In a time where clubs are commanding fees in excess of £100m the minute a player shows a flash of brilliance, bargains are greatly appreciated.
Bargains in general are the way to go – one visit to Aldi will change your life. Be it a smaller side looking for quality on the cheap, or a top club acting smart and jumping the queue with pre-contract agreements, free transfers are some of the best business conducted. Low risk, high reward.
Celebrating those who successfully poached the transfer market at the right time, here are 30 of the greatest free signings ever made. Disclaimer – Bosman ruling transfers do count here.
Signing on a free ahead of the 2015/16 season, snapping up Fuchs felt like a big deal for a Leicester side who had just barely avoided relegation from the Premier League.
The Austrian’s stock was high at the time, and he went on to become a fan favourite around the club in a a six-year stay that saw him win the Premier League and the FA Cup.
29. Teemu Pukki – Brondby to Norwich City
Having scored 19 goals and assisted 11 in all competitions for Brondby in 2017/18, Pukki was still free to leave the club having failed to agree terms.
Championship side Norwich snapped up the former Schalke and Celtic man, with nobody thinking much of the move. Pukki flew, though, bagging 30 goals and ten assists in all competitions to send them to the Premier League in his debut season. Bargain.
28. Sami Khedira – Real Madrid to Juventus
Juventus love a free transfer more than Jeff Hardy loves hair dye.
Is it because they’re still a bit skint? Potentially. But it works. Snapping up the German midfielder on a free in 2015, Khedira had been balling out at the base of a dominant Real Madrid side and gave the Old Lady some serious extra legs, winning five Scudetti.
27. Andre-Pierre Gignac – Marseille to Tigres
The best striker you completely forgot about.
Having turned into a scoring machine in Ligue 1 for Marseille, Gignac had offers across Europe when his contract expired in the summer of 2015. But instead of taking the step up, he threw in a complete curveball and signed for Liga MX side Tigres, where he has since become an even bigger gunman. Iconic.
26. Samuel Eto’o – Chelsea to Everton
After a single season with Chelsea following the Anzhi Makhachkala fire sale, Everton snapped up Eto’o on a free ahead of the 2014/15 season.
The signing was a shrewd one. The Cameroonian was still more than capable of creating and scoring goals at the top level and bagged on his debut. He only spent half a season with them, though, before moving on to Sampdoria in the January window.
25. Gary McAllister – Coventry to Liverpool
Going out of the way to sign a 35-year-old on a free doesn’t sound all that inspiring on the surface, but Gerard Houllier was bang on the money.
Heading to Anfield in 2000, McAllister settled quickly and became the man for the big moments for Liverpool as they won a cup treble. Also banged in an obscene 44-yard free-kick to win a Merseyside derby.
24. Raul – Real Madrid to Schalke
After 16 years with his boyhood club and 323 goals, Raul left Real Madrid in 2010 for pastures new.
Schalke’s Champions League qualification for the 2010/11 season meant they won the race for the Spaniard and it proved dividends. 40 goals and 21 assists from 90 games over a two year spell, helping them to the semi-final of the European competition that season.
23. Didier Drogba – Galatasaray to Chelsea
Short but sweet. And the most Jose Mourinho trope imaginable.
Back at the Bridge for a second spell, Mourinho called upon the striker who made his first one such a success. A veteran Drogba returned to Chelsea in 2014 after a two season absence, sticking around for one year only and helping them to the Premier League title. Again.
22. Miroslav Klose – Bayern Munich to Lazio
The man that would’ve exclusively played international football if it was possible, Klose was never really remembered for his domestic exploits.
Leaving Bayern Munich in 2011 after a disappointing campaign, the German headed to Italy on a free with Lazio and forged a fine career for himself, bagging 63 times from 171 games and winning the Coppa Italia in 2013.
21. Demba Ba – West Ham to Newcastle
Having only signed him on a pay as you play deal due to injury concerns, West Ham lost Ba as quickly as they signed him in 2011.
Newcastle snapped up the exciting Senegal international that summer after the Hammers were relegated, letting him leave for free. He went on and formed one of the finest Premier League strike partnerships alongside Papiss Cisse.
