And Then There Was Özil: The Premier League’s Best Playmakers

Mesut ÖzilIn the dying moments of the summer transfer window, Arsenal had the news they’d been waiting for for days, weeks, arguably years. Arsène Wenger finally broke the tradition of years by splashing out more than £40 million on Real Madrid’s German playmaker Mesut Özil, the man who has racked up more assists and chances created than any other player on Earth in the last three years. Özil is unquestionably one of the best players in the world and it is a source of bemusement to millions that Madrid would let him leave, but he has big shoes to fill; the Premier League has seen its fair share of world-class playmakers over the years. Özil will be able to congratulate himself on a job well done if he earns a reputation to rival that of the others.

Gunners legend Dennis Bergkamp is regarded as the best foreign player to ever  grace English shores. Blessed with a feather-light touch, seemingly 360-degree vision and finishing to match any striker, Bergkamp was an integral part of the The Invincibles team of 2003-04, and was fellow legend Thierry Henry’s all-time favorite playing partner. ‘Dennis the Menace’ became known for scoring some of football’s all-time great goals, such as against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup or Newcastle in 2002.

Over a quarter of Bergkamp’s goals came from outside the box, but it was his passing range and assists that Bergkamp will really be remembered for at the Emirates. One touch from the “Iceman” was usually enough to take a defender, if not the whole defense, out of the game. In the record-breaking 03-04 season, he bagged 12 assists and scored four goals, meaning that almost a quarter of Arsenal’s league goals came through the brilliant Dutchman. He won seven trophies at Arsenal and countless individual honors throughout his glittering career, but it is not just the fashionable London clubs who have graced the Match of the Day highlight reels with brilliant playmakers.

Matt Le Tissier, potentially the best penalty taker of all time (48 out of 49 converted) and one of England’s favorite one-club men. Having been turned down by Oxford United, Le Tissier moved to Southampton at the young age of 17 and stayed there for his entire career (save a few games for Eastleigh and Geurnsey, his local teams). A quick YouTube search of his name brings up endless highlight reels of cheeky skills, long range screamers, and his fabled flicked free-kick against Wimbledon, and to this day, he is still worshiped as a semi-deity on the south coast.

A scoring record of better than one in three across 16 years for the Saints tells its own story, but he made little impression on the international stage; no goals in his only eight games for England. The first midfielder to reach 100 goals in the Premiership, Le Tissier left an indelible mark on Premier League history, not bad for a man nicknamed ‘Fat Le Tissier’ throughout the country.

JuninhoBut one player who couldn’t have been accused of being overweight was diminutive 5′ 5″ Brazilian Juninho, voted Middlesbrough’s all-time greatest player, as well as being one of the most popular foreign imports around the country. Boro caused a stir throughout the footballing world when they signed the Brazilian player of the year from São Paulo in 1995, and he quickly became a fans’ favorite on Teesside. ‘The Little Fella’ became known for playing football on the street with local children, but it was his exploits on the pitch with players like Emerson and Fabrizio Ravanelli that earned him plaudits for his silky dribbling, eye for goal and bravery on the pitch.

Juninho helped Boro to FA Cup and League Cup finals in 1997, but Boro lost both and were relegated from the Premier League by two points on the final day having been docked three points earlier in the season (they failed to fulfill a fixture against Blackburn after a virus swept through the squad), with Juninho’s crying figure slumped on the Elland Road turf now an iconic picture in the club’s history. He left to further his chances of making the Brazil World Cup squad but returned for two more spells on Teesside, helping Boro to their first major trophy, the League Cup, in 2004.

One team who have suffered considerably fewer trophy droughts over the years are Manchester United, and one of their greatest players, Paul Scholes (who retired earlier in 2013) is another one of the Premier League’s best playmakers. Scholes started his career just a year after the Premier League’s inception in 1992, going on to make 499 appearances for Manchester United in 20 years at the very top level (with a bit of a break after 2011). Players like Thierry Henry and Ryan Giggs list him among their favorite players, and the general consensus in the wider footballing world is that England were not as appreciative of Scholes’ passing as they should have been. If he had played for Spain, for example, he may have been much more celebrated during his illustrious career.

