The third international break of the European soccer season is one for projection. You’re through nearly a third of your club season, the stakes of your campaign have been defined, and you’re less than two months from the January transfer window. It’s time to figure out your needs and the stopgap additions you’d be willing to make in a few weeks.
While humongous moves are rare in January, it’s certainly an opportunity for clubs with resources to plug some holes. With that in mind, let’s look at the most monied clubs in Europe: What do they need? Who could they pursue within a reasonably discounted price range?
We have lots of tools at our disposal for a piece like this: Sam Goldberg’s and Mike Imburgio’s DAVIES model offers interesting analytical input, as do the StatsBomb percentile profiles at FBref.com. Using tools such as these, and trying as hard as possible to find players valued at $30 million or less at Transfermarkt (or, for the “cheap” additions, $3 million or less), let’s make some moves!
Most immediate need: midfield stability
The Gunners are smoking hot, unbeaten in all competitions since October and up to fifth in the Premier League. The good news is, they’re hot despite midfielder Granit Xhaka‘s MCL injury and a general lack of production from star acquisition Martin Odegaard (1.48 chances and 0.11 xA+xG per 90). The bad news: Xhaka is hurt, and Odegaard hasn’t been that productive. If they’re serious about pushing for a top-four finish, they might want another veteran ball progressor to pair with the very much in-form Thomas Partey.
The 26-year-old Pasalic would be a fun story. A former member of the Chelsea loan army, he’s in his fourth season at Atalanta and continues to grow more productive — he averaged 0.49 xA+xG per 90 last season and is at 0.56 for 2021-22. He’s versatile, proven and fantastic in the air. Ripart would be intriguing. He has averaged eight goals and 23 chances created over the past three Ligue 1 seasons, and has already played wing, midfield and centre-forward for Troyes this year.
Most immediate need: some decent crosses
Chelsea have all the money in the world and sit at the top of the table, three points up on Manchester City and West Ham United. They’ve got both young and veteran options at nearly every position, and they’ve continued to rack up points despite missing striker Romelu Lukaku to injury.
For all of their weapons, though, they could use a bit more versatility in buildup and attack. They neither attempt, nor land, a lot of crosses (11th in crosses per 90, 20th in completion rate), and Savanier is versatile, productive (2.7 chances and 0.51 xA+xG per 90) and one of the most active and successful crossers in Europe’s Big Five leagues. If the club wanted to spend less — something not really in owner Roman Abramovich’s DNA — the veteran Embarba has been productive (2.1 chances, 0.34 xA+xG) for a team that very much is not.
Most immediate need: midfield depth
It was a surprise when Liverpool didn’t move to replace midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum after he left for Paris Saint-Germain, instead bringing in only a centre-back, Ibrahima Konate from RB Leipzig. The club was evidently satisfied with internal options, but injuries have rendered that plan a mess. Harvey Elliott is out for the long term, Thiago has been in and out once again and Jordan Henderson is the only midfielder who has been on the pitch for more than 60% of the Reds’ Premier League minutes. It’s mostly worked out — Liverpool are only four points back of Chelsea — but it feels like an unnecessary risk.
The 24-year-old Neuhaus would be an exciting addition. The Bundesliga’s version of Declan Rice, he is sturdy in a defensive midfield role winning duels and racking up ball recoveries, but in just over 1,000 minutes in a central midfield role since the start of 2020-21, he’s also scored three goals with 14 chances created. Equally, 31-year-old Rudy is a reliable chance creator and has scored twice in 530 minutes this season.
Most immediate need: finishing
I’d love to be able to take a left turn and say, “The club tried and failed to land Spurs’ Harry Kane this summer, but what they really need is …” It’s good to be unpredictable, right? But nearly one-third of the way through the season, City’s biggest need is an extremely predictable one. They have generated 24.2 xG in 11 Premier League matches, second-most, but they’ve scored only 22, fourth-most. This isn’t an outright emergency, but it’s certainly an area for improvement, and En-Nesyri would be a stopgap with upside. (Maybe too much upside: His Transfermarkt value is a rule-breaking $44m. But what is money, anyway?)