20. Miranda – Sao Paulo to Atletico Madrid
While exciting young Brazilians are usually snapped up by Barcelona and Real Madrid, it was Atletico who moved smartly in 2011.
Atleti agreed a pre-contract agreement that January to sign the defender at the end of the season. In Spain, Miranda seamlessly turned into one of Europe’s most modernised and reliable arms, winning La Liga, a Europa League and reaching the 2014 Champions League final.
19. Marc Albrighton – Aston Villa to Leicester
Having dwindled out of the limelight at Villa Park somewhat, Albrighton left for Premier League newbies Leicester on a free transfer ahead of the 2014/15 season.
It wasn’t viewed as much of a coup considering the Foxes also snapped up Esteban Cambiasso that summer, but Albrighton’s contributions have been immense. He’s played a key part in their ascent, winning the Premier League and the FA Cup, remaining an integral player as Leicester fight for European spots.
18. Henrik Larsson – Celtic to Barcelona
The Swede who earned club legend status at Celtic had done enough by 2004 to tempt Barcelona to bring him to Camp Nou on a free transfer.
Larsson was an electric forward and bagged 35 goals for Celtic in European competitions, but his two years with Barcelona were seriously disrupted by injuries. Always good for a big performance, his two assists helped them past Arsenal to win the 2006 Champions League final before he left the club.
17. Edinson Cavani – Paris Saint-Germain to Manchester United
With Cavani leaving PSG at the end of the 2019/20 season and being a free agent all summer long, it’s fair to say that United not signing him until that summer’s deadline day showed it was a bit of a panic signing.
It paid off. Cavani took their number seven shirt and bagged 17 goals in all competitions, leaving United fans begging for another season. They got their wish, and now Old Trafford will bellow out ABBA-styled chants as an ode to their favourite Uruguayan.
16. Joel Matip – Schalke to Liverpool
At the beginning of the Jurgen Klopp era, he started strong by dipping into he pre-contract market and snapping up Matip ahead of the 2016/17 season.
Injuries have continued to plague the Cameroonian defender, but when fit, he’s proven a serious player for the Reds and a mightily important piece to the squad. A Champions League and a Premier League is testament to his service and success.
15. Steve McManaman – Liverpool to Real Madrid
Before the Galactico era of spending unfathomable money on players for the sake of it, Real Madrid poached one of the finest English stars in the game on the cusp of the millennium.
McManaman’s move to Real was one of the most high profile instances of the free transfer snap-up at the time and he enjoyed a fine time in the capital. He balled out as they won the Champions League in 2000, bagging a fine volley in the final.
14. Zlatan Ibrahimovic – LA Galaxy to Milan
Moving to MLS looked to be Ibrahimovic taking a step back from football’s top level.
Nope. He returned to Europe in 2020 when he re-joined former employers Milan on a free transfer, and proved the final piece of the jigsaw in rebuilding the side. The Swede’s presence in attack complimented a young team built by Stefano Pioli, which led to them putting together a title charge throughout 2020/21.
13. Leon Goretzka – Schalke to Bayern Munich
After a shaky start in 2018 where he failed to nail down his spot, Goretzka’s free transfer to Bayern Munich is looking increasingly top business from Die Roten.
The midfielder has grown into one of the first names on the team sheet and found an entirely different gear as Bayern swept up a treble in 2019/20. Minus points for being the inevitable move for any exciting Bundesliga talent, though.
12. Ruud Gullit – Sampdoria to Chelsea
At the end of a storied career involving plenty of beautiful football, Gullit wrapped up in London with Chelsea signing him on a free in 1995.
After initially struggling to adapt, a move into midfield got the best out of the veteran Dutchman and allowed him to strut his stuff. He finished second to only Eric Cantona in the hunt for Footballer of the Year and speaks highly of his three year stint with the Blues.
11. Cafu – Roma to Milan
Having won Serie A and reached the final of the Coppa Italia with Roma, Cafu moved on in 2003 but was nowhere near done at the top.
Milan saw a bargain and snapped up the experienced Brazilian on a free. He won Serie A in his first season with the Rossoneri and helped out as they won the 2006/07 Champions League, finally ticking it off his list.
