Our "starting XI" of the fastest, strongest, and most agile men to ever step foot on a PL pitch.
Shawn Donnelly 1 / 12
This year’s Barclays Premier League season is shaping up to be one of the most exciting in history. Leicester City, normally bottom feeders in the PL, now sit atop the standings with just a handful of games to play. Close behind are Tottenham Hotspur, who haven't won the league in more than 50 years. Meanwhile, traditional powerhouses like Manchester United and Liverpool are battling simply for a shot at the top 4. It's a mixed-up season, indeed.
But one thing you can count on every season in the PL is a league chock-full of freakishly fit athletes. The average player rambles more than six miles during a 90-minute match—and most of those miles are filled with all-out sprints, constant stopping and starting, quick changes of direction, acrobatic leaps, and the occasional shot of a ball at 80 mph. No wonder these guys burn more than 5,000 calories per game—and the league is only getting faster and more physically taxing each season.
Still, in a sport filled with ridiculously in-shape guys, some men stand out from the pack and demand special recognition. Here’s our “Starting XI” for the fittest players in Premier League history. (In cases where athletes have played for multiple clubs, we've listed their primary clubs.)
Before CR7 starred for Real Madrid—before peddling underwear, and dating Russian supermodel Irina Shayk—he was honing his skills and scoring goals by the dozen for Manchester United. Ronaldo played six highly effective seasons for the Red Devils, winning three consecutive league titles from 2007–2009. He also worked hard in the gym to transform his physique from a slender teen talent to that of an ultrafit, muscular superstar, capable of holding off challenges from even the strongest defenders.
The aptly named Welshman debuted for Leeds United as a teenager in 1988 and quickly established himself as one of the game’s true ironmen. He took a strict, modern approach to diet and fitness at a time when few of his peers did, which allowed him to avoid injury and continue playing until age 40. For a while he held the record for most appearances in the Premier League with 535, and his 85 appearances for the Wales national team (which he also captained) are the most by any non-goalie.
In 2013, the pacey Welshman was dealt to Real Madrid for a jaw-dropping, world-record-setting fee of more than €100 million. But before that, Bale was a blur up and down the left side of the White Hart Lane pitch for Tottenham Hotspur for six seasons. In addition to his world-class speed—he’s considered one of the fastest footballers on the planet—Bale regularly demonstrated stamina, agility, and upper body strength for Spurs. Add to that one of the most powerful and cultured left feet in the game and you can see why the Madrid execs were willing to shell out so much cash for his ability.
The powerful Ivorian is practically a god among supporters of Chelsea, where he played for nine seasons and found the back of the net on 104 occasions, the most by any foreign player at the club. Still dazzling fans at age 38 for the Montreal Impact in MLS, Drogba is regarded as one of the strongest players in Premier League history: a center forward able to hold up the ball against pressure, outmuscle opponents, win countless headers and score on free kicks simply by passing the ball past the goalkeeper. A two-time African Footballer of the Year and the Ivory Coast’s all-time leading scorer, he’s also the sort of player who is quick to strip off his jersey seconds after the final whistle is blown.
The American goalkeeper—who credits “a four-letter word called yoga” with his longevity—is basically the Cal Ripken Jr. or Lou Gehrig of the EPL. He holds the league record for most consecutive appearances with 310, going from 2004 to 2012 without missing a game. He also holds the distinction of being the oldest player for two different clubs (Aston Villa and Tottenham) and that's after minding the nets for 287 matches—and scoring one goal!—for the Rovers. Still not impressed? Friedel, 6’3”, was also an All-State basketball player in Ohio who earned an invite to walk on to UCLA’s hoops squad in 1990. He declined the offer, though, because he was too busy sharpening his goalkeeping skills by diving after a ball of tape in the dark. He finally retired in 2015 at age 44.
The 31-year-old Argentine packs a sneaky big chest under his Manchester City jersey, and a razor-sharp fitness regimen helps him keep the league’s fastest and most skillful playmakers at bay. A tireless worker in defense, Zabaleta was a key component to the Sky Blues claiming league titles in both 2012 and 2014. He also sent a City supporter into a frenzy after throwing her his jersey, then tweeting her to tell her not to wash it. So he’s got a good sense of humor, too.
A legend by any definition, the Welshman played his entire career with Manchester United, winning 34 trophies during his 23-year run, including 13 Premier League titles and two Champions League crowns. But his career might’ve been a lot shorter if it weren’t for his obsessive commitment to yoga. Hampered by hamstring injuries and back pain in his late 20s, Giggs took up yoga in 2003 and quickly noticed improved flexibility and fewer nagging injuries. How serious is Giggs about his body? He even released his own fitness DVD, Giggs Fitness.
True, the 30-year-old Brit has spent much of his career in the lower levels of English soccer. But when he’s made his way to the top tier, he’s run circles around the competition. Consider: During the 2014-2015 Premier League season, the long-haired winger averaged 7.45 miles covered per game for Burnley, the highest in the league by a fifth of a mile. And of the top 10 individual performances for distance covered in a game, Boyd had five. No other player had more than one. Clearly, Boyd has two of the biggest lungs the PL has ever seen. Who says guys with flowing locks can’t work hard?
If Friedel is the EPL’s Cal Ripken Jr., then Sheringham is its Gordie Howe. The lanky Englishman began his pro career in 1983 and didn’t hang up his cleats until 2008, well into his 40s. He played for 9 clubs, made 755 appearances and scored 289 goals. Though not the beefiest player, Sheringham was an effective aerial player, and he had good upper body strength, allowing him to hold the ball up against bigger defenders and lay it off to teammates. He was also notoriously competitive: After he was fired as manager of Stevenage, he went to the team’s next match in disguise just to see how players reacted to his departure.
A native of Romford, England, Parlour was affectionately nicknamed “The Romford Pelé” by Arsenal supporters for his high-energy, workmanlike performances for the club. While helping the Gunners claim three league titles, Parlour also earned a reputation as one of the team’s physically strongest players. According to one story, the midfielder used to lie on his back with an 11-pound medicine ball in the team’s training facility and slam it off the 15-foot ceiling, ten times in a row. No other player could do it nearly so many times.
1. Romelu Lukaku, Everton
At 6’3” and 207 pounds, the Belgian has the size, speed, and agility to line up for most NFL teams. Even at age 22, Lukaku often looks like a man among boys in England. To wit: In Everton's match against Chelsea in the FA Cup, Lukaku carried his team to victory with two goals. For the first, he shrugged off multiple defenders, then stutter-stepped another opponent before slotting the ball past Chelsea’s helpless goalie. A true juggernaut, he's all but impossible to stop when he builds up a head of steam. Count on him being a handful for EPL defenders for the next decade or so.