PSG, Man United, Leipzig having the best transfer windows so far. Who else makes up the top 10?
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Soccer never stops. Now that Euro 2020 and the Copa America are in the books, the soccer world has flipped right back to its second-favorite topic beyond the game itself: transfers.
It’s going to be a dizzying few weeks of rumours and potential moves, with big names such as Kylian Mbappe, Erling Haaland and Robert Lewandowski, among others, the subject of heavy innuendo. But while we sift through what is and isn’t real in that regard, it might be useful to step back and look at what has happened to date.
Acknowledging that there are still loads of moves to come, here are the 10 European teams that have had the best offseasons to date. We will update this periodically as the transfer window continues to unfold.
(Note: the transfer fees listed come from Transfermarkt.)
Key additions: 22-year-old right-back Achraf Hakimi (Internazionale) for $66 million; 29-year-old defensive midfielder Danilo Pereira (FC Porto) for $17.6 million; 22-year-old goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma (AC Milan), 30-year old-midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum (Liverpool) and 35-year old centre-back Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid) on free transfers.
Key losses: None.
PSG needed to nail this transfer window. As strange as it might feel to say, France’s richest club didn’t seem to have as much standout talent as it probably should have had in 2020-21. Yes, Mbappe and Neymar are guaranteed matchup advantages, but against the best teams on the schedule (in particular, Manchester City in the Champions League semifinals), those were just about the only advantages they were guaranteed to have. And while their runners-up finish in Ligue 1 was a little bit of a statistical fluke — their xG differential was far better than champions Lille’s, and they were unsustainably unsuccessful in zero- and one-score games — poor execution also played a role.
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Thus far, PSG have indeed stuck the landing. Mbappe’s contract status will continue to dominate the overall narrative — it expires in 2022, and the club will have to figure out whether to keep him for 2021-22 or deal him if it becomes 100% clear he isn’t going to re-sign — but Mbappe aside, they have made massive squad upgrades. Wijnaldum and Ramos are Champions League winners who each played some of their best ball in 2019-20 before injury and the general oddity of the season dragged them each down last season. Meanwhile, they didn’t even need a new goalkeeper but saw the opportunity to bring the towering and dynamic Donnarumma over from Milan all the same.
He might not be the biggest name, but Hakimi might be the biggest addition. It isn’t a coincidence that Borussia Dortmund got worse, and Inter Milan got better, when he moved from the former to the latter last season. This era is leaning more and more on dynamic play on the wing, and potentially bringing wing-backs back into style, and Hakimi is one of the best in the world at the position. He has 12 goals and 18 assists in league play in the past two seasons, and he’s got Champions League experience. He is just about a third guaranteed matchup advantage … as long as Mbappe remains in the squad, at least.
Key addition: 21-year-old winger Jadon Sancho (Borussia Dortmund) for $101 million.
Key losses: None.
United almost certainly aren’t done making moves — among others, Real Madrid defender Raphael Varane could join soon — but the one major deal they’ve pulled off so far has been spectacular. Sancho inexplicably couldn’t make it off of Gareth Southgate’s bench during the Euros, but United’s yearslong flirtation with bringing him aboard is proof that he is heading to a club that appreciates his output. And what output it is.
Sancho averaged 12.3 goals and 13.7 assists in three full Bundesliga seasons (he has produced five and six, respectively, in 21 career Champions League games, too), and despite a slow start in 2020-21, he was one of the primary reasons for BVB’s late-season charge back to third place in the Bundesliga. He is an above-average finisher and one of the most creative attackers in Europe, and his versatility — he’s productive on the right or left wings — will be key in a lineup that now features a logjam up front. How Ole Gunnar Solskjaer balances minutes between Bruno Fernandes, Marcus Rashford, Mason Greenwood, Edinson Cavani, Daniel James and Anthony Martial — if he isn’t dealt — will dictate how well United challenge Manchester City and Chelsea for top of the Premier League table.
Key additions: 22-year-old forward Patson Daka (FC Salzburg) for $33 million, 22-year-old defensive midfielder Boubakary Soumare (Lille) for $22 million.
Key losses: None.
No one plays the transfer game like a real-life version of Football Manager better than Leicester, moving on about one star per year and plugging that revenue into bringing young future stars into the fold. Their hit rate in transfers has been as high as anyone’s, and despite the financial disadvantages of Premier League life when you aren’t one of the country’s six richest clubs, the Foxes have come within an eyelash of Champions League qualification for two straight seasons.
We don’t yet know if they will end up transferring out a player this offseason, but that hasn’t stopped them from making further upgrades. Soumare created 13 chances, averaged nearly seven ball recoveries per 90 minutes and won 59% of his duels and 61% of his aerials for France’s surprise league champions last season. He joins Youri Tielemans and Wilfred Ndidi in what was already one of the league’s better midfields.
