blues in 2001, pulling in a £2.2m fee from London rivals Tottenham.
30. Michu – Rayo Vallecano to Swansea, 2012 (£2m)
Some flames burn long, slow and steady. Others spend a decade doing very little in the Spanish lower leagues before a two-year blaze of glory at the top.
Michu had recently enjoyed a 17-goal season for Vallecano when he joined Swansea, but his debut campaign in Wales was remarkable nonetheless: 22 goals in all competitions in a year which made King Midas look like the Princess Bride. Four years later he was retired, having long since returned to the Iberian anonymity from whence he came.
29. Ashley Cole – Arsenal to Chelsea, 2006 (£5m player)
Cole’s transfer from Arsenal to Chelsea wasn’t without its controversy, with the left-back fined £100,000 for attending a “tapping-up meeting” in 2005. The deal eventually went through the following year, the Blues spending just £5m – plus defender William Gallas – on a player who was already established as one of Europe’s best in his position.
The motivation for the move was widely seen as financial, but it made perfect sense in a sporting sense: while Arsenal stagnated in the latter half of the decade, Cole won a league title, four FA Cups and the Champions League in eight years at Stamford Bridge.
28. Mikel Arteta – Real Sociedad to Everton, 2005 (£2m)
A midfielder defined by his haircut: neat, tidy, consistent, unwavering. Arteta’s career was in danger of drifting before he joined Everton for a miniscule fee of £2m in 2005; in that same year, the Toffees spent the same on Andy van der Meyde and almost three times as much as Per Kroldrup.
Arteta won the club’s Player of the Season award in his first full year, and eventually played more than 200 games for them before getting his dream move to Arsenal.
27. John Stones – Barnsley to Everton, 2013 (£3m)
The perfect embodiment of why those clubs who sit below the financially-bloated elite must look to be smarter in their bid to bridge the artificial gap. Everton did wonderful business in signing Stones for £3m partly because he was excellent at Goodison, and partly because their development of him landed them a profit of around £45m when they sold him to Manchester City.
Stones deserves plenty of credit too, but Everton really did find the then-most expensive defender in the world in South Yorkshire.
26. Andrew Robertson – Hull to Liverpool, 2017 (£8m)
It was surprising nobody picked up Robertson when Hull were relegated in 2015, after a year in which he’d signed from Dundee United for £2.8m – a bargain in itself – and subsequently shone, but Liverpool swooped when the Tigers went down again.
The idea that Robertson settled slowly is extraordinary in retrospect: how many 24-year-olds start a Champions League final in their first season? Now he’s arguably the Premier League’s best full-back, having cost Liverpool less than half what Chelsea paid for Baba Rahman two years earlier.
25. Kolo Toure – ASEC Mimosas to Arsenal, 2002 (£150,000)
The story of Toure’s Arsenal trial is the stuff of legend: hacking down Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp, before the Ivorian completed his hat-trick by two-footing Arsene Wenger. A limping Wenger decided to sign Toure, claiming he “liked his desire”.
It proved an inspired move. The youngster was a superb foil to Sol Campbell in the central defence of an Arsenal side who won the league unbeaten in 2003/04 and reached a Champions League final in 2006. By the time he joined Manchester City for £14m in 2009, Toure had played over 300 games for the Gunners.
24. Philippe Coutinho – Inter to Liverpool, 2013 (£8.5m)
Raised on a diet of small-sided futsal in Brazil, Coutinho spent his early years in Europe struggling to impose his Velcro-booted skills on the expansive pitches of Italy and Spain, so when Liverpool parted with £8.5m it was met curiosity rather than hysteria.
But five years on Merseyside transformed him into a playmaker of elite pedigree, adding responsibility and refinement to his samba flair. And when profit margins on a player represent a 1700% mark-up, it’s a job well done.
23. Robin van Persie, Feyenoord to Arsenal, 2004 (2.75m)
A solitary FA Cup is all Van Persie has to show for his time in north London in terms of medals, but he contributed plenty to the Arsenal cause during his eight-season stay. And while injury problems limited his impact in his first few years at the club, he ended his Gunners career as the club’s best striker post-Thierry Henry.
After scoring 18 times in 25 league games in 2010/11, the Dutchman broke the 30-goal barrier the following season. That haul tempted Manchester United to spend £22.5m on his signature; a year later, Alex Ferguson’s men were champions and Van Persie their top scorer.
