January 2021 Transfer Window: The Biggest Names to Watch and the Free Agents to Be

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The new year means the opening of a new transfer window across Europe, and clubs, players and agents alike are bracing for yet another month of intense rumors, movement and marketplace machinations.

The Red Bull conglomerate, once again, has been busy getting its work done early, with Dominik Szoboszlai departing Salzburg for RB Leipzig and Brenden Aaronson stepping into that void at Salzburg after leaving the Philadelphia Union. All of that will become official when the window opens on Jan. 2. It was just last winter that Salzburg arranged to sell Erling Haaland to Dortmund and Takumi Minamino to Liverpool before the transfer window opened, with the Austrian power wasting no time in handling its important business.

Proactive maneuvers aren't all that common, though, leaving the next month for all to sift through the players seeking exits, the clubs yearning for reinforcements and the agent-driven tabloid fodder that results in some curveballs along the way.

The big variable, as has been the case for the last nine-plus months, is the pandemic. Clubs that normally wouldn't have thought twice about spending big may have to rein it in with their negotiations and temper expectations until things on the business end pick back up, while others will still go out and make their signings, but only after selling off parts of equal or greater value in order to balance the books. Not all clubs are in the same boat, of course; the pandemic didn't stop Chelsea from spending $300 million over the summer, for instance. 

Then there's what's currently happening in France, where a collapsed TV rights deal has Ligue 1 clubs not receiving the payments they were expecting and suddenly scrambling to make ends meet. It's not the same across the board (PSG, for instance, won't go into fire sale mode), but players who might not otherwise have been available could potentially be had as financial survival outweighs sporting needs.

So with all that said, he's a closer look at the names to watch this January, and the latest scuttlebutt about where—if anywhere—they may be headed:

Bryan Reynolds, Paul Pogba and Christen Eriksen could be on the move this winter

THE BIGGEST NAMES TO WATCH

There is no shortage of elite players and household names mooted to be either on the move or unhappy with their current situations.

- The biggest of them all is Lionel Messi, but he has declared that he won't make a decision on his future until this season—and his current contract—expires. No club will realistically pay Barcelona what it would take to pry him from Camp Nou midseason (nor is the club likely to sell now). On top of everything else, there won't be anyone in position to make decisions at Barcelona until Jan. 24, when the club holds its presidential elections.

- That's not stopping the continued links between Barcelona and Man City center back Eric Garcia, who, like Messi, is out of contract in the summer and could be had for free unless he re-signs with Pep Guardiola's side. Given how there's a one-in, one-out policy at Barcelona when it comes to signing new players and balancing its finances, a summer arrival would make more fiscal sense.

- Barcelona's perennial top competitors, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid, also have moves to consider. Isco has long been out of favor at Real, with Arsenal and Sevilla said to be among his potential destinations should the club let him leave. Diego Costa, meanwhile, had Atletico Madrid terminate his contract with six months to go on Tuesday. Destinations in Turkey, China or Brazil are reportedly on his plate.

- Paul Pogba's agent, Mino Raiola, created another storm around his client when he declared earlier this month that the French midfielder's time at Man United was up, before clarifying that any likely move would take place in the summer. Pogba, like Messi, comes at a high price when taking into account wages alone. Considering Man United would command a hefty fee on top of it eliminates all but a few suitors. Real Madrid to play for Zinedine Zidane and a return to Juventus have always been the most likely alternatives. This movie has played out before at Man United, though.

- One of United's chief rivals, Liverpool, has some business to tend to, with Georginio Wijnaldum out of contract this summer and Mohamed Salah "unhappy" at Liverpool (at least according to ex-Egypt star Mohamed Aboutrika). Liverpool is said to be working on the former, while Jurgen Klopp vehemently denied the latter being an issue.

- Inter Milan's CEO has openly put Christian Eriksen on the club's list of transferable players, admitting that his arrival from Tottenham last winter didn't bring the expected outcome.

"It’s not a punishment, but it’s not working out, so it’s right to give him the chance to find more playing time elsewhere,” Beppe Marotta said recently.

- Elsewhere in Italy, Atalanta midfield star Papu Gomez's recent falling out with coach Gian Piero Gasperini could result in the club captain's departure.

