The transfer window just closed, but it will be back again soon enough. Love it or hate it – we all know what category Arsene Wenger falls into – the work on targets never really stops, even in the hours just after the time for chopping and changing has ended. For now the focus of the general public will return to the pitch, where everything is all meant to come together. But quietly, sporting directors and negotiation teams are lurking in shadows, plotting the next swoop for the mad days of the summer, when it’s Christmas in July for some and a nice highway robbery for others.
The fact remains that there is still plenty of football to be played this season. For most players, however, the die is relatively cast on their season. By and large, the course has been set and the judgment on their talents by peering scouts is set to some degree. In short, there are endless reports sitting in front offices around Europe, with a significant amount tagged as urgent business – transfer speak for the period of preparation that occurs before a summer offer is made. The winter window sees drastically less movement than its longer cousin who comes by some months later, and many targets identified are simply held in reserve.
Sure, directors would all relish the chance to plot for captures like Paul Pogba and Edinson Cavani, but that’s only possible in isolated cases. Instead, it’s lower-key wise buys that make the football world go round. A target hitting the headlines less can be a blessing for his suitors, bringing about reduced competition and tempering the bounty placed on his head.
Following are 10 underrated stars who could be hot property once the summer transfer window rolls around. No player under the age of 24 qualifies, with the premium of ultra-youth cast aside in favor of those more established.
10 Shkelzen Gashi
For Gashi, the path to the present was littered with hazards. The Swiss-born Albanian spent the formative days of his career being shuttled about between different clubs, never quite making the grade with FC Zurich, where he cut his teeth as a youth footballer. Gashi eventually dropped down the second division with Aarau in 2010, exploding over two years and earning a move to Grasshopper. In his second term at the Letzigrund, he finished top scorer in the Swiss Super League with 19 goals and was snapped up by giants Basel last summer. His domination has continued. Gashi leads the Swiss top flight with 12 goals from the left wing this term and impressed in the Champions League group stage – particularly in helping eliminate Liverpool on match day six. Not bad for a player who only cost €1.5 million.
9 Jonatan Soriano
As careers go, Soriano’s has been an interesting one. A Catalan, the striker came up through the Espanyol system and spent nine years tied to the club, though was in the camp for relatively little of that time. Soriano was loaned out to Almeria, Poli Ejido and Albacete, eventually allowed to move on by Espanyol in 2009 when his contract expired. The Pericos’ Catalan rivals, Barcelona, picked him up, but as a member of the ‘B’ side, at the time in the Spanish third division. Soriano was prolific for the Blaugrana reserves and made his way to the Austrian Bundesliga with Red Bull Salzburg. Last season, he was Europa League top scorer with eight goals. This time around the Spaniard has tallied seven goals between the Champions League qualifying rounds and Europa League group play. Another 19 goals in the Austrian top flight also see him in fine form, and at 29, he’s an intriguing option for clubs in the market for a well-traveled hit man to lead the front line.
8 Bibras Natkho
Spending the majority of his career to date in Russia, the summer may be the time for Natkho to try his hand in one of Europe’s top five leagues. The Israeli became a symbol of Rubin Kazan during his three-and-a-half year stint there, so much that he saw fit to apologize to the club’s supporters after scoring this first goal for CSKA Moscow against the Tatary in August. Natkho’s short time with CSKA has been quite successful, as the 26-year-old stands as the side’s top scorer in the Russian Premier League with eight goals – despite commonly playing as a defensive midfielder. He’s achieved this while averaging 2.5 tackles, 1.6 interceptions and 1.1 dribbles per game. A well-rounded presence in the center of the park, Natkho also boasts big-game experience, having lined up against the likes of Manchester City, Bayern Munich and AS Roma in Champions League play earlier this term.
7 Roberto Soriano
The Sampdoria midfielder counts himself as part of an interesting breed of Italian footballers born in Germany and raised in the Bayern Munich academy – Diego Contento and Nicola Sansone are two other such examples. Just before his 18th birthday Soriano moved to the land of his parents with Sampdoria, entering the Primavera side and consistently putting in impressive performances. Some six years later, Soriano is a nailed-on starter for the Blucerchiati and has played his way into the Italian national side, making his Azzurri debut against Croatia in November. Soriano has been deployed mainly as a central midfielder this term by Sampdoria boss Sinisa Mihajlovic, though also has seen minutes in a more advanced role supporting a strike pairing. His defensive prowess – 2.3 tackles and 1.2 interceptions per game – matched with attacking flair – 1.4 dribbles, 1.9 chances created and 1.8 shots per game – is a large part of what has made the Blucerchiati so formidable this season. And it’s bound to attract glances from elsewhere.
