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Friday, June 2, 2023

Best Buys: Ranking the Top Transfers from the 2021 January Window

Szoboszlai Red Bull transfer
Dominik Szoboszlai was one of the most in-demand attackers this window. Christian Bruna/EPA.

The January transfer window is generally much slower than its summer counterpart in regards to player movement, but soccer nonetheless witnessed a string of special signings this winter.

Clubs all over the world are still dealing with the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic, but that didn’t stop certain teams from conducting big business.

The added uncertainty caused by COVID-19 highlighted the need for bargains in particular, with loans and free transfers featuring prominently among the standout moves.

10. Brenden Aaronson (Philadelphia Union to Red Bull Salzburg)

Transfer Fee: $6 million (£4.5m)

Among the latest in United States starlets ready to make an impact in Europe, Brenden Aaronson became the most expensive homegrown American export when he joined Red Bull Salzburg on January 1.

U.S. international Aaronson completed his second Major League Soccer season after lifting the Supporters’ Shield with the Philadelphia Union, where he starred as a key player despite only celebrating his 20th birthday in October. The midfielder then took his substantial talents to the Red Bull Arena in Salzburg, a proven ground for breakout talents looking to dip their toes in European waters:

Aaronson recorded his first Salzburg assist in his maiden start under countryman Jesse Marsch, with the expectation being that he too will eventually make a move onto bigger things in time.

9. Moussa Dembele (Lyon to Atletico Madrid)

Transfer Fee: Loan

After five back-to-back seasons showering goals across England, Scotland and France, the scoring stats dried up for Moussa Dembele at Lyon this season, leading him to join Atletico Madrid on loan.

There are far worse destinations to attempt recapturing one’s best form, although the pressure is on for the 24-year-old following a return of one goal in 16 games for Les Gones in the first half of this term:

Without much financial risk, Atletico have added a striking option who netted 44 times in his first two seasons at Lyon. He offers a handy alternative to the ageing Luis Suarez and João Félix, while Diego Costa’s days look numbered in his third stint as an Atletico player.

Dembele might have ranked higher had he not joined Atletico while recovering from a broken arm, with the former France under-21 international still waiting on his debut for Los Rojiblancos almost three weeks into his stay.

8. Mesut Özil (Arsenal to Fenerbahce)

Transfer Fee: Free

One transfer that could easily fall at either extreme of the January transfer-o-meter, but on its surface, Mesut Özil’s move to Fenerbahce looks to be a win for all parties concerned.

After failing to make Mikel Arteta’s squads this season, Özil (born in Germany to Turkish parents) gets to join a club he grew up supporting as a child, while Arsenal relieve their wage bill of a huge expense.

In turn, the Gunners get to allocate that spot (and salary) to a player who can actually make an impact this season—but we’ll come to that later. Fenerbahce, meanwhile, have acquired a player who, at 32 years of age, has the quality to run rampant in the Süper Lig for a number of seasons. Just ask Arsene Wenger, the man who brought him to north London:

The doom and gloom of his final seasons at the Emirates Stadium shouldn’t cover up the good times that preceded Özil’s departure, having lifted the FA Cup on three occasions as a Gunner:

7. Mbaye Diagne (Galatasaray to West Brom)

Transfer Fee: Loan

It’s rare that signings from Turkey’s Süper Lig work out in England’s top flight, but Mbaye Diagne has the potential to emerge near the top of that sample list after joining West Bromwich Albion on loan.

The 29-year-old made his Premier League debut the day after completing his temporary move from Galatasaray and assisted the crucial equaliser in a 2-2 comeback draw against Fulham:

Wherever Diagne has gone in his career, goals have tended to follow. West Brom is the Senegal international’s 13th senior club in the eighth country he’s played, and Baggies fans will be encouraged that he’s averaged around a goal every other game (or better) at his last three employers.

Sam Allardyce is far from the most favored of Premier League managers, but in Diagne, he’s secured the experienced, natural goalscoring presence that could keep them up come May.

6. Carles Aleñá (Barcelona to Getafe)

Transfer Fee: Loan

For the second season running, Barcelona midfielder Carles Aleñá will spend the closing half of the campaign outside the Camp Nou after Getafe agreed to take him on a short-term deal.

The central playmaker is far from the first product of La Masia who’s failed to receive prominent chances with the Blaugrana in recent years despite his promise, which has been on full display with the Madrid outfit.

Aleñá played a total of 48 minutes in La Liga under Ronald Koeman this season, but he’s started four games from four with Getafe and notched two assists in the process:

The riches of midfield talent in Catalonia may keep the 23-year-old from fulfilling his potential at Barca, but his suitors look certain to profit should he end up leaving on a permanent basis.

