Selecting an all-time best Premier League XI sounds easy, right? Over 28 seasons, since the competition began in 1992-93, there have been a host of world-class players and record-breaking achievements, as well as plenty of stars who have either shone briefly or others who have performed at the top for almost two decades.
Some have amassed a huge medal collection, others have won nothing, or won everything except the Premier League itself. Six clubs have lifted the Premier League trophy — Manchester United lead the way with 13 titles — and within all of those teams, there have been players who made themselves indispensable and became Premier League legends.
But only 11 can make a team, and some seriously great players won’t make the cut. You can be certain that everybody will end with a different all-star XI, but here goes in a 4-1-2-3 formation.
GK: PETER SCHMEICHEL
Perhaps the easiest selection of them all. The likes of Petr Cech, David Seaman and Edwin van der Sar were huge figures during the Premier League era — providing the foundation for a series of title wins for Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United respectively — but none of them were as influential as Schmeichel at United.
The Dane was as crucial to United’s dominance of the 1990s as Eric Cantona and Roy Keane, making as many match-winning or match-saving contributions as any of his teammates. He could throw the ball with pinpoint accuracy as far as he could kick it, and he intimidated opposition forwards with his presence and agility.
Schmeichel won five Premier Leagues, three FA Cups and a Champions League with United. No other keeper comes close.
RB: GARY NEVILLE
This was a tough one. Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold is developing into one of the leading right-backs in the world at Anfield and the 20-year-old could yet become the best the Premier League has seen, but in terms of reliability, durability, longevity and success, Neville has to be the selection. The former Manchester United captain made his debut as a 17-year-old in September 1992 and played his final game in January 2011, making 602 appearances for Sir Alex Ferguson’s team, winning 17 major honours including eight Premier League titles.
Defensively, Neville was a classic full-back, but he could also overlap and contribute going forward, albeit without the spectacular number of assists that Alexander-Arnold produces for Liverpool. If you want a full-back to make defending a priority, Neville remains the best.
CB: RIO FERDINAND
There have been many outstanding centre-backs during the Premier League era, with Virgil van Dijk maintaining that tradition in the present day with Liverpool. So why does Ferdinand get the nod ahead of Van Dijk, Vincent Kompany, Sol Campbell, Ricardo Carvalho and the rest?
The injury problems in the final years of Ferdinand’s career have perhaps clouded the true picture of the former West Ham, Leeds and Manchester United defender. He had everything: pace, athleticism, the ability to burst out of defence with the ball, leadership skills and an underestimated toughness. He also won six Premier League titles and a Champions League; ultimately his medal tally should silence any doubters.
Frank Leboeuf shares his top five Premier League defenders that he would induct into the Hall of Fame.
CB: JOHN TERRY
The best centre-back partnerships require a blend of silk and steel, and Terry was as tough as they come in the mould of defensive warriors. Nemanja Vidic, Jaap Stam, Martin Keown and Tony Adams could all fill this slot, but none of them can match Terry for longevity, with the former Chelsea captain performing for 19 seasons at Stamford Bridge.
Terry was brave to the point of recklessness, putting his head and body on the line, seemingly ignorant of the risks to his physical well-being when trying to keep the ball out of the Chelsea net. But as tough as he undoubtedly was, Terry was a great defender who could read the game as well as anyone. He was rewarded for his never-say-die attitude with five Premier League titles, five FA Cups, three League Cups and a medal for winning the Champions League in 2012, despite being suspended for Chelsea’s win against Bayern Munich in the final.
LB: ASHLEY COLE
There have been three great left-backs in the Premier League era — Denis Irwin, Cole and Patrice Evra — but the Arsenal and Chelsea defender gets the nod ahead of his two rivals from Manchester United.
Liverpool’s Andy Robertson may yet join the elite left-back club, but for Cole to edge out Irwin and Evra highlights the contribution he made to two great title-winning teams at Arsenal and Chelsea.
Cole was quick, tough and as comfortable going forward as he was defensively, where he rarely lost out to a winger. Ask Cristiano Ronaldo for his toughest opponent and Cole won’t be far from the top of his list. He won two Premier Leagues and three FA Cups with Arsenal before adding another title and four more FA Cups at Chelsea, plus a Champions League and Europa League.
DM: ROY KEANE
Manchester United’s captain during the most successful period in the club’s history, Keane was the driving force of the team that dominated the football landscape for the best part of a decade.
Keane could do everything. He could tackle, score, create, inspire and intimidate. The image of the Irishman as a snarling ball of fury is not misplaced, but it can too often overshadow the reality of Keane as a player. During the peak years of United’s rivalry with Arsenal during the late-1990s and early-2000s, Keane’s midfield collisions with Patrick Vieira became epic encounters, with the two men defining an era. He won 13 major honours, including seven Premier League titles, during a 12-year spell at Old Trafford in which strode the stage like a Colossus.
