It's not impossible to acquire a game-changer in the January transfer window; Manchester United did just last year in acquiring Bruno Fernandes from Sporting CP, after all. Still, it's pretty rare. January is often a time for fringe moves and stopgaps, with teams preparing to spend much larger sums of money a few months later.
But you always have gaps to stop, and that's particularly true in the Premier League, where the leader is on pace for merely 80 points and you could make a pretty legitimate claim that more than half the league is still potentially involved in the Champions League race.
With that in mind, let's propose some moves. Let's unearth a potentially exciting piece for each of the Premier League's top 10 teams (well, the top nine plus Arsenal) while mostly sticking to a budget.
Important note: this isn't a sourced list of transfer targets. The opposite, in fact.
If even one of these moves were to actually happen, I would immediately proclaim myself the Soccer Woj. But this is a fun way to both shine a light on team needs in a crowded Premier League and highlight some exciting, under-the-radar players who are doing awfully well at the moment.
11th place, 23 points
Biggest issue: creativity
Mikel Arteta has been fiddling with the knobs all season. At first, Arsenal tried to play with extreme patience, which resulted in good possession but painfully low shot quantity. Of late, the Gunners have ramped up their offensive urgency a bit, trading a bit of shot quality and defensive intensity to do so.
They may be getting somewhere -- after winning just one league match in 10 tries, they won three straight over the festive period, including a 3-1 triumph over Chelsea -- but they could still use another raw creative presence. Only one Gunner has created more than 20 chances this season (fullback Kieran Tierney, whose 21 rank 25th in the league), and he's a fullback. Injuries and juggled lineups haven't helped, but no Arsenal midfielder has created more than 16 chances, and no one at any position has more than three assists.
They've been linked to Borussia Dortmund's Julian Brandt for this exact reason -- the 24-year old midfielder created 18 chances in just 589 minutes for BVB and is approaching his athletic peak. But with BVB's Axel Witsel suffering a long-term Achilles injury, Brandt will likely play a much larger role in Dortmund, and the club probably won't sell.
How about QPR's Ilias Chair? QPR are, to say the least, laboring in England's second tier at the moment. They are 18th in the Championship, having scored just 22 goals in 23 matches. Even for a low-scoring league, they are struggling to create opportunities for themselves.
Well, just imagine how they'd be doing without Chair. The 23-year-old Belgian not only leads the team in chances created (45, 21 more than second place) and expected assists (4.5, 2.2 more than second place), but also goals (five) and shots on goal (14). He's already topped last year's numbers in all of these departments, and he can excel from both the center, the left, an attacking position and central midfield. His market value, per TransferMarkt, is just $4.4 million at the moment, too, but it's rising quickly.
Ninth place, 26 points
Biggest issue: midfield play
What do you get a team that has everything... and still isn't very good? Chelsea are fifth in the league in goal differential and fourth in xG differential. They create solid shot quality and quantity, and they're above average in allowing those things at the other end. They possess the ball as such a club is supposed to, and they advanced to the Champions League knockout stages with ease.
They've also won just one of their last six league matches, falling into a funk of bad bounces and random poor performances. Frank Lampard's job security isn't great, but there's no one thing the Blues are doing wrong.
They could use some reinforcement in midfield, though. Mason Mount is a star, but N'Golo Kante appears to have lost a step, Kai Havertz is a square peg in a round hole and Mateo Kovacic's productivity has disappeared: After averaging 1.2 chances created and 7.6 ball recoveries per 90 last year, he's currently at 0.8 and 5.0, respectively.
How about Montpellier's Teji Savanier? I nearly suggested Inter's Arturo Vidal since "discounts" aren't really a thing Chelsea pursues, and because he'd provide maturity, ball recovery ability and a general calculated recklessness that could benefit a team in need of some energy. But he's not exactly an under-the-radar guy, so instead we're going with the late-blooming Savanier, who spent much of his early career in the French lower levels but exploded for Nimes in 2018-19 and earned a move to Montpellier.
The 29-year-old is a willing tackler -- like Vidal, often too willing -- but he's combined 8.5 ball recoveries and 2.1 chances created per 90 at Montpellier, and he's averaging 0.51 xA+xG/90 this season as well. He's not an up-and-comer, but hey, neither was Claude Makelele when Chelsea added the transformative midfielder at age 30. And at a club full of expensive blue-chippers, Savanier would be a willing dirty-work performer.
