smarterthinking

Suggested Signings – January '24

Looking at the needs of 10 clubs from top leagues

As the January 2024 transfer window nears kick off, we've put together a few ‘Suggested Signings’ recommendations for several top clubs. As the title might suggest, we will focus on picking out a few players selected teams should look at with the help of Smarterscout’s intuitive analytics platform.

To kick things off we will start with the top 2 teams in the German Bundesliga; Bayer Leverkusen and Bayern Munich

First up: Surprise Bundesliga leaders Bayer Leverkusen.

Xabi Alonso’s side seemed to be on the up since the Spaniard took charge last season, but nobody could have foreseen such a strong start to the 2023/24 campaign. Their results and performances have clearly placed them as serious title contenders, so they might have to do some work in the window to consolidate their position.

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Looking at their squad, we can identify a couple of areas of potential weakness. Alejandro Grimaldo has been an absolute revelation at left wing-back, but he has no backup. Similarly, Victor Boniface has taken the league by storm as their new striker, so the out-of-form Patrik Schick and Adam Hložek do not seem perfectly fit to stand in for him when he leaves for the Africa Cup of Nations in January.

Left Wing-Backs

Let us start by looking for a left wing-back or two. Having assessed Grimaldo’s key traits, we can search our extensive database by preparing a smartersearch filter.

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The first name that stands out is Loïc Lapoussin. The Madagascar international has been consistently impressing for Union Saint-Gilloise since joining them in 2021, offering a unique threat as a left wing-back. Being right-footed, he is somewhat different to Grimaldo in terms of player profile, but he too can produce serious attacking output with good dribbling to boot. 

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Another option could be Álvaro Barreal. The 23-year-old Argentine has been a revelation on the left for MLS Supporters’ Shield winners FC Cincinnati, returning with a double-digit goal involvement output. Overall, he has looked solid across many departments.

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The similarities in league style between the German Bundesliga and MLS are well-known due to their transition-heavy natures, so this could be the perfect path to Europe for Barreal. For Leverkusen, too, he would be a great understudy behind Grimaldo and potentially also one for the future as the Spanish wing-back is already starting to attract the interest of bigger clubs around the continent.

Strikers

Next up, let us look for a striker.

The first sign that we have prepared good search filters is the fact that Boniface himself is one of the first results. There are some other excellent names alongside him such as Darwin Núñez, Santiago Giménez and Loïs Openda, but of course, we must look for a realistic fit for Leverkusen.

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Emmanuel Latte Lath is an interesting pick as he has not had the best of starts since joining Middlesbrough this summer. He has only scored a couple of goals in 12 matches, but our model still rates his shooting and attacking output very highly. Nevertheless, signing him would be a risk.

Scrolling down, names like Johannes Eggestien and Kevin Denkey stand out as ones who might be great backups behind Boniface and could also take up the mantle in the future if the Nigerian international moves on to pastures new. Neither of them would come cheap mid-season, though, so Leverkusen might be best served trusting what they have and hoping for the best for now.

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Next Up: Record Bundesliga champions Bayern Munich.

Bayern’s quest for a 12th-consecutive Bundesliga title has not gone ideally so far. They find themselves trailing to Bayer Leverkusen, who have a better defensive record than them going into the new year.

Looking at their squad, it is quite clear that the defensive department is indeed where they need reinforcement. They only have three senior centre-backs, of whom the only left centre-back will be away for over a month at the Asian Cup.

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They might also look for a right-back, as they were in for Manchester City’s Kyle Walker in the summer but the deal ultimately fell through. Noussair Mazraoui has certainly not made the position his own, as midfielder Konrad Laimer has often replaced him there.

Left Centre-Backs

The priority surely has to be the centre-back position, so let us focus on that first. Having assessed Kim Min-jae’s qualities by taking a look at his profile, we can start by filtering our smartersearch criteria.

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Quite encouragingly, the first result for this set of filters is Kim himself. Below him, one name that keeps reappearing across his various campaigns is Abdülkerim Bardakcı

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The Turkish centre-back has been quite impressive at Galatasaray, earning high praise from former Bayern head coach Julian Nagelsmann among others. His consistently excellent defensive quality is exactly what Bayern need, and the fact that he is excelling in a league Kim previously played in is only another positive.