Scholes was never afraid to shoot – everyone remembers his 30-yard bullet against Barcelona – but a scoring record of better than one in five is all the more impressive when you think that the teams he played in have been centered around the goal-scoring exploits of players like Robin Van Persie, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Ruud Van Nistelrooy. When it comes to one of England’s most technically gifted players, the final word must go to probably the best midfielder of the last five years, if not this century. Barcelona’s metronomic passing machine Xavi said of United’s Ginger Prince, “In the last 15 to 20 years the best central midfielder that I have seen – the most complete – is Scholes.”

Steven GerrardAnother English midfielder to have earned the respect of the greats is Liverpool’s living legend Steven Gerrard, who both Zinedine Zidane and Pelé rate as one of the greatest midfielders to ever grace the greatest game on earth. Aged 33, Gerrard still has a few years left in the tank (injury permitting) and is one of a select group to have passed a century of caps for England, many of them as captain.

His match-winning double against West Ham in the 2006 FA Cup Final will surely be remembered as one of the best individual cup final performances in living memory, and it is said that it was his half-time speech that led to Liverpool’s remarkable comeback against AC Milan on ‘that night in Istanbul.’ Many great players have passed through Anfield’s hallowed gates in the last 15 years – Fernando Torres, Xabi Alonso, Emile Heskey, and more – but one player always remained constant through good times and bad, and Liverpool will be a much different place when he’s gone.

Liverpool have never felt the need to replace Gerrard, but one club who have had more than their fair share of playmakers over the years are Chelsea, and unquestionably the best of the lot was lovable little Italian Gianfranco Zola, now managing a free-flowing Watford side in the Championship. Zola joined Chelsea after a trophy drought that was a million miles away from their current situation, having not won silverware for 25 years. By the time he left in 2003, the Blues had begun to establish themselves as a major power in England, with four domestic titles and two European trophies added to the Stamford Bridge trophy cabinet.

On top of his own individual gongs, Zola also won an OBE in 2004, with the British embassy in Rome saying that he was “the most enduring and popular foreign player in the history of Chelsea” as well as praising his charity work. Zola made an instant impression in London, dazzling fans with his dribbling skills and brilliant goals; remember the mid-air back-heel against Norwich? Zola left on a high after winning his second Chelsea Player of the Year award despite fans’ pleadings for him to stay, and he has carried on his attacking philosophies into management, with Watford only narrowly missing out on promotion to the Premier League in the playoff final last year.

Cesc FàbregasZola’s departure from London in 2003 coincided with the arrival of another special little player, a Spanish teenager named Francesc Fàbregas, who joined the Arsenal academy from the fabled La Masia academy of Barcelona at the age of 16. Although Fàbregas was not focused on making the starting 11 when he joined – he instead concentrating on learning the language and learning from players like Gilberto Silva and Patrick Vieira – but after a month at the club he was already the youngest player and youngest goalscorer in the history of the club. He made his first league appearances in 2004, but made headlines for the wrong reasons after allegedly throwing pizza at Sir Alex Ferguson following a match against Manchester United.

In 2004-05, Fàbregas became the second-youngest player to score in the Champions League and took the #4 shirt of Vieira the following year. From then on there was no stopping his rise to the top, with an impressively calm and cool head on his young shoulders and the passing range of a cultured playmaker beyond his years. He started chalking up goals and assists, and soon he would be one of the senior players in an increasingly young team, taking the captain’s armband in 2008.

He continued his personal good form but became frustrated by the lack of trophies at the club, with Arsenal rejecting a €35 million bid from Barcelona for his services. After eight years at the club though, he made the switch back home to Camp Nou to play with close friends like Gerard Piqué and Andrés Iniesta. He hasn’t held down a constant starting berth and was subject to several bids from Manchester United over the summer, so a return to the Emirates is far from impossible in future; Arsenal fans can only hope.

So there we have it; from London, to the South Coast, to Teesside and back again, we have been lucky enough to witness some truly breathtaking playmakers in the last 21 years or so, and with players like Juan Mata and Philippe Coutinho continuing the trend today, we can look forward to more Bergkamps and Juninhos gracing our shores in years to come. Missed out your preferred Premiership playmaker? There isn’t enough room in the world to include the whole 21 years of midfield brilliance on one page, so fight for their cause in the comments below!