Meanwhile, in their quest to eventually capably replace the 34-year-old Jamie Vardy up front, they brought in one of the most tantalising scorers of Europe’s lower leagues. Daka scored 61 goals in all competitions in the past two seasons with Salzburg, and he’s still a couple of years from his prime. These are exactly the types of moves we’ve come to expect from Leicester.
Key additions: 25-year-old forward Andre Silva (Eintracht Frankfurt) for $25.3 million, 19-year-old centre-back Josko Gvardiol (Dinamo Zagreb) for $20.7 million*, 21-year-old centre-back Mohamed Simakan (Strasbourg) for $16.5 million, 24-year-old right-back Benjamin Henrichs (AS Monaco) for $16.5 million.
* The Gvardiol deal actually took place last fall, but he was loaned back to Dinamo for the 2020-21 season.
Key losses: 22-year-old centre-back Dayot Upamecano (Bayern Munich) for $46.8 million, 22-year-old centre-back Ibrahima Konate (Liverpool) for $44 million.
As with Leicester, we’re growing accustomed to seeing stars depart Red Bull Arena, only to be replaced by surefire future stars. RB Leipzig so thoroughly and successfully sticks to their plan that it’s possible for the club to lose two star defenders and still boast a great offseason.
Both Bayern and Liverpool looked to Leipzig to upgrade their respective defences, and to be sure, Upamecano is a star and Konate could become one with a long run of injury-free play. But RBL quickly moved to replace them, bringing in the well-regarded Simakan from France and officially adding Gvardiol, one of Dinamo Zagreb’s more important players during their run to the Europa League quarterfinals.
Meanwhile, the addition of Silva for that fee might be the coup of the offseason. Silva scored 40 goals in 57 league appearances for Eintracht, and he offers the pure scoring ability that RBL lacked at times, in Timo Werner’s absence, last season. That they also added Ajax up-and-comer Brian Brobbey (six goals in just 332 minutes in Eredivisie and Europa League play last season) on a free transfer and thrilling 18-year-old American Caden Clark for just $2 million (they then loaned him back to the New York Red Bulls for the rest of the MLS season) clinched that no one improved their overall attacking potential, for more of a discount, than RBL.
Key additions: 22-year-old right-back Emerson Royal (Real Betis) for $9.9 million; 33-year-old forward Sergio Aguero (Manchester City), 27-year-old forward Memphis Depay (Lyon) and 20-year-old centre-back Eric Garcia (Manchester City) on free transfers; 18-year-old attacking midfielder Yusuf Demir (Rapid Vienna) on a loan-to-buy deal.
Key losses: 24-year-old left-back Junior Firpo (Leeds United) for $16.5 million, 21-year-old winger Francisco Trincao (Wolverhampton Wanderers) on loan.
Actually, there’s one more key addition that Barca is technically making: Lionel Messi. The six-time Ballon d’Or winner was technically a free agent after his Barca contract expired this summer, but it appears he has re-signed at a significant discount.
The discount was key because Barca remain in dire financial straits, and bringing Messi back into the fold won’t help with that. The Blaugrana will keep looking to move some expensive players in the weeks ahead. Still, with almost no transfer budget, they have done as good a job as one could have hoped when it comes to adding raw talent. Aguero and Depay offer quite a bit of centralised scoring to go with what is still a bounty of talent on the wings, while Royal is a physical full-back with plenty of tactical-fouling potential. Garcia offers a potential upgrade in the back, and Demir is likely the best under-19 player in Austria.
6. Leeds United
Key additions: 24-year-old left-back Junior Firpo (Barcelona) for $16.5 million, 24-year-old winger Jack Harrison (Manchester City) for $14.1 million.
Key losses: None.
The combination of manager Marcelo Bielsa and director of football Victor Orta has worked wonders for Leeds in the past three seasons. Orta finds exciting and (mostly) young pieces, and Bielsa gets them fit and uploads the Bielsa Football Encyclopedia into their respective brains. Since this duo teamed up, Leeds have gone from 13th in the English Championship to third, then first and, following promotion, ninth in the Premier League. They have yet to lose any key pieces this offseason, and they’ve made two key additions.
First, they permanently inked Harrison after three seasons on loan from City; after posting six goals and eight assists in Leeds’ final season in the Championship, he upgraded those numbers to eight and eight, despite playing 1,000 fewer minutes, in his Premier League debut.
The second major move addressed a need. After getting lost in the shuffle a bit at Barca, Firpo joins to replace the out-of-contract Ezgjan Alioski at left-back. He’s a solid passer and willing defender, and a couple of years in the Bielsa Football Academy could very well get the best out of him.
Key additions: 27-year-old midfielder Rodrigo De Paul (Udinese) for $38.5 million, 20-year-old winger Marcos Paulo (Fluminense) on a free transfer.
Key losses: None.
Atletico’s continued modernisation efforts have produced a veteran and a tantalising project thus far. First, the latter: in 2,605 minutes in two seasons in Brazil’s Serie A, Paulo combined seven goals with 50 chances created from the left wing. He’s still a few months from his 21st birthday, and if manager Diego Simeone helps him to realise his pressing potential, he could be a steal.