At 29 years old, Bardakcı might not be the smartest long-term signing, but in a time of need for Bayern as they need to recover the league while also navigating the Champions League knockouts, he could be the right person to turn to.

In a similar vein, Lewis Dunk might be a good stopgap, although he is even older and will likely be more expensive coming from the Premier League. Towards the other end of the age spectrum, our model suggests 22-year-old Strahinja Pavlović from RB Salzburg.

Within the German Bundesliga, youngsters such as Willian Pacho, Piero Hincapié, Maximilian Wöber and Edmond Tapsoba pop up, although they would all be tough to acquire from direct rivals mid-season.

As ever, there are a lot of circumstances involved which determine the feasibility of making a major signing in the winter window, so it is not an ideal position for any top team to find themselves in.

Right-Backs

Finally, let us look at some right-backs who can do a job in Bayern’s possession-based system.

Ironically, the first result our smartersearch filters yield is Benjamin Pavard, who left Bayern for Inter last summer. Below him, one of the first names that pops up is Ferdi Kadıoğlu. Although he has spent more time as a left-back this season, he is naturally right-footed and impressed on that side last season.

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Of course, his versatility can only be a positive, so that is all the more reason for Bayern to go in for him. If they cannot get Fenerbahçe to part ways with him mid-season, though, they might want to look at Sacha Boey, who plays for their rivals Galatasaray. We highlighted his impressive performances earlier this season, so Bayern might want to act quickly because a move to a top-five league seems imminent for him.

Entirely coincidentally, this piece has become a bit of a Süper Lig showcase, but that only goes to show the increasing talent in the league. From elsewhere, a couple of options include Juan Foyth of Villarreal and Ulsan Hyundai’s Seol Young-woo.

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This time: Dutch giants Ajax

The record Eredivisie champions have endured a very poor start to the season which saw them drop to the very bottom of the table at one point. Now, they have pushed back up into the top five, but with a 23-point deficit to runaway leaders PSV, the title seems out of question once again.

Their realistic aim should now be to overturn the nine-point deficit to third-placed FC Twente in order to enter the qualifying rounds of the Champions League next season. Having failed to do so last season, one of the big reasons behind their continued slide was their poor transfer business in the summer. As a result, they have had to play a lot of youngsters and fast-track many of their academy talents’ moves to the senior team.

This was epitomised in a recent European fixture, where 17-year-old centre-back Jorrel Hato became the club’s youngest-ever captain. Although he – and many of his fellow academy graduates – have looked impressive, the squad could certainly do with more experienced campaigners.

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So, we will look for players aged 24 or older, mainly in the spine of the team as the attacking positions especially do have some well-established senior professionals.

Centre-Backs

For a defence that ranks in the bottom half of the league, strengthening the centre-back position must be a priority. A solid defender with strong ball retention has to be the order of the day. Someone from the top-five leagues would be ideal, although anyone playing for sides qualified for the continental knockouts must be considered off the table realistically.

Someone like 30-year-old John Anthony Brooks – who is a solid defender and quite strong in duels – could be an important no-nonsense centre-back signing for Ajax in the short-term.

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Bringing him away from Hoffenheim and their quest to qualify for Europe through the league might not be easy, though, so it is worth assessing some more options.

Considering Ajax’s club identity and preferred style of play, they might also want someone who is a pretty good ball player besides being a solid defender. Fluminense’s Nino might be the best option with that in mind, as our model rates his on and off-ball work quite highly with respect to the Eredivisie level.

 

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Indeed, the Americas are a good place to look towards at this time of year given the fact that they are between seasons and therefore more willing to shuffle their squads. From that part of the world, our search also yields names such as River Plate’s Paulo Díaz, Boca Juniors’ Bruno Valdez, Palmeiras’ Murilo Cerqueira and Racing Club’s Gonzalo Piovi.

Defensive Midfielders

Similarly, a solid number six with great defensive qualities who also offers security on the ball should be a useful addition to Ajax’s midfield.

