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

Karl Matchett@@karlmatchettFeatured ColumnistDecember 14, 2017

DORTMUND, GERMANY - NOVEMBER 25: Leon Goretzka of Schalke celebrates after winning 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

Flying high at the top of La Liga, everything looks good for Barcelona right now.

They are unbeaten domesticallyfive points clear at the top of the table and eight ahead of champions Real Madridand face a winnable, if not outright straightforward, Champions League last-16 tie against a stuttering Chelsea.

They also have key signing Ousmane Dembele to welcome back to fitness in the new year, while star player Lionel Messi is again in scintillating form.

However, it's not perfect at the Camp Nou. Ernesto Valverde's team at times have the feeling of being functional rather than spectacular, leading the league because they're not losing matches rather than being so good that they beat everybody.

There is more to work on as the new manager moulds a team in his style, with a changed formation and clearly needing more numbers to reach the level he wants. Fortunately, the January transfer window is around the corner.

coach Ernesto Valverde of FC Barcelona during the UEFA Champions League group D match between FC Barcelona and Sporting Club de Portugal on December 05, 2017  at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona, Spain.(Photo by VI Images via Getty Images)
VI-Images/Getty Images

While it represents a chance to add a new face immediately, it's also a time to look to the future and bring in players on pre-contract agreements to join on a free transfer next season, as Valverde seeks to stamp his authority on the squad.

With that in mind, here are five players soon to be out of contract who would suit the Catalan club, either for the remainder of this term on a low-cost deal or next year and beyond on a free.

Leon Goretzka, Schalke 04

GELSENKIRCHEN, GERMANY - OCTOBER 20: Leon Goretzka of Schalke looks on during the Bundesliga match between FC Schalke 04 and 1. FSV Mainz 05 at Veltins-Arena on October 20, 2017 in Gelsenkirchen, Germany. (Photo by TF-Images/TF-Images via Getty Images)
TF-Images/Getty Images

Likely to be one of the most in-demand of all out-of-contract European stars in the summer, Schalke 04 midfielder Leon Goretzka has the mentality and the technique to be a starter in Barcelona's centre.

Composed in possession, aggressive and capable of carrying the ball quickly upfield, the 22-year-old can fill multiple roles in the middle of the park and has a big future ahead of him.

Whether he would be a starter now in Barcelona's team with every player fit and in-form is up for debate, but that's a relatively rare occurrence. Andres Iniesta doesn't play every match, Paulinho's form has been inconsistent and there isn't a guaranteed name on either side of the quartet yet.

Goretzka can play as part of a double pivot or in a 4-3-3, or even when required as a more advanced midfielder, using his athleticism and the timing of his runs into the box to be a threat from deep.

KAISERSLAUTERN, GERMANY - OCTOBER 8: Leon Goretzka of Germany celebrates his second goal with Leroy Sane (left) during the FIFA 2018 World Cup Qualifier between Germany and Azerbaijan at Fritz-Walter Stadium on October 8, 2017 in Kaiserslautern, Germany.
Jean Catuffe/Getty Images

His strike rate of six goals in 12 international caps for Germany showcases his capabilities further forward; and although it perhaps doesn't get the best of his controlling performance when he's asked to surge more frequently, he has the poise and finishing in the final third to impact in a big way.

Given Valverde has gone with a diamond at times, with Paulinho often the highest midfielder, it's clear there are at least three different roles Goretzka could fill in this season's Barcelona team.

Looking more to the future, he's a €30 million midfielder and quite possibly more given how prices continue to rise.

Bringing him in on a free transfer is a no-brainer for any team who can manage it, and he would suit Barcelona with their more aggressive, direct and slightly more rigid emphasis.

                  

Juan Mata, Manchester United

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 05: Juan Mata of Manchester United during the UEFA Champions League group A match between Manchester United and CSKA Moskva at Old Trafford on December 5, 2017 in Manchester, United Kingdom. (Photo by James Baylis - AMA/Gett
James Baylis - AMA/Getty Images

It wouldn't be a Barcelona type of signing, but there would be a lot of sense to snaring Juan Mata.

The former Valencia and Chelsea man can play off the right in a 4-3-3, as a No. 10 or even as an interior playmaker—one of the "wider" options in Valverde's four-man midfield—given Barca often hold possession so high upfield.

In a campaign where Denis Suarez, Ivan Rakitic, Gerard Deulofeu, Aleix Vidal and Paco Alcacer have all triedand mostly failedto find consistency in the right-sided role, Barca could do a lot worse than offload a couple of those and bring in Mata for his experience, reliability and exquisite technique.

For those games when Messi is unavailable or rested, Mata is also a much more intelligent and creative replacement than going with two out-and-out strikers or having to revert to a 4-3-3 because there's no obvious alternative.

VILLARREAL, SPAIN - DECEMBER 10: Lionel Andres Messi of FC Barcelona in action during the La Liga 2017-18 match between Villarreal CF and FC Barcelona at Estadio de la Ceramica on 10 December 2017 in Villarreal, Spain. (Photo by Power Sport Images/Getty I
Power Sport Images/Getty Images

He will be 30 in April, although there is an option to extend his Manchester United contract for a further year, which the Daily Mail reported as being potentially activated. It hasn't yet though, and getting the call from one of Europe's top clubs could sway Mata's decision, particularly if the 2017/18 campaign continues the recent trend of him being named as sub at Old Trafford.

Mata isn't the type of player who will add 20 goals to the team's haul, but he brings more guile and incision in his passing than the majority of the squad members listed above.