Eighth place, 26 points
Biggest issue: wear and tear
Dean Smith's claret-and-blues have already been through about three distinct phases so far this season: they won their first four games (including a classic 7-2 victory over Liverpool) to surge to the top of the table, then lost four of five to fall back to the pack. They went unbeaten in December, however, and despite a 2-1 loss to Manchester United on New Year's Day, they're still on pace for over 65 points this year; that would be their highest total since finishing second in 1992-93 with 74.
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Villa are one of the more direct teams in the league and it suits them well, but the fixture congestion to come, combined with the tight rotation Smith maintains -- nine players have already logged over 1,100 league minutes, with five of them having played every minute so far (including both left-back Matt Targett and star left-winger Jack Grealish) -- could produce weary legs pretty soon.
How about Celta Vigo's Lucas Olaza? A 26-year-old Uruguayan left-back (on loan from Boca Juniors), Olaza has been one of the team's steadiest players over the past two seasons and can play further up the pitch when needed.
According to the DAVIES player ratings, created by American Soccer Analysis' Sam Goldberg and Mike Imburgio, he was one of the more productive Defensive Wide Progressors (essentially full-backs with an attacking role) in Europe's Big 5 leagues last season, and he's improved both his passing percentage and duel success rate in 2020-21. He could spell Targett and make sure that Grealish still has a creative and sturdy battery mate, and TransferMarkt lists his market value at a reasonably affordable $6.6 million at the moment.
Seventh place, 29 points
Biggest issue: plain old offense
Southampton has been one of the steadiest teams in the Premier League since the summer restart, logging 47 points in 26 matches in that span, fourth-most in the league. They've figured how to keep producing points this season while easing off the defensive pressure this year, too. They are still allowing 10.9 passes per defensive action, third-fewest in the league, but that's down from 9.9 last season, and they're only starting 7.5% of their possessions in the attacking third (down from 8.9%).
They're defensively organized, but the downshift in pressure has resulted in a meek attack: they're 16th in the league in shots per possession and 17th in xG per shot. They've created 26 goals from only 18.7 xG (James Ward-Prowse and Jannik Vestergaard have seven goals from only 1.89 xG), and that will likely lead to some regression to the mean moving forward. Whatever their goals are this season, they might need an extra boost of creativity if they're to achieve them.
How about Ajax's Zakaria Labyad? Ajax certainly knows something about creating shots and goals: their 22 shots per league match is tops in any of Europe's major leagues (in this case, the Big 5 plus Portugal, the Netherlands and Russia). They've got a crowded midfield and in Labyad, they've got a player who is comfortable both up front and in central midfield and potentially affordable for Southampton (his TransferMarkt value: $4.4 million). He exploded for 15 goals and nine assists for Utrecht in 2017-18, and he's scored five goals on 29 shots, with 23 chances created, in under 800 league minutes this season.
Labyad's not much from a pressure standpoint, but he creates.
Sixth place, 30 points
Biggest issue: Plan B
As I wrote last week, the one-two punch of Heung-Min Son and Harry Kane has been incredible in 2020-21, but the lack of a Plan B has caught up to Jose Mourinho's side at times. While Son and Kane have combined for 23 goals and 16 assists, everyone else on the team has combined for seven and nine, respectively. The current battery of right-sided wingers -- some combination of Steven Bergwijn, Lucas Moura, Erik Lamela and oft-injured Gareth Bale -- has combined for two goals and no assists. A little bit of balance would be lovely.
Now, the answer could already be in-house. Carlos Vinicius, on loan from Benfica, hasn't earned Mourinho's trust in league play yet, but now has six goals in six FA Cup or Europa League matches (granted, three came against eighth-division Marine). Plus the 23-year-old Bergwijn has been a bit unlucky -- he's logged 2.1 combined xG and xA but has zero goals or assists -- and could come untracked at any moment. Still, while Spurs made mostly defensive acquisitions in the offseason, they could do with a reinforcement up front.
How about Seattle's Jordan Morris? YEAH, I SAID IT. Everybody's snatching up young MLS prospects these days, but Spurs don't necessarily need a young up-and-comer as much as they need a proven creator. Well, how's this for proven: Morris has averaged 10 goals and six assists in 31 matches per year over his past four seasons with the Seattle Sounders. He wins duels and aerial battles, he can play in the right, left or center, he's got lovely size (6-foot, 185 pounds) and has track-star speed -- seven of his 11 goals this past season came on the type of fast-break opportunities Mourinho craves.