Vasco da Gama’s Jair is the first name that pops up in our search, although our model was more impressed by his work at Atlético Mineiro in 2022. Having only just survived a relegation battle in the Brasileirão, he could well be tempted by a move to a club of Ajax’s stature.

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He is not exactly a pure number six though as he does play a little further forward at times, so another option could be Erick Pulgar. He fits the bill with great defensive quality, ball retention and success in duels, as well as good coverage of the centre of the pitch.

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A couple of other interesting names from our model’s output are Millonarios’ Larry Vásquez and Seattle Sounders’ João Paulo.

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Next up: Liverpool

The Reds find themselves in a serious title race going into the new year, but they have not looked all that strong throughout the season so far. They have had to fight back from trailing in many of their matches, and their squad generally does seem to lack the outright quality it did during their best recent years. It also has some clear holes after a somewhat questionable summer transfer window, so there definitely is scope for work to be done in the winter.

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Defensive Midfielders

The area of the squad that most clearly needs strengthening is the defensive midfield department. Wataru Endo was very much a last-minute stopgap summer signing and he does not look like a long-term first-choice starter. Alexis Mac Allister, who is more comfortable playing further up in midfield, has had to fill in on many occasions, but that too is only a temporary solution to mask this issue.

Having set our smartersearch criteria to look for a suitable player who absolutely excels on the defensive side of things and is secure enough on the ball, let us dig into some of the names our model throws up.

Our model has rated Mikel Vesga’s defensive work highly for quite a few seasons now. At 30 years old, he too is not the best long-term option for this position, but he could do a very solid job for a couple of years and buy Liverpool time to patiently find the right player and deal.

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Fluminense’s Andre has been linked with a move to Liverpool for a good few months now, but there can be questions asked about whether he can be the defensively solid number six Liverpool need because his on-ball quality stands out more. Instead, our model suggests his midfield partner Matheus Martinelli. Given the fluid nature of Fluminense’s style of play, the same question might be asked of him, but he stands out as a super-secure passer who might be more suited to a positionally disciplined role.

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From the English Championship, our model has also really liked Sondre Tronstad’s work for Blackburn Rovers this season. Going in for him right now might be a case of biting the bullet too early as he has not even spent a full season in England, but he could be worth keeping an eye on.

Similarly, Right to Dream academy graduate Abu Francis really impressed with Cercle Brugge last season, but has been sidelined by a major injury so far this season.

Right Wingers

Albeit at a lower priority, Liverpool should also be on the lookout for right wingers as Mohamed Salah’s time at Anfield seems to be drawing to a close. Using our similar players search option, let us see what we can find.

The very first name that pops up is Anders Dreyer. The 25-year-old Danish forward has been on fire for Anderlecht this season, already hitting double digits in terms of league goals. Like Salah, he excels at both receiving in the box and especially shooting.

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However, this is his first properly prolific goal-scoring season in his career so far, and the fact that he is overperforming his xG by some margin will also inflate his price. Clearly, there are reasons to be sceptical about signing him, so it would be best to continue keeping tabs on him rather than make a bid right now.

Javi Puado is another interesting shout. He too is enjoying a great goal-scoring season with Espanyol in the Segunda División having broken into double digits, while his xG conversion seems much more sustainable and his return of 7 La Liga goals for a relegated team last season was not bad either. Although he has nominally been used in a more central attacking position, his smartermap clearly shows that he gravitates towards the right wing.

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Of course, Liverpool are not obliged to sign a like-for-like replacement. Instead, they could simply look for a right winger with high attacking output and a serious goal threat.

A couple of interesting names our model suggests include Girona’s Viktor Tsygankov and Shakhtar Donetsk’s Oleksandr Zubkov. If Salah does stay for one more season, a younger talent might be a better option. Our model points towards PSV’s Johan Bakayoko, who has already been linked with Liverpool, and also says Vasco da Gama’s Gabriel Pec and Ligue 2 attacker Logan Delaurier-Chaubet are worth keeping an eye on.