5. Jeremie Frimpong (Celtic to Bayer Leverkusen)

Transfer Fee: $15.5 million (£11.5m)

Bayer Leverkusen quietly had one of the most promising winter transfer windows in Europe, with their three arrivals from the British Isles spearheaded by the biggest expenditure, right-back Jeremie Frimpong.

A $15.5 million purchase from Celtic, Frimpong—who only turned 20 in December—represents higher risk than lower-cost buys like Demarai Gray or Timothy Fosu-Mensah—signed from Leicester City and Manchester United, respectively.

Compatriot Fosu-Mensah may block his route to the starting right-back slot for now, but Dutch soccer expert Michael Bell saw Frimpong’s move to Leverkusen as an aid to him becoming a fully fledged Netherlands international:

Frimpong—who spent nine years in Manchester City’s academy—can also provide additional support at right midfield—behind the likes of Leon Bailey and Karim Bellarabi—and is just the kind of supplement needed at the mid-season mark.

4. Martin Ødegaard (Real Madrid to Arsenal)

Transfer Fee: Loan

One talent overlooked by Zinedine Zidane this season despite dazzling on loan with Real Sociedad last term, Martin Ødegaard will be on a mission to prove himself as he fills that Özil-shaped hole at Arsenal.

The Gunners were one of the clubs who offered the Norwegian a tour when he was shopped around in December 2014, then at Strømsgodset and the teenage talk of the town in Europe. Six seasons later, the 22-year-old is back at the Emirates Stadium on temporary terms, rated by transfer guru Fabrizio Romano as the signing of the winter window:

A fourth loan in as many seasons won’t scream “top talent” to some. However, any familiar with Ødegaard’s impact at Real Sociedad as they soared to sixth in La Liga and a Copa del Rey final last year will vouch for his quality as a versatile midfield talent with a penchant for unlocking defenses.

3. Luka Jovic (Real Madrid to Eintracht Frankfurt)

Transfer Fee: Loan

Real’s loss has been a gain of gigantic proportions for Eintracht Frankfurt in regards to Luka Jovic, who rejoined the German club on loan after a miserable 18 months in Spain’s capital.

It took the Serb no time to resume the kind of form that attracted Real in the first place, scoring two goals in his first 28 minutes back at Eintracht—the same tally he managed in 32 games for Los Blancos:

Zidane would be wise to wonder why his management couldn’t get the same out of Real’s $67.5 million signing, with a change in approach perhaps necessary if Jovic is to return.

Eintracht sporting director Fredi Bobic expressed an interest in making the move permanent (via Goal), while Jovic told ABC (h/t Football Espana) he’s “not taking any more Spanish classes.”

2. Ozan Kabak (Schalke to Liverpool)

Transfer Fee: Loan

Liverpool made it until deadline day without signing the defenders they needed to replenish their injury-hit backline, with Jurgen Klopp convinced to pull some triggers after learning Joel Matip will miss the rest of the season with an ankle injury.

Schalke center-back Ozan Kabak was long rumoured to be of interest to the Reds and finally joined on loan until June, with a $25 million (£18m) option to make the deal permanent in the summer.

The Athletic’s Tom Worville put into words the superb value of Liverpool’s deal, securing a young, star talent in a crisis area for (relatively) low cost, but with no commitment to buy should things not work out:

Schalke have been largely woeful over the past year, but Turkey international Kabak, 20, has consistently stood clear of his peers as a gifted talent in an otherwise ailing defense.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Chris Richards: Bayern Munich to Hoffenheim (loan)
  • Fikayo Tomori: Chelsea to AC Milan (loan)
  • Sami Khedira: Juventus to Hertha Berlin (free)
  • Ainsley Maitland-Niles: Arsenal to West Brom (loan)
  • Alejandro Gomez: Atalanta to Sevilla ($5m)
  • Jesse Lingard: Manchester United to West Ham United (loan)

1. Dominik Szoboszlai (Red Bull Salzburg to RB Leipzig)

Transfer Fee: $25 million (£19m)

Red Bull may as well commission their own train link from Salzburg to Leipzig at this point, such is the frequency at which their two Bundesliga clubs conclude industry-leading transfer business.

This time, it was Dominik Szoboszlai who jumped to Germany’s top tier from its Austrian equivalent, a move that sees Leipzig gain a playmaker who was clearly above the standard in Salzburg:

Linked with the likes of Arsenal and Juventus before opting to remain inside the Red Bull bubble, the 2020 Hungary Sportsman of the Year will see expectations raised under Julian Nagelsmann.

An adductor injury has slowed his start in Leipzig, but it won’t be long before we see 20-year-old Szoboszlai adding to the nine goals and 11 assists he racked up in only 22 Salzburg appearances earlier this season.

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