Premier League’s Top 7 Bargain Imports

With the transfer window underway Premier League clubs are searching the globe for new signings. Managers say it’s tough to get a good deal shopping on English shores, so were seeing more and more foreign players coming in. There’s been many big money signings that have had a huge impact on English football – think van Nistelrooy, Drogba and Ozil. But what of the cheaper foreign imports? Who has been the best value for money since the inception of the Premier League? Read on to see the top 7 foreign signings under £5 million.

7 – Robin van Persie –  May 2004 – Feyenoord to Arsenal – £2.75 million

   Robin van Persie arrived at Arsenal six months after then record signing Jose Antonio Reyes, and it can certainly be said he was the better value for money. He won two trophies in his first year with the club – making his debut in the Community Shield victory over Manchester United. Van Persie played on the left wing at previous club Feyenoord, though – a la Thierry Henry – was successfully converted into a top class striker by Wenger. He wore the Arsenal colours for 8 years, and scored 30 goals in his final season for the club. A barren trophy run of 7 years led van Persie to leave the Gunners and join rivals United for £24 million – not a bad profit.

A younger Robin van Persie in his Arsenal days

6 – Cesc Fabregas – September 2003 – Barcelona to Arsenal – free transfer

   Wenger swooped to sign Fabregas on a free transfer when he was just 16, enraging Barcelona in the process. He had to wait just a month to make his debut, but when he did against Rotherham United in the League Cup he became the club’s youngest ever player. He’s also the club’s youngest scorer after netting in the following round against Wolves, though had to wait until the following season to make his Premier League debut. Fabregas only truly flourished after Patrick Vieira left to join Juventus, taking his number 4 shirt. He was part of the team that made it to the Champions League final in 2006, though they lost to his old club Barcelona. Several summers of transfer sagas and 303 appearances later Fabregas was back off to Barcelona, with Arsenal pocketing a tidy £35 million profit. He’s back in the Premier League this season with Chelsea, where it will be interesting to see how Mourinho uses him.

5 – Sami Hyypia – May 1999 – Willem II to Liverpool – £2.6 million

   Hyypia spent ten years at Liverpool, and in that time made 464 appearances whilst winning ten trophies in the process. Not much was expected of him when he signed, but over the course of the next six seasons he and fellow new boy Stephane Henchoz formed a defensive partnership that many regarded as the best in the league. Hyypia, a lifelong Liverpool fan, had his dreams fulfilled in 2002 when he was made captain, however performances dipped and he was replaced by Steven Gerrard in 2003. He was a rock in defence during their Champions League winning season of 2004/2005, but left the club four years later, having made it into the top twenty appearance makers for the club. Liverpool legend Ian Rush says Hyypia has ‘got to be up there with the best signings the club has ever made.’

Zola upon signing for Chelsea

4 – Gianfranco Zola – November 1996 – Parma to Chelsea – £4.5 million

   Zola was one of many continental signings made by Ruud Gullit during his tenure as Chelsea manager, and probably the most successful. Zola was a revelation in his first season with the club, scoring a 25 yard curling shot in the FA Cup final as Chelsea came from behind to beat Liverpool 4-2. He won several more trophies with the club, including another FA Cup and a UEFA Cup Winner’s Cup. Zola’s chances decreased when Claudio Ranieri was made manager with the mandate of reducing the average age of the squad, but he enjoyed a renaissance season in his final year with the club. Zola scored 16 goals as he led Chelsea back to Champions League, being voted the club’s player of the year in the process. Zola was considered a legend among Chelsea fans, and in early 2003 was voted the club’s best ever player. A fitting tribute.

3 – Ole Gunnar Solksjaer – July 1996 – Molde to Manchester United – £1.5 million

    The ‘babyfaced assassin’ as he came to be known was a summer signing from Norwegian club Molde, where he had scored 31 goals in one season. Solksjaer was expected to play second fiddle to Eric Cantona and Andy Cole in his first season, but he went on to score 18 goals as United won the Premier League. He’s most fondly remembered though for scoring that stoppage time winning goal against Bayern Munich in 1999, which secured his club the European Cup. He formed partnerships with several strikers during his 11 year stay with the Red Devils, and could always be relied on for his efficiency in scoring off the bench. The original supersub won 13 medals with United. Solkajaer’s now attempting to bring Cardiff back to the Premier League at the first attempt.

‘That’ Champions League winning goal, scored by super sub Solksjaer

2 – Patrick Vieira – August 1996 – AC Milan to Arsenal – £3.5 million

   Vieira has to go down as one of Wenger’s best ever signings for his contributions both on and off the pitch. Despite his disciplinary troubles Vieira was a firm fan favourite (‘he comes from Senegal, he plays for Arsenal…’ was a familiar chant from the stands) at the club he stayed with for 9 years. After Tony Adam’s retirement in 2002 he was made club captain, leading them to an FA Cup in his first season in the role. He seemed to be in an everlasting feud with Roy Keane, which was brilliant entertainment for the fans. Vieira was another Arsenal player who seemed to be part of a summer transfer saga every year. After rejecting Real Madrid in 2004 he joined Juventus a year later for £13.75 million. All in all Vieira made 406 appearances for the Gunners and will go down as a club legend.

