Some of the world’s best players were snapped up for a tiny fee; others cost a small fortune. But which do we think are the top moves, via position, a club has made since 2000?
In the second of our two-part series we explore some of the best attacking transfers to have happened across Europe in the past two decades. Sorry Steven Gerrard, Lionel Messi and Harry Kane, no homegrown players allowed. Transfers only.
Players will be judged on the number of trophies they accrued at their club, as well as number of appearances, while their place in the ranking will also be decided by how much their club spent to sign them. It’s only fair that a free transfer who has 500 appearances and wins you 15 trophies is better than a £50 million player who spent two seasons there to win three, after all.
Of course it’s not all mathematical. There’s an X-factor too and we’ve asked some of our ESPN correspondents for their input. PLUS: Be sure to check out the first part of the series, on defensive signings, published on Tuesday.
*All transfer fees and appearance data taken from Transfermarkt, those with an asterisk are calculation by fixed exchange rate. Total trophies won is at the club mentioned, not overall.
10. JAY-JAY OKOCHA
PSG to Bolton, 2002
Signed for: Free Sold for: Free to Qatar SC
Appearances: 141 Trophies won: 0
Every list needs a wildcard and despite not winning any trophies with Bolton, Okocha is ours. Not many players move from Paris to Bolton, after all. The Nigerian midfielder was 28, full of skill and trickery, and formed a brilliant partnership with France World Cup winner Youri Djorkaeff. He lead them to a League Cup final in 2004 and a barely believable sixth place (and a spot in the UEFA Cup) the following season.
9. DELE ALLI
MK Dons to Tottenham, 2015
Signed for: £5.9m Sold for: N/A
Appearances: 222 Trophies won: 0
It was a close run thing with former teammate Christian Eriksen for his place on this list, but if you look at Alli’s rise to prominence over the past five years, it seems incredible that he only cost £5m. His 62 goals and cheeky celebrations make him a standout player.
8. WESLEY SNEIJDER
Real Madrid to Inter Milan, 2009
Signed for: €15m Sold for: €7.5m to Galatasaray
Appearances: 116 Trophies won: 6
Things didn’t really work out for Sneijder at Real Madrid, but Inter Milan certainly reaped the rewards. Signing a world-class midfielder for a relative pittance, Inter won the Treble under Jose Mourinho in his first season. Injury contributed to his decline over the next few years, but his early impact at the club was impressive.
7. PHILIPPE COUTINHO
Inter Milan to Liverpool, 2013
Signed for: €13m Sold for: €145m to Barcelona
Appearances: 201 Trophies won: 0
Things haven’t worked out for Coutinho at Barcelona, but there’s a reason he cost £142m when Liverpool sold him in 2018. The Brazilian was a real star at Anfield and his sale gave the club the money to reinvest in players like Virgil van Dijk and Alisson who turned them into Premier League title winners.
6. PAUL POGBA
Man United to Juventus, 2012
Signed for: €1m Sold for: €105m
Appearances: 178 Trophies won: 8
Was allowing Pogba to leave in the first place Sir Alex Ferguson’s biggest mistake as a manager? It certainly cost United, as they later paid a then-world record fee to bring the Frenchman back to the club just four years later. Finding plenty of success in Italy, Pogba made himself into one of the world’s best midfielders at Juve.
Sao Paulo to Milan, 2003
Signed for: €8.5m Sold for: €67m
Appearances: 307 Trophies won: 5
Plucking one of the world’s best-ever players from the Brazilian league, Milan owner Silvio Berlusconi described his fee as “peanuts.” Indeed it was, as Kaka brought a Scudetto in 2004 then Champions League in 2007 — alongside a host of personal awards including the Ballon d’Or and FIFA World Player of the Year.
4. KEVIN DE BRUYNE
Wolfsburg to Man City, 2015
Signed for: €76m Sold for: N/A
Appearances: 222 Trophies won: 8
Arguably the best midfielder in the world today, De Bruyne had to overcome the failure of his 2012 move to Chelsea to get his career back on track. His development in Germany and at Man City since then has been nothing short of sensational. City had to pay a lot for his services, but it has been well worth it.