En-Nesyri is decent from a pressing standpoint and isn’t much of a passer, but they’ve already got creators — they need a finisher, and En-Nesyri has turned 36.3 xG into 38 goals over his past four LaLiga seasons. (He’s also turned 3.3 xG into six goals in Champions League play in that span.) If City wanted to save their dough for a Kane or Erling Haaland push later on, Castellanos, from City’s Major League Soccer sister club, is defensively active and just won the Golden Boot in MLS with 19 goals.
Most immediate need: ball progression
United’s summer additions of Cristiano Ronaldo and Jadon Sancho were obviously expensive and loaded with upside. They were also a bit confusing: United now have more world-class (or close to it) attackers than they can field at any one time, and they still have a less-than-elite midfield progressing the ball to them. Adding the low-pressure Ronaldo also limited their ability to press high — they’re 13th in the league in both possessions started in the attacking third (6.2) and passes allowed per defensive action (14.0).
Adding the 26-year old Grillitsch would help in both progression and defense. His 89% pass completion rate ranks fourth among Bundesliga midfielders (min. 500 minutes), and he is excellent in both the duels and interventions departments. And if thinking more short-term, then the 32-year-old Parejo is steady in ball progression and is averaging 2.0 chances created per 90.
Most immediate need: midfield upside
In his first two matches as Spurs manager, Antonio Conte started his team in a 3-4-3 formation against Vitesse in the Europa Conference League and in a 3-4-2-1 against Everton. The primary width was provided by full-backs Sergio Reguilon and Emerson, both of whom are far more “back” than “wing” in wing-back roles.
It would behoove the club to have more of an attacking option in the wide areas of the pitch, and whether his team has the ball or not, the 25-year-old Nandez is going to attack. According to the StatsBomb scouting reports at FBref.com, he rates in the 96th percentile among full-backs in ball pressures (63rd percentile among midfielders), 81st in progressive pass received (85th) and 79th percentile in shot-creating actions (68th). He brings both experience and energy up and down the right touchline. And if Spurs would rather aim for a rawer jolt of energy, the 19-year old Tolkin (85th percentile among full-backs in pressures, 78th in shot-creating actions) would be a fun option to consider.
Most immediate need: defensive stability
The notoriously stingy Diego Simeone has slowly attempted to open Atleti’s game up through the years, and they won LaLiga in 2020-21 with a pretty beneficial combination: first in goals allowed, second in goals scored. This year, the balance is off — they’re second in goals scored, but seventh in goals allowed. They still allow the fewest shots, but opponents are creating more high-quality looks. This has been an issue in the Champions League in particular, given they allowed five goals to Liverpool in two matches.
There’s plenty of blame to go around: keeper Jan Oblak hasn’t been quite as world-class as in years past, and the 3-1-4-2 and 3-4-2-1 formations Simeone has leaned on this year are vulnerable to counterattacks and high-quality chances if wing-backs Yannick Carrasco and (especially) Kieran Trippier get caught too far upfield. But one of Atleti’s biggest issues right now is simply that their centre-backs — Stefan Savic, Jose Gimenez and Mario Hermoso — haven’t performed up to team standards. Adding competition in the form of the towering Milenkovic, or the smaller and more active Chardonnet, might be the most beneficial short-term maneuver.
Most immediate need: better options at centre-back
That Barca are in need of a boost in the back certainly makes more sense than Atleti. Their personnel on the back line is a messy mix of younger pieces finding their way (Sergino Dest, Eric Garcia, Ronald Araujo) and veterans well into their 30s (Gerard Pique and Jordi Alba, plus Sergio Busquets in defensive midfield), and outside of new striker Memphis Depay, nearly the entire roster consists of players outside of the normal prime window of ages 24 to 28. Worse, they don’t have much money to make big-splash acquisitions.
