Football Features

The unsung hero for every post-2000 Premier League-winning team

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 15:00, 15 August 2022

Premier League title wins are built on the back of great players.

Great players then get praised to the high heavens. They are the superstars of the league and when they take their part in winning a league title they get showered in compliments even more than usual. Well, most of them.

What about the unsung heroes? Every team has them. Those hard-working types who may not be the flashiest players but always show up and get it done for their side, taking equal share in title successes as the superstars even if their media profile doesn’t show it.

We here at Squawka have gone back and looked at the title winners from each season since 2000 to come up with our shouts for their unsung heroes. Who were they? Read on and find out!

1999/00: Nicky Butt

It’s hard to say any Manchester United player from the Premier League win in 2000 was unsung, as it was mostly made up of their historic treble-winning side from the previous season. Nicky Butt was a combative force in the middle of the field that managed to elude praise despite providing key squad depth behind United’s super starters.

2000/01: David Beckham

Around this time, David Beckham became everyone’s hero for his displays with England. What goes unappreciated is just how good he had become with Manchester United. Nine goals and 12 assists were impressive numbers, made more so by just how fundamental the winger was; so much of the Red Devils’ play flowed through him.

2001/02: Sylvain Wiltord

Thierry Henry and Robert Pires understandably took many of the plaudits as Arsenal won the title in 2002, ending United’s three-year stranglehold in impeccable fashion by winning it at Old Trafford. The man who scored the goal that day, Sylvain Wiltord, was a key contributor for the Gunners that year (10 goals, 7 assists) and never gets remembered as he should.

2002/03: Ole Gunnar Solskjaer

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer could have claimed this role after literally any of his seasons with Manchester United, such was his legendary prowess for scoring despite limited minutes. But it was 2002/03 where he was perhaps least appreciated as he featured in all but one game spent copious minutes at right-wing, playing so well that he benched David Beckham.

2003/04: Gilberto Silva

With a dazzling side full of superstars, Arsenal won the league without losing a game in 2003/04. Their heroes are known, but the man that allowed their magical midfield to flow as well as it did was defensive fulcrum Gilberto Silva. A truly unappreciated gem of a midfielder.

2004/05: Claude Makélélé

Claude Makélélé was so good for Chelsea that the press in England began calling defensive midfield “the Makélélé role” – this was absurd, but does go some way to highlighting his excellence. Frank Lampard, John Terry and José Mourinho stole the headlines, but it was Makélélé who made it all possible.

2005/06: William Gallas

With Makélélé fully appreciated as a defensive miracle by this point, someone else had to step up and shine. That man was William Gallas. Played alternately as a centre-back and left-back, the volatile Frenchman was a stalwart defensive presence and scorer of crucial goals: an opener against Liverpool, a last-minute winner against Spurs, and the first goal on what turned out to be a title coronation vs. Manchester United. His reward was to be sent to Arsenal as part of a swap to bring Ashley Cole to Chelsea… talk about gratitude.

2006/07: Louis Saha

Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo were the undoubted heroes as Manchester United snatched their Premier League title back after a three year drought. But the reason that fluid duo could work is that they had a tremendously intelligent and selfless No.9 in Louis Saha. The Frenchman was often troubled by injury but stayed fit and led the line with aplomb.

2007/08: Wes Brown

With stalwart right-back Gary Neville out injured, United needed a solution. Lucky for them Wes Brown, whose own career had been plagued by injuries, was fit for an entire season and slotted in superbly. United became the world’s best side and retained their title, thanks in no small part to Brown’s consistent brilliance at right-back. He even got an assist in the Champions League final!

2008/09: Michael Carrick

Michael Carrick ended this season with his third consecutive title since joining Manchester United and was becoming a crucial part of Sir Alex Ferguson’s side. The metronomic midfielder was exerting tremendous influence over games, protecting his much-heralded defence and supplying the much-loved forwards. He even scored the goal that clinched the title, but rarely gets the credit for his excellence.

2009/10: Joe Cole

Joe Cole was in his last season for Chelsea as they stormed back to claim the title. But while everyone remembers their incredible flourish to finish the season, no one remembers that with just five games left it was Manchester United who were top. A 1-2 win at Old Trafford, where Cole scored the opening goal, sent Chelsea into first place and facilitated their memorable victory lap.

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2010/11: Ji-Sung Park

Mr. Big Game Performer – Manchester United recovered from a slow(ish) start to win the title in style. But while Nani had the league’s most assists, and Dimitar Berbatov the most goals, and Wayne Rooney’s stunning displays stole headlines – it was Ji-Sung Park’s relentless industry, tactical intelligence and goal against Arsenal that was one of the key unsung parts of United’s big win.

2011/12: Pablo Zabaleta

Pablo Zabaleta spent much of the 2011/12 season battling with Micah Richards to be City’s first-choice right-back. Many favoured the Englishman, despite Zabaleta’s rugged skills granting him cult hero status. The Argentine even scored the opening goal in the closing day’s epic 3-2 win, a goal which is often forgotten but hugely important.

