The Premier League has finally abandoned the pretence of being the ‘best league in the world’. A consistent run of mediocrity in Europe has neutered that ideology. In an effort to remain glitzy and attractive, new monikers like, ‘the most exciting’ or ‘the most competitive’ have been assigned. Those assertions are much harder to debunk; now at the birth of 2017, it is not too fanciful to suggest that as many as five sides are capable of mounting a serious title challenge. With that in mind let’s look at the contenders and assess what players they may need in January if they are to turn aspirations into silverware. We will do this by dividing the potential signings into the ‘dream’ and ‘realistic’ categories.
Let’s begin with the side that is leading the pack, Antonio Conte’s Chelsea. An imperious thirteen game winning streak, that saw the Blues notch impressive victories against Arsenal, Spurs and Manchester City, has made them the side that everyone has mentioned in connection with the Premier League title. The buffer between second place and the relative ease of their upcoming fixtures makes it hard to pinpoint exactly where this side could improve. Murmurs though, have been audible, bemoaning a relative lack of strength in depth, especially in defence.
The switch to the vibrant 3-4-3 formation has revolutionised the club’s playing style and in doing so shaken up the hierarchy at the club. Club captain John Terry’s importance has been vastly reduced, to the point he is only really a fleeting presence. Any injury to Azpilicueta, Cahill or David Luiz would force the aged defender into action, a move that would jeopardise the club’s new found harmony. In January, there are players available who could alleviate this impending feeling of woe. The dream scenario would be Juventus’ composed stalwart Leonardo Bonucci. The dashing Italian has blossomed, after a tentative start to life in Turin, into arguably the game’s finest centre-half. Composed, elegant and technically assured with the physically and rugged mindset to protect these assets. Bonucci has developed a real gift for scoring crucial goals; netting against Roma, Inter and Lazio last season. And as his dispatched penalty against Germany in the quarter-finals of the European Championships highlights, he is a man for the big occasion. Sadly, for the Blues, it appears that the ‘Old Lady’ hold no desire to sell. Rumoured to have knocked back many lucrative offers in the summer and with the opportunity to plant the Italian flag in the Champions League still an attainable goal, this transfer has both feet in a fantasy realm. A new contract has been signed by Bonucci, but as we have all seen recently, a player’s signature is not as iron-clad as it once was.
What is more attainable is the proposed transfer for Niklas Sule. The 21-year-old Hoffenheim defender has been the rock-steady base from which the German-upstarts have built their early season success. Hoffenheim, under the tutelage of 29-year-old manager Julian Nagelsmann, have put together a sustained unbeaten run so lengthy, they remain one of only two sides in Europe’s top five leagues still unbeaten – the other being Real Madrid. A huge reason for this is the relentless nature of Sule. His fearsome physique and combative playing style, married to his technical grace make him the ideal player to step into Chelsea’s back three. While Champions League qualification is still attainable for Sule’s side, it is believed he could still be sold were the buyers to match the proposed £30 million fee. Considering that Chelsea’s Oscar is the latest player to head off to the Far East to make his fortune, earning the club a reported £60 million, it is a deal that could and indeed should materialise.
Dream signing – Leonardo Bonucci
Realistic capture – Niklas Sule
It is impossible to mention Liverpool in connection with the league title without an air of incredulity that their trophy cabinet has been bereft of its presence for quite so long. There is no club, anywhere in the world, as big as Liverpool that have gone so long without domestic domination. Fortunately for their fans, the wonderfully charismatic Jürgen Klopp looks as though he has the journey to silverware mapped out. His iteration has the capability to cut any opposition they face to shreds, yet lack the defensive solidity to consistently see out games in which they have a slender lead. The steady stream of points that have been allowed to drip through Klopp’s fingers must be rectified with defensive reinforcements if they are to overhaul Chelsea.