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This time: Tottenham Hotspur

Spurs fans have thoroughly enjoyed the season so far. Ange Postecoglu has had an instant impact at the club, not just with results but more importantly in terms of the playing style which has entertained supporters and neutrals alike. They look set to compete for a Champions League spot going into the new year, but everyone knows this is far from the final form of Postecoglu’s side.

The Australian manager inherited a squad from Antonio Conte that did not suit his playing style at all. Although there was some movement over the summer, what he needs is almost a complete renovation which takes a few windows to be done properly. The winter window is not the best of times to make massive moves, but there certainly are some things Tottenham can do to support their head coach’s work.

In particular, a quick glance at their squad makes it quite clear that they need reinforcements in the front line.

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Wingers

Although Postecoglu likes to use touchline wingers, he has not been blessed with many of them at Spurs currently. Such players who pose a serious dribbling threat must be the number one priority, so let us set our smartersearch criteria and start digging.

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We will start by searching for some left wingers because Dejan Kulusevski is doing a pretty good job on the right, so this must be the priority. Of course, if we happen to find someone who can play on both flanks, that is a nice bonus.

As it turns out, one of our model’s first suggestions is such a player. Nathan Tella impressed for Burnley in the Championship last season on either wing, producing great output too with 17 goals and 5 assists.

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The trouble with him is that he only moved to Bayer Leverkusen this summer, but that move has not played out as anyone would have liked. Although he has not been injured, the Nigerian winger has played a paltry 79 minutes in the Bundesliga so far this season in Xabi Alonso’s outright winger-less system (although he has been used more regularly in the Europa League). A cheeky bid could well tempt both the player and club.

Still, it is worth looking at some more realistic options, especially because Tella will be away for a month at the AFCON. If Tottenham are willing to sign someone in the latter half of their 20s, Marcinho could be a great option. Not only is he a deadly dribbler with great link-up passing as well, but he could also be quite attainable if Postecoglu’s J. League connections are leveraged.

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He can be quite hot and cold in and around the box, but stylistically the Brazilian winger seems a great fit for Spurs. We’ll throw in a couple of extra names nevertheless: Reims’ summer signing Mohamed Daramy (who will be hard to prize away from France), MLS attacker Kwadwo Opoku and Ghanaian international Osman Bukari, who can all be deployed on either flank.

Strikers

After Harry Kane’s departure in the summer, Tottenham need a striker. Richarlison and Son have done an admirable job filling in and the signing of Alejo Véliz could be a great one for the future, but Spurs need an out-and-out line-leading poacher who can deliver right now.

If Tottenham are willing to splash the cash a bit, an obvious name our model suggests above everyone else is Artem Dovbyk. He only joined Girona this summer but has been tearing up La Liga on the back of a very impressive season in the Ukrainian Premier League.

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Given how well his team are performing, Dovbyk will likely be even harder to get than Tella and undoubtedly cost quite a bit if at all available.

A slightly more attainable target might be Tolu Arokodare. He joined Genk last winter and has impressed in Belgium, having also done well in Ligue 2 prior to that.

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The Belgian side could well be willing to part ways with him for the right price since they do have a couple of other similar strikers in their squad.

A couple of other names worth looking at are Benfica’s Petar Musa and Hamburg’s Robert Glatzel.

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Now: Manchester United

It is now over a decade since David Moyes famously said that Manchester United must improve in a number of areas, including passing, creating chances and defending, and his statement still seems to hold true. After seemingly taking a step in the right direction under Erik ten Hag last season, they have headed backwards again this term due to a number of reasons.

There is quite a bit to dig into in that respect, but that should not be our concern in this piece. Our job is to suggest some transfers, so let us take a quick glance at their squad to identify the areas that need work the most urgently.

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Defensive Midfielders

Apart from the ageing and injury (and suspension)-prone Casemiro, Manchester United do not have a recognised out-and-out defensive midfielder. Young academy star Kobbie Mainoo seems to be a real talent, but they could do with a seasoned professional around the peak of his career.

In order to ensure a sure success signing, we will limit our search to our designated Tier 1 and Tier 2 leagues.