2012/13: Javier Hernandez

Robin van Persie and Michael Carrick took all the plaudits as they starred in Sir Alex Ferguson’s final season in charge, driving United to the league title in supreme fashion. But Javier Hernandez’s goalscoring won United a surprising amount of points, and without him those epic wins against Chelsea, Newcastle, Swansea and Aston Villa their triumph wouldn’t have been possible.

2013/14: Edin Dzeko

As Manchester City sneaked in to win the 2013/14 league title, Yaya Touré and his frankly ridiculous 24 goals took the majority of the headlines. And rightly so, of course. The Ivorian was majestic, as dominant as any Premier League midfielder has been. But just as important to City’s second title in three years was Bosnian striker Edin Dzeko, whose crucial (and overlooked) goalscoring during the run-in allowed City to triumph over Liverpool.

2014/15: Branislav Ivanovic

José Mourinho’s Chelsea bullied their way to Premier League glory around the twin talents of Diego Costa and Eden Hazard, with John Terry having a superb swansong season starting every game in defence. While those guys took all the praise, Branislav Ivanovic started every game as well, adding an overlooked ruggedness to the Chelsea defence.

2015/16: Shinji Okazaki

The Japanese dynamo was not one of Leicester’s “holy trinity”, nor was he one of their defensive stalwarts, so his name is often lost in the mix of just how the hell Leicester managed to actually win the title. But Okazaki’s excellent skill, work rate and superb ability to press his opponents made a world of difference in attack and freed Jamie Vardy up to terrorise opponents with his runs in behind.

2016/17: Pedro

It’s hard to be unsung when you’re as dominant as Chelsea were on 2016/17, but with Diego Costa and Eden Hazard (hey, them again!) taking all the headlines in attack, the canny Pedro slipped under the radar. With nine goals and nine assists, including a crucial game-changing one just seconds into a tie against Manchester United, Pedro was a key contributor.

2017/18: Fernandinho

Manchester City took Chelsea’s dominance and multiplied it by a factor of awesome for their 2017/18 title triumph. Their five attackers were all majestic and their two creative midfielders heroic. At the back, they have a show-stopping goalie and their full-backs also drew a lot of praise and attention. Quite unappreciated, however, was the quiet man in the middle of it all: Fernandinho was the fulcrum of City’s midfield dominance, helping his team defend and attack with quiet assurance. As Guardiola himself has noted, without him there would be no success in the first place.

2018/19: Aymeric Laporte

With that goal against Leicester and some other truly inspired performances, Vincent Kompany lifted three domestic trophies last season and rode off into the sunset with some well-deserved plaudits. However, spare a thought for the guy next to him. Aymeric Laporte was arguably the second-best centre-back in the Premier League in 2018/19 but thanks to the incredible performances of Kompany and Virgil van Dijk at Liverpool, he didn’t get anywhere near the credit he should have. Need any more convincing? Just look at how bad City were in his absence during 2019/20.

2019/20: Joe Gomez

Liverpool were so ridiculously dominant in 2019/20 that each of their famed front three take their turns at being lauded. Elsewhere, no one can stop championing their full-backs, Virgil van Dijk is still bathing in adulation and even Alisson found a way to impress everyone all over again. Jordan Henderson did seem to be the unappreciated heartbeat beneath it all of Liverpool’s relentless drive, but then he won Footballer of the Year and was a contender Player of the Year. So he’s out.

That leaves only one man: Joe Gomez. Injury and a good run of form from Joel Matip forced him out of the side in 2018/19 and had everyone questioning whether he belonged in the team but the 23-year-old’s return to the side coincided with them rediscovering their defensive invulnerability. Liverpool went eight games without conceding in the Premier League from December 7 to January 23. And it’s worth remembering that Gomez himself went over two years without defeat in the Premier League – a run started in January 2018 and ended in July 2020 when the title was wrapped up.

2020/21: Rodri

As City prised their Premier League title back from Liverpool, they did so under a hail of praise for Pep Guardiola returning the side to form. New signing Ruben Dias was showered with compliments as he transformed the side’s defensive ability, winning FWA Player of the Year. People praised Kevin de Bruyne, Bernardo Silva… just about everyone.

Except for Rodri, that is. With 2017/18’s unheralded king Fernandinho still occupying everyone’s minds as the de facto idea of a Premier League defensive midfielder, even as Rodri had displaced him in the side. Guardiola occasionally used both men together, but Rodri never got praised even as he played 34/38 games and was exceptional throughout.

2021/22: Kyle Walker

As City powered their way to a phenomenal fourth Premier League title in five years it became impossible to find anyone who was actually underrated on the team any more, but one man still managed to go relatively unheralded: Kyle Walker.

Being a defensive right-back, Walker was so often excluded from the praise and debate when talking about the league’s best full-backs. And his remarkable consistency was rarely given its credit, nor was his importance really truly understood.

City’s defensive structure simply does not work without Kyle Walker, and his absence through injury against Real Madrid leading to City’s Champions League elimination woke up everyone up to his importance. But for the title win as a whole, Walker is still the man.