Who Are the English Premier League's Best-Ever French Imports?

Jonathan JohnsonFeatured ColumnistMarch 5, 2013

Who Are the English Premier League's Best-Ever French Imports?

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    Where to start on a topic like this?

    Over the years, France has provided the English Premier League with so many top talents, it is almost impossible to single out the 11 best and put them into a lineup.

    One thing that is beyond reproach, though, is that amongst this list of talents are some of the greatest players ever to have graced the English top-flight.

    From Arsene Wenger’s French-influenced Invincibles era to Alan Pardew’s second coming of the French revolution, they are all here.

    So here is a list of the 11 best French players in my opinion, followed by a list of those who could—and possibly should—have made it.

    Bon appetit!

Eric Cantona

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    Eric Cantona’s time in England was a combination of sublime football, baffling quotes and explosive moments of madness.

    The former won out though, and since he departed in 1997, the memories of the genius Frenchman have been of his on-field exploits rather than his off-field antics.

    A four-time Premier League and two-time FA Cup winner with Manchester United, Cantona is to this day one of Sir Alex Ferguson’s best signings as United coach.

    The Frenchman makes the top of this list as the most iconic French player to ever play in the Premier League. A benchmark for all those who came after him.

Thierry Henry

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    A close second to Cantona is Thierry Henry. The former Monaco and Juventus man arrived at Highbury relatively unheralded after a quiet spell in Italy, but he left the Emirates as a legend.

    In his time in the Premier League, Henry captured the imagination of English football with exquisite goals and sublime skill. He also led Arsene Wenger’s Gunners side of the early 2000s to back-to-back titles, including the Invincibles season, and three FA Cup triumphs, as well as a Champions League final.

    That is not to mention the plethora of individual accolades he enjoyed as one of the classiest players to ever grace the EPL, as he enthralled pundits, writers and fans alike.

    His achievements with the French national team matched his domestic exploits, with Henry joining the club a 1998 World Cup winner and leaving a Euro 2000 champion .

    A true legend of Premier League football, Henry thoroughly deserves his place in this list.

Patrick Vieira

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    Alongside Henry, Patrick Vieira was instrumental to Arsenal’s success between the mid-1990s and early 2000s.

    An inspirational leader on the pitch for both club and country, Vieira was one of the fulcrums of Wenger’s superb Gunners side.

    His control of the midfield was brilliant. A player who demonstrated a rare blend of power, speed, technical ability and leadership, Vieira is perhaps one of the greatest midfielders ever seen in the Premier League.

    A three-time League and four-time FA Cup winner, he also won the World Cup and European Championships in his time at Highbury and the Emirates.

    Wenger’s first signing as Arsenal coach, he was present alongside his mentor for every piece of silverware he has won in charge of the club.

    On reflection, Vieira was a bargain at £3.5 million. He has become one of the all-time greats in Premier League history and showcases a compilation of great French talent.

David Ginola

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    "Because I’m worth it," David Ginola purred in an advert for L’Oreal. Whilst it may have been cringeworthy for everyone watching, few can dispute that when he took the field for Newcastle United or Tottenham Hotspur, he was not “worth it."

    One of the most gifted players to ever play Premier League football, Ginola’s transfer from Paris Saint-Germain in 1995 coincided with the Magpies' transformation into title contenders, and for the next five years, he was a Premier League superstar.

    Criminally, he only won a single League Cup with Spurs in his entire time in the EPL, having won four trophies in the space of three years with PSG. However, he did win a string of individual awards, as his talent was not fully recognised in terms of silverware for club and even less for country.

    But it is Ginola’s sublime skills, breath-taking dribbling and gloriously confident off-field activities that played on his good looks that we will remember him for.

Robert Pires

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    Another member of Arsene Wenger’s star-studded Arsenal side of the early 2000s, Robert Pires spent six eventful years at Highbury and became one of the most instantly recognisable figures of the all-conquering Gunners side.

