In the inaugural 1992/1993 edition of the newly rebranded Premier League, almost 91% of players who made at least one appearance came from Britain or Ireland. Only one other country (Norway) had more than four representatives while France had just one! It is hard to imagine this now given how much of a melting pot of global footballing talent the Premier League has become.
Although Frenchmen were briefly a rare sight in the English top flight, it did not take long for the situation to change. By the 1996/97 season, there were nine active French representatives, increasing to 27 just three years later and rising further to 44 by the 2003/04 campaign. Needless to say, the Premier League has witnessed much talent over the years from a nation that has celebrated two World Cup wins and a European Championship in the Premier League era.
Among all this French talent, we have decided to highlight those that stood out the most from the crowd. So without further delay, here’s our pick for the five best French football players to have graced the Premier League.
5. Ngolo Kante
Position – Defensive Midfield
Clubs – Leicester City & Chelsea
Premier League Appearances – 227
Goals – 12
International Caps – 53
Awards – Premier League Winner 2015/16, 2016/17, PFA Team of the Year 2015/16, 2016/17, PFA Players’ Player of the Year 2016/17, Premier League Player of the Season 2016/17, FWA Football of the Year 2016/17
Registering 687 tackles, 507 interceptions and 217 clearances from his 227 Premier League matches, Ngolo Kante was a master at constantly snuffing out danger for his side. Despite this, he was something of an unknown quantity when signing for Leicester in 2015 for what would prove to be a bargain €8m deal. Very quickly though, pundits and fans began to recognise what an exceptional talent the diminutive midfielder was.
Seemingly immune from fatigue, Kante would cover every blade of grass and chase every ball until the final whistle. Without his ability to win back possession, break up opposition attacks, and distribute the ball effectively, Leicester would surely have never pulled off their shock title win. With Kante rightly deemed to be such a pivotal part in that incredible Foxes season, he secured a £32m move to Chelsea (plus a reported £10.6m in agent fees).
Even with the extra cost though Kante proved to be an exceptional buy as he continued to play to the same unbelievably standards witnessed at Leicester. Injuries did eventually begin to impact his game, as he spent a significant amount of time sidelined from the 2019/20 season onwards, but he will be remembered for his sensational prime years.
4. Robert Pires
Position – Left Midfield
Club – Arsenal
Premier League Appearances – 198
Goals – 62
International Caps – 79
Awards – Premier League Winner 2001/02, 2003/04, PFA Premier League Team of the Year 2001/02, 2002/03, 2003/04, FWA Footballer of the Year 2001/02
Arguably a little unrated by some but speak to any Arsenal fan who saw Pires during his prime years and they will all tell you what a gem he was. Incredibly intelligent on the ball, very two-footed and possessing some silky smooth dribbling, the wide midfielder was always a threat even when close to the touchline. The Reims-born man arrived in north London in 2000 following a £6m deal from Marseille where Arsenal had to fend off the likes of Real Madrid and Juventus.
Pires had large boots to fill at Highbury as he was purchased to replace Marc Overmars who left for Barcelona in the same summer. Pires quickly became a fan favourite though and he just as quickly formed a great three-way partnership with Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry. With a great footballing mind and the composure to match, it was almost inevitable that these three would prove to be such an incredible attacking trio.
3. Eric Cantona
Position – Forward
Clubs – Leeds Untied & Manchester United
Premier League Appearances – 156
Goals – 70
International Caps – 45
Awards – Premier League Winner 1992/93, 1993/94, 1995/96, 1996/97, PFA Premier League Team of the Year 1993/94, PFA Players’ Player of the Year 1993/94, FWA Footballer of the Year 1995/96
The Premier League’s first Frenchman, Eric Cantona, was quick to make headlines when moving from Leeds to fierce rivals Manchester United early on in the 1992/93 season. Once at Old Trafford though he played a key role in helping the club end their 26-year league title drought. Although his goalscoring record is solid, rather than spectacular, the mercurial Frenchman had so much more to his game than just goals.