22. Tim Cahill – Millwall to Everton, 2004 (£1.5m)
After helping second-tier Millwall to the FA Cup final in 2003/04, Cahill earned a promotion to the Premier League with Everton. He ended his debut campaign as the club’s top scorer and Player of the Year, and didn’t look back from there; by the time of his departure in 2012, the Australian had played 278 games and scored 68 goals for the Merseysiders.
A midfielder by trade, Cahill was regularly deployed up front by manager David Moyes such was his penalty-box threat. Not even 6ft tall, the ex-Millwall man was one of the best headers of the ball that the Premier League has seen.
21. Ruud Gullit – Sampdoria to Chelsea, 1995 (free)
Sometimes a player’s impact cannot be measured by numbers alone. Gullit scored four Premier League goals for Chelsea. He also transformed their identity. Before him, they signed Paul Furlong and Scott Minto. After him, players like Gianfranco Zola, Gianluca Vialli, Frank Leboeuf and Roberto Di Matteo headed to Stamford Bridge.
Chelsea became cool and Gullit, a year after signing, their manager. While Glenn Hoddle’s attempts to use him as a sweeper didn’t work, he was outstanding in the centre of the park.
20. Jay-Jay Okocha – PSG to Bolton, 2002 (free)
It was the ultimate odd couple. Sam Allardyce’s unfashionable Bolton and a flashy Nigerian playmaker who had just been mentoring Ronaldinho at PSG. Yet opposites attract and true love was found.
Okocha scored seven goals to help keep Bolton in the Premier League in his first season, including a dazzling long-range strike against West Ham. But it was his jaw-slackening array of rainbow flicks and skills that delighted fans and baffled opponents (just ask Ray Parlour) during his mesmerising four-season spell in the northwest.
19. Seamus Coleman – Sligo Rovers to Everton, 2009 (£60,000 rising to £300,000)
In the early 1980s, David Moyes and Willie McStay shared a dressing room at Celtic. That proved to be significant almost three decades on, when a tip-off from the latter to the former led to Everton capturing Coleman for an initial £60,000.
Little was known of the young Irishman, but Coleman soon established himself as one of the Premier League’s most impressive full-backs. Now in his 10th season at Goodison Park, the defender has recently battled back from a broken leg to take his appearance tally ever closer to the 300 mark.
18. Shay Given – Blackburn to Newcastle, 1997 (£1.5m)
Kenny Dalglish’s tenure as Newcastle boss is rarely recalled, but he did leave one lasting legacy: Dalglish signed Given, a player he’d originally nabbed for Blackburn, and installed him as No.1.
Through thick and thin, Given was a near-constant over the next 12 years. Boasting remarkable reflexes, the 6ft 1in net-minder was often reluctant to leave his line, but he was a spectacular shot-stopper who regularly bailed out an iffy defence. Given left for Manchester City in 2009, just 33 games short of being Newcastle’s all-time appearance-maker.
17. Joe Hart – Shrewsbury to Manchester City, 2006 (£600,000)
Hart’s reputation has taken a battering in the last few years, bombed out of Manchester City by Pep Guardiola and currently warming the bench at Turf Moor. Yet while his time at Champions League level is now firmly in the past, it shouldn’t be forgotten that the Englishman was once among the Premier League’s top goalkeepers.
Signed for just £600,000 in 2006, the ex-Shrewsbury shot-stopper would go on to win two Premier League titles, two League Cups and an FA Cup in Manchester before his rather sudden exit in 2016.
16. Graeme Le Saux – Chelsea to Blackburn, 1993 (£700,000)
For club accountants, it must be satisfying to receive a substantially bigger fee from the people who sold you a player they now want back. When he’s also assisted in a rare title triumph – the club’s third and last – there’s every reason to feel quite smug.
Hence Le Saux’s inclusion in our top 20: Blackburn took him from Chelsea for £700,000 and returned him four years later, Premier League winner’s medal and all, for exactly 10 times that. The left-back was vital to their success and improved Chelsea too, so everyone’s a winner.
15. Nemanja Vidic – Spartak Moscow to Manchester United, 2005 (£7m)
One of the Premier League’s greatest ever defenders – and proof that you can find value in the January market if you look hard enough. Vidic arrived in the same window as Patrice Evra and, like the Frenchman, went on to become a pillar of Alex Ferguson’s last great Manchester United side.
