World Cup X-factors: Each team's potential breakout player in Qatar
At every major tournament, numerous youngsters and underappreciated stars boost their reputation and value with standout performances. Here, theScore selects a potential breakout player for each national team at the 2022 World Cup.
Qatar: Akram Afif. Defender Boualem Khoukhi and goalkeeper Saad Al Sheeb could be the busiest Qatari representatives at the tournament, but don’t be surprised if Afif makes the biggest name for himself. His quality stands far above many of his international teammates and has earned him spells in Belgian and Spanish football. Afif only turned 26 on Friday, so another European side could take a punt on the winger.
Ecuador: Moises Caicedo. Ecuador underwhelmed during its run to the World Cup, but expect 21-year-old Caicedo to turn heads as the engine room in Gustavo Alfaro’s outfit. “His physicality, his self-confidence, his mentality,” Alexis Mac Allister told theScore when asked about what impresses him most about his Brighton & Hove Albion teammate. “I think he’s got everything to become a top player – he already is a top player, but maybe in a big club.”
Senegal: Abdou Diallo. The Lions of Teranga conceded just twice in 660 minutes en route to Africa Cup of Nations glory earlier this year, so expect them to lean on their stingy defense once again at the World Cup. Diallo, 26, was immovable from Senegal’s lineup at AFCON, and, after being involved in expensive deals earlier in his career, his stock could recover in dramatic fashion.
Netherlands: Cody Gakpo. The PSV Eindhoven winger idolized Thierry Henry growing up, and his tendency to drift inside from the left is reminiscent of the Arsenal icon. The 23-year-old’s distribution is also impressive, and he’s surprisingly explosive for someone who stands at 6-foot-2. Gakpo has nine goals and 12 assists over 14 Eredivisie appearances from the left flank this season but mostly operates as a No. 10 for Louis van Gaal’s Netherlands.
England: Callum Wilson. The 30-year-old was among Gareth Southgate’s surprise inclusions for the tournament, with many preferring Ivan Toney over the Newcastle United striker. There’s no doubting Wilson’s eye for goal. He’s scored 26 goals despite starting only 49 Premier League games for the Magpies and could make a significant impact off the bench in Qatar.
Iran: Saeid Ezatolahi. Mehdi Taremi waited too late to make the move to Europe, but the same can’t be said for Ezatolahi. The midfielder, who joined Atletico Madrid at 17, is now with Denmark’s Vejle and is an aggressive, brawny operator in Iran’s midfield. His energy and decent pressing range are vital to Carlos Queiroz and his team.
United States: Jesus Ferreira. Walker Zimmerman and Cristian Roldan have enough ability to earn late-career moves to Europe, but it’s Ferreira who could be thrust firmly into the spotlight while he profits from the work of the USMNT’s talented hoard of attacking midfielders and wingers. The 21-year-old was named MLS Young Player of the Year after racking up 18 goals and six assists for FC Dallas in 2022.
Wales: Neco Williams. The right-back has quickly become a popular figure at Nottingham Forest since his summer transfer from Liverpool. For Wales, Williams regularly crops up on the left to accommodate fellow full-back Connor Roberts, but that doesn’t diminish the 21-year-old’s contributions. He’s got boundless energy as he sprints up and down the flank, and he could tally an assist or two thanks to his pinpoint crossing.
Argentina: Enzo Fernandez. Giovani Lo Celso’s absence through injury has left a gap in Lionel Scaloni’s three-man midfield, and Benfica’s 21-year-old porteno could add bite and excellent spatial awareness to the center of Argentina’s lineup. The slick passer largely operates as part of a double pivot in a 4-2-3-1 formation for his club – a shape Scaloni sometimes opts for – while his inclusion in a 4-3-3 could result in Leandro Paredes being given more license to roam as a No. 8.
Saudi Arabia: Firas Al-Buraikan. There will be tough competition for Saudi Arabia’s No. 9 spot, with Saleh Al-Shehri pushing hard after notching seven goals over 13 qualifying matches. However, Al-Buraikan should be starting his country’s opener against Argentina after the athletic target man hit form for a rather average Al-Fateh side in the Saudi Pro League.
