As we head into the January transfer window, clubs across the continent will be assessing their options and identifying their preferred targets in terms of where they need to improve. Not all will have the luxury of Manchester City or PSG, who can reach down into their bottomless sacks of money, as prices become inflated and budgets stretched during the mid-season window.
One alternative, which has been used effectively many times before, is the market for free agents. Between their salaries and sign-on fees, out of contract players don’t always come cheap, but the lack of a transfer fee can free up funds for the buying club. I have tried to put together a little list of some of the most high-profile and talented free agents that clubs may be sniffing around over the next month, but I’ve no doubt there’ll be one or two I have missed, so feel free to add any others in the comments.
Here are my 7 best January free agents:
7. Valon Behrami
Kicking us off is a central midfielder with bags of experience who I suspect most of you will be familiar with. Valon Behrami recently starred for Switzerland at the 2018 World Cup, earning plaudits for his man-marking of Neymar, but fast forward just 18 months and he is currently without a club.
A tireless central midfielder who loves to break up play and win the ball back, Behrami still has a fantastic engine even at the age of 34. Unfortunately, he has become increasingly injury prone over the last couple of years, suffering a string of muscle injuries and a fractured ankle towards the back end of last season.
Formerly of Lazio, West Ham, Fiorentina and Napoli, Behrami was still playing Serie A football with Udinese last season, having joined the Italians from Watford. His injuries restricted him to just 19 appearances in 2018-19, and a deal couldn’t be struck between the player and club with regards to a new contract at the end of the season. During the summer, Behrami returned to Switzerland to join FC Sion, but the two parted company four appearances later last month. Behrami apparently wants to live in Udine once he hangs up his boots, but reportedly isn’t ready to do so just yet, so a short-term deal at Udinese with a view to a coaching position long-term has been hinted at in the Italian press.
6. Emiliano Viviano
Another Serie A veteran who was playing top flight football in Italy last season but is currently without a club, 33-year-old Emiliano Viviano previously won six caps for Italy as Gianluigi Buffon’s number two, with Salvatore Sirigu as the Azzurri’s number three. That was back in 2010 and 2011, when Viviano had two excellent seasons with Bologna whilst being co-owned by Bologna and Inter Milan.
In June 2011, Serie A began to turn on co-ownership deals, and Inter signed Viviano outright, but the following month the goalkeeper tore his anterior cruciate ligament before even having made his debut. That debut would never arrive, and Viviano instead went out on-loan to Fiorentina and Arsenal. In 2014, the towering 6’5” shot stopper signed for Sampdoria, where he spent four seasons as a regular before being allowed to join Sporting in Portugal for €2 million.
Viviano had been brought in following Rui Patricio’s defection to Wolves, but Brazilian Renan Ribeiro became Sporting’s first choice between the sticks. In January, Viviano went out on-loan to SPAL, but he has been without a club since the end of last season. Viviano is still a very capable goalkeeper, and 33 is hardly ancient by goalkeeping standards, so it seems a little unusual that he remains unattached. A return to Fiorentina as second choice has been mooted, but nothing concrete as of yet.
5. Fabio Coentrao
Real Madrid had a growing Portuguese contingent at the club when their Portuguese manager Jose Mourinho got to work in the transfer market. In July 2011, a whopping €30 million deal saw Fabio Coentrao link up with compatriots Ricardo Carvalho, Pepe and Cristiano Ronaldo at the Bernabeu. Coentrao had enjoyed a rapid ascent through the Portuguese game in the preceding years, being named as the Liga de Honra Breakthrough Player of the Year with Rio Ave in the 2006–07 season followed by the Primeira Liga Breakthrough Player of the Year in the 2009–10 season with Benfica.
He made L’Equipe’s Ideal XI for the calendar year of 2010, and started for Portugal in every game at the 2010 World Cup. Primarily a left-back, Jose Mourinho made use of Coentrao’s versatility, giving him game time in his preferred position as well as at right-back, central midfield and sometimes on the left wing. Despite the presence of Marcelo, Coentrao made 30+ appearances in each of his first two seasons in Madrid, but his game time would decrease following Carlo Ancelotti’s arrival.
Coentrao has had a pretty torrid time with injuries, and although he remained contracted to Real Madrid until 2018, he spent two of his last three seasons on-loan with Monaco and Sporting. He rejoined Rio Ave last season, but it wasn’t a dream return, and following 11 yellow cards and 2 red cards, he wasn’t retained by the club in June. You won’t find many two-time Champions League winning €30 million free agents this January, but despite being one of them, interest in Coentrao remains sparse.
4. Sekou Sanogo
It’s a less familiar face in fourth place, but this is based more on current talent rather than reputation. Sekou Sanogo is a powerful defensive or central midfielder who is always looking to break up play and turn defence into attack. He arrived in Europe with Swiss side Thun in 2011 as a 22-year-old, before joining Young Boys in 2014. Sanogo spent the