With bags of creativity, skill and flair, Cantona regularly set up chances for teammates rather than being the one finishing them off. The Premier League credits him with 56 assists, more than one every three games, and there were numerous other times when he played a crucial role in the earlier build-up. Another real asset of the Frenchman, which is not often the case for players so technically gifted and skilful, is that he was a powerhouse too. Standing at muscular 6ft2in with pace to burn (at least in his younger days), Cantona had the option of dancing around defenders or simply brushing them to one side.
Many fans who did not see him play in the flesh may only know him from his infamous kung-fu kick directed at a mouthy Crystal Palace fan. While this certainly marked something of a low point in his career (he never played for France after this) and should not be forgotten, it should take nothing away from what a truly brilliant player Cantona was.
2. Patrick Viera
Position – Central Midfield
Clubs – Arsenal & Manchester City
Premier League Appearances – 307
Goals – 31
International Caps – 107
Awards – Premier League Winner 1997/98, 2001/02, 2003/04, PFA Premier League Team of the Year 1998/99, 1999/20, 2000/01, 2001/02, 2002/03, 2003/04, Premier League Player of the Season 2000/01
Although born in Senegal, Vieira moved to France when he was just eight years old and this helped his footballing talents get noticed early on. After various youth-level stints, he made a move to Cannes aged 17 before securing an exciting transfer to Italian giants AC Milan. This move did not work out though and after making a mere five appearances for the Rossoneri, the imposing midfielder moved to Arsenal in a deal worth just £3.5m. A big reason behind Vieira choosing north London was the arrival of a French-speaking manager, Arsene Wenger.
Virtually from the moment he stepped onto English soil, Vieria displayed an ability to dominate the midfield, win tackles, and distribute the ball effectively. He was just the physical, box-to-box midfielder that the Gunners had been crying out for and what an impact he had on the team. The season before his arrival the Gunners finished in fifth place, 19 points off top spot. With Vieira giving them a proper engine the following year though, they finished third and just seven points from top.
Having a midfielder who could do it all, whether it be hard tackles, driving forwards with the ball, defence-splitting passes, or shrugging off opposing players, proved to be such an asset to Arsenal. Vieria never shirked the big games either, in fact, he relished them. Forever dependable and the beating heart of the Gunners team, they would not have enjoyed as many league titles, nor the invincible season without him.
Vieira left the Premier League at the end of the 2004/05 season but after several years in Italy he returned in 2010 to play a season and a half for Man City. Although he still had something to offer, it was his formidable nine years at Arsenal that got him into the Premier League Hall of Fame.
1. Thierry Henry
Position – Forward
Club – Arsenal
Premier League Appearances – 258
Goals – 175
International Caps – 123
Awards – Premier League Winner 2001/02, 2003/04, PFA Premier League Team of the Year 2000/01, 2001/02, 2002/03, 2003/04, 2004/05, 2005/06, PFA Players’ Player of the Year 2002/03, 2003/04, PFA Fans’ Player of the Year 2002/03, 2003/04, Premier League Player of the Season 2003/04, 2005/06, Premier League Golden Boot 2001/02, 2003/04, 2004/05, 2005/06
No list of the best French players in Premier League history would be complete without Thierry Henry. The legendary striker is not only one of the greatest French players ever but also one of the finest footballers to ever grace the Premier League. Henry made his Premier League debut in 1999, and his impact was immediate with his blistering pace, silky dribbling, and clinical finishing proving a nightmare for defenders.
The number of accolades Henry collected for his Premier League performances largely speak for themselves but it cannot be stressed just how good the flying Frenchman was. One of his biggest talents was his ability to score all types of goals – from solo runs to powerful strikes and delicate chips – he showcased a level of versatility rarely seen in a forward. His trademark, however, was to cut in from the left-hand side and bend the ball into the far corner, leaving the opposition goalkeeper with no chance.
Although Arsenal had won the title two years before his arrival, Henry’s presence at the club was absolutely crucial to all their continued early noughties success. He was particularly devastating during the famous “Invincibles” season (2003/04) as he scored 30 goals, enough to earn him one of his four Premier League golden boots. Although he eventually left for Barcelona, King Henry did return to north London for a brief two-month loan stint in 2012. Despite not being at the peak of his powers, the Arsenal faithful witnessed him scoring two more goals for the club including a last-gasp winner against Sunderland.