Ginter, 27, might be out of their price range, too — Xavi reportedly has a 10m transfer budget this January — but he’s more affordable than most options. He’s a possession-oriented centre-back who’s solid in the air and more physical than Garcia, and while he’s not an outright defensive stopper, he’s further along than Garcia or Araujo. And if he costs too much, Ferrari, 29, would be a solid stopgap. He gets in the way of lots of passes and is high-end from a buildup perspective.
Stewart Robson explains what Xavi can change to ensure Barcelona don’t blow more points in LaLiga.
Most immediate need: another threat on the right
Despite minimal recent activity on the transfer market, Real Madrid are slowly transitioning from old to new. Vinicius Junior is enjoying a ferocious breakthrough at age 21 (he’s on pace for 22 goals and 60 chances created in league play alone), and while veterans still dominate in midfield, Federico Valverde and Eduardo Camavinga are in place for the future. They’re a little bit lopsided, however. Vinicius occupies the left side of the attack, but no one has necessarily stood out on the right.
Calabria might. He is solid in either a right-back or right wing-back role, he’s dynamite from a pressure standpoint and he’s aggressive in his passing. Of course, he is also Milan’s captain and might hesitate to leave. But if that doesn’t work out, or Los Blancos want to save their money for bigger moves on the horizon, Centonze fits a similar profile: aggressive in defence, progressive in attack.
Most immediate need: right-back
One of a small handful of teams that could claim to be the best in Europe right now, Bayern have dropped only two matches in six months. They lead the Bundesliga and needed only four matches (all wins, with a 17-2 goal differential) to qualify for the Champions League knockout stages. They’ve got depth that perhaps only Manchester City and Chelsea can match, and the only area where they could potentially use help at the moment is at right-back, where Benjamin Pavard is playing his way back into form and Josip Stanisic has gotten more of a run than expected of late.
If they wanted, they could try to do what Bayern do: pluck worthy pieces from rivals. Mbabu is a solid, progressive passer who has done a lot of dirty work in defense for Wolfsburg through the years, and he’s still only 26. Thinking more long-term, they could take another look at the 17-year-old Che — he joined Bayern’s U19s last winter, then returned to MLS and combined a load of defensive interventions with three assists and an 81% completion rate in the attacking third. He’s not Alphonso Davies, but he’s going to be good.
Most immediate need: centre-back
Borussia Dortmund are always thinking in the present and future tenses in the same moment. They’re one of the three strongest clubs in Germany at virtually all times, but they’re always having to figure out how to replace current young stars with future young stars. Sancho departed for a truckload of cash last summer, Haaland will likely leave this summer, and so on.
Despite frustrating injury issues for both Haaland and winger Giovanni Reyna this fall, the biggest issue BVB face at the moment comes at the back, where centre-back Mats Hummels is slowly aging out and at least one potential replacement, 24-year-old Marin Pongracic, has struggled to get his footing since coming over from Wolfsburg. Dortmund are allowing 1.55 goals per match (most of any team in the top half of the Bundesliga table) and 0.14 xG per shot (16th), and while transition defence has been an issue, they could use a stopper.
The 24-year-old Bremer has gone from good to incredible for Torino this season, not only leading Serie A in ball recoveries to date but also winning 53% of duels and putting five shots on target with one goal. He’s ready for a big move. Aguerd might be, too; he’s fantastic in the air and one of the safest-passing defenders in Serie A.
Most immediate need: a younger finisher
Milan and Napoli have raced out ahead of the pack in Serie A, seven points up on third-place Inter, and Milan have done so — and scored the second-most goals in the league — without much of a striker presence. Veterans Olivier Giroud (35), Ante Rebic (28) and Zlatan Ibrahimovic (40) have commanded most of the minutes at centre-forward, but have done as much creating (28 combined chances created) as scoring (eight goals). It’s working, and attacking midfielders Rafael Leao and Brahim Diaz are thriving, but bringing in an approaching-his-prime striker wouldn’t be the worst idea.