1 – Peter Schmeichael – July 1991 – Brondby to Manchester United – £505,000

   Sir Alex Ferguson desribed Schmeichael as ‘bargain of the century’ in 2000, and thats why he’s number one. Though he was purchased a year before the Premier League began, Schmeichael was key to United’s domination of the league in the 90s. ‘The Great Dane’ as he came to be known won ‘World’s Best Goalkeeper’ in 1992 and 1993, after playing a huge part in Denmark’s European Championship win. He flourished at United, perfectly fitting Ferguson’s never say die attitude. In a UEFA Cup game in 1995 Schmeichael also scored that rarity for a keeper – a goal. United fans were familiar with the sight of him rushing up field whenever it was late in the game and a goal was needed. Schmeichael ended his career on a high with United, bowing out after the 1999 treble season, and he won 15 trophies in all at the club.

Peter Schmeichael at Manchester United

Arsenal need a striker – and fast

Arsenal sit atop the Premier League in the New Year for the first time since 2008, but the top 3 are separated by the smallest amount of points in the history of the Premier League. At the start of the season you would have said it would be impossible for them to compete with the financial superpowers that are Chelsea and Manchester City, despite the signing of Mesut Ozil for £42.5 million.

It is, however, going to be tough for Arsenal to keep their place at the top. Their squad is already stretched to the limit with injuries and the team still lacks a top quality striking presence. This lack of depth, particularly up front, is only highlighted by the recent injuries to both Theo Walcott and wantaway Nicklas Bendtner, as well as the inconsistent displays of Lukas Podolski when played as a striker.

Arsenal have one of the highest chance creation ratios in the league, but despite this number one frontman Olivier Giroud has managed to score a paltry eight times.  It has in fact, been the Gunner’s defence that has kept them at the top of the table. A feat in itself, if you consider the amount of criticism it has been subjected to in recent years.

What Arsenal need is a top class striker that can finish chances, a penalty box poacher. Recent reports have linked the club with Dimitar Berbatov, but Wenger was quick to rubbish those rumours, though he did admit the club were considering their options up front. Diego Costa has also been linked with the club, but it is highly unlikely Wenger would sanction spending 30 million plus in the January window, especially after Ozil’s record move at the end of August.

It’s far more likely Wenger would either swoop for someone with potential, or a player who has already proved themselves in Europe. An interesting young player – and somebody who Arsenal have been linked with by The Mirror – is Michy Batshuayi, who has scored 15 goals for Standard Liege this season. I believe it highly unlikely however that Wenger would move for another youngster after the signing of Yaya Sanogo in the summer, who before his leg break was one of the highest rated teens in France. A far more logical and likely move would be to sign someone with experience and versatility. One such player would be Alexandre Pato – who has impressed sporadically since moving back to Brazil with Corinthians.

People forget just how lethal Pato was during his first three years at AC Milan, and when he first came on the scene he was labelled as the next big thing in Brazil. In his final three years at the club, he suffered from injuries and lack of form, which could be attributed to being asked to play out on the right rather than his preferred position up front. Wenger has a history of taking strikers being played out of position in the Italian League and improving them – anyone remember Thierry Henry?

Pato would be the perfect signing for Arsenal. He has been injury free for the past 18 months and when fit has a proven record in Europe – another bonus. Roberto De Andrade, director of football at Corinthians, has also said Pato is available for transfer, as per Paulo Freitas of Sky Sports.

Pato would also fit perfectly into Arsenal’s style of play. His pace and finishing ability would perfectly complement the finesse and guile of Ozil, Cazorla and Ramsey behind him, and a forward trio of Walcott, Pato and Oxlade-Chamberlain would destroy teams with their pace on the break.

Reports have also linked Wenger with signing a centre back, though I believe this is highly unlikely unless Thomas Vermaelen were to leave in search of first team football. However, with Arsenal still in three competitions it’s likely the Belgium vice-captain will get a bit more playing time, particularly in the FA Cup, a competition Wenger has openly stated he wants to win.

Although Arsenal only have three senior centre halves at the club, Bacary Sagna filled in there with great effect for several games last season, and Carl Jenkinson is a more than adequate replacement at right back if injuries did force a reshuffle.

Despite the constant rumours surrounding the Emirates of more midfielders arriving at the club, I don’t see this as a possibility in January. About Diaby is returning in a couple of months (admittedly, for how long), and the club has plenty of strength in depth in the youth teams in this position. Keep an eye on German youth international Gedion Zelalem, who has drawn praise for several strong performances in youth matches and in the senior team’s summer tour of Asia.

Many point the finger at Wenger, saying he is reluctant to spend in winter transfer window. But is this really the case? There have been many examples in recent years of Wenger splashing the cash in January, be it to settle a player in ready for the next season, as in the case of the Jose Antonio Reyes and Walcott signings, or to give the extra impetus needed for a strong league finish, as the signing of Andrey Arshavin provided in February 2009. In fact, Wenger has twice broken the club’s transfer record in the winter window, firstly with Reyes and then again with Arshavin.

Wenger’s past dealings in the winter market show him to be a shrewd manager, who knows what his team need at any given time. In this case, it’s a top class striker to propel Arsenal over the finishing line. Sign one of those, and Arsenal are in with a real chance of claiming the Premier League for the first time since 2004.