Sergio Aguero started it, really. Standing on the Eithad pitch, holding his commemorative blue glass boot, details of every record-breaking goal for Manchester City inscribed on the plinth.
It gets a person thinking. Where would he sit, amid the greatest foreign players to join our Premier League? The best from his continent, that is for sure.
It is hard to think of a finer visitor from South America, not even among the Brazilians. But what if we were to whittle it down to, say, five? Just a handful of names across more than a quarter of a century.
Would he make that list, would he survive such an exacting cut? So many to choose from. An entire XI could be picked from, say, Chelsea alone. Petr Cech, Branislav Ivanovic, Ricardo Carvalho, Marcel Desailly, Cesar Azpilicueta, Claude Makelele, N’Golo Kante, Eden Hazard, Gianfranco Zola, Arjen Robben, Didier Drogba. And still no room for Diego Costa, Michael Essien, Michael Ballack — or Ruud Gullit.
The problem with any exercise of this nature, even for fun, is who to leave out. Cheating is an option, obviously, expanding it to 10, fitting in all the greats. But who wants a list without tough decisions or surprises? It is the selection process that is key, really. The criteria used to make the final call.
I might as well tell you now. Thierry Henry is not in my list. I know. I’m pretty angry about it, too. I’m thinking of writing myself a strongly-worded letter on the subject right now. What was I thinking? Well, I know what I was thinking. At least hear me out.
Were the Premier League’s top five foreign players based on aesthetic qualities alone, Henry would walk it. He epitomises the beautiful game. He is not missing because there were flaws or failures, I am not about to pick holes in the career of one of the finest footballers of the modern era.
Henry scored 30 goals or more in five consecutive seasons for Arsenal. He was Footballer of the Year three times. His technique was out of this world, his poise sublime, his game intelligence gave him an extra yard, as if any were needed. I loved watching Henry. I wouldn’t trust a soul who didn’t.
But here is why he is absent. This list needs a deciding factor. There is too much talent, too much greatness to make it just about the player alone. This is the clincher: I want revolutionaries. I want players who were the pioneers; who changed the culture at their club; who made such a difference here the game wasn’t the same again.
And Henry wasn’t there for the first stage of Arsene Wenger’s transformation of Arsenal. He wasn’t around for the Double in 1997-98, when Wenger became the first foreign coach to win an English league title. Henry joined when Arsenal were already a force. And, yes, he made them even stronger, even smarter, even better to watch.
Yes, he was an Invincible. But so were others who were there for the whole ride. So I’ve gone with one of them. I feel guilty about Luis Suarez, too. He nearly won the league on his own. But that is the criteria: those who changed the game, not just the 90 minutes. And there is a fairly obvious place to start.
5. ERIC CANTONA
Transformed Manchester United. People forget the club Cantona joined. United had handed the title to Leeds the previous season and were eighth in the league.
They had won two games in 13 and scored nine goals across that spell. Dion Dublin, the striker signed in the summer had broken a leg. United failed in moves for Alan Shearer and David Hirst and were considering an offer for Mick Harford.
When Leeds called about signing Denis Irwin, the first player United enquired after was Lee Chapman. It was Ferguson who, in a moment of inspiration, switched to Cantona. He later described him as ‘the can opener’ because, through Cantona, United’s players achieved ever greater levels of performance.
Cantona’s insistence on extra training each day influenced his new team-mates, and the treble-winning generation of Manchester United’s youngsters, too. ‘He opened my eyes to the indispensability of practice,’ said Ferguson. ‘We were in awe of him,’ echoed Gary Neville.
4. SERGIO AGUERO
Transformed Manchester City. It is not just that he gave the Premier League its defining moment in his first season; or that he was even faster to 100 goals than Shearer; or has the best goals-to-minute ratio of any player in this modern era. It was Aguero’s arrival that propelled his club into the elite. City won their first league title in 44 years on goal difference, his goal difference.
Yes, one could argue that Yaya Toure was as influential in the creation of the modern Manchester City, but Aguero is now spanning two eras in a way Toure will not.
His award before Sunday’s game with Arsenal was far from the ceremonial marking of a fading talent. Aguero is a vibrant part of Pep Guardiola’s great leap forward, preferred on occasions to the younger Gabriel Jesus, the player it was thought would replace him. No sign of that yet, as the records continue to fall.
3. N’GOLO KANTE
Transformed the sense of possibility at every small club in the country. It would be wrong to say, looking at the last two seasons, that Kante changed Leicester. There are limitations to even his endurance. What he did, though, is altered all perception of what could be achieved.
Leicester’s title win in 2015-16 is the greatest in the history of English football. It would not have been possible without Kante’s tireless commitment across 37 of 38 games in the heart of midfield.
He then went to Chelsea, who had finished 10th the previous season, played 35 times and won the league there, too. No player in 129 years of English football has won back to back titles, with different clubs, playing a full season for each.
Kante’s achievement stretches far beyond the Premier League era and what he did with Leicester resonated around the world. There are many players prettier to watch but few that have been as influential.
2. DENNIS BERGKAMP
Transformed Arsenal. Yes, so did Henry in his time. Even more so, it could be claimed, so did Patrick Vieira. Yet Bergkamp is acknowledged as the catalyst for some of the greatest football this country has witnessed, the best hat-trick the Premier League has seen — against Leicester, in 1997 — and there is barely a team-mate who does not attest to his supremacy.
Henry insists he is Arsenal’s greatest player, Nigel Winterburn says he was the finest he played with. ‘If Thierry says Bergkamp was the best, that sort of sums it up,’ admits Lee Dixon.
Bob Wilson, who knows Arsenal as well as anyone, claims Bergkamp, more than any other Arsenal player, was the summation of Wenger’s philosophy. ‘He epitomised everything Arsene goes to bed thinking about, and wakes up thinking about,’ he said.
This might explain why Wenger is cheerful in the morning. Dig out that hat-trick against Leicester and you will be, too.
1. CRISTIANO RONALDO
Transformed it all: the league, its perception, individual goal totals, you name it. It wasn’t even what Ronaldo did at Manchester United, specifically, it was his impact on the way the Premier League was viewed around the world. As, very briefly, the best.
Season 2007-08, the campaign in which Ronaldo scored 42 goals from wide, was the year when only English clubs eliminated English clubs from the Champions League.
Liverpool beat Arsenal in the quarter-final, Chelsea beat Liverpool in the semi-final, Manchester United beat Chelsea in the final.
Ronaldo was at the pinnacle of it all. He scored a goal every 88.6 minutes, he beat a record held by George Best, he won the league and Champions League, redefined what could be expected of a forward and was voted World Player of the Year. And he was 23. There has never been anyone quite like him.