10. Jay-Jay Okocha – Paris Saint-Germain to Bolton
Joining forces with Sam Allardyce’s tricky Wanderers in 2002, Okocha’s stint with Bolton is nothing short of iconic.
Their majestic Nigerian was a huge coup from PSG, becoming a fan favourite for his flair and talent, before captaining the side to the 2004 League Cup final in his second season. Things dwindled out, but we don’t need to focus on the bad.
9. Thiago Silva – Paris Saint-Germain to Chelsea
Keen to get rid of the old guard at the end of 2019/20, PSG also let go of captain Silva.
Chelsea took the punt on the Brazilian veteran and, while they disappointed at a domestic level, Silva’s presence was huge on the whole. He settled in fine and looked comfortable in the English game, while also helping them to their second Champions League title. A natural leader.
8. Michael Ballack – Bayern Munich to Chelsea
Chelsea swooped in and won the race for an out of contract Ballack in May 2006, snapping him up before he headed off to ball out at the World Cup.
Ballack was a shrewd capture. The German sat at the base of midfield and screened play tremendously over a four year period, winning three FA Cups, a Premier League and reaching the Champions League final in 2008. Seriously underrated business.
7. Esteban Cambiasso – Real Madrid to Inter
A quiet two year stint with Real Madrid saw Cambiasso free to leave in 2004.
Inter snapped up the Argentine on a free transfer and he reached new heights. Cambiasso flourished in Italy over a decade, becoming one of the game’s most intelligent and highly rated midfielders, while also collecting a pretty decent trophy cabinet.
6. James Milner – Manchester City to Liverpool
One of football’s most inoffensive and barely noticeable players has been around the houses, and always impressed.
Joining Liverpool upon the expiry of his City contract in 2015, Milner has been the ideal servant in a rotation role for Klopp’s side. The midfielder can fill in anywhere and has proven perfect for Klopp as they reached the domestic and European summits. The unlikeliest of heroes.
5. Sol Campbell – Tottenham to Arsenal
Not only did Campbell join an Arsenal team on the cusp of greatness and complete the prophecy, he did so in fine fashion.
On the cheap, Campbell swapped from Tottenham to their north London rivals, sending Spurs into complete frenzy in 2001. Impeccable s**t-housery, but also an elite winning mentality. Two Premier Leagues, three FA Cups. So worth it.
4. Zlatan Ibrahimovic – Paris Saint-Germain to Manchester United
After four years in Paris sweeping up domestic honours and scoring a shed load of goals, Ibrahimovic moved on in 2016 for free.
United snapped up the Swede on a free and his impact was monumental. Scoring 28 goals in his debut season, Ibrahimovic’s winning mentality led the club to a League Cup and the Europa League, before an ACL injury brought things to an unfortunate end. One of United’s best signings in recent times.
3. Paul Pogba – Manchester United to Juventus
Sir Alex Ferguson was happy to let go of a young Pogba in 2012 following a failure to reach an agreement on a new contract, with Mino Raiola in the midfielder’s camp already.
Juventus snapped him up and the Frenchman exploded in Italy. Four league titles, unlimited Twitter compilations and shouts for the best midfielder in the world. Pogba’s form earned Juventus a world record £89m profit as United re-signed him in 2016.
2. Andrea Pirlo – Milan to Juventus
Having given Milan a decade of service and now being on the other side of 30, the Rossoneri were convinced Pirlo was of no more use to them in 2011.
Juventus snapped up the veteran midfielder on a free, and he proved that age is but a number. Pirlo looked completely refreshed in Turin, rolling back the years with endless top quality displays until his departure in 2015. Meanwhile, Milan slipped down the Italian pecking order. Calamitous mistake.
1. Robert Lewandowski – Borussia Dortmund to Bayern Munich
Yes, it was inevitable. But it’s still an absolute masterstroke bit of business from Bayern Munich.
Borussia Dortmund had produced one of Europe’s hottest commodities in Lewandowski who was scoring for fun by 2014. Despite interest from the Premier League, Bayern snapped him up on a pre-contract agreement. 41 league goals in one Bundesliga campaign, a shed load of trophies and a few more ridiculous records later, it’s fair to say that he’s gone from a free transfer to priceless.