Kante, Sanchez, Scholes: The Premier League's ultimate XI of short players

  • Kobe Tong

Premier League footballers hopping into the saddle at Cheltenham Festival would certainly be a chaotic sight.

We don’t profess to know how confident Cristiano Ronaldo is with holding the reins or if N’Golo Kante feels comfortable in stirrups, but seeing some of the world’s most famous players going for Gold Cup glory would definitely be entertaining.

However, it goes without saying that some of the taller, musclier and heavier players in the Premier League wouldn’t necessarily have the desired physique when it comes to crossing the line unmatched in Gloucestershire.

The Premier League meets Cheltenham

So, while it’s fair to say that not a single athlete in England’s top-flight could spontaneously defeat a packed field of world-class jockeys, there are certainly some players who would have a physical advantage over the others.

As you may already know, jockeys tend to be on the smaller side not because there are any strict height limits in horse racing, but rather that smaller weights can make a massive difference to a horse’s chances of winning.

Now, obviously, weight data for Premier League players isn’t readily available and it’s a very private matter to boot, but we can certainly have a stab at imagining which stars would perform the best at Cheltenham based on their heights.

Horse Racing – Cheltenham Festival – Cheltenham Racecourse, Cheltenham, Britain – March 19, 2021 Jack Kennedy riding Minella Indo celebrates winning the 3.05 WellChild Cheltenham Gold Cup Chase Pool via REUTERS/Tim Goode

And while, yes, there are far more physical attributes at play in our bonkers Premier League and Cheltenham crossover, we’re going to assume that the footballers’ elite conditioning will account for at least some of the strength required.

So, using data from the player profiles on the Premier League’s official website, we’ve compiled an XI of ballers from the competition’s illustrious history who have the pint-sized physiques best-suited to bagging the Gold Cup.

In fact, we’re swinging for the fences here by not necessarily picking the smallest Premier League stars of all time, period, but rather players who also succeeded in the league and across the beautiful game in general.

After all, this is Cheltenham Festival we’re talking about here – one of the most exciting sporting events in the calendar – so we need an element of world-level talent and star power to go with the shorter builds.

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Let’s start easy: What was Tottenham’s old ground called?

And when you consider that positions such as the goalkeeper and centre-backs are typically dominated by players far taller than your average jockey, it was fascinating to see who the shortest top-class players were in each area of the pitch.

The ultimate XI of short Premier League ballers

Got it? Right then, well, be sure to brace yourselves for the Cheltenham and football mash-up that you never knew you needed by checking out the ultimate XI of Premier League players who were small for their position down below:

GK: Victor Valdes

Height: 6 foot and 0 inches (183cm)

Straight off the bat, we have our tallest player of all with goalkeepers almost always standing above six foot at the highest level of the game with many academies paying specific attention to the heights of their number ones.

And while Valdes might not have achieved much across his forgettable 30 games in the division, there’s no denying that he proved at Barcelona that you can still sit on the six-foot boundary and be one of the world’s best goalkeepers.

The former Manchester United and Middlesbrough shot-stopper stands narrowly above the likes of Claudio Bravo (184cm) and Fabien Barthez (185cm), who also flew the flag for smaller goalkeepers in England’s top-flight.

Britain Football Soccer – Tottenham Hotspur v Middlesbrough – Premier League – White Hart Lane – 4/2/17 Middlesbrough’s Victor Valdes in action Reuters / Peter Nicholls Livepic EDITORIAL USE ONLY. No use with unauthorized audio, video, data, fixture lists, club/league logos or “live” services. Online in-match use limited to 45 images, no video emulation. No use in betting, games or single club/league/player publications. Please contact your account representative for further details.

RB: Rafael

Height: 5 foot and 8 inches (172cm)

Now, onto a position where being six foot might not actually dictate your entire career with the underrated Rafael, who lest we forget played almost 200 times for United, standing four inches shy of his former teammate between the sticks.

It’s safe to say that the 173-centimetre Lee Dixon made for the superior right-back, but an additional Premier League crown and marginally better chances in our hypothetical horse race gives Rafael the edge.

CB: Cesar Azpilicueta

Height: 5 foot and 10 inches (178cm)

Back to another tricky position with both our centre-back choices perhaps unsurprisingly also playing as full-backs from time to time because seeing players under six foot in the heart of defence is rarer than you may think.

So, while ‘Dave’ might mostly have played as a centre-half in five-at-the-back systems, he’s still one of the finest and shortest players to have ever manned the position, winning every major honour at Chelsea along the way.

Soccer Football – Club World Cup – Final – Chelsea v Palmeiras – Mohammed Bin Zayed Stadium, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates – February 12, 2022 Chelsea’s Cesar Azpilicueta poses with the FIFA fair play award after the match REUTERS/Matthew Childs

CB: Nathan Ake

Height: 5 foot and 11 inches (180cm)

Another centre-back and another struggle to find a top-class player ducking underneath the six-foot barrier, but we’ve managed to find ourselves none other than a Premier League winner with both Chelsea and Manchester City.

Not bad, huh? What Ake might lack in the height department, he most certainly makes up for with excellent ball control and reading of the game, which is admittedly less helpful when you’re riding a horse over 22 fences…

LB: Leighton Baines

Height: 5 foot and 7 inches (170cm)

Shoutout to Patrice Evra who clocked in at a much smaller height than we were expecting at 174cm, but it’s one of the most underrated full-backs of the Premier League era that best mixed footballing quality with Cheltenham potential.