    Classy and capable of brilliance despite a slow start to life with the club, Pires grew into a fan favourite and went on to enjoy plenty of success with Wenger’s side.

    He, like Henry, was a two-time League winner, a three-time FA Cup winner and a Champions League runner-up. But despite leaving under a cloud following his early substitution in the 2006 Champions League final, his final game for the club, he remains a club legend.

    A player of rare quality, his ingenuity captured the admiration of his peers and writers, and Pires was widely recognised with a number of individual awards.

Claude Makelele

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    So good that they named a position after him.

    Between 2003 and 2008, Claude Makelele was the heart of the Chelsea side that rose to prominence in the Premier League.

    Signed by Claudio Ranieri, but arguably at his best under Jose Mourinho, the French international helped forge the Blues’ reputation as Premier League heavyweights following the arrival of owner Roman Abramovich.

    He left having won two Premier League, one FA Cup and two League Cup titles in his time at Stamford Bridge. 

Nicolas Anelka

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    Holder of the dubious title of the second-most expensive player of all time in accumulated transfer fees, Anelka had plenty of ups and downs during his time in the Premier League.

    Having played for Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester City, Bolton and Chelsea in a somewhat nomadic career, Anelka still managed to win the League title with two different clubs and the FA Cup three times.

    A frustrating player at times, but with positively lethal goals in his day, Anelka was vital for both Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal side that won the title in 1998 and, more recently, Carlo Ancelotti’s Chelsea side that won the League and FA Cup double in 2010.

Marcel Desailly

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    Following France’s 1998 World Cup triumph on home soil, Chelsea signed centre-back-cum-defensive midfielder Marcel Desailly, who saw red in the Stade de France final in Paris.

    Forming a strong centre-back partnership with Franck Leboeuf, Desailly was the Blues’ captain until 2004.

    Although he won only one title with the club, a 2000 FA Cup triumph over Aston Villa, the Ghana-born French international was one of France’s best Premier League exports.

Emmanuel Petit

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    Emmanuel Petit, alongside Patrick Vieira, formed one of the Premier League’s best midfield partnerships in history and was one of the cornerstones of Arsene Wenger’s highly successful, French-infused Gunners side.

    Petit and Vieira functioned superbly together in their three years at Highbury, and the French international won the Premier League and FA Cup, as well as the World Cup and European championships, before departing for Barcelona.

    He later enjoyed a spell with Chelsea but won nothing of note there.

Patrice Evra

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    Manchester United’s flying left-back is still playing but deserves his place in this list by virtue of the sheer number of trophies he has lifted with the club since his arrival in 2006.

    Four League titles, three League Cups and one Champions League title are an impressive haul for 31-year-old Evra, who is not yet finished on the biggest stage.

William Gallas

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    Gallas is another Frenchman still active in the Premier League, now with Spurs after spells with Chelsea and Arsenal.

    The 35-year-old has played in England for the past 12 years and, in his time with Chelsea, won the League title twice and the League Cup once. 

Honourable Mentions

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    A number of fantastic players didn’t make it onto the list, but that does not mean that they were not in contention.

    The likes of Arsenal striker Sylvain Wiltord, Chelsea defender Franck Leboeuf and Manchester United’s erratic goalkeeper Fabien Barthez are some of the first that spring to mind.

    Less remembered but equally appreciated are Birmingham City’s mercurial talent Christophe Dugarry, Bolton’s flamboyant but classy attacker Youri Djorkaeff and Olivier Dacourt, who bossed the midfield for Leeds between 2000-2003.

    There is also Laurent Robert and Didier Deschamps, who played for Chelsea at the time of his Euro 2000 triumph, also winning the FA Cup.

    Current players include Manchester City’s Samir Nasri and Gael Clichy and Newcastle’s Hatem Ben Arfa.

    Perhaps the Magpies’ new generation of Moussa Sissoko and Yohan Cabaye are some of the next names to make the list.