            

Stefan de Vrij, Lazio

ROME, ROMA - NOVEMBER 26:  Stefan De Vrij of SS Lazio celebrates a opening goal with his team mates during the Serie A match between SS Lazio and ACF Fiorentina at Stadio Olimpico on November 26, 2017 in Rome, Italy.  (Photo by Marco Rosi/Getty Images)
Marco Rosi/Getty Images

The signing of Samuel Umtiti has Barcelona set for the left side of central defence, with the Frenchman already displaying maturity and consistency after little more than a year at the Camp Nou.

He's going to be in place for a long time, but there's still some regeneration needed in that back line.

Thomas Vermaelen wouldn't have had much of a look-in but for Umtiti's injury, but he is injury-prone and 32 years of age. Javier Mascherano is 33 and tipped to leave in the January transfer window after slipping down the pecking order, per Alex Fisher of Goal. Even Gerard Pique won't be around forever; he will turn 31 in February and can't play every match.

It's probable Barca will look to bring in two central defenders over the coming year; a prime-age candidate to be a regular starter and a youngster who might work their way into the XI over time.

For the immediate starter, Lazio defender Stefan de Vrij would be an excellent addition.

The 25-year-old is dominant, excellent in the air, powerful, aggressive and capable sliding across into full-back areas to cover, which is particularly useful given how Barca love the likes of Jordi Alba and Nelson Semedo to surge forward.

Moreover, De Vrij habitually starts right of centre in a back two, which is perfect for a longer-term unison with Umtiti in the middle of the back line.

BARCELONA, SPAIN - DECEMBER 02:  Samuel Umtiti of Barcelona in action during the La Liga match between Barcelona and Celta de Vigo at Camp Nou on December 2, 2017 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images)
Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images

There had been reports of the Dutchman extending his contract at Lazio, according to Il Messaggero (h/t TalkSport), with an attainable release clause built in to allow him to leave anyway. As yet there's no  official confirmation of the deal, so a free transfer could still be on the cards.

Pique, Umtiti and De Vrij would be a phenomenal set of centre-backs for Barcelona to rotate with from 2018 onward, and the prospect of pairing up the Dutch defender with either on a regular basis should be grounds for great excitement.

Even if he signs the deal, he would still represent good value at €20 million-€30 million; if the chance to secure him on a pre-contract is there, though, Barcelona should be looking to complete the move as early in January as possible.

               

Fernandinho, Manchester City

Manchester City's Brazilian midfielder Fernandinho (L) vies with Arsenal's Welsh midfielder Aaron Ramsey during the English Premier League football match between Manchester City and Arsenal at the Etihad Stadium in Manchester, north west England, on Novem
OLI SCARFF/Getty Images

In recent seasons there haven't been too many battles between Real Madrid and Barcelona for players, with the confusing Andre Gomes fiasco the only one of note—and Barca probably wish they hadn't "won" that one in the end.

However, if Fernandinho doesn't sign a new deal with Manchester City, he's one of the few players both Barca and Los Blancos should be looking at.

This term, Valverde has had a rotating cast alongside Sergio Busquets: Iniesta, Rakitic, Denis, Sergi Roberto, Gomes and Paulinho have all had a go in four-man and more traditional three-man Barca midfield shapes.

Fernandinho would arguably be a better double-pivot partner for Busquets than any of the above, and he would provide the ability to step in for the Spaniard when rotated or injured.

He's a capable holding player for a top side who dominate possession for long stretches, being aggressive in the challenge, fast over the ground and diligent in his passing. He's also able to break forward into space at pace, taking out two or three opponents before they can react and breaking defensive lines.

Alongside Busquets, Fernandinho's more natural attacking instincts would come to the fore as they did in his time at Shakhtar Donetsk, and he could play any of the roles in the centre in a 4-3-3.

Simon Mullock of the Sunday Mirror reported the 32-year-old was close to an extended stay at City, but nothing is signed yet—and until it is, he could be speaking to other clubs in a matter of weeks.

It should be noted Paulinho hasn't been a bad signing for Barca; the 29-year-old has already had one or two important moments and his general performance level has been no worse than some of his team-mates. 

However, given his age and the money laid out on him, Barca might be able to snare both Fernandinho and Goretzka for free, have Paulinho's role taken care of and have the midfield set for some time to come.

Put in those terms, midfield remains an upgradeable position for Barca this coming summer and the free-transfer market is a good place to start.

            

Bernard, Shakhtar Donetsk

Shakhtar's midfielder Bernard celebrates after scoring a goal during the UEFA European Champions League Group F football match between Feyenoord and Shakhtar Donesk in Rotterdam on October 17, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / JOHN THYS        (Photo credit should read
JOHN THYS/Getty Images

Finally, given these are free transfer arrivals, there's room for a gamble—and Shakhtar's Bernard is the one for Barcelona.

Tricky, spectacular, skilful and fast, the Brazilian is exciting to watch...but he's also inconsistent, worryingly ignored by the national team and at times a little one-dimensional.

Bernard plays from the left side of the forward line, cutting infield whenever possible, and it's feasible that if Valverde is intent on sticking with a 4-4-2 diamond there's no real role for the former Atletico Mineiro man.

That didn't stop Barca signing Deulofeu, though, and Valverde has turned to him more than once to either play a true winger's role down the right or the old Neymar role when switching to a 4-3-3.

Bernard can be a better variation of that player than Deulofeu, and he is likely to be a greater goal threat over the course of a couple of seasons too.

Would he be a guaranteed starter every week for Barca? Undeniably not.

With Dembele out, though, they lack a little ingenuity, some unpredictable footwork that isn't from the boots of Messi, and someone with the acceleration into space down the channels.

Bernard isn't at Dembele's levels of pace, but he has more to his game in those areas than an Aleix Vidal or Deulofeu, and he could work out as a super-sub of sorts.

Whether the Brazilian is the right fit or not, there are a few who should interest Barcelona for next season's squad and save them huge sums at the same time.

              

Twitter.com/karlmatchett

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