- Speaking of a falling out, Mesut Özil has absolutely no future at Arsenal, something Mikel Arteta has made abundantly clear. Ozil responded hilariously to a question about whether he would go to Tottenham, shutting that down quickly. Juventus and Fenerbahce have reportedly emerged as potential destinations, should Arsenal cut him free.

- London's other top clubs have moves to mull over as well. Chelsea spent so much over the summer, but it's still said to be poking around at a move for West Ham's Declan Rice, while Dele Alli has become José Mourinho's preferred punching bag at Tottenham and has been touted as a potential PSG signing, with former Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino expected to replaced Thomas Tuchel in Paris.

- In Germany, David Alaba's contract spat with Bayern Munich has been quite public for quite a while. And though manager Hansi Flick prefers that the versatile Austrian defender stay put through the rest of the season, a suitor coming in with the right offer may make the most sense for all parties involved.

- Dortmund, meanwhile, has two of the world's most in-demand young talents in Jadon Sancho and Haaland, but neither looks likely to go anywhere this winter. Sancho hasn't helped his value by failing to replicate his production from a season ago, while Haaland has been injured and has maintained his happiness with the club he joined last winer.   

AMERICANS IN THE SHOP WINDOW

Aaronson has already gone, following in the footsteps of Reggie Cannon as top U.S. prospects leaving MLS for Europe this year, but they could be joined by more rising talents.

FC Dallas's Bryan Reynolds, Sporting Kansas City's Gianluca Busio and the Philadelphia Union's Mark McKenzie are the three most prominently linked talents. Reynolds, Cannon's replacement in Dallas, could be on the fast track to joining his former teammate abroad, with Juventus, Roma, AC Milan, Marseille and Club Brugge all having reported interest in the 19-year-old right back. 

Busio has been linked with Italian clubs in the past, and the latest rumblings out of Spain put the 18-year-old midfielder on Barcelona's radar. ESPN's Taylor Twellman reported over the summer that Sporting KC turned down a $4 million offer from a "big Serie A club" for Busio's services.

The 21-year-old McKenzie, meanwhile, has long been linked to Celtic, while also drawing recent interest from Belgium's Genk.

Joe Scally, NYCFC's soon-to-be-18-year-old academy product and right back, already has a deal to join Borussia Monchengladbach in January. Across town (or, more accurately, across the Hudson River), 17-year-old New York Red Bulls breakout talent Caden Clark is also drawing overseas interest, most prominently from Red Bull sibling Leipzig. The New York–to–Leipzig pathway is one already familiar to both clubs following Tyler Adams's successful transition from MLS to the Bundesliga.

One veteran to watch is DeAndre Yedlin, whose Newcastle contract expires at the end of this season. He's had opportunities to feature for the Magpies recently and has fared well, which could increase interest in the 27-year-old right back as the window opens.

OUT OF CONTRACT IN JUNE

The best transfer business is free transfer business. Just ask Bayern Munich, the masters of signing the pre-contract agreement for an import that'll arrive six months down the line. 

There are always free-agents-to-be who will play out the string of their deals before moving on without any strings attached, and this coming summer is no different. In fact, it's a rather loaded class. 

A best XI (3-4-3, for these purposes) of free agents alone could look something like:

Goalkeeper: Gianluigi Donnarumma (AC Milan)

Defenders: David Alaba (Bayern Munich), Eric García (Manchester City), Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid)

Midfielders: Luka Modrić (Real Madrid), Georginio Wijnaldum (Liverpool), Julian Draxler (PSG), Ángel Di María (PSG)

Forwards: Lionel Messi (Barcelona), Sergio Agüero (Manchester City), Memphis Depay (Lyon)

There's plenty of depth beyond that, especially in the attack, with a theoretical "bench" made up of: Juan Bernat (PSG), Jérôme Boateng (Bayern Munich), Florian Thauvin (Marseille), Hakan Calhanoglu (AC Milan), Riqui Puig (Barcelona), Edinson Cavani (Manchester United), Arkadiusz Milik (Napoli) and Henrikh Mkhitaryan (Roma). 

There are many factors in play, of course. Players must be willing participants in signing pre-contract agreements, and club options make expiring contracts not entirely as straightforward as they seem.

Nevertheless, with plenty of clubs looking to operate as frugally as possible, there's no better way to secure a big signing than by doing so—wage demands aside—for free.