This is a better match than you think and thanks to players like Kasey Keller and Clint Dempsey, Spurs are well-acquainted with tapping the USMNT for talent.
Fifth place, 32 points
Biggest issue: shot quantity
Like Villa, Everton hasn't quite matched its aesthetically sexy early-season form of late, but they keep grinding out points. Over the last two months, they've averaged 2.11 points per match, exceeded only by the two Manchester clubs. They looked finished when slogging through a one-win-in-seven stretch, but they've won five of six since and are closer to first place than eighth.
While they don't have a Southampton-level shot-quantity problem, they still have a shot-quantity problem. They're 14th in the league at 0.12 shots per possession and while the shots they create are excellent (fourth in xG per shot), they could stand to grab another midfielder who can spell 31-year-old Gylfi Sigurdsson and 28-year-old Abdoulaye Doucoure: the pair have combined for over 2,300 minutes but only four assists so far.
How about AZ's Teun Koopmeiners? Granted, attacking stats from the Eredivisie don't always translate perfectly to higher divisions, but it's hard not to like Koopmeiners' potential: In 18 league and Champions League matches this year, he's scored 12 times and created 20 chances while making nearly nine ball recoveries per match. He's primarily a central defender, but like, say, Frenkie de Jong, he's also able to play defensive midfield or central defense while still keeping an eye toward chance creation; in his Eredivisie career, he's averaged 0.38 xG+xA per 90 as a midfielder and 0.32 as a defender. He's both versatile and super active.
Fourth place, 32 points
Biggest issue: Balance
Since losing back-to-back matches to Liverpool and Fulham at the end of November, Leicester has reestablished top-four bona fides, taking 14 points from seven matches. In this span, the young core it has spent years developing has begun to shine through: 10 players have logged at least 400 minutes -- four are 33 or older (striker Jamie Vardy, goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel, defender Jonny Evans, winger Marc Albrighton), but six are 24 or younger. James Maddison (24), full-back James Justin (22) and Harvey Barnes (23) have all been increasingly involved in the attack, while Wilfred Ndidi (24) and Youri Tielemans (23) are key to defensive pressure.
We still don't know what life will be like up front post-Vardy, but this is an exciting and optimistic young core, and it will remain so even when Leicester makes its annual sale of a star for an eight-digit price.
You'd still fancy them to make the Champions League, though, and to do that, Leicester might still need a little more help up front. Front left, actually. Of their 69 chances created in this seven-game hot streak, 62 have come from players with central or right positions but only seven have come from left-side players.
How about Charleroi's Ali Gholizadeh? A 24-year-old from Iran, Gholizadeh has potentially been the best left-winger in the Belgian top division. He's combined five goals and five assists in 20 matches, and he's a physical presence, willing to both foul and be fouled. His presence would potentially allow Barnes to move further back on the pitch, where he's a chance creation machine. (He's good where he is, but potentially better as more of a left midfielder.)
Third place, 32 points
Biggest issue: turning xG into actual goals
We might be witnessing a shift into fifth gear for Pep Guardiola and City. They've lost only once in league play since September and have generated 17 points from their last seven matches, all while rolling through their Champions League group and advancing with ease to the EFL Cup final.
That said, they could be doing even better. During their current eight-match unbeaten streak in league play, they've generated 18.0 xG but scored only 10 goals. Forwards Sergio Aguero, Ferran Torres and Gabriel Jesus have scored only once in this span. Aguero and Jesus have proven themselves over time and are both coming back from injuries, but Aguero's 32, and City could be looking for a long-term solution up front.
How about Reims' Boulaye Dia? We know one player City and every other mega-club in the world have an eye on at the moment: Borussia Dortmund's absurd Erling Haaland. In 41 career Champions League and Bundesliga matches, the 20-year-old from Norway has scored 41 goals from 27.8 xG. He's the surest of sure things, but (a) he's going to be massively expensive when he's made available, and (b) he's not available yet. In the meantime, Dia would probably cost City only about $15-20 million.