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One of the first names that pops up is that of a man who has already been linked with Manchester United. RB Leipzig’s Amadou Haidara has been quietly going about his business for a number of seasons in the Bundesliga. Although he has played in a two-player midfield for the majority of this season so far, he did do a great job as a defensive midfielder in 2022/23.

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Staying in Germany, Stuttgart’s Angelo Stiller has been mightily impressive in their surprise top-four charge this season. He only joined them in the summer, though, so he will likely not be for sale at a cheap price, and his suitability for a lone number six role is debatable.

24-year-old Mats Wieffer of Feyenoord could be another great fit by all metrics if available for the right price mid-season. We wrote about him a few weeks ago, as our model had already picked up on his impressive performances.

 

 

 

If Manchester United want to look at a younger option, Las Palmas’ 20-year-old Argentine midfielder Maximo Perrone is the pick of the bunch. What such a signing might mean for Mainoo, though, is an important question they must answer first.

Right Wingers

Further ahead on the field, the right wing position has proven quite problematic for Manchester United. Antony’s signing has not gone well at all for both on-pitch reasons and significant off-pitch issues, while Jadon Sancho has never seemed to get going either and by all accounts does not see eye-to-eye with Ten Hag.

So, let us turn to smartersearch and see what it has to offer.

Genk’s Joseph Paintsil has the potential to prove to be a fantastic signing. The 25-year-old Ghanaian winger lit the Belgian Pro League on fire last season with 14 goals and 12 assists, showing exceptional on-ball threat through carrying, creating chances and shooting thanks to his top-class technique and intelligence.

 

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A slightly younger option could be Celtic’s Liel Abada. The 22-year-old winger reached 15 goal involvements in each of the last two Scottish Premiership seasons, but he has spent a good chunk of this one out injured. He is close to returning to action now, though, so as long as his issue is not too concerning he should be worth a look.

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An even younger option would be Roony Bardghji, the teenage FC København who contributed to Manchester United’s Champions League elimination. He might yet have to be considered one for the future, though, so someone like Real Sociedad’s Japanese star Takefusa Kubo could slot in more immediately.

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Now: Barcelona

Barcelona’s La Liga title defence has not quite gone to plan so far. Going into the new year, they find themselves in fourth place with a seven-point deficit to the leading duo of Real Madrid and Girona. There are clear weaknesses on the pitch whenever they play, while their financial situation remains somewhat unstable.

Nevertheless, the Catalan giants are always likely to reinforce their squad whenever possible. They certainly cannot afford any silly-money business this winter, but a couple of shrewd signings would prove useful.

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Defensive Midfielders

Although Oriol Romeu seemed a bit of a steal at a transfer fee of just €4m from Girona, he has not proven to be the ideal heir to Sergio Busquets that everyone, including Xavi, envisioned him as. Although his ball retention has been quite good, his defensive quality has not been up to scratch. So, let us look for someone who stands out in both aspects.

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While names like Rodri and Joshua Kimmich are the first ones that pop up, we will zoom in on some more realistic options given Barcelona’s budget constraints.

Remo Freuler could be an interesting option. This season, he has been a key cog at the heart of midfield for Thiago Motta’s mightily impressive Bologna. Although he has not offered much attacking upside, the Swiss international has been a crucial part of his team’s efforts build out from the back and has offered good defensive solidity in front of the back line, covering a lot of the pitch in the process.

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The only trouble is that Freuler is on loan in Italy from Nottingham Forest, so signing him immediately might come with some additional hassle and perhaps cost.

In a similar vein, our model also thinks Marc Roca is worth a look even though he too is on loan at Real Betis from Leeds United. Over the last couple of seasons, he has been showing all the defensive and on-ball qualities that Barcelona should be looking for. An additional advantage he brings is immediate La Liga experience, which means he will not need any time to adapt to the league. 

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From the current Leeds squad itself, Glen Kamara is a standout pick. Our model rates his ground duelling abilities incredibly highly, giving him an extremely high rating of 96 for such situations both in and out of possession. His ball retention is quite good too.

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He too changed clubs at the start of this season, although his move from Rangers was permanent. Leeds paid around €6m for his services, so getting him for a seven-digit fee could prove tough.