The tough-tackling Serbian, who formed a wonderfully complementary partnership with Rio Ferdinand in the heart of the Red Devils’ backline, won five Premier League titles, three League Cups and the Champions League at Old Trafford – which works out as £77,777 per trophy.
14. Vincent Kompany – Hamburg to Manchester City, 2008 (£6m)
In the early summer months of 2008, Manchester City was in a state of flux: the takeover was still to come and the endless churn of nondescript mid-market imports had instilled identity crisis. Ironically, the remedy was to be found in a mid-priced Belgian centre-back bought from Germany.
Over the next decade of City’s trophy-hoarding overhaul, Kompany has been the one constant: unwavering on the pitch and statesmanlike off it. Now in his dotage, he’s gone from peerless talisman to passable squad player. But for roughly 20% of an Eliaquim Mangala, there can be few complaints.
13. David Ginola – PSG to Newcastle, 1995 (£2.5m)
That Kevin Keegan persuaded Ginola – PSG hero, French Player of the Year in 1993/94 and reportedly on the shopping lists of both Barcelona and Real Madrid – to sign for Newcastle is remarkable.
The impact was instant: the winger was named Premier League Player of the Month in August 1995 as Newcastle collected 12 points from 12. Blessed with dazzling skill (and hair), Ginola epitomised the Magpies’ Entertainers era. Tottenham might well argue that nabbing him for £2.5m after two seasons on Tyneside was an equally good buy.
12. Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink – Boavista to Leeds, 1997 (£2m)
Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink was a good, physical striker who just happened to boast an absolute hammer of a shot. He showed that ability sporadically when he arrived in Yorkshire, scoring five goals before Christmas – until he recalled how much he hated goal nets and smashed in 17 more as Leeds finished fifth.
In his second season, Hasselbaink was joint winner of the Premier League Golden Boot, before a falling-out with manager David O’Leary brought a £10m move to Atletico Madrid. Given the wages Leeds would reportedly go on to pay, investing in Hasselbaink may been one of their smarter fiscal strategies.
11. Jurgen Klinsmann – Monaco to Tottenham, 1994 (£2m)
One of the most influential foreign imports of the Premier League’s early years, alongside Eric Cantona, Ruud Gullit and Juninho. Klinsmann arrived in England with a reputation for simulation and addressed the issue with a sense of humour that a mildly xenophobic English media hadn’t expected.
The German scored 21 league goals and 30 in all competitions, was named the Football Writers’ Association Player of the Year and promptly left for Bayern Munich having become a cult hero. Not bad for £2m.
10. Ole Gunnar Solksjaer – Molde to Manchester United, 1996 (£1.5m)
Manchester United’s interim manager has enjoyed a perfect start to his second stint at Old Trafford, but he’s still got some way to go before he tops his exploits as a player. Signed to little fanfare for £1.5m in 1996, the Norwegian sharp-shooter proved to be one of the best natural finishers that the Premier League has seen.
Injuries plagued his final few seasons in the north-west, but 126 goals in 366 matches tell their own story – as does an honours list featuring six Premier League titles, two FA Cups and, as Clive Tyldesley told us, a Champions League.
9. Sami Hyypia – Willem II to Liverpool, 1999 (£2.6m)
Gerard Houllier’s greatest signing? The case is compelling. “He transformed our defensive record,” Jamie Carragher said. Liverpool conceded 49 league goals the year before Hyypia signed. They never came close to doing that during a decade at Anfield that brought 464 appearances.
Lacking pace, the Finn suited Houllier and Rafa Benitez’s low defensive lines, but he had every other attribute a centre-back required: an outstanding disciplinary record, the knack of scoring useful goals and the resilience to start 58 games in the Treble-winning season of 2000/01.
8. Dele Alli – MK Dons to Tottenham, 2015 (£5m)
Alli reached his half-century of Tottenham goals last month and has since added two more to his tally. He’s already racked up 168 appearances for the north London outfit too – impressive numbers for a player who’s still only 22.
Top Premier League clubs can now sign players from all four corners of the globe, but Alli’s success serves as a reminder that there’s still plenty of talent to be found in the Football League. At just £5m he’s undoubtedly one of Tottenham’s best ever Premier League acquisitions.