David is a little outside of the value parameters ($38.5m market value), but he’s too perfect a fit not to mention. The 24-year-old Canada international is excellent from a pressure perspective, and going back to his days at Gent, he’s scored at least 12 goals in three straight seasons. It will soon be four straight. Then again, why not hop into the front car of the Pepi bandwagon? The 18-year-old American combined 13 goals with 18 chances created, and he’s also excellent in the pressing game. Studying under Giroud would be almost perfect for the El Paso native.
Most immediate need: younger options out wide
All things considered, Inter’s early season has been a massive success. They had to replace Lukaku, Achraf Hakimi and manager Conte, but they’ve lost only once in Serie A and after a slow start, they’ve made their way into second place in their Champions League group.
In the wide midfielder roles, however, they’re getting most of their work from 32-year-old Ivan Perisic and 31-year old Matteo Darmian. Federico Dimarco and Denzel Dumfries could play their way into larger roles, but the 27-year-old Dubois has become one of the best passers in Ligue 1 and could pair nicely with star midfielders Nicolo Barella and Marcelo Brozovic.
If Lyon can’t bear to part with another star, go young! The 20-year-old Araujo ranked in the MLS top 30 in both assists and ball recoveries and is electric on the right touchline.
Most immediate need: goalkeeper of the future
Max Allegri’s first season back in charge at Juve has been messy. The Bianconeri have blazed through four Champions League matches, but a terribly mediocre start to Serie A play has left them in ninth place, four points back of the top four. They aren’t making enough of their scoring chances, but opponents are finding it a little too easy to both create quality chances and put balls past keeper Wojciech Szczesny. He’s rebounded a bit from a poor start, but it’s certainly drawn attention to the fact that he’s 31, and there’s no obvious keeper of the future in the pipeline.
This could be quite the buy-low opportunity for Simon. After an incredible 2019-20 campaign (8.3 goals prevented, per StatsPerform), he labored through a less impressive 2020-21 (-2.7), but after a strong Euro 2020 he’s back on the right side of the goals prevented line — +0.4 so far for 2021-22. And Coronel, another, far cheaper 24-year-old, is finishing up an absurdly impressive MLS season on loan at New York Red Bulls: 8.2 goals prevented with solid sweeper-keeper tendencies.
Gab & Juls explain the strange approach Max Allegri is taking to try to fix Juventus’ poor form.
Most immediate need: another attacking midfielder
This feels like Napoli’s moment. After a couple of seasons of strong performance and some frustrating missed opportunities, the Partenopei have exploded out of the gate under new manager Luciano Spalletti. The lineup has been pretty steady, and they’re combining a solid attack (third in xG) and incredible defence (first in xG allowed). Lorenzo Insigne and Victor Osimhen (combined: nine goals, 35 chances created) are thriving, and Hirving Lozano has two goals as a super-sub, but depth could become an issue over time, especially as they potentially make a deep Europa League run.
Fekir, 28, can play either as an attacking midfielder or winger, and while he takes a lot of low-percentage shots, he also creates a ton of chances for others — he’s second in LaLiga with 33 — and would provide both depth and upside. If they want a more affordable bench option, the well-traveled 30-year-old Katai has scored in about every league in the world, from MLS to LaLiga, and would provide a steady hand in case of injury.
Most immediate need: extra defensive oomph
Even though they can’t get stars Kylian Mbappe, Lionel Messi and Neymar on the pitch at the same time, things are going just fine for PSG: They’re 10 points up in the Ligue 1 race already, and moments of brilliance have left them unbeaten in Champions League play. But they allowed four goals in two UCL matches against RB Leipzig, and they’ve managed only three clean sheets in their past 12 matches in all competitions. They allow a ton of shots — 0.144 per possession, 15th in Ligue 1 — and even though they’ve got two of the world’s best goalkeepers (Keylor Navas and Gianluigi Donnarumma), that’s unnecessary pressure.
Time to pluck from a rival, then. Kamara is one of the best young defenders in France, strong from both an interventions and passing perspective, and with veteran addition Sergio Ramos struggling to overcome injury, Kamara would fit in well next to Marquinhos. Girotto is older (29), but is even more active and occasionally dangerous in attack.