If Barcelona are happy to take a chance on a slightly left-field option from a non-top five league (who should also come cheaper then), our model suggests Atlanta United’s Tristan Muyumba and Elfsborg’s Emmanuel Boateng.

Left-Backs

In defence, Barcelona could really do with a bit of strengthening in all positions. The highest priority has to be left-back, though, as young Alejandro Balde’s backup option Marcos Alonso is both aging and not the best replacement profile-wise.

Balde is often made to go quite high in position on the left of an effective front five or stay deep as a narrower full-back, in roles which require great dribbling ability and link-up passing respectively. So, these are the qualities we must look for in our potential targets. Brighton & Hove Albion’s Pervis Estupiñán might have been a perfect fit, but his muscle injury likely rules him out as an immediate option.

Again with the caveat of avoiding potentially very pricey players from the top teams, the name that stands out is that of Norwegian defender Fredrik Bjørkan. He broke through at Bodø/Glimt a few years ago before moving to then-Bundesliga side Hertha Berlin at the start of 2022. Following their relegation, though, he was loaned out to Feyenoord for whom he made just one appearance in the first half of the 2022/23 season. So, he returned to Glimt ahead of the 2023 season, and he has seemingly rediscovered his best form.

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Despite this recent failed move to mainland Europe, a club of Barcelona’s stature will surely be too big to turn down for Bjørkan. At Glimt, he is accustomed to a passing game not too dissimilar to Barcelona’s, so he should do a particularly good job in the deeper and narrower role.

A couple of potentially risky but equally high-value options from the Americas could be recently-capped Uruguayan international Maximiliano Araújo (who can also serve as a winger and therefore would clearly be suited to the more advanced role) and Bryan Ramírez of LDU Quito in Ecuador.

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This time: Real Madrid

Despite being perennial Champions League contenders, Real Madrid have only won La Liga once in the last three seasons and twice if we double the timespan. Last term, they finished 10 points behind rivals Barcelona, but things are looking good for them this time as they spent Christmas at the top of the tree.

Still, they have some work to do to stave off the challenges of the big contenders as well as surprise packages Girona, so let us take a look at some players that might improve a couple of key areas of their squad.

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Centre-Backs

In any world, Real Madrid must be monitoring the market for a young centre-back given the fact that three of their four options are on the wrong side of 30, but with Éder Militão and David Alaba suffering ACL injuries, they must act now. All things considered, we will look for proven and well-rounded defenders younger than the age of 25.

One of the first names that pops up is that of a Spaniard with good La Liga experience. Our model rates Dani Vivian’s defensive qualities very highly, giving him an xGAAR of +0.17 and +0.15 in the last couple of seasons.

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Although his ball retention rating does not stand out, that is only because of Athletic Club’s somewhat direct style of play. Some of his other stats clearly indicate that he is very capable on the ball as well, so he could be a great signing at the right price.

If Real Madrid are prepared to go all-out, Inter’s Alessandro Bastoni is the perfect centre-back to do so for. Season upon season, the now-24-year-old Italian international has excelled for the Nerazzuri both in and out of possession, so he is as close as they come to a sure bet in the fickle world of transfers.

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On the other hand, if Los Blancos want to wait until the summer before making such a big move and just bring in some squad depth at a much lower price, here is an outside shout for them: Yerson Mosquera. Our model liked his performances at FC Cincinnati this year enough to declare his defensive work would be quite good for a UCL-level team, while the Colombian federation presumably shared that assessment as they gave him his first senior national team call-up. Given his lack of notable prior experience, though, the 22-year-old defender would definitely be a bit of a risk at a time of an injury crisis.

Strikers

Given this immediate crisis at centre-back, the striker position certainly has to take a backseat in the order of priority, but there can be no doubt about the fact that Real Madrid could do with a prolific goal-scorer.

It would be unfair to Josleu to say that he has not been a good addition to the squad, but he certainly is not a replacement for Karim Benzema. It is a good job that summer signing Jude Bellingham has hit the ground running at speeds only Usain Bolt can match, because Real Madrid’s attacking record would look way worse without his contribution. To take some responsibility off his shoulders and with the Champions League knockouts coming up, a clinical number nine would be useful.