Gab Marcotti reacts to Atletico Madrid’s move for Udinese star and Copa America winner Rodrigo De Paul.
The main offseason prize for the defending La Liga champions, however, is De Paul. He’s done almost literally everything for a mediocre Udinese in recent seasons, averaging 8.3 goals, 7.7 assists and 85.3 total chances created in the past three years, plus 200-plus ball recoveries per season and, in 2020-21, a duel success rate of 60%. He also added a goal and the tournament-winning assist (to Angel Di Maria in the final against Brazil) for Argentina in the Copa America. He is approaching the back half of his peak age range, and spending nearly $40 million for such a player is a little bit of a risk, but he is a fantastic facilitator who draws lots of contact in the midfield.
8. Wolverhampton Wanderers
Key additions: 20-year-old left-back Rayan Ait Nouri (Angers) for $12.2 million, 20-year-old centre-back Yerson Mosquera (Atletico Nacional) for $5.7 million, 21-year-old winger Francisco Trincao (Barcelona) on a loan-to-buy deal.
Key losses: goalkeeper Rui Patricio (AS Roma) for $12.7 million.
Wolves needed a bit of rejuvenation after slipping to 13th in the Premier League last season. They parted ways with manager Nuno Espirito Santo (he landed at Tottenham Hotspur), adding former Benfica head man Bruno Lage in his place, and they’ve thus far added a couple of fun, new pieces while holding onto most of their core roster: wingers Adama Traore and Pedro Neto, midfielders Ruben Neves (for now) and Leander Dendoncker, etc.
Neto will potentially return to action in October following an April kneecap injury, and striker Raul Jimenez is just about ready to return after the scary fractured skull he suffered in November. That alone could improve Wolves’ fortunes this season, but they’ve reinforced their depth with the permanent signing of Ait Nouri (who played 1,400 league minutes for Wolves on loan last season) and the additions of both the 6-foot-2 Mosquera and the tantalising Trincao, who posted eight goals and six assists for Braga in 2019-20 but found his minutes limited at Barca last season. He will be expected to produce in Neto’s absence.
Neves has been linked to Arsenal in transfer rumours, and if he moves on it might be difficult for Wolves to retain a spot on this list. (In fact, Arsenal might take their place.) But for now, the window has been good to them.
Key additions: 24-year-old midfielder Gerson (Flamengo) for $27.5 million; 22-year-old centre-back Leonardo Balerdi (Borussia Dortmund) for $12.1 million; 19-year-old winger Konrad de la Fuente (Barcelona) for $3.3 million; 22-year-old midfielder Matteo Guendouzi (Arsenal), 20-year-old centre-back William Saliba (Arsenal), 23-year-old winger Cengiz Under (Roma) and 26-year-old goalkeeper Pau Lopez (Roma) on loan.
Key losses: 31-year-old right-back Hiroki Sakai (Urawa Red Diamonds) for $1.7 million, 28-year-old winger Florian Thauvin (Tigres) and 31-year-old midfielder Kevin Strootman (Cagliari) on free transfers.
The 2020-21 season was ridiculously volatile at the Stade Velodrome. OM finished last in their group in their first Champions League appearance since 2013-14, they finished fifth in Ligue 1 — 18 points out of the running for Champions League qualification — and the month of February included the resignation of popular manager Andre Villas-Boas, a storming of team facilities by angry fans and, eventually, the resignation of club president Jacque-Henri Eyraud.
The team responded well to the spring appointment of Jorge Sampaoli as manager, however, and the squad has gotten a much-needed refresh during this transfer window. Gerson is their most heralded signing since Dimitri Payet, Balerdi and de la Fuente are low-risk, high-upside additions who were lost in the shuffle at bigger clubs, and OM is bringing on an army of loanees from Arsenal and Roma. This is a lot of change for a club that desperately needed it.
Key additions: 21-year-old attacking midfielder Hamed Junior Traore (Empoli) for $17.6 million, 26-year-old right-back Jeremy Toljan (Borussia Dortmund) for $3.9 million, 23-year-old midfielder Maxime Lopez (Marseille) for $2.2 million.
Key losses: 26-year-old centre-back Marlon (Shakhtar Donetsk) for $13.2 million.
Even before you consider transfers, it was already a good offseason for the eminently watchable Sassuolo, as midfielder Manuel Locatelli and winger Domenico Berardi both made key contributions to Italy’s championship campaign at the Euros. We’ll see if the club can hold on to either or both players, but even if they don’t, the transfer fees associated with them likely went up a good amount after how they played this summer.
Beyond the raised profile, Sassuolo’s biggest achievement this summer has come in turning successful auditions into permanent moves. Both Traore and Toljan fit in well during two-year loans, and Lopez showed enough potential in a one-year loan for the club to pull the trigger and make his move permanent too. After back-to-back eighth-place finishes in Serie A, Sassuolo are evidently hoping continuity produces further improvement.