3. LUKA MODRIC
Tottenham to Real Madrid, 2012
Signed for: €35m Sold for: N/A
Appearances: 343 Trophies won: 17
OK, it’s Modric who gets the spot, but a hat tip to teammate Toni Kroos who has 278 appearances, 13 trophies and cost €30m when he joined from Bayern Munich in 2014. Modric was a more established talent when he moved from Tottenham and proved himself as one of the best in the world with his 2018 World Cup performances for Croatia. Kroos has a World Cup winner’s medal, but Modric broke the Lionel Messi/Cristiano Ronaldo hegemony to win the Ballon d’Or and that has to count for something.
2. ZINEDINE ZIDANE
Juventus to Real Madrid, 2001
Signed for: €77.5m* Sold for: N/A
Appearances: 227 Trophies won: 6
A then-world record of 150 billion Italian lire brought Zidane to the Galacticos from Juventus. His five seasons at the club saw plenty of silverware, but it was the grandeur of the signing that helped turn Real Madrid into the club they are today. A true legend, his first managerial spell saw them land three straight Champions League crowns and his second ensured another La Liga title this season.
1. FRANK LAMPARD
West Ham to Chelsea, 2001
Signed for: £14.4m Sold for: Free to Man City
Appearances: 648 Trophies won: 13
How can you argue with a guy who has over 600 appearances and broke his club’s goal-scoring record (211) from midfield! Oh, and he only cost £11m too. Lampard won it all at Chelsea and has now gone on to become manager at Stamford Bridge. It was weird seeing him as a Man City player at the end of his career, before he moved to MLS with NYCFC, and even there he managed to score eight goals in 38 games.
Julien Laurens and Gab Marcotti react to Cristiano Ronaldo’s agent reportedly exploring interest in the star.
10. LUIS FIGO
Barcelona to Real Madrid, 2000
Signed for: €60m* Sold for: Free to Inter
Appearances: 245 Trophies won: 7
One of the most controversial transfers in history, Figo opted to move to Barcelona’s great rivals and had a pig’s head thrown at him for his trouble. His was another statement signing, a year before Zidane, and helped Florentino Perez win the presidential election. Things could have been very different now if he hadn’t moved.
9. PAVEL NEDVED
Lazio to Juventus, 2001
Signed for: €45m* Sold for: N/A
Appearances: 327 Trophies won: 5
Continuing our early 2000s theme for a bit, Nedved was Zidane’s replacement in Turin and became a club legend. He would have had more Serie A titles, but they were revoked after the Calciopoli match-fixing scandal and he stayed at Juve when they were relegated to Serie B as a result. Now a vice-chairman at Juve, his association with the club has only grown over the years.
8. MOHAMED SALAH
Roma to Liverpool, 2017
Signed for: €42m Sold for: N/A
Appearances: 152 Trophies won: 4
Like De Bruyne, Salah is another who had to put a disappointing spell at Chelsea behind him (you have to wonder what Jose Mourinho was thinking). Now one of the world’s best, he found his form at Roma and improved even further at Liverpool, scoring 94 goals in three seasons to turn the club into trophy winners.
PSG to Barcelona, 2003
Signed for: €32.25m Sold for: €24.15m to Milan
Appearances: 207 Trophies won: 5
One of the best players ever, Ronaldinho was almost unstoppable with the ball at his feet. Only the second-ever Barca player (after Diego Maradona) to get a standing ovation at Real Madrid’s stadium, the Brazilian won plenty during his five-year spell. They even managed to recoup a sizeable chunk of that fee when selling the former FIFA World Player of the Year (2004, 2005) to Milan.
6. ARJEN ROBBEN
Real Madrid to Bayern, 2007
Signed for: €25m Sold for: Free to Groningen
Appearances: 309 Trophies won: 20
Another player who, in hindsight, Real Madrid may have regretted letting go. Robben made his name at Chelsea, struggled in Madrid and exploded into life again (all while cutting inside from the right flank onto his left foot) at Bayern. Trophies galore followed, with Franck Ribery a valuable asset on the opposite flank.