A 30-time England international that would be an absolute shoo-in for Everton’s best XI of the 21st century, Baines effortlessly married steely defensive work with stellar crosses, perfect penalties and stunning free-kicks.

Soccer Football – Premier League – Everton v Southampton – Goodison Park, Liverpool, Britain – August 18, 2018 Everton’s Leighton Baines during the warm up before the match Action Images via Reuters/Ed Sykes EDITORIAL USE ONLY. No use with unauthorized audio, video, data, fixture lists, club/league logos or “live” services. Online in-match use limited to 75 images, no video emulation. No use in betting, games or single club/league/player publications. Please contact your account representative for further details.

CM: N’Golo Kante

Height: 5 foot and 6 inches (168cm)

Height-related or not, there are few players in the Premier League annals that we’d want to guard our defence more than Kante, who piles plenty of energy, spirit and determination into the shortest height in the XI so far.

The World Cup, Champions League, Premier League, Europa League and FA Cup winner is so decorated that we can’t help falling in love with the fever dream of him smiling his way to glory at Cheltenham for good measure.

CM: Paul Scholes

Height: 5 foot and 6 inches (168cm)

Regularly touted as one of the most talented players in English football history, Scholes not only swaggers into our ultimate XI of Premier League ballers with shorter heights, but arguably into the competition’s all-time line-up too.

Scholes would stand a better chance than most at adding the Gold Cup to his collection of 11 Premier League titles and two Champions League trophies for simultaneously being one of the smallest and greatest players in the team.

Football – Manchester United v Wigan Athletic – Barclays Premier League – Old Trafford – 15/9/12 Paul Scholes celebrates scoring the first goal for Manchester United Mandatory Credit: Action Images / Jason Cairnduff Livepic EDITORIAL USE ONLY. No use with unauthorized audio, video, data, fixture lists, club/league logos or live services. Online in-match use limited to 45 images, no video emulation. No use in betting, games or single club/league/player publications. Please contact your account representative for further details.

CM: Juninho

Height: 5 foot and 5 inches (165cm)

Ah, our most promising hopeful to lift the Gold Cup aloft at Cheltenham, Juninho proved that big things can come in small packages by lighting up the Premier League despite measuring in as the smallest player in our XI.

Juninho is one of the division’s most iconic cult heroes thanks to mixing World Cup glory for Brazil with suffering relegation for Middlesbrough, spending three separate spells at the club and being voted their greatest ever player.

RW: Alexis Sanchez

Height: 5 foot and 7 inches (169cm)

Is there any position on the pitch that lends itself more to small and nippy players than out wide? With short and slight icons of the game like Lionel Messi and Garrincha having terrorised the touchline, the answer is almost certainly ‘no’.

And while Sanchez might never have reached the heights of those aforementioned South American legends, the ex-Arsenal and Manchester United sensation remains one of the most entertaining players in Premier League history.

With a muscly physique, electric turn of pace and indefatigable work ethic, Sanchez must have looked twice the size of his actual height when he flew towards defences during his prime at Emirates Stadium.

Soccer Football – Premier League – Everton v Manchester United – Goodison Park, Liverpool, Britain – April 21, 2019 Manchester United’s Alexis Sanchez during the warm up before the match REUTERS/Andrew Yates EDITORIAL USE ONLY. No use with unauthorized audio, video, data, fixture lists, club/league logos or “live” services. Online in-match use limited to 75 images, no video emulation. No use in betting, games or single club/league/player publications. Please contact your account representative for further details.

ST: Jermain Defoe

Height: 5 foot and 7 inches (171cm)

Yes, that’s right, not all Premier League number nines have to stand with their head amongst the clouds ready to volley a brick into the net with only eight players having ever scored more goals in the division than Defoe.

The former Tottenham Hotspur hero might only stand six centimetres above the smallest player on the team sheet, leading to just one headed goal in the top-flight, but the dizzying heights of 162 goals speaks for itself.

LW: Gianfranco Zola

Height: 5 foot and 6 inches (168cm)

A low centre of gravity can often be a key and deadly tactic when it comes to Premier League wingers who thrive off intricate dribbling, fooling defenders and wiggling their way into the box; all things that Zola was a genius at.

While we’re admittedly playing him a little out of position away from his preferred second-striker role, the Chelsea legend simply couldn’t miss out on our XI with his diminutive stature contributing to many of his most iconic moments.

Aston Villa v Chelsea. Premier League 26/12/96. Gianfranco Zola celebrates his second goal with Roberto Di Matteo Pic: Alan Cozzi/Action Images

Big things can come in small packages

Now, while we couldn’t claim to know whether these 11 players would thrive as much at Cheltenham as their physiques would suggest, there’s no denying the quality and entertainment that they brought to the Premier League.

And at the end of the day, the diversity in body types across England’s top-flight is living proof of the fact that talent and quality rules above everything else. If you’re good enough, you’re good enough.

Besides, although the modern, digital world can often make it look as though you need to be a rippling adonis to have the perfect body, Cheltenham jockeys as well as our line-up go to show that ‘big’ isn’t always better.

So, who knows, maybe Kante and Ake are dreaming of riding three miles horseback across the Gloucestershire grass, or perhaps they’re just satisfied putting their physical attributes towards Premier League glory.

Either way, it goes to show that talent, ability and hard work can come in all different shapes and sizes

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