Over the years the Premier League has been graced by so many incredible players. Some have come from Walthamstow (Harry Kane), others from Cork (Roy Keane) and others from Funchal on Madeira, a small Portuguese island (Cristiano Ronaldo). There have been several amazing players from Liverpool, such as Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard, South American aces like Luis Suarez and Sergio Aguero and many world-class footballers from Africa too – how about Didier Drogba, Mo Salah and Yaya Toure for starters?
But there have also been several truly exceptional French players that have graced the Premier League. They are our focus here, as we take a look at the best French footballers to have appeared in the PL. Style, sophistication and je ne sais quoi, here we come!
Thierry Henry – 258 Appearances, 175 Goals, 74 Assists
We are somewhat copping out by painting this list as one of those mildly irritating “no particular order” jobs. But Henry is the first player that came to mind, the first on our list and boasts both incredible stats and a game that was the epitome (French word) of Gallic style, grace and beauty. So draw your own conclusions.
Henry was signed from Juventus by Arsene Wenger, who had managed him at Monaco, for £11m. Then a winger, or even wingback, Wenger converted Henry into a striker, albeit one that often took up positions on the wings. He would drift in from the left to open himself up and curl a shot into the far corner with his right foot – the classic Henry goal! He would go on to claim 123 caps for France, scoring 51 goals and was both a great goalscorer and a scorer of great goals.
He was twice named Premier League Player of the Season and won the Golden Boot four times too. He won the Premier League twice and went on to win the Champions League with Barcelona, as well as the 1998 World Cup with France. He was the runner-up for the 2003 Ballon d’Or, as well as twice taking the Silver Award in the FIFA Player of the Year.
Eric Cantona – 156 Appearances, 70 Goals, 50 Assists
Cantona was, like Henry, a player who combined impressive stats in the final third with great panache, joie de vivre and confidence. A highlights reel of his greatest Premier League goals and assists would run for some time and leave viewers spellbound.
The Marseille man won the old First Division with Leeds before a shock move to Man United. The Red Devils had not won the league for over a quarter of a century but he galvanised them and gave them the extra belief – and important goals – they needed. A legend at Old Trafford, he was – is – not so beloved in his native France, though he scored 20 times for his nation in 45 appearances.
King Eric, or just the King, to United fans, Cantona’s vision, skill, quick thinking and elegance, coupled with his strength and, in a good way, arrogant self-belief, made Cantona a player almost like no other. Often a controversial figure, he was named the PFA Players’ Player of the Year in 1993/94 and came third in the Ballon d’Or in 1993.
Patrick Vieira – 301 Appearances, 31 Goals, 34 Assists
Vieira was a very different player to the two names above but just as good. A dominant, world-class midfielder whose battles with Roy Keane were a joy to behold, Vieira was a World Cup winner who could do it all. Many may think of him simply as a tough-tackling, physical player, but he could pass, shoot and even beat a man, as well as being able to read the game superbly and offer excellent protection to Arsenal’s defence.
He won 107 caps for his nation, three league titles with Arsenal, and was also one of a small number of players to win the Italian title with both Milan clubs. Four FA Cups with Arsenal and one with Man City, as well as making the PFA PL Team of the Year in six consecutive seasons further illustrate what a winner he was.
Claude Makelele – 144 Appearances, 2 Goals, 4 Assists
Possibly the only French player in Premier League history to have a position named after him, Makelele made the Makelele role his own! A defensive holding player who seemed to be able to read the game better than anyone else, he made defending look cool. Sitting in front of the back four he made things so easy for those behind him and whilst he won fewer plaudits than he deserved, those in the game loved playing with him.
Makelele was brilliant in 2004/05 as Chelsea won the PL title, conceding a record-low 15 goals in 38 games. Of course the whole team contributed to that, but it would not have happened without the man who also won the league in Spain with Real Madrid and in France with Nantes. Makelele won 71 caps for his nation and helped them make the World Cup final in 2006.
There have been so many world-class French players in the Premier League over the years but we cannot detail them all. Here are some of the others who deserve recognition:
- Patrice Evra – Evra was a brilliant full-back and a leader on and off the pitch. Loved by Sir Alex Ferguson, he was fast, strong and good in attack but was an especially brilliant defender.
- Robert Pires – Pires played 79 times for France and helped them win the World Cup and Euros back-to-back in 1998 and 2000. Registered a goal involvement better than once every two games and had a stunning left foot.
- N’Golo Kante – Kante was a similar player to Makelele and he was key in Leicester’s incredible title success. Moved to Chelsea and won the PL with them as well, managers stated that the diminutive maestro was like having two players in midfield.
- Marcel Desailly – Desailly was a towering colossus at the back and another part of France’s 1998-2000 glory group. He won the UCL with Marseille and Milan and at Chelsea did enough to be included in the PL’s Team of the Decade.