The player that would be the best fit for the highly mobile, possession-centric, gegenpressing-infused side would be Southampton’s cultured Dutchman Virgil van Dijk. van Dijk, since his step up from Scottish football, has matured into one of the league’s most complete defenders. Wonderfully balanced, composed on the ball, and armed with the technique able to link intricately with the midfield or launch the accurate long range balls required to initiate swift counterattacks. Despite his attacking arsenal being so amply stocked, his muscular, rangy physique and astute reading of the game ensures that his Saints sides are rarely left exposed. His one drawback is his concentration. At Celtic, his mind drifted, largely down to how much better he was that his competition, and more recently on the South Coast, he has seemingly allowed his mind to wander with aspirations of a move to one of Europe’s powerhouses. It is something that needs to be rectified. What forces this move into the dream category is a combination of two factors; firstly, is the fact that Southampton must be reticent to allow another of their stars to trod the well-worn path between St Mary’s and Anfield. The second, is the monumental price tag the has reportedly attached. Liverpool, for all their bluster and posturing, have shown either an unwillingness or inability to match the likes of Manchester City, Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea and break the £48 million-plus financial barrier required to ensnare van Dijk.
If not van Dijk, who could come in and prove more dependable than either Ragnar Klavan or Dejan Lovren and slot in beside the impressive Joël Matip? One man that Klopp may turn to would be his former disciple Neven Subotić. The Serbian has demonstrated over the last half-decade that he is a one of the more robust defenders in the Bundesliga. In the first half of Klopp’s Dortmund tenure he formed a near impregnable shield alongside Mats Hummels, looking every inch as good as the World Cup winner. However, following the club’s fall from grace, during which the club fell to a mediocre seventh place finish in the 2014-15 season, Subotić has found it difficult to feature in the Dortmund youthful resurgence under the guiding hand of Thomas Tuchel. Unable to move himself higher on the totem pole by displacing Matthias Ginter, Marc Bartra or Sokratis Papastathopoulos, it is now clear that Subotić would prefer to put the old adage, “a change is as good as a rest”, to the test. A dependable former lieutenant that is imminently attainable for a modest fee.
Dream signing – Virgil van Dijk
Realistic capture – Neven Subotić
For once it is hard to knock the transfer business conducted by the often beleaguered Arsene Wenger. Analysing the need to calcify the brittle spine of his side he acquired Mustafi, Xhaka and Perez. For the first time in over a decade it is hard to point the finger at the pool of available players as the reason for the fractured results, so much so that it is hard to decipher where exactly the Gunners need reinforcements. What is readily identifiable is the obviousness in which they struggle without the deep lying distribution of Santi Cazorla. The diminutive Spaniard’s ability to conduct play, whilst not restricting the space in which Ozil and Sanchez operate, is essential to sustained success. Cazorla’s advancing age and tendency to pick up debilitating injuries would suggest that the time to pass the baton has come. One player, who comes at the much more precocious age of just 24 (as opposed to Cazorla’s 32), and is more than capable of carrying his legacy, is Atletico Madrid’s Koke. Diego Simeone’s midfield utility man possesses every attribute needed to slot into the possession-centric style so often witnessed inside the Emirates. What forces this move into the dream category is the fact that Koke is so talismanic for his current side. And with a new era commencing next season, with a move to a new stadium on the horizon, it is unlikely that he, or the club, would wish to dissolve what has been a mutually beneficial partnership.
A deep-lying playmaker that is imminently attainable is Borussia Monchengladbach’s Mahmoud Dahoud. Many may look at the young midfielder and wonder what he could possibly bring to Arsenal that would improve upon what is already there. Yet so much of Dahoud’s poor form has been merely indicative of the general slump of Gladbach as a whole. The entire squad has looked bereft of the swashbuckling, irrepressible energy that proved so effective last season. Many have identified the dissolving of the Dahoud-Xhaka axis as the main contributing factor for the sudden downturn in fortune. Dahoud would be an improvement on either Coquelin or Elneny, especially in the games where the opposition entrench themselves in two banks of four – a tactic that time and time again Wenger has struggled to out-manoeuvre. The reunion with his old teammate Xhaka would speed up the acclimatisation process.
Dream signing – Koke
Realistic capture – Mahmoud Dahoud
It seems rather churlish to chastise the work carried out at White Hart Lane by Mauricio Pochettino. It seems much fairer to suggest that his youthful charges have hit a temporary funk. While Spurs have goals in the side, a muscular domineering midfield, a miserly defensive unit and one of the planet’s best goalkeepers, what they lack is a magician, a genius capable of weaving a little moment of magic, seemingly from thin air, and turning games that might otherwise have hung in the balance. Christian Eriksen has seen some air blown into the embers of his potential, yet for many he looks like he will always be the football equivalent of the ‘bridesmaid’ complex.
