Every so often a club makes a signing that just changes everything – Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester United can point to certain players arriving and pinpoint the moment things turned around for the better.
After years in the relative wilderness, Manchester United may have just found their latest game-changer. And as some big names in the past have proven, one player can be the catalyst for a grand new era.
Here’s a full XI of Premier League signings who were totally transformative, arranged in a 4-4-2 of sorts.
GK: Petr Cech
Signed from Rennes as a highly-rated 21-year-old, few could have predicted quite how good Cech would be when he first arrived at Stamford Bridge back in 2004.
The goalkeeper’s outstanding shot-stopping ability saw and calm authority behind a supremely organised defence Chelsea concede just 15 goals as they lifted their first Premier League title during his debut season with the club.
RB: Kieran Trippier
Having won the La Liga title whilst out at Atletico Madrid, Trippier returned to the Premier League with proven pedigree, signing for freshly-minted Newcastle United amid their relegation battle midway through the 2021-22 season.
He was sidelined for most of Newcastle’s impressive climb to midtable, but his experience in the dressing room was said to be vital in the club’s resurgence.
“Just look at his performances this year, he’s been incredible,” Eddie Howe said of the Magpies captain.
“Even last year, in the brief time he played, he made a massive impact, both on the pitch and off it, in terms of his leadership.”
CB: Virgil van Dijk
Liverpool went up a level following the signing of Mohamed Salah in the summer of 2017. That brilliant front three with Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane made Jurgen Klopp’s side one of the most irresistible, watchable sides in Europe.
But their matches often resembled basketball matches and their defensive record with Dejan Lovren alongside Ragnar Klavan left a lot to be desired.
A madcap 3-3 draw away to Arsenal shortly before Christmas underlined the Reds’ desperate need for greater stability – and most of all leadership – at the back.
Days later the record £75million deal to sign Van Dijk was announced. Soon enough nobody would be quibbling the fee.
The Dutchmen was a colossus as Liverpool reached three Champions League finals in five years and regularly notched 90+ point tallies in the Premier League.
CB: Sol Campbell
“I’ve made my decision and I just hope people respect it,” Campbell said after unthinkably joining Arsenal on a free transfer, having previously made over 300 appearances for Tottenham.
“Obviously I know what happened to (former Arsenal and Spurs boss) George Graham and what he had to deal with.
“It is something I am prepared to face and hopefully it won’t be a major problem for me.”
Not only would the signing add another extra-toxic dimension to North London derbies for years to come, but the centre-back took Arsenal’s backline to another level.
Campbell proved pivotal to the Gunners taking Manchester United’s crown during his debut 2001-02 campaign. Arsene Wenger’s men had finished runners-up for three successive seasons prior to his arrival.
He was then a giant as Arsenal went unbeaten in 2003-04.
A two-time Premier League winner and an integral part of Arsenal's invincible squad, Sol Campbell was everything you wanted in a defender 💪
— Premier League (@premierleague) October 21, 2022
LB: Patrice Evra
Okay, Evra might be pushing the definition of “transformative” a bit but the Frenchman was nonetheless absolutely brilliant on his day and a key part of one of Sir Alex Ferguson’s very best Manchester United sides.
Signed as a 24-year-old during the winter window of the 2005-06 season after Gabriel Heinze suffered a cruciate ligament injury, Evra went on to lift three Premier League trophies, three League Cups and the Champions League during an eight-and-a-half year stay at Old Trafford.
The former France international was integral to the Red Devils getting back on their perch after Arsenal’s Invincibles and Jose Mourinho’s imperial-era Chelsea starved Ferguson’s side for three years without a league title.
RW: Mohamed Salah
Having scored two goals in 19 appearances on the periphery of Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea squad, Mohamed Salah returned to the Premier League with a point to prove in 2017.
And boy did he prove that point. Salah was arguably the first game-changing signing of the Klopp era at Liverpool. The aforementioned Van Dijk wouldn’t arrive to shore up the defence until six months later, while Fabinho and Alisson arrived to further remodel the structure the following summer.
Liverpool’s leap to European superpower in 2017-18 was all about their Egyptian King. The forward scored a Premier League record 32 goals, and 44 in all competitions, as Klopp’s Reds made it to the Champions League final in Kyiv.
They lost to Real Madrid, but who’s to say what might have happened if Sergio Ramos hadn’t suplexed their talisman?
It’s early days but we can confidently call Casemiro a transformative signing at this point.
The Brazilian was exceptional as United ended their six-year trophy drought with a no-nonsense 2-0 victory over Newcastle in the League Cup final at Wembley. It felt like watching Roy Keane in 1999.
United have won trophies in the last 10 years, but with Casemiro at the heart of their midfield, it feels like something is actually building this time. Quite possibly the club’s best and most important signing of the post-Ferguson era.
Casemiro. Build the man a statue now! 🇧🇷🔴 pic.twitter.com/zcZJrNTYzS
— 🇾🇪🔰 (@Retro_Utd) January 14, 2023
CM: Kevin De Bruyne
Like Salah, De Bruyne never quite showed what he was capable of during a short-lived and forgettable stint at Stamford Bridge. That would not be the case when he returned to England, arriving at Man City for a club-record £55million in 2015.
City had won a couple of Premier League titles prior to his signing, with the likes of David Silva and Yaya Toure changing everything before him.
It took De Bruyne time to make an impact; the club finished a distant fourth in his debut campaign and went trophyless in year two, the first under Pep Guardiola.
But the midfielder eventually demonstrated his class. He’s been City’s best player as they’ve won five Premier League titles in six years – the most dominant force in English football since Ferguson’s United.
Given his contributions over the course of City’s imperial era, you can make the argument that the Belgian is their all-time greatest player.
At the very least, he belongs in the conversation alongside Silva, Toure and Sergio Aguero.
LW: Eden Hazard
Fair enough, Hazard announced he was signing for the European Champions back in 2012, and he never tasted Champions League glory across his seven years at Stamford Bridge.
But you only needed to watch the Belgium international on the left side of Chelsea’s attack to see he helped elevate them to a new level.
One-hundred and ten goals and 92 assists in 352 appearances, and a starring role in two Premier League title triumphs, is a testament to that.
ST: Eric Cantona
Stick King Eric’s picture next to the definition of transformative signing. The Frenchman’s arrival at Old Trafford in late November 1992 changed everything.
Manchester United had suffered a dismal start to the inaugural Premier League campaign, but Cantona was talismanic as they turned their fortunes around and lifted the trophy come May – the first of 13 league titles won under Sir Alex Ferguson.
No signing has had a greater impact on the shape of Premier League football over the past three decades. Former Leeds boss Howard Wilkinson probably regrets that call to Fergie now, eh?
"I keep hoping that I will discover a young Cantona! It is a dream!"
The letter that Sir Alex Ferguson wrote to Eric Cantona after the Frenchman hung up his boots in 1997. pic.twitter.com/Rofcy5Nf7o
— The Blizzard (@blzzrd) November 26, 2020
ST: Thierry Henry
Arsene Wenger didn’t need his compatriot to lead Arsenal to the Premier League title in 1997-98.
But it’s impossible to argue that record-signing Henry didn’t make a gigantic impact after arriving in 1999. He finished as the Gunners’ top scorer in six of his seven seasons with the club, scoring a mindblowing 226 goals in 370 appearances.
That was the greatest period in the history of Arsenal, and you can’t imagine them being anywhere near as competitive with anyone else in his place.