Having set all of our smartersearch filters, we will select the ‘hot’ badge for good measure to ensure we find players in fine form right now.

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At the same time, we will not concern ourselves with overly obvious and likely expensive options like Victor Boniface, Artem Dovbyk and Loïs Openda.

Braga’s Simon Banza looks exciting. Having hit double digits in terms of league goals last season, he already has 12 this term before the turn of the year! Across both seasons, his xG/shot average has been extremely high at over 0.20, which is clearly indicative of the fact that he gets on the end of very high-quality chances. His conversion rate does not look bad either.

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There are a couple of drawbacks about him, though. Firstly, Banza’s link-up play is as good as non-existent, which means he would almost have to be a pure poacher and would not be best suited to Real Madrid’s overall style of play. Also, he will be away for a few weeks at the Africa Cup of Nations, although that should not be a massive issue as he will be back for the Champions League knockouts.

A more well-rounded but also more pricey option would be Ollie Watkins. The Englishman is enjoying a great campaign under Unai Emery at Aston Villa, who will surely be very reluctant to let go of him. At a sensible price, though, he could prove to be a great signing given his fantastic goal threat and movement in and around the box as well as his ability to function in a fluid attack. 

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Considering Real Madrid’s current requirements, these are the two best matches our model has. However, a couple of younger players who fit this profile but should be given more time to prove themselves are Rijeka’s 19-year-old talent Franjo Ivanović and 21-year-old Uruguayan international Thiago Borbas. These two could be ones for the future.

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This time: Milan

After their disappointing title defence last season, Milan have not bounced back up as they would have liked. They did keep step with local rivals Inter in the first weeks of the season, but have now fallen 11 points behind them and seven off Juventus as well.

Although they clearly seem to have a starting XI of a title-challenging calibre, squad depth is the area where they seem to be lacking. So, that will be the focus of our scouting in this piece.

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Left-Backs

Theo Hernández has started every single match he has been available for this season, and that is because Milan have absolutely no depth at left-back. In the matches he has missed, experienced right-back Alessandro Florenzi has moved over to the left flank, but another conventional left-back option would be better to have in the squad.

With the possibility of Hernández leaving in the summer not out of question as well, it is worth looking for a relatively young left-back with the immediate quality to not look out of place in one of Serie A’s best teams. Having assessed the French international’s qualities to set our smartersearch criteria, the age filter will prove handy to whittle down the right targets.

An obvious pick that stands out from the top leagues in Europe is Miguel Gutiérrez. Having really impressed for Girona this season, he not only is a sure bet in terms of quality but also has a very similar profile to Hernández. Like the Frenchman, he is exceptional on the ball and can pose a threat by going infield or advancing out wide and overlapping.

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Of course, the main question mark surrounding Gutiérrez is the fee Girona will ask for to let him go mid-season as they stage a shock title charge. Real Madrid will also have a say as they have retained 50% of his playing rights, so negotiating a deal in January will not be easy.

A more attainable but potentially riskier option might be Facundo Zabala. He has been showing good link-up passing, dribbling and shooting abilities for several years now since moving to Cyprus, including on loan in Paraguay in 2023. Our model thinks he would not look out of place in Serie A, so it is worth asking Venezia how much they would want to part ways with him.

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A couple of other options our model suggests include Ian Maatsen, who impressed on loan at Burnley in the Championship last season but has barely featured for Chelsea this term, and Caio Paulista, whose impressive season in the league has attracted a lot of interest from Brazilian champions Palmeiras at the time of writing.

Left Wingers

Funnily enough, the two positions Milan’s best players operate in are the ones where they lack depth the most. In the attacking left wing position, Rafael Leão has no direct competition, although the likes of Noah Okafor and Christian Pulisic can slot in if needed. With the Portuguese international being a constant subject of interest from financially stronger European giants, though, it is worth keeping an eye out for a potential heir.

An interesting name that immediately pops out is Ansu Fati. Once billed as the next superstar at Barcelona, he did not quite live up to that potential in Catalonia due to injuries and is spending this season on loan at Brighton & Hove Albion. Even so, our model quite liked what he showed in Spain last season.