5. RAHEEM STERLING
Liverpool to Man City, 2015
Signed for: £57.3m Sold for: N/A
Appearances: 243 Trophies won: 7
A controversial transfer at the time, with plenty of bad blood, but City got themselves a superstar when Sterling arrived from Liverpool. Still only 25, he has a lot more to give and will add plenty to his current 100-goal tally over the next few years.
4. EDEN HAZARD
Lille to Chelsea, 2012
Signed for: €35m Sold for: €115m to Real Madrid
Appearances: 352 Trophies won: 6
Hazard was a stunning signing for Chelsea and rightfully deserves his place among the best players the Premier League has ever seen. The Belgian winger helped the Blues to two Premier League and two Europa League crowns before finally getting his €100m “dream” move to Madrid… where things have turned a bit sour.
3. DAVID SILVA
Valencia to Man City, 2010
Signed for: €28.75m Sold for: Free to Real Sociedad.
Appearances: 436 Trophies won: 14
If there’s one player, not called Vincent Kompany, who has embodied Man City’s rise over the past decade it’s Silva. A class act on the ball, the Spaniard has been a key cog in the City attack even getting better with age. Proof that you don’t have to pay through the nose to get a world-class player.
Santos to Barcelona, 2013
Signed for: €88.2m Sold for: €222m to PSG
Appearances: 186 Trophies won: 8
The world’s most expensive player by some distance, Neymar’s various transfers have been shrouded in mystery, controversy and downright confusion. Barcelona landed themselves in court after signing him from Santos, then took the player and PSG to court when the French club paid his buyout clause of €222m (which was meant to be prohibitive) in 2017.
It was all very messy, but on the pitch, the Brazilian forward made Barcelona into world beaters as part of the MSN (Messi, Suarez, Neymar) trio. He may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but he brought trophies to Camp Nou when wearing the shirt and a massive profit to the club when he left. You can’t ask for much more.
1. CRISTIANO RONALDO
Sporting to Man United, 2003
Signed for: €19m Sold for: €94m to Real Madrid
Appearances: 292 Trophies won: 9
Except with this guy. We’re going to cheat a little bit here. Obviously Ronaldo to Man United is No. 1, but this is a two-for-the-price-of-one deal, and we’re going to take into account his move to Real Madrid too.
In total, he netted 118 goals in 292 appearances for Man United and his then-world record £80m fee to Real Madrid netted them an incredible profit in 2009. United deserve credit for developing him, but he really blossomed in Spain where he bagged 15 trophies and a barely believable 450 goals in 438 appearances for Real.
What’s truly astonishing about his exit from Real is that they actually made a profit when they sold him to Juventus for €100m at the age of 33. The man is a goal-scoring colossus.
Robert Lewandowski explains why the next title is always harder than the previous for Bayern Munich.
10. JAMIE VARDY
Fleetwood Town to Leicester, 2012
Signed for: £1m Sold for: N/A
Appearances: 310 Trophies won: 2
In case you didn’t realise this, the guy who helped Leicester to that incredible Premier League triumph in 2015-16 and won the Golden Boot last season was signed from a non-league club. Yes, Vardy scored 34 goals to help Fleetwood win promotion to the Football League in 2012 at the age of 25 and Leicester liked what they saw. That’s just good scouting.
9. RUUD VAN NISTELROOY
PSV to Man United, 2001
Signed for: €28.5m Sold for: €15m to Real Madrid
Appearances: 219 Trophies won: 4
One of the greatest strikers to have played in England, Van Nistelrooy bagged 130 goals for United, leaving the club to wonder what could have been if he hadn’t ruptured his anterior cruciate knee ligament during a PSV training session and had to delay his move to United by a year. It feels like he deserves to have won more at the club, given his impact.
8. LUIS SUAREZ
Ajax to Liverpool, 2010
Signed for: €26.5m Sold for: €81.7m to Barcelona
Appearances: 133 Trophies won: 1
Putting a Liverpool striker above a Man United rival is going to be popular, or unpopular… yes, Van Nistelrooy won more and played more, and Suarez’s 82 goals don’t match up either. But Liverpool made a massive profit on the Uruguayan when they sold him to Barcelona, allowing them to rebuild by signing Roberto Firmino (OK, and Christian Benteke) the following season.