Mexico: Edson Alvarez. It’s hard to believe Alvarez first made his name as a defender for Club America when you witness his elegance at the base of midfield for Ajax and Mexico. He’s the vital link between defense and attack, sometimes orchestrating play from a deep position or selflessly pushing higher up to act as a decoy for his attackers. At just 25, Alvarez has plenty of time to earn himself a big-money transfer from the Netherlands.
Poland: Karol Swiderski. Poland made a habit of scoring late in qualifiers, so substitutes could shine for Czeslaw Michniewicz’s side at the tournament. Charlotte FC’s Swiderski, 25, scored five times during the World Cup qualification cycle despite starting only four games. Fellow backup Adam Buksa – who was playing for the New England Revolution in Major League Soccer until May – was similarly dangerous during Poland’s road to Qatar but hasn’t hit the ground running at Ligue 1’s Lille.
France: Youssouf Fofana. The 23-year-old made a late dash into Didier Deschamps’ roster after making his first two appearances for Les Bleus in September, and he’s now pushing to be a starter in Qatar due to injuries to N’Golo Kante and Paul Pogba. AS Monaco’s Fofana relishes tackles and is a progressive passer from the No. 6 position, and he knows a standout campaign could earn him a blockbuster move to rival the fees Real Madrid paid for fellow France youngsters Aurelien Tchouameni and Eduardo Camavinga.
Australia: Jason Cummings. The former Scottish international, who qualifies for Australia through his mother, has attracted negative headlines for his off-field antics in the past, but his sense of humor and overall eccentric behavior could help make the Socceroos the tightest team at the tournament. The 27-year-old made the World Cup squad after his January move to Central Coast Mariners, where he’s scored 12 goals and provided eight assists over 24 A-League outings.
Denmark: Andreas Skov Olsen. The reputations of Mikkel Damsgaard and Joakim Maehle probably rose most during last year’s run to the European Championship semifinals, so now it’s time for the other flank to shine. Club Brugge winger Skov Olsen, 22, has proven his tactical intelligence with Denmark: He moves inside to make room for the right-back or pick holes nearer the middle of defenses, and he can stay wide to deliver crosses. His pace will cause problems.
Tunisia: Ellyes Skhiri. Skhiri is an invaluable tactical piece for Tunisia, dropping into defense to allow the full-backs to advance while he pushes well-timed passes upfield. He’s completed more tackles and passes in the Bundesliga than any of his FC Koln teammates and ranks second for interceptions.
Spain: Nico Williams. Pedri and Gavi’s outrageous potential has already been recognized with numerous individual awards, so they can’t be chosen. Meanwhile, Williams is on the cusp of breaking into Luis Enrique’s XI and could be a genuine breakout star in Qatar. The winger – who’s the younger brother of Ghana’s Inaki Williams – is pacey and full of tricks, and he could be a more daring selection in attack over the tactically minded Dani Olmo.
Costa Rica: Jewison Bennette. The 18-year-old has made a quick impression at Sunderland despite only appearing nine times as a substitute in the Championship. However, manager Tony Mowbray is refusing to answer fans’ calls for Bennette to play more until he settles on Wearside. “Let us hope when the next World Cup comes around, he has played 100 or more games for us and he is a big name on the international stage. He has the talent to do that,” Mowbray said.
Germany: Karim Adeyemi. Jamal Musiala is destined for superstardom, but let’s not pick the low-hanging fruit here. Adeyemi has room to improve, but his confidence and breakneck speed will be a valuable weapon off the bench for Hansi Flick. The 20-year-old’s summer move to Borussia Dortmund was disrupted by an untimely injury, but his quality was clear when he raced to 19 goals and five assists for Red Bull Salzburg in the Austrian Bundesliga last term. “He’s a difference maker,” Dortmund boss Edin Terzic said recently.
Japan: Takefusa Kubo. The 21-year-old has one of the more recognizable names in Hajime Moriyasu’s ensemble from his time on the books of both Barcelona and Real Madrid. He’s now with high-flying Real Sociedad where he’s earned his side six extra La Liga points with his two goals and two assists. He also leads his club teammates in attempted dribbles.
Belgium: Leandro Trossard. Charles De Ketelaere set the hype machine into overdrive through his exploits at Club Brugge, but his displays since his summer move to AC Milan showed he still has a lot to learn. Trossard, on the other hand, is the finished article and could take this tournament by storm if Roberto Martinez has the bravery to start him over one of Belgium’s veteran squad members. Brighton’s Trossard, 27, has seven goals and two assists in the 2022-23 Premier League season.
Canada: Ismael Kone. The 20-year-old’s composure, distribution, and ability to ride challenges are among the many reasons the midfielder has enjoyed a rapid ascent from semi-professional football in Quebec. “With one touch he would eliminate two or three players easily,” Rocco Placentino, sporting director of Kone’s former club CS Saint-Laurent, recalled of his first impressions of Canada’s exciting talent for theScore’s recent feature.
Morocco: Sofyan Amrabat. Many World Cup viewers will be more familiar with Amrabat’s older brother, former Watford winger Nordin Amrabat, but Sofyan’s in the process of outdoing his sibling through his performances for Fiorentina. Morocco can be porous in midfield, but with the ball, the younger Amrabat is an ambitious passer, composed, and extremely difficult to knock off the ball.
Croatia: Luka Sucic. Red Bull Salzburg are known for their conveyor belt of talent, and Sucic has the potential to become a quality winger. The 20-year-old won’t be an immediate starter in Qatar, but Ivan Perisic is 33 and Zlatko Dalic hasn’t settled on a regular player for the right flank. Sucic’s energy off the ball and willingness to test the goalkeeper could be valuable assets for Croatia as it journeys through the tournament.
Brazil: Gabriel Martinelli. Is there a Brazilian player who hasn’t broken out? Martinelli is the closest thing to it. The 21-year-old has established himself as a regular starter for Premier League leaders Arsenal, scoring five goals and assisting twice, but he’s one of the least experienced members of Tite’s squad with just three caps. It’ll be tough to break into this lineup, but if Martinelli gets a chance, you can trust he’ll make an impact with his ridiculous speed and lush dribbling.
Serbia: Strahinja Pavlovic. Serbia’s frontline grabs most of the attention and rightly so, but scouts will undoubtedly take a keen interest in 21-year-old defender Pavlovic. He’s an imposing figure at 6-foot-4 and uses his body to intimidate and overpower opponents in duels. Despite his brutish physicality, he’s also a tidy ball-player and is improving quickly with Red Bull Salzburg.
Switzerland: Breel Embolo. The 25-year-old forward is already a veteran of three major tournaments for Switzerland and has been a popular breakout pick for each, but Embolo’s finishing has improved slightly since the European Championship in 2021. He used to play as a winger, so he’s also a skilled dribbler and creator.
Cameroon: Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa. Bewitching Georgian winger Khvicha Kvaratskhelia has attracted most of the attention at Napoli this season, but Anguissa is turning into a complete midfielder in Italy. He’s a true box-to-box operator, battling for the ball and then quickly trying to create attacking scenarios for his team. At 27, he still has time for a massive transfer.
Portugal: Rafael Leao. Leao is one of the biggest names on this list – he was named Serie A’s Most Valuable Player when AC Milan won the Scudetto last season – but it still seems the Portuguese phenom is a little overlooked. The 23-year-old should be demanding a fee that comfortably exceeds €100 million when he eventually leaves Milan. Leao is incredibly entertaining to watch, with one of his unique trademarks being a knack for finding an extra gear as he surges past opponents.
Ghana: Mohammed Kudus. The 22-year-old is already playing in the Champions League with Ajax, where he scored with an explosive effort against Liverpool in September, and has played in every position in the midfield and attack during his career. This could be the competition where he realizes his huge potential.
Uruguay: Nicolas de la Cruz. The Uruguay squad is awash with players starring across Europe, but De la Cruz is 25 and has yet to venture outside South America. In recent months, the River Plate winger appears to have fought off Giorgian de Arrascaeta for a place in Diego Alonso’s starting lineup, and he could rack up a few assists while creating chances for Edinson Cavani, Darwin Nunez, and Luis Suarez.
South Korea: Cho Gue-sung. The worrying form of Hwang Ui-jo intensified Paulo Bento’s four-year search for a No. 9. Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors’ Cho may be the player to belatedly answer his head coach’s prayers. “He has everything: a physical presence, he’s decent in the air, can finish, and perhaps most importantly has great movement,” K League United associate editor Paul Neat explained to theScore.
How has Ronaldo fared in his first 5 matches in Saudi Arabia?
Cristiano Ronaldo said the project at Al Nassr was more enticing than multiple offers from European clubs. The Saudi Pro League was “very competitive” and thus enticing as the next step in his storied career.
The Portuguese superstar signed for Al Nassr on Dec. 30, 2022. Ronaldo stressed – publicly and repeatedly – that his main motivation during the autumn of his career was to play at the highest level. But then, as potential suitors dwindled after his tumultuous and disappointing World Cup showing, he opted to join a club that had an average attendance of just over 8,000 for the 2021-22 campaign. Money talks – and its voice is particularly loud when the contract is reportedly worth €200 million per year. Suddenly, Ronaldo adding to his Champions League scoring record and challenging for other top European honors wasn’t as important.
Strange as it may be to get used to, Ronaldo, 38, is now fully ensconced with Al Nassr, bringing his signature goal celebration and legions of fans along with him to Saudi Arabia. But how has he fared so far?
Here’s a game-by-game analysis and overall conclusion of Ronaldo’s opening five league matches for Al Nassr, starting with his debut against Al Ettifaq.
Jan. 22: Al Nassr 1, Al Ettifaq 0
- Venue: Mrsool Park
- Attendance: 22,862
Al Nassr supporters, who turned out in droves for Ronaldo’s official unveiling at the club, had to be patient. His debut in the league was delayed by a suspension stemming from his spell at Manchester United. When it finally arrived in the 1-0 home win over Al Ettifaq, it was a mixed bag. Immediately installed as captain by manager Rudi Garcia, Ronaldo led the line, playing alone up front in a 4-2-3-1 formation. He sometimes looked isolated and unable to link up with Brazilian attacking midfielder Talisca, the team’s incumbent talisman and leading scorer in the Saudi Pro League this season. Ronaldo had just three touches inside the opposition penalty area.
But there were encouraging flashes, including literal ones when he stood over a first-half free-kick and seemingly every fan in the stadium quickly whipped out their phones to try and catch a potentially memorable moment. His effort, however, missed the target. Ronaldo had a couple of looks at goal – an early shot from just outside the area was deflected away for a corner – and he nearly notched an assist for Pity Martinez early in the second half but was ultimately unable to mark his debut with a goal contribution.
|Shots on target||0|
Feb. 3: Al Fateh 2, Al Nassr 2
- Venue: Prince Abdullah bin Jalawi Sports City Stadium
- Attendance: 17,631
Sandwiched between his debut against Al Ettifaq and his second league match versus Al Fateh, Ronaldo featured in a Saudi Super Cup loss to Al Ittihad. Following that contest, Garcia could sense that his players were trying a little too hard to find their illustrious new teammate on the pitch. “It’s very important that the players play normally and don’t always try to give the ball to Cristiano,” he explained, imploring them to make the “right decisions” in the final third of the field. The message seemed to get through. Al Nassr looked more at ease with Ronaldo headlining the team, and the veteran forward himself seemed more comfortable in his new surroundings.
There were the first real glimpses of a blossoming partnership with Talisca when, in the 24th minute, Ronaldo latched on to a deft flick from the Brazilian before unleashing a left-footed strike that careened off the post and into the net. But, despite his protestations and insistence that he was onside, the flag was up, and the goal was chalked off. Then, prior to the halftime interval, he smashed a close-range effort against the crossbar when it appeared easier to score. It looked like the wait for his first Al Nassr goal would go on, but in typical dramatic fashion, Ronaldo dispatched a penalty in the 93rd minute to salvage a point for his side. He was up and running.
|Shots on target||1|
Feb. 9: Al Wehda 0, Al Nassr 4
- Venue: King Abdulaziz Sports City Stadium
- Attendance: 27,102
The penalty against Al Fateh opened the floodgates in a big way, as Ronaldo followed up that outing with his most dominant showing to date in Saudi Arabia. Just four days after his 38th birthday, Ronaldo scored all four goals – two on either side of the halftime break – in Al Nassr’s comprehensive triumph against Al Wehda. The quartet of goals saw him surpass yet another impressive milestone, bringing his career tally in domestic leagues to 503.
For the first time in a long time, Ronaldo looked like the best version of himself on the pitch. There was a familiar element of precision about his first two markers, one with either foot. After slotting home another spot-kick for his maiden hat-trick in Saudi Arabia, he capped the memorable performance by showing off a burst of pace on his final tally, something that was a hallmark of his game for so long but had appeared to desert him over his final season at Manchester United and, more glaringly, at the World Cup. Each time the ball hit the back of the net, the crowd, in unison, joined Ronaldo in blaring out his famous “Siu!” celebration.
|Shots on target||6|
Feb. 17: Al Nassr 2, Al Taawoun 1
- Venue: Mrsool Park
- Attendance: 22,347
Facing the sternest challenge of his opening five league matches in Saudi Arabia – based on the league table – and doing it without the suspended Talisca, Ronaldo eschewed his scoring responsibilities and turned provider, crafting a pair of assists in a 2-1 victory that saw him often drop deeper to facilitate play. Ronaldo shared a moment with former Real Madrid teammate Alvaro Medran in the tunnel prior to kickoff, and, at one point, it seemed as though the Spaniard would come away from the match having stolen the spotlight from his ex-Madrid peer.
Ronaldo set up the opening goal of the contest with a defense-splitting pass from just inside his own half that sent Abdulrahman Ghareeb clean through in the 17th minute. Medran equalized with a thumping close-range volley just after halftime, sweetly connecting with a cross to find the roof of the net. But Ronaldo had the last laugh when, while standing inside the six-yard box in the 78th minute, he blocked a shot from teammate Luiz Gustavo – remember him? – that appeared as though it was creeping into the bottom corner. Luckily, Ronaldo’s block turned into the perfect layoff for the nearby Abdullah Madu, who reacted quickest and found the net. Initially ruled offside, replays showed Ronaldo was clearly onside when Gustavo took his shot, and the goal was awarded after a lengthy VAR check.
|Shots on target||3|
Feb. 25: Damac 0, Al Nassr 3
- Venue: Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz Sports City Stadium
- Attendance: 13,434
Ronaldo’s performance against Damac made it official: He was on a heater. The decorated forward bagged his second hat-trick in three games, staying red-hot and leading Al Nassr to another win. He came within inches, literally, of another four-goal performance, but his fourth tally of this contest was (correctly) chalked off for a tight offside call. No matter, the damage was already done well before that point; Ronaldo scored all three of his goals in the first half at the Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz Sports City Stadium.
Ronaldo was a constant threat, with a team-leading nine touches inside the opposition penalty area and six shot attempts. He sandwiched a ferocious penalty and close-range tap-in with his best goal of the evening when, while surrounded by three defenders, he rifled a left-footed shot from just outside the area that left Damac goalkeeper Moustapha Zeghba rooted to the spot.
|Shots on target||3|
How has Ronaldo fared in his first five matches?
First, a necessary disclaimer: Yes, this all comes with the caveat that, with respect to the Saudi Pro League, the level of competition is a step down from what Ronaldo has previously experienced. There’s no hiding that fact. But, ultimately, all we can do is judge his performances at face value. With eight goals in five league games – he’s already only five shy of the league lead for the campaign – there’s no denying that Ronaldo has been an immediate hit at Al Nassr. At an even more basic level, the fact that we’re talking about the club and league at all is proof of his enormous impact.
Al Nassr in the 2022-23 Saudi Pro League:
|Before Ronaldo||Stat||Ronaldo’s debut onward|
|2.4||Points per game||2.6|
Garcia appeared to let it slip that Ronaldo will look to return to Europe once his Al Nassr contract expires in 2025. On this evidence, why not?
The Best FIFA awards: Live coverage as Messi, Putellas eye top honors
World football’s top players and managers of 2022 are being recognized at The Best FIFA Football Awards show on Monday. Below, theScore is tracking all the winners of the various trophies being handed out in Paris.
Best Women’s Goalkeeper
Mary Earps (Manchester United and England)
Earps, 29, back-stopped England to the Euro 2022 title on home soil, playing in all six of her country’s matches. Beating out competition from 2021 winner Christiane Endler and German shot-stopper Ann-Katrin Berger, Earps told the audience in Paris she didn’t expect to win the award, which no English woman had claimed before. Earps contemplated retirement after serving as England’s third-string ‘keeper at the 2019 World Cup. “Without rain, you don’t get rainbows,” she said.
Best Men’s Goalkeeper
Emiliano Martinez (Aston Villa and Argentina)
The following awards are still to come today …
Best Men’s Player finalists
As was the case in the World Cup final, club teammates Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappe face off for the top men’s prize on offer, with reigning Ballon d’Or winner Karim Benzema also in the mix. This FIFA award, inaugurated in 2016 after the governing body’s split with Ballon d’Or organizer France Football, has gone to Messi just once before, in 2019. Can he double his total and get another one over on Mbappe?
- Karim Benzema (Real Madrid and France)
- Kylian Mbappe (Paris Saint-Germain and France)
- Lionel Messi (Paris Saint-Germain and Argentina)
Best Women’s Player finalists
Despite being sidelined since July with a torn ACL that forced her to miss last summer’s European Championship, Spanish superstar Alexia Putellas – the holder of both this award and the Ballon d’Or Feminin – leads the nominees once again. She’s joined by Arsenal forward Beth Mead, who led England to glory at Euro 2022 by claiming both top scorer and best player honors at the tournament, and American superstar and icon Alex Morgan.
- Beth Mead (Arsenal and England)
- Alex Morgan (San Diego Wave and United States)
- Alexia Putellas (Barcelona and Spain)
Best Men’s Coach finalists
After guiding Argentina to the World Cup title, Lionel Scaloni headlines the finalists for the top men’s coach. He’s nominated alongside a pair of coaching titans in Carlo Ancelotti and Pep Guardiola. The Italian bench boss led Real Madrid to a Champions League and La Liga double last season, while Guardiola, now a three-time nominee for this piece of hardware, oversaw Manchester City’s fourth Premier League crown in five seasons.
- Carlo Ancelotti (Real Madrid)
- Pep Guardiola (Manchester City)
- Lionel Scaloni (Argentina)
Best Women’s Coach finalists
Sarina Wiegman, nominated in this category every year since 2017, could make history on Monday. The England manager, who finished third last time around, is looking to become the first person – male or female – to win FIFA’s top coaching prize three times. Sonia Bompastor, who led French giants Lyon to a league and Champions League double last season, and decorated tactician Pia Sundhage, now managing Brazil, are in contention.
- Sonia Bompastor (Lyon)
- Pia Sundhage (Brazil)
- Sarina Wiegman (England)
Puskas Award finalists
This illustrious prize is given to the player “judged to have scored the most aesthetically pleasing goal, regardless of the competition in which it took place and the player’s gender or nationality.” Marcin Oleksy of Poland, the first-ever amputee footballer to be on the shortlist for the Puskas Award, scored a sensational scissor kick in November that quickly went viral, and garnered a message of support from compatriot Robert Lewandowski. He’s up against Dimitri Payet, the long-range shooting savant who added another great goal to his collection in April, and Richarlison, who lit up the World Cup in Qatar with a brilliant bicycle kick against Serbia.
Men’s FIFA FIFPro World11
To be announced.
Women’s FIFA FIFPro World11
To be announced.
Biggest winners and losers of the January transfer window
After a flurry of deadline-day moves, theScore picks out the big winners and losers of the January transfer window.
Strictly from an on-pitch perspective, Chelsea were the undeniable winners of the January transfer window. Building on their opulent summer, the west London outfit blew everyone else out of the water, signing eight new players in quick succession and capping the frantic spree with a record-breaking deal for World Cup star Enzo Fernandez worth a staggering €121 million. Eat your heart out, Jack Grealish.
Of the eight most expensive transfers brokered across the football world in January, Chelsea were responsible for five of them, with Fernandez joining high-priced arrivals Mykhailo Mudryk, Benoit Badiashile, Noni Madueke, and Malo Gusto at Stamford Bridge – the latter will remain with Lyon for the rest of the season. Hell, Chelsea paid a reported €11 million just to add Joao Felix on loan for the rest of the season, a sum that exceeds the entire expenditure of some of Europe’s other top clubs for the month.
In the first year under new ownership – more on that later – Chelsea have spent well over €500 million on players. An absurd spree, obviously, but not totally without merit. These were not all vanity additions. Fernandez, an elite ball progressor and midfield conductor who plays with energy and aggression, should instantly rectify the glaring issues that have plagued Chelsea since N’Golo Kante’s body started betraying him. Mudryk is one of the game’s most exciting young forwards. Badiashile could be the cornerstone of the backline for years to come. Gusto, 19, is a blossoming star.
The approach isn’t without risk – if some of these news arrivals don’t pan out, for whatever reason, the Blues will be saddled with wildly expensive players sitting on lengthy contracts who are impossible to move. But ultimately, Chelsea, languishing in 10th place in the Premier League, have a significantly better squad right now than they did on Dec. 31.
Isn’t that the whole point of the transfer window? If you have it, flaunt it.
Loser: Todd Boehly and Behdad Eghbali
So, about those owners …
Yes, Chelsea got better – and, crucially, much younger – during the January window, but co-owners Todd Boehly and Behdad Eghbali had to compromise their reputations as negotiators to facilitate that outcome.
There’s something to be said for identifying the players you want and doing whatever is necessary to sign them – as with Fernandez – but every other club in the world knows that Chelsea have no leverage at the negotiating table. Going forward, there’s no reason for other teams to accept anything less than their quoted price, in full, when locked in talks with Boehly and Eghbali. Eventually, they’ll pony up. They always do. There can be value in disrupting the market, something the pair clearly relishes, but there are drawbacks, too.
Then there was the whole matter of Hakim Ziyech’s failed loan to Paris Saint-Germain, which collapsed because Chelsea apparently botched the paperwork process three separate times. Boehly and Eghbali, dealing with the Fernandez deal, presumably weren’t the ones actually trying to frantically file those documents, but as the frontmen of the organization, the debacle still reflects poorly on them.
Winner: Premier League
All hail the almighty Premier League pound. It’s stronger than ever.
Thanks in large part to Chelsea’s uninhibited approach, Premier League clubs spent a record £815 million in January, nearly doubling the previous benchmark. Together with the £1.9 billion splashed in the recent summer window – another all-time high – teams from England’s top flight have dished out nearly £3 billion on signings in 2022-23. Some £275 million of that total was allocated on Tuesday alone. The 20 sides atop England’s football pyramid accounted for 79% of the total spending across Europe’s major leagues over the past month. These are truly eye-watering numbers.
It’s not just the perennial contenders or celebrated “big” clubs, either.
Outside of Everton, every team from Nottingham Forest – in 13th place – down to the very bottom of the Premier League table was active. West Ham United, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Bournemouth, and Southampton combined to spend roughly £175 million. Wolves didn’t blink when committing to a reported £43-million purchase option for Matheus Cunha; the Cherries added six new players in total; the Saints broke their transfer record for Ghanaian winger Kamaldeen Sulemana. Leeds United, meanwhile, added Georginio Rutter for a club-record fee, and could pay over €40 million should the purchase option and bonuses in Weston McKennie’s deal come to fruition.
The pejorative quip from fans of other competitions that the Super League “already exists” isn’t entirely fair – the Premier League deserves credit for the way it has branded itself and earned enormous television contracts to create the behemoth that exists today – but it’s clear European football needs a course correction. The infamous Super League proposal was misguided and rightfully stopped in its tracks, but the gulf between the Premier League and everyone else is alarming.
Losers: Every other league
Teams in Spain, Italy, Germany, France, and just about everywhere else could only watch on as the Premier League flexed its financial muscle.
According to Transfermarkt, Premier League clubs were responsible for 22 of the 25 most expensive signings in January. Marseille managed to crack the list by adding Portuguese striker Vitinha from Braga for €32 million. The two outstanding transfers involved Flamengo and Tigres.
Another Javier Tebas tirade is coming soon, surely.
Transfer spending in the remainder of Europe’s biggest leagues fell to €255 million in January, down from €396 million 12 months ago. Chelsea nearly matched that with just Fernandez and Mudryk alone. A sign of the times: the largest deal in Serie A was Fiorentina’s decision to make Antonin Barak’s loan from Hellas Verona permanent. It cost the Tuscan club €8.5 million.
“It is very wild, you just have to say that,” Borussia Dortmund sporting director Sebastian Kehl said of the inequitable spending capabilities. “They are running in their own race.”
Arsenal, looking to capture their first Premier League title in almost 20 years, went into the January window with a defined plan to bolster Mikel Arteta’s vibrant squad. The north London side, boasting an excellent starting lineup but lacking depth in certain areas, needed a backup forward, some help in central midfield, and another left-sided – and preferably left-footed – defender.
Check, check, and check.
Leandro Trossard is an ideal complementary attacking piece at this stage in his career, and didn’t cost an extravagant fee. Jorginho, signed for £12 million, brings title-winning experience and a calm on-ball demeanour to the Gunners’ midfield. And Jakub Kiwior will allow the ever-present Gabriel Magalhaes to finally get some rest after playing every single league minute for Arsenal so far this season. At just 22, the Polish international has long-term potential, too.
The Premier League leaders now have all the necessary tools in place as they try to fend off Manchester City in the second half of the campaign.
Did Sean Dyche save some of the magic dust that served him so well at Burnley? Without any new arrivals to bolster the disjointed squad he just inherited from Frank Lampard, Dyche will need a minor miracle to keep Everton from plunging into the second tier of English football.
The Toffees, despite pocketing £45 million from the sale of disgruntled winger Anthony Gordon to Newcastle, didn’t sign a senior player in January.
Worse yet, their scattergun list of targets is indicative of a spiralling club in disarray. On deadline day alone, Everton were linked with the likes of Ziyech, Conor Gallagher, Olivier Giroud, Michy Batshuayi, and Beto. Some of those players, according to reports, flat-out rejected the move to Merseyside. Who can blame them? Everton, sitting 19th in the Premier League and tied on points with last-placed Southampton, are a mess right now.
Everton were the only Premier League club not to sign a single new player during the winter month. Good luck, Sean.
Winners: Headstrong managers
Pep Guardiola and Joao Cancelo apparently got into a heated argument over the Portuguese full-back’s lack of recent playing time at Manchester City. Not long after, Cancelo was in Germany, being unveiled as Bayern Munich’s marquee January signing. Meanwhile, Roberto De Zerbi, responding to Moises Caicedo’s public transfer request, proclaimed that the Ecuadorian dynamo was better off remaining at Brighton & Hove Albion for the rest of the season instead of leaving for the likes of Arsenal or Chelsea. He wanted to retain his star midfielder. Caicedo ultimately stayed put. In both cases, strong-willed managers got their desired outcome. Players have more influence than ever before, but certain coaches still retain power at their respective clubs.
Both situations are risky, for different reasons.
Manchester City are dangerously thin at full-back without Cancelo, who, at his best, is an elite attacking “defender” capable of playing both left- and right-back. He didn’t make the PFA Premier League Team of the Year in each of the last two seasons by accident. And while high-flying Brighton are inarguably better with Caicedo patrolling the middle of the park, there is a chance that their potentially historic season could be derailed if the 21-year-old is adversely affected by his request being denied. For a team riding a wave right now, avoiding any disruptions is key. Tony Bloom’s impressive track record at Brighton speaks for itself, so his decision to back De Zerbi in the matter and keep Caicedo, at least until the summer, is hard to disagree with.
Bonus winners: Borussia Dortmund
Dortmund sporting director Kehl is rubbing his hands together in anticipation right now. Fernandez costing a Premier League record €121 million on deadline day has set the transfer floor for Jude Bellingham’s impending move, which is expected to take place in the summer.
The ceiling could be much, much higher.
Kehl and the Dortmund brass can, and should, demand an exorbitant fee from any interested suitors that come calling for Bellingham. After all, the English midfielder is three years younger than Fernandez, has more experience playing in one of Europe’s top leagues, and has more international caps despite his age. By many of the metrics valued by the biggest clubs in the world, Bellingham is the more desirable player. Having seen how the Fernandez sweepstakes unfolded, why would Dortmund accept anything less than €150 million, at least, for their “irreplaceable” teen superstar?
The upcoming bidding war is going to be riveting.
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