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An older option might be Steven Bergwijn. Back in the Netherlands at Ajax now after a stint at Tottenham Hotspur, the 26-year-old Dutch winger seems a good fit in terms of profile given his similarities to Leão, and also has the versatility to play in a more central role.

A slightly different profile would be Kaoru Mitoma. The Japanese international is a very exciting attacker who has proven his quality in the English Premier League having shown great talent in Japan, so there can be no questions about him on that front. The only drawback will likely be the transfer fee Brighton ask for him.

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Lastly: Paris Saint-Germain

In Luis Enrique’s first season in charge of the club, PSG are once again clear favourites for the Ligue 1 title, but the ever-elusive UEFA Champions League is their ultimate goal. They just about got through their group but showed some clear weaknesses, which will surely be punished in the knockouts. So, some January business is in order to strengthen the squad.

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Defensive Midfielders

Although young Warren Zaïre-Emery has been exceptional in midfield for the Parisian giants, they are still showing some weaknesses in that department. In particular, the defensive midfield position is where their squad needs work. Manuel Ugarte was a decent addition in the summer as he offers good defensive solidity, but his susceptibility to pressure on the ball makes him a bit of a liability at times against intense pressing teams. So, someone who can help him out in that respect as a partner or outright replace him at the base of midfield must be the priority.

If attainable, Yves Bissouma could be a great signing. The Malian international joined Tottenham Hotspur in the summer of 2022 but has really come into his own there as the lone number six in Ange Postecoglu’s unique system this season. He has shown some great defensive work-rate as well as security on the ball, so he could be just what PSG need.

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Of course, he will not come cheap as Spurs will be reluctant to let a key player leave mid-season. He will also be away for a few weeks at the Africa Cup of Nations in January, although he should be back in time for the Champions League knockouts.

A similarly ambitious target would be Hakan Çalhanoğlu. Having spent most of his career as a more attacking midfielder, he has been exceptional for Inter in a deep-lying role this season – particularly on the ball as he has offered great retention and progression as well as a serious dead-ball threat.

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The Turkish international might be someone who is better off as a partner to Ugarte rather than a lone number six in PSG’s system, but the feasibility of this move also rests on how much Inter will want to let him go – if at all he is deemed available for the right amount of money.

Manuel Locatelli is another great option, although he has just signed a new contract at Juventus. Given their financial issues, though, a good sum of money could tempt them to consider letting him go.

Stuttgart’s Angelo Stiller would definitely be a potential partner for Ugarte rather than a replacement, but he could be worth a punt as he will likely come cheaper than the rest of the options we have highlighted.

Left Centre-Backs

The other glaring weakness in this PSG squad is the left centre-back position. They have no clear backup for Milan Škriniar, so Lucas Hernández had to do a job there when he was out injured. However, the Frenchman also limited their build-up capabilities, so a good ball-playing left centre-back is someone they should be looking for.

It should be said that at the time of writing, PSG are reportedly set to sign Lucas Beraldo from Red Bull Bragantino. Our model has seen good glimpses of ball-playing ability in his first full season of regular senior football, but the 20-year-old defender should be given some time to settle into a new environment and therefore is not the ideal back-up option for a Champions League night.

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A more immediately suitable option would be Edmond Tapsoba. The only real drawback about him will be his adaptability to a back-four as he plays in a three-centre-back formation at Bayer Leverkusen, but there can be no doubting his on-ball quality. If Die Werkself are willing to part ways with him mid-title charge at the right price, he could be just the sort of player PSG needs to bolster their squad.

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Staying in the Bundesliga, Dan-Axel Zagadou has been quite impressive at Stuttgart this season – enough for us to highlight his work a few weeks ago. As far backup options go, he could be a quite handy one.

From the English Premier League, Benoît Badiashile and Sven Botman are two highly-rated youngsters points towards. They certainly have the quality to challenge for a starting spot too, so PSG should assess what level of player they want to sign considering their current squad depth and take a call on what budget they would be willing to allocate for such a move because it surely will not be cheap.

 

By Neel Shelat

 

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