7. SAMUEL ETO’O
Barcelona to Inter Milan, 2009
Signed for: €20m Sold for: €27m to Anzhi Makhachkala
Appearances: 102 Trophies won: 6
The Cameroon striker was part of a complex €66m deal to bring Zlatan Ibrahimovic to Barcelona, so technically Inter signed Eto’o for €20m, made €46m profit and got Aleksandr Hleb on loan too. Eto’o won more trophies at Barca (8) but his impact in Italy was certainly greater than Zlatan’s at Camp Nou. And the fact he came off better in the biggest swap deal in history cements his place on this list.
6. ZLATAN IBRAHIMOVIC
Milan to PSG, 2012
Signed for: €20m Sold for: Free to Man United
Appearances: 180 Trophies won: 12
Ibrahimovic has been at so many clubs and won so many trophies that you’d think it would be hard to pick his best move. It’s not. PSG landed him for an incredibly cheap fee and he went on to become PSG’s all-time leading scorer at the time with 156 goals — though he has since been surpassed by Edinson Cavani.
Cavani himself is unlucky to miss out on this list but was a €64m signing from Napoli who will always be compared to Zlatan. The Uruguayan scored 200 goals in 301 appearances but it always felt he was in the shadow of the charismatic Swede, so there he shall remain.
5. DIDIER DROGBA
Marseille to Chelsea, 2004
Signed for: €38.5m Sold for: Free to Shanghai Shenhua
Appearances: 381 Trophies won: 14
Drogba scored 157 goals in his first eight-year spell at Chelsea, and seven more in his one-year return to become the club’s fourth all-time highest scorer. He was also one of the major signings who made sure Chelsea’s newfound wealth ended with trophies in the cabinet. He was relentless in his pursuit of goals and his combative style of play seemed to suit Jose Mourinho perfectly.
4. WAYNE ROONEY
Everton to Man United, 2004
Signed for: £33.3m Sold for: Free to Everton
Appearances: 559 Trophies won: 16
Now it gets tough. The world’s most eye-catching teenager back in 2004, United pounced to sign him from Everton and he rewarded that faith with a 13-year spell that saw him score a club record 253 goals. Rooney’s 208 goals in the Premier League make him the league’s second-highest goal scorer of all time (behind Alan Shearer), but he also created them and is third on the all-time assists list, too, with 103.
3. KARIM BENZEMA
Lyon to Real Madrid, 2009
Signed for: €35m Sold for: N/A
Appearances: 513 Trophies won: 18
Benzema gets in ahead of Rooney by virtue of the fact he has won more trophies and scored more goals (249) in fewer appearances. And he’s done that while playing in the shadow of Cristiano Ronaldo for most of his career. He may not get the credit or respect he deserves, but the Frenchman is a force to be reckoned with and Real Madrid wouldn’t be where they are today without him.
2. SERGIO AGUERO
Atletico Madrid to Man City, 2011
Signed for: €40m Sold for: N/A
Appearances: 370 Trophies won: 13
Arguably the best signing in the Premier League (though perhaps Lampard pips him), Aguero’s scoring rate for his 254 goals places him head and shoulders above his peers. At 32, he’s still scoring (he had 16 in the league during an injury-hit season) and who can ever forget his impact to seal Man City’s first Premier League title in 2012?
1. ROBERT LEWANDOWSKI
Dortmund to Bayern, 2014
Signed for: Free from Dortmund Sold for: N/A
Appearances: 289 Trophies won: 13
Quite simply the best transfer ever. His 103 goals in 187 games during three years at Dortmund showed that he had skills, but then Bayern snapped him up for nothing when his contract expired. Since then, the Poland striker has 246 goals in 289 games, trophies galore and a reputation as one of the best around. If only the Ballon d’Or hadn’t been cancelled this year, he could have had a real shot at the kind of personal honour that has thus far eluded him.