Steve Nicol chooses which two midfielders he would induct into the Premier League Hall of Fame.
MF: PATRICK VIEIRA
Some might argue that you cannot combine Vieira with Keane in midfield due to their similarities, but Keane’s defensive discipline and ability to control the tempo of a game would dovetail perfectly with Vieira’s box-to-box energy and attacking qualities.
Admirers of Steven Gerrard may feel that the former Liverpool captain deserves to be in any best-ever Premier League team, but as inspirational as he was, he could not claim a place ahead of Keane or Vieira.
Vieira had everything, and his impact at Arsenal can be measured by their lack of success since his departure in 2005, following nine fantastic years at the club. The Frenchman was the heartbeat of Arsene Wenger’s 2004 Invincibles, but he was just as influential in their title successes in 1998 and 2002. A true Premier League great.
MF: FRANK LAMPARD
Perhaps the toughest pick of them all. With one midfield slot remaining, how do you leave out Gerrard, Kevin De Bruyne, Paul Scholes, David Beckham or David Silva? All would merit selection, but if you select one of those, you would have to leave out Lampard, and that would be overlooking his importance to the great Chelsea side built by Jose Mourinho.
Aside from the 11 major honours he won at Stamford Bridge, Lampard scored an incredible 177 goals from midfield during a Premier League career with West Ham, Chelsea and Manchester City — more than the likes of Thierry Henry, Robbie Fowler and Michael Owen, who were all strikers.
His inability to gel successfully with Gerrard on the international stage with England tends to be the defining factor when Lampard is judged, but look at his medals and goals to get a fairer reflection of his quality.
CF: ALAN SHEARER
Shearer is quite simply the greatest goal scorer the Premier League has ever seen. He sits at the top of the scoring charts with 260 Premier League goals for Blackburn and Newcastle — Wayne Rooney is second with 208 — despite missing the best part of two seasons with serious knee and ankle injuries during the 1990s. And if you factor in the 23 top division goals Shearer scored for Southampton prior to the start of the Premier League in 1992, his strike rate looks even more impressive.
Shearer was the complete centre-forward. Physically, he could beat any defender and his goals came from close range, outside the box, from the penalty spot, and with his head, which is why he broke the British transfer record twice when signing for Blackburn (£3.6m in 1992) and Newcastle (£15m in 1996).
He may only have won one Premier League title, with Blackburn, but nobody comes close to matching Shearer as a Premier League goal scorer.
Craig Burley praises how “uber consistent” Sergio Augero has been with Manchester City.
RF: SERGIO AGUERO
If Shearer is the obvious selection up-front, sifting the best from the rest is an almost impossible task. Just consider the options: Henry, Rooney, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Andy Cole, Dennis Bergkamp, Eric Cantona, Luis Suarez.
But one striker who tops them all is Aguero. The Manchester City forward surpassed Henry as the highest-scoring foreign striker in the Premier League this season, moving onto 180 goals, and he could yet become only the third player break the 200 barrier after Shearer and Rooney.
Aguero has won more for City than Henry won for Arsenal, and has now outscored him, so how can the Argentine be left out? And to seal his selection, Aguero can also claim to have scored the most memorable goal ever scored in the Premier League, with his title decider against QPR in 2012. With Shearer deployed as the centre-forward, Aguero would have to accept a role on the right of a front three, but his evolution under Pep Guardiola at City ensures he would still be a threat, wherever he plays in the front line.
LF: CRISTIANO RONALDO
The Premier League did not see the best of Ronaldo, but in six seasons at Manchester United, the Portuguese forward still left a lasting impact on English football before taking his career into the stratosphere with Real Madrid.
During Ronaldo’s final three seasons at Old Trafford, United won three successive Premier League titles and reached two Champions League final — winning one and losing the other — and he was Ferguson’s talisman.
In 2007-08, when United won the Premier League and Champions League, Ronaldo gave a glimpse of what was to come later in his career by scoring a remarkable 42 goals in 49 games. Henry and a young Ryan Giggs could also claim the slot on the left of a front three, but not ahead of Ronaldo.
MANAGER: SIR ALEX FERGUSON
The Premier League has seen some outstanding coaches and managers, with Wenger, Mourinho and Guardiola all building winning empires while Jurgen Klopp may be on course to doing the same at Liverpool. But no manager is in the same league as Ferguson, who won 13 Premier League titles, two Champions Leagues and 13 cups during his 27-year reign as manager.
Ferguson built a series of successful teams and saw off all managerial rivals. His only challenge with this team would be picking a captain.
SUBSTITUTES: Petr Cech, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Vincent Kompany, Paul Scholes, David Beckham, Eden Hazard, Thierry Henry.