The player that Spurs fans will no doubt be joined in universal prayer wishing for, is Real Madrid’s fringe man James Rodriguez. The hiring of Zinedine Zidane as manager has brought a series of success few could have imagined. More pragmatic than his altruistic playing days would have suggested, it has cost James a regular starting berth, instead opting for the midfield trio of Modrić, Kroos and Casemiro. While there is a clear opportunity to lure the player away, it seems that the hefty transfer fee and monumental wage demand would leave chairman Daniel Levy short of breath. While Spurs’ money man has loosened the purse strings and raised the bar on his self-imposed wage structure, the bar is still too low ensnare the Colombian playmaker.
A left-field choice would be the forgotten Dutchman, idly kicking his feet inside Old Trafford, Memphis Depay. Whilst it is obvious that the winger has been an abject failure in England, it is too early to consign him to the annuls of history and toss him into the dusty box marked “failure”. As to why he has been so poor, Depay must shoulder some of the blame, yet so must compatriot Louis van Gaal whose sterile playing style stripped Depay of all his best instincts. A move to London and the chance play in Spurs’ bombastic playing style, with the encouraging hand of Pochettino resting on his shoulder, could be just the catalyst needed to reinvigorate two entities that are clearly flailing. A readily available target considering the paucity in which Mourinho has used him, combined with a proposed move to Nice, (the new home for the perpetually downtrodden) shows the desire to remove the Dutchman from Old Trafford. A world-class creator is hidden deep within Depay’s surly demeanour, a coach like Pochettino may just be the type of character needed to exhume his dormant talents.
Dream signing – James Rodriguez
Realistic capture – Memphis Depay
After taking to life in English football like a duck to water, winning his opening ten games, it is all starting to turn a little sour for Pep Guardiola. His dalliances with a back three have yielded much less joy than Chelsea’s, the nadir being reached in the recent 4-2 defeat at champions Leicester. Vocal claims of “Fraudiola” are as wildly off the mark as they are numerous, largely down to the porous nature of his defence.
What is desperately needed is a defender capable of operating in the fullback slot, whilst also having the intelligence and athleticism to act as an auxiliary midfielder – such is Pep’s want. The man who slots perfectly into this role would be Monaco’s gem Fabinho. The last two seasons have shown the Brazilian to be the identikit of a high-class, modern day fullback. This campaign however, we have seen the evolution of Fabinho, now able to sit at the base of midfield and orchestrate the most potent attacking side in Ligue 1 (56 league goals scored). This would be the ideal signing, and may even be attainable in January, yet with Monaco drawn against the Citizens in February’s Champions League clash, it is unlikely that the principality club would relinquish their most underrated weapon.
A more attainable acquisition is Valencia’s precocious left-back Jose Gaya. The Spanish giants have resembled Michael Caine’s bus at the end of the Italian Job. They have swayed back and forth on the precipice of oblivion, to the point it looks inevitable that they will unceremoniously tumble over the edge. Unlike Caine, who said “Hang on a minute lads, I’ve got a great idea”, no one at Valencia looks capable of even jotting down a cursory escape route. This turmoil will surely leave the door ajar for some of the club’s better players, a category in which Gaya certainly belongs, to leave. It is a club that Pep has been more than happy to raid in the past, signing Juan Bernat whilst at Bayern Munich. With all of City’s fullbacks the wrong side of thirty, it is a deal that should happen sooner rather than later.
Dream signing – Fabinho
Realistic capture – Jose Gaya
Manchester United fans may feel aggrieved to see their club absent from the list of contenders. While the attacking brilliance of Zlatan Ibrahimović, Paul Pogba and Henrikh Mkhitaryan has breathed life into a club that was showing the degenerative signs of rigor-mortis, the gap separating them from the summit of the Premier League table, coalesced with the number of clubs they would have to surpass, forces United out of consideration.
2017’s title race promises to provide a level of brutal competition matched only by the war waged for the Iron Throne in HBO’s Game of Thrones. Like the George. R. R. Martin creation, there will be twists and turns, with the ultimate winners far from guaranteed. While the standard of football may be superior in Spain and even Germany, the quality of the thought and planning from the men in the Premier League dugouts is unmatched anywhere in world football. Guardiola, Klopp, Conte, Pochettino and Wenger, with Mourinho venomously snapping at their heels, all in armed for a Machiavellian battle for supremacy is a delicious prospect.