Within Europe's Big 5 leagues, only Haaland, Romelu Lukaku, Son, Kylian Mbappe and Robert Lewandowski have scored more than Dia this season. That's pretty lofty company. Another late-bloomer (with one hell of a back story), Dia landed with Reims in 2018 and he's nearly been the club's entire offense. Despite an iffy supporting cast, he's scored 12 goals on 8.7 xG, and he's created 10 chances to boot. He's probably overachieved -- 49% of his shots have been on-target this year, which probably isn't sustainable -- but he's proven adept at both serving as a target in the box and creating things like this on his own.
Clubs like West Ham United are in pursuit, but obviously City could outbid anyone if they wanted to see what he has to offer.
Second place, 33 points
Biggest issue: a lack of central defenders with two healthy legs
You know the story by now. Liverpool have lost both starting central defenders (best-in-the-world candidate Virgil van Dijk and ever-sturdy Joe Gomez) to months-long injuries, and manager Jurgen Klopp has made do by trying out prospects and moving midfielders back to defense. It's been mostly fine -- the Reds have still lost only twice all year and are in second despite a run of poor post-Christmas results. But the shuffling has produced inconsistency, not to mention midfield issues as well. Spending money on a central defender probably wasn't in the plans in August, but it is now.
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The club has been linked to short-term patch ideas -- like a loan for Arsenal's Sokratis Papastathopoulos or, potentially, Real Madrid's Eder Militao -- and hey, maybe that's enough. But they could also try to take a stab at an eventual Van Dijk replacement.
How about Swansea's Ben Cabango? The 6-foot-2 Welshman has, at 20 years old, played a heavy role for the Swans for each of the past two seasons and made his debut for the national team in September. He wins over 50% of his duels and aerials, and he's been a key cog for a Swansea team that has been rock-solid in transition defense and has allowed the fewest goals per match (0.6) in Championship. Swansea are a promotion candidate, but at the moment his Transfermarkt value is a mere $4.95 million.
Liverpool mastered the age curve over the last two seasons, compiling a roster chock-full of players hitting peak age at the same time. But this roster is going to need recycling in the next couple of years, and in Cabango, they could take a chance on a player who might both help the Reds in the present and serve as a building block for the future.
First place, 36 points
Biggest issue: ...nothing in particular?
Few would have guessed in early-November that, little more than two months later, United would be atop the table. The Red Devils began the league season with three losses in six matches, and while they had beaten heavyweights PSG and RB Leipzig in their first two Champions League matches, they had also just lost to Istanbul Basaksehir. They were inconsistent and frustrating, and a defense that had been well-organized for much of 2019-20 was all sorts of glitchy.
Since then: mostly glitch-free. United are allowing about a goal per match, while scoring 2.3. They've taken 29 points from 11 matches, and while that's been a bit on the fortunate side -- they're averaging 2.5 points in matches decided by 0-1 goals, and their goal differential (+1.3) is a decent amount higher than their xG differential (0.9) -- it's positioned them well in this slog of a season.
That they've done this all without a right winger -- Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has juggled between Mason Greenwood, Daniel James, Juan Mata, and Marcus Rashford in this span, and none has been all that productive -- suggests that position could be an immediate need. But United just added Atalanta teenager Amad Diallo to the mix there and could be in line for a big score, like Sporting's Pedro Goncalves, down the line.
With full-back Luke Shaw playing brilliantly of late, too, let's instead take a stab at a discount "Next Pogba" ... and/or the next Shaw. Two in one. We don't know what the future has in store for Pogba -- his agent declared a while back that he would be leaving United at some point in the near future, but who the heck knows what's real when agents are speaking? But let's grab a player with huge upside and the potential to play about six different positions.
How about PSG's Timothee Pembele? The only thing Paris Saint-Germain is better at than producing exciting young prospects is getting rid of them, and this 18-year-old is fascinating. The DAVIES model rates his production this season as equal to that of Barcelona's Miralem Pjanic or Borussia Monchengladbach's Lars Stindl on a per-minute basis; he has played everywhere from left-back to right midfielder in his short career. He was excellent at the U-17 World Cup in 2019, and in just 376 Ligue 1 minutes this year he's scored once and created a couple of chances.
Rennes' Eduardo Camavinga is the biggest prize among Ligue 1 teenagers at the moment, but unless PSG finally decides to hold onto its young prospects, Pembele could provide similar upside for a much lower price.