Golden Games: The 50 greatest individual Premier League performances ranked

Golden Games: The 50 greatest individual Premier League performances ranked

In the breathless moments after the final whistle in the Premier League, a player is ushered into a makeshift interview suite, told he has been named the man of the match and invited to make grand, sweeping conclusions about the game and its significance.

After a particularly impressive individual display, the player might be asked: “Where does that rank?” — to which the default answer is “Yeah, no, it’s right up there.”

“Right up there” is a safe response because, truly, how can a player be expected to self-analyze so soon?

Players know when they have played well or played badly, but over the course of 90-plus minutes of physical exertion and intense focus, in and out of possession, alternately going on instinct and making split-second decisions under pressure, they are rather unlikely to have considered their performance in any wider context.

The question will always be asked, though, because when watching sport we love to quantify the unquantifiable. It is never enough to say you have witnessed a great performance. There is always the temptation to wonder and debate where it ranks.

All of which brings us to Golden Games, a series in which The Athletic writers will pay tribute to what we consider the 50 greatest individual performances of the Premier League era. (And before anyone says it, yes, we know very well that football existed long before 1992 but, given that this summer brings the 30th anniversary of that particular rebranding exercise, it feels an opportune moment for this.)

So… 30 seasons. Would you like to guess how many individual performances that adds up to? Well, let’s talk you through it.

From the historic opening weekend in August 1992 — when all but 13 of the 242 starters were from the British Isles and when all the hype about “A Whole New Ball Game” seemed terribly misplaced — to that dramatic, climactic Sunday afternoon last month, there have been 11,646 matches. Each match has had 22 players in the starting line-up, so that’s … yes, 256,212. And top of that there have been 53,737 run-outs as a substitute, so that makes…

Yes, that’s right. Well done to all of you who knew that precisely 309,949 appearances have been made in the Premier League by a total of 4,488 players.

No fewer than 653 of those appearances, spanning a 20-year period with Aston Villa, Manchester City, Everton and West Bromwich Albion, were made by Gareth Barry. That might sound like an awful lot until you realize that it is just 0.21 per cent of the total. You could throw Ryan Giggs (632 appearances), Frank Lampard (609), James Milner (588) and David James (572) into the mix and you would still be just short of one per cent of the total appearances made.


Will any of Gareth Barry’s 653 appearances make the final list? (Getty Pictures)

And here at The Athletic we’re looking to celebrate the top 50. That isn’t the top one per cent. That isn’t even the top 0.1 per cent. It’s the top 0.01613168618063 per cent. It’s like asking you to name the 50 best days of your life… if you lived to the age of 849.

But without wanting to give away too many spoilers, Ali Dia’s solitary appearance, that infamous cameo for Southampton against Leeds United in November 1996, didn’t make the top 50. Neither did Peter Enckelman’s nightmare for Aston Villa against Birmingham City in September 2002 or Jon Walters’ tough afternoon at the office (two own goals and a missed penalty) for Stoke City against Chelsea in January 2013. See? We’re three down already. We’ll be down to 50 in no time.

I’ll let you in on something. We didn’t actually put all 11,646 matches into consideration. We just spent weeks debating — and not just among ourselves — which performances over the course of the Premier League era stood out in our collective memories.

This isn’t just about the big names and the best players. We did that for our Premier League 60 series two years ago — and some of the arguments are only just beginning to quieten down.

Around half of the players who made that list appear in this one too, but there are some very notable absentees, along with a few others who are best remembered for one extraordinary performance — a day when “Where does that rank?” might actually have elicited a straightforward answer.

Of course, our selections are subjective. Newspapers have run player ratings for decades and in more recent times there have been many more sophisticated attempts to use data to measure individual performance, but, whether it is whoscored.com or the Sky Sports Power rankings (which respectively had Kevin De Bruyne and Son Heung-min as the best performer in the Premier League this season), no system is foolproof.

Cristiano Ronaldo, for example, was narrowly short of a perfect ten (9.7) when he scored a hat-trick for Manchester United against Norwich City in April, but was that really one of the great Premier League performances? Or was, say, his display away to Tottenham last October (one goal, one assist, a mother 8.5 on the whoscored.com scale) more impressive?

So this exercise was not data-driven — not least because data from the first two decades of the Premier League is so disappointingly scarce. Instead, we tapped into our memory banks, scoured the archives, debated endlessly and sought wider expertise to build a very, very long list of performances that was ultimately and arduously whittled down to 50.

As well as the beat reporters at the clubs we cover full-time, we sought the expertise of fans and writers from clubs like Barnsley, Blackpool, Bradford City, Oldham Athletic, Reading, Swindon Town and Wigan Athletic. If we couldn’t find room for, say, the goalkeeping heroics of Matt Clarke or a hat-trick from Jan Aage Fjortoft or Aruna Dindane, we wanted to make sure we did at least give them every consideration.

fjordoft


Fjortoft’s performance was among the hundreds (and hundreds (and hundreds))) considered (Getty Images)

We had just one ground rule. No player could feature more than once. So if, let’s say, a brilliant Belgian midfielder at a club in the north-west was already on our list for one spellbinding performance from 2017 and he then produced another in the final weeks of this season, it would have been a question of picking between those two displays. That particular player might end up featuring once (spoiler alert) but neither he nor anyone else is going to make it twice.

Instead, we have produced a list that we feel reflects the great and the good and, crucially, a few performances which proved exceptional in more ways than one.

Inevitably we found more room for feats of goalscoring and creative genius — and goalkeeping — than for understated excellence in other areas. (Seriously, you try persuading your colleagues of the merits of Billy Kenny’s performance in the first Merseyside derby of the Premier League era when it’s almost 30 years since you watched it in a teenage, drunken haze and when, deep down, try as you might, all you can really remember is a couple of crunching tackles.)

But we have insisted on a variety, so that it isn’t just a case of recalling one hat-trick after another. We have also been careful to ensure a sensitive spread. Some seasons don’t feature at all, but the early years of the Premier League feature prominently; in fact, at the time of writing (because you can never rule out a last-minute change with these things), I’m delighted to tell you that no season features more frequently than 1993-94.

Some of you might be annoyed or bewildered that a certain performance or a certain player — or even a certain club — doesn’t feature.

Please don’t be. It’s not intended as a definitive list. It’s a bit of fun, designed to give our readers something more to enjoy during the gap between one Premier League season and another. (To give our writers something to write about over the summer, you mean? How dare you. There is always plenty going on. This is just another offering.)

As with the Premier League 60 series, we hope you’ll enjoy the content rather than worry unduly about the rankings or any perceived slights on your favorite player or club.

It is inevitable that some clubs feature more than others (and some not at all), but there is a wide range of players, a wide range of personalities and a wide range of stories behind the performances. And sometimes the context, the circumstances and the backstory will allow us to see a player’s contribution in a very different light.

In some cases, where the facility allows, we will use Wyscout to evaluate the performance and analyze it in painstaking detail. In other cases we might look at it through the eyes of his opponents.

And, where possible, we will get some insight from the players themselves — and perhaps now, decades on in some cases, they will be able to recall through the mists of time that the performance in question really was right up there. Right up in the top 0.01613168618063 per cent.

(Main graphic — photos: Getty Images/design: Sam Richardson)


We will thread every article in this series here, as well as publishing them on the app.

No 50: Jamie Vardy for Leicester v Manchester United

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