6 Mile Jedinak
He’s pugnacious, tenacious and lays everything on the line for his side – Jedinak is something of an old-school player, but one that would be of use to most clubs. The Australian is the heart and soul of the current Crystal Palace side, playing a crucial role in their revival under Tony Pulis last season and carrying over his form into the current campaign. A specialist in breaking up play in the center of the park, Jedinak leads the Premier League in interceptions with 69 despite not having turned out since December due to injury and Asian Cup duty. He also ranks in the top 10 for tackles, while his 77 aerial duel victories place him first amongst midfielders in the English top flight. The Sydney native turned 30 in August and sees his window closing to move to a side where he’d be better able to compete for trophies. With two years remaining on his contract, a decent offer could be enough to tempt Crystal Palace into a sale, Jedinak’s superb natural stamina making him less of a risky signing than other players of his age.
5 Franco Vazquez
Bring up Palermo these days, and the first topic of conversation will undoubtedly be Paulo Dybala, the 21-year-old Argentine sensation who has lit up the Renzo Barbera this term. But Dybala couldn’t do everything he does without his partner in crime Vazquez, who from the hole behind the young striker has caused plenty of chaos of his own. The 25-year-old has tallied six goals and seven assists in Serie A so far this campaign – tied for the league lead in the latter category – bursting onto the scene after having played just 483 minutes in the Italian top flight prior to the current season. Vazquez has flown under the radar somewhat due to the hype surrounding Dybala, targeted by the likes of Arsenal and Manchester United, with Palermo taking the opportunity to get his signature on a contract renewal in January. That doesn’t mean Vazquez is untouchable this summer, however, as the top dribbler in Serie A – 72 successful take ons – is certainly worth pursuing for clubs in need of creativity.
4 Alexander Meier
Some players get better with age, late bloomers if you will. Meier falls into this category, having taken until the age of 26 to hit double-digits on the domestic scoring charts. Now 32, Meier stands atop the pile in the Bundesliga at present with 14 goals to his name and looks good value to see out the season as Torjagerkanone, even with some heavy competition from elsewhere. Meier has scored against four of the current top six sides in the Bundesliga this term, doing some of his best work when the stakes are the highest for an Eintracht Frankfurt side looking to stay as far away from the relegation battle as possible. If anything, however, it’s his loyalty that could prevent a potential departure. Meier stayed with Frankfurt even when they dropped into the 2. Bundesliga for the 2011-12 season and has spent over a decade with Die Adler. Could he be convinced to spend the final years of his career fighting for the silverware he has long missed out on with another club?
No player wants to see the sight of Paul Pogba bearing down the on them. Whether in attack mode or closing down defensively, the Frenchman closing in is a scary scenario even for the most experienced of footballers. But it’s not for Allan, evidently. The 24-year-old Udinese midfielder absolutely bossed the Juventus star in the latter’s recent trip to the Stadio Friuli, turning more than a few heads. The truth is that Allan has long been one of the most criminally underrated players in Serie A. Allan finished second in tackles in Serie A with 124 in his maiden campaign in Italy, following this up with a league-leading 107 last season. He holds a commanding lead this season with 83 through 21 appearances – the next closest competitor is Chievo’s Perparim Heremaj with 55. And the 24-year-old is more than just tough in the challenge. His 50 successful dribbles place in him seventh in Serie A, ahead of recent Chelsea purchase Juan Cuadrado and Milan trickster Jeremy Menez.
2 Karim Bellarabi
Talk about a breakout year. Hakan Calhanoglu was widely regarded as the one to watch at Bayer Leverkusen before the start of the season, but it’s largely been Bellarabi’s show at the BayArena. The German returned from his loan spell at Eintracht Braunschweig – once owners of his rights – and has proceeded to become the single most important component of Roger Schmidt’s side. Schmidt’s tactics demand verticality from his players, taking direct routes to goal and utilizing a high press and swift build-up play as their greatest weapons. Bellarabi has excelled in this system. Blessed with incredible pace, he is able to close opponents down at a moment’s notice – 1.4 tackles per game in Bundesliga – and beat his man with shocking regularity when in possession – 5.2 dribbles per game. Bellarabi is also the best finisher in the Leverkusen side with eight goals in 20 appearances this term in the German top flight. The 24-year-old received his first Germany cap in October against Poland, a true achievement given the wealth of talent at Jogi Low’s disposal these days.
1 Alex Teixeira
The Brazilian contingent at Shakhtar Donetsk is well known, with more than half of the current squad hailing from the South American hub of football. Chelsea’s Willian is an alumnus of the Ukrainian club, while Luiz Adriano and Douglas Costa headline the current squad members. Both have been much talked about in terms of transfers of late, but fellow Brazilian and teammate Teixeira certainly deserves to be in the discussion. The 25-year-old is the central provider supporting Luiz Adriano and springing Douglas Costa free down the right flank, the true key to Shakhtar unlocking defences with ruthless efficiency. Teixeira also has a keen eye for goal himself, having scored eight goals in the Champions League over the past three seasons. Despite his excellence, Teixeira rarely receives the same level of praise as his more prized compatriots at Shakhtar, who have been considered hot property on the market over the past two transfer windows. Perhaps that will finally change when the summer rolls around.