7. Edwin van der Sar – Fulham to Manchester United, 2005 (£2m)
Newly-promoted Fulham’s signing of a Champions League-winning shot-stopper in summer 2001 was one of the biggest coups in Premier League history. The Cottagers paid £7m for Van der Sar following their promotion from the second flight, but Manchester United landed him for just a fraction of that price four years later.
The Dutchman was brilliant at Old Trafford, as United finally found someone capable of filling the sizeable gloves of Peter Schmeichel. He won four league titles, the Champions League and an FA Cup with the Red Devils, and also set a Premier League record by going 1311 minutes without conceding a goal in 2008/09.
6. Patrick Vieira – Milan to Arsenal, 1996 (£3.5m)
When Arsene Wenger’s ability to rustle up brilliant unknowns was lauded, Vieira was the first and finest example. The 20-year-old was kicking his heels in Milan’s reserves when the Gunners swooped, yet he quickly established himself as a titan; a template for what every Premier League club desired in a midfielder.
Vieira wasn’t just an enforcer able to cover ground and win the ball with his telescopic legs: he drove the attack, picked passes, dictated play and chipped in with vital goals. A leader on the pitch, he racked up the trophies at Arsenal before departing to Juventus for £13.5m in 2005.
5. Nicolas Anelka – PSG to Arsenal, 1997 (£500,000)
The deal that, more than any other, cemented Arsene Wenger’s reputation as football’s greatest economist. A £500,000 investment was converted into a £22.3m sale in two years: Wenger only needed to spend half of that to get a still greater player in Thierry Henry.
But the profit shouldn’t obscure Anelka’s importance as a player: he replaced Ian Wright as Dennis Bergkamp’s strike partner in the Double-winning 1997/98 campaign, when he struck in the FA Cup final, and scored a further 19 times the following year to attract Real Madrid’s attention.
4. Lucas Radebe – Kaizer Chiefs to Leeds, 1994 (£50,000)
The sad news of Phil Masinga’s death at the age of just 49 brought a tribute from Radebe and a reminder of the pair’s arrival in Yorkshire. Leeds signed Masinga for £250,000 in 1994, with defender Radebe chucked in to keep his fellow South African happy. Radebe turned out to be a bit more than just a great roommate.
After a sluggish start to his Leeds career (Howard Wilkinson asking him to play on the wing on debut probably didn’t help), Radebe soon proved his worth. A powerful and complete central defender, and a gentleman to boot, the South African played 256 games in over a decade at Elland Road.
3. N’Golo Kante – Caen to Leicester City, 2015 (£5.6m)
There was little sign of what was to come for Kante at Leicester in his first few weeks at the club. Named among the substitutes in the first three games of 2015/16, the Frenchman’s initial appearances came on the right-hand side of midfield.
By the end of that incredible title-winning campaign, Kante was well on his way to becoming Europe’s leading ball-winner. His lung-busting heroics were fundamental to Leicester’s astonishing triumph and, if that wasn’t enough, he earned the Foxes a handsome profit when he joined Chelsea for £32m at the season’s end.
2. Sol Campbell – Tottenham to Arsenal, 2002 (free)
Arsene Wenger is much admired for the bargains he spotted overseas, but to seal his greatest deal he only needed to jump on the tube. Campbell was the country’s dominant centre-back in 2002, and White Hart Lane was in thrall to their captain’s imperious blend of impeccable defending and unruffled leadership.
The most toxic transfer in English history? Those who were there at his return to White Hart Lane – when thousands of balloons bearing the letter JUDAS were released into the north London sky – wouldn’t argue otherwise. For Arsenal, though, Campbell was priceless in more ways than one.
1. Eric Cantona – Leeds to Manchester United, 1992 (£1.2m)
Ignore the fee, bargain as it soon proved. Cantona was the greatest catalyst the Premier League has seen, joining a club without a league title in 25 years and inspiring them to the first four of 13 in 21 seasons.
If an iconic figure was at his finest in the expansive 1993/94 side, he was at his most crucial two years later, capping his return from an eight-month ban for kung-fu kicking a fan with a series of winners. Not bad for a man signed as a replacement for the injured Dion Dublin after Sheffield Wednesday refused to sell David Hirst.