Top Targets Chelsea Could Sign on a Pre-Contract Agreement in January

Garry Hayes@@garryhayesFeatured ColumnistDecember 12, 2017

DORTMUND, GERMANY - NOVEMBER 25: Max Meyer of Schalke controls the ball during the Bundesliga match between Borussia Dortmund and FC Schalke 04 at Signal Iduna Park on November 25, 2017 in Dortmund, Germany. (Photo by TF-Images/TF-Images via Getty Images)
TF-Images/Getty Images

Now that Christmas is almost upon us, it's not just shoppers thinking of picking up a bargain in the January sales.

When the New Year hits, the winter transfer window will open, bringing with it all sorts of mad dashes and manic behaviour from executives across Europe.

Of course, while it's a time for teams to reinforce their squads with short-term goals in mind, January is also a time when some long-term aims can be addressed. Chelsea have done that themselves in the more recent past, selling players for big fees that allowed them to reinvest their funds early come the summer.

That strategy was most effective in 2014 when Juan Mata and Kevin De Bruyne helped bring in over £50 million that was later used to sign Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa before the 2014 FIFA World Cup had even started.

The Blues were given a headstart because of their January business, and it was a major influence in them going on to win the Premier League in 2014/15.

On the flipside, it was in January 2011 that Chelsea broke the British transfer record to sign Fernando Torres for £50 million. You win some; you lose some.

January isn't all about big sales or spending big money, though. It's also a time when talent can be picked up for free as players start to run down their contracts. All across Europe, there are swathes of players who will be entering the final six months of their deals, meaning they can sign pre-contract agreements to secure lucrative moves ahead of the summer.

With Chelsea unable to move for English-based players such as Alexis Sanchez, we look at some further afield who could provide value in the free transfer market.

         

Max Meyer, Schalke

GELSENKIRCHEN, GERMANY - NOVEMBER 19: Max Meyer of Schalke controls the ball during the Bundesliga match between FC Schalke 04 and Hamburger SV at Veltins-Arena on November 19, 2017 in Gelsenkirchen, Germany. (Photo by TF-Images/TF-Images via Getty Images
TF-Images/Getty Images

This isn't a rankings list of free transfers, but if it were, Max Meyer would be near the top of it.

Last summer, Chelsea's London rivals Tottenham Hotspur were reported to be hot on his heels only for Schalke to play hardball and refuse to sell the then 21-year-old, despite Meyer entering the last year of his contract.

With Spurs boss Mauricio Pochettino a long-time admirer, The Sun reported Spurs had also made a huge offer for the midfielder in the summer of 2016.

"Pochettino first made a move for Meyer [in 2016] when Spurs sounded out Schalke about a £38 million deal," the red top reported. "They were knocked back by [Schalke] on that occasion, but Meyer has since rejected the offer of a new deal to stay at the club."

That report was in August this year, and in terms of Meyer's contract situation, not much has changed. A new deal hasn't been signed and we remain none the wiser as to whether he will put pen to paper.

What has changed, however, is Meyer's position. From being a more attacking midfielder when he first burst onto the scene, this year has seen him drop deeper in midfield to play a similar role to someone like Fabregas.

This is where Chelsea come in, especially with Antonio Conte's switch to a 3-5-1-1 formation this season. It works best when Conte's side has a player like Fabregas who is capable of moving the ball with pace and accuracy, picking out the darting runs of Eden Hazard and Alvaro Morata.

It's a system that needs a more cultured approach, but outside of Fabregas, Chelsea do not have another player capable of pulling the strings in the same way he does.

Could Meyer be the man to give Chelsea depth in that area? At just 22 years old, he could prove the heir apparent in a position he is beginning to enjoy this season.

"I hadn’t played in [my current] position previously as I always had more of an offensive role,” Meyer recently commented to the official Bundesliga website.  "I’m playing more defensively now and have to win more tackles as a result, but that’s exactly what I’ve been working on [and] it’s been working out quite well."

It's rare to get real value in the free-transfer market. But with youth and boundless talent on his side, Meyer looks a strong prospect, although Chelsea would have to pay a fee to Schalke, as he is under 24. Regardless, it'll be much less than the £38 million that saw Spurs denied a couple of summers ago.

            

Achraf Hakimi, Real Madrid

MADRID, SPAIN - DECEMBER 09:  Achraf Hakimi of Real Madrid celebrates scoring his team's fifth goal during the La Liga match between Real Madrid and Sevilla at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on December 9, 2017 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by fotopress/Getty Imag
fotopress/Getty Images

Keeping with the youth theme, Real Madrid's Achraf Hakimi will enter the final six months of his contract at the Santiago Bernabeu in January, according to Transfermarkt.

Could one of the hottest prospects in European football be available to Real's rivals for nothing in just a few weeks? It's a long shot for any club, but if Hakimi's contract situation doesn't change soon, that's the situation the club may well have on its hands.

Hakimi's still a teenager, only turning 19 in November this year, but that youth and inexperience shouldn't be putting a club like Chelsea off. Not when a player of Hakimi's potential could be available for a fraction of what he would cost on the open market (Chelsea would have to pay a fee via tribunal given his age).

Until this season, not much was known about Hakimi outside of Madrid. He's come through the club's youth system, but his playing time with the first team has been severely limited thanks to Dani Carvajal being the man he is competing with for a starting place.

But with Danilo moving to Manchester City last summer, Hakimi has found himself filling in whenever Carvajal has been absent. That's allowed him to play twice in the Champions League, while he scored his first La Liga goal in the recent 5-0 drubbing of Sevilla.

He seems to be building up momentum, with Zinedine Zidane giving Hakimi some high praise after his debut for Real against Espanyol earlier this term.

"Achraf has shown that he can play, and I am not scared to throw him in going forward," the Real boss explained, per ESPN. "He is the second-choice right-back, and so if Carvajal is not available, he can play."

Carvajal is a big stumbling block for Hakimi, though. With his progress to date and knowing he can move elsewhere to play, will he be willing to accept a back-up role at the Bernabeu? After all, displacing a player of Carvajal's quality isn't going to an easy task.

And he need only look at how other youngsters from La Liga have moved abroad to excel their careers. So far as right-backs are concerned, Arsenal's Hector Bellerin is a perfect example after he departed Barcelona to become established in north London.

With Victor Moses and Davide Zappacosta the right-sided defenders under Conte right now, the feeling is the Blues could use an upgrade. He's young and inexperienced, but Hakimi could be a long-term solution for Chelsea. And he'd cost them little.

The problem Chelsea—and any other club, for that matter—will face in January is persuading Hakimi that a move from the reigning European champions would be the best thing for his career.

         

Kepa Arrizabalaga, Athletic Bilbao

BILBAO, SPAIN - DECEMBER 02:  Kepa Arrizabalaga of Athletic Club reacts during the La Liga match between Athletic Club and Real Madrid at Estadio de San Mames on December 2, 2017 in Bilbao, Spain.  (Photo by Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images)
Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images

Come the summer, Chelsea may be looking for a new goalkeeper to replace Thibaut Courtois after the Belgian recently announced that he is interested in a move back to Spain.

Courtois spent three seasons on loan from Chelsea at Atletico Madrid before his return in 2014 to replace Petr Cech as the No. 1 goalkeeper in west London.

Due to family reasons, however, Courtois has explained that a return to Spain isn't off the cards.

He recently told Spanish radio station LaSexta (per Metro): "Everybody knows that due to my personal situation [he has two children who live in Spain], Spain attracts me. If it is not now, it will be in some years."

The Belgian has 18 months left on his contract, so where that indecision leaves Chelsea is unclear, especially as contract extension talks haven't progressed beyond last summer.

The Blues would be wise to be on the lookout for Courtois' replacement, and Kepa Arrizabalaga should be on their radar. He'll be a free agent next summer, and with his form for Athletic Bilbao, he's getting plenty of attention, notably from Real Madrid.

It's the reigning European champions who continue to dominate the headlines surrounding Courtois and Arrizabalaga, with their interest widely noted across the media.

But if Real's courting of Courtois these past couple of years has any substance, now's the time for Chelsea to use it to their advantage and make the Belgian leverage to ward off the Spanish giants from Arrizabalaga.

Unlike Madrid, who will have to pay money to sign Arrizabalaga immediately in January, Chelsea can put a deal in place in the New Year. The agreement would see the keeper end the season with Bilbao, before moving to the Premier League in the summer. By which time, Chelsea may well have sold off Courtois.

Big things are being tipped for the 23-year-old Arrizabalaga, who could prove shrewd business for Chelsea as they sell one goalkeeper for a significant fee and replace him with another for nothing.

Given the Blues' transfer deals in more recent times, that's not out of the question. They would just have to try beating Real Madrid to his signature.

     

Joao Moutinho, Monaco

PORTO, PORTUGAL - DECEMBER 6:  Monaco midfielder Joao Moutinho from Portugal in action during the UEFA Champions League match between FC Porto and AS Monaco at Estadio do Dragao on December 6, 2017 in Porto, Portugal.  (Photo by Gualter Fatia/Getty Images
Gualter Fatia/Getty Images

We've looked at some young players who will be available for free come January, but much of the free agents list across Europe is made up of stars from the older generation. As players get the wrong side of 30, shorter deals become a reality as transfer values are harder to maintain. It means the market being flooded with experienced faces, of which Joao Moutinho is one.

The Monaco midfielder's deal will expire next summer, and despite him turning 32 in September 2018, the Portuguese provides a good solution to bolstering Chelsea's squad in the short-term.

While players such as Meyer would be investments for the present as much as they are the future, every club has to realise that success now is equally as important as what happens in three or five years' time. Indeed, it's by getting that balance right at times that Chelsea have enjoyed a steady flow of silverware themselves in the past.

Speak to Blues supporters now and they bemoan the fact that beyond the starting XI, Conte's squad isn't as strong as it should be. Chelsea have been slow in the transfer market to add reinforcements, which has meant players being overworked across multiple competitions.

What happens next summer will be too late for this season. That doesn't mean Chelsea shouldn't be looking at addressing their problems now, though.

Moutinho's ageing legs will not inspire fans. Yet he comes with the sort of know-how and guile that all successful clubs thrive on. He has a creative spark that could add a new dynamic to Chelsea's midfield, giving them options to rotate.

That lack of depth is what is going to hurt Chelsea this season, and they can't allow it to roll over to 2018/19.

Players such as Moutinho are strong additions that, for free, bring with them incredible value. 

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