The greatest free transfers of all time – ranked

The greatest free transfers of all time - ranked
The greatest free transfers of all time – ranked

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.

30. Christian Fuchs – Schalke to Leicester
Christian Fuchs
No Fuchs given / Michael Regan/Getty Images

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

Teemu Pukki
Pukki was a solid signing / Marc Atkins/Getty Images

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

Khedira was at his peak / MARCO BERTORELLO/Getty Images

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

Andre-Pierre Gignac
This is the coolest move in the list / Azael Rodriguez/Getty Images

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

Samuel Eto'o
Short but sweet / Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

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

Gary McAllister
Gary McAllister was a key asset / Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

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

Raul Gonzalez
Good business / Angel Martinez/Getty Images

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

Didier Drogba
Drogba wanted more / Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

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

Miroslav Klose
The international football man / Paolo Bruno/Getty Images

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

Demba Ba
Bargain / Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

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

Joao Miranda
Good scouting / Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

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

Marc Albrighton
Your dad’s favourite winger / Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

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

Henrik Larsson
Big game player / Luis Bagu/Getty Images

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

Edinson Cavani
Adopted Mancunian status / Paolo Bruno/Getty Images

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

Joel Matip
Matip is brilliant when fit / Michael Regan/Getty Images

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

Steve McManaman of Real Madrid
The second Englishman to play for Real Madrid / Ben Radford/Getty Images

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

Zlatan Ibrahimovic
Impactful return to Europe / Marco Canoniero/Getty Images

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

Leon Goretzka
He’s a strong fella / Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images

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

Ruud Gullit of Chelsea
Ruud Gullit at Chelsea / Getty Images/Getty Images

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

Legendary / New Press/Getty Images

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

Jay Jay Okocha
Streets won’t forget / Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

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

Thiago Silva
The Brazilian has been a hit / Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

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

Michael Ballack
Underrated / Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

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

Esteban Cambiasso
One of football’s greatest bald players / Giuseppe Bellini/Getty Images

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

James Milner
Mr Reliable / Robbie Jay Barratt – AMA/Getty Images

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

Sol Campbell
Campbell had a brief second spell with Arsenal / Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

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

Zlatan Ibrahimovic
Immense presence / Dan Mullan/Getty Images

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

Paul Pogba
Pogba transformed into a world beater / Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images

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

Andrea Pirlo
Milan’s misjudgement of Pirlo was seriously costly / Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images

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

Robert Lewandowski
Lewandowski was signed on a free transfer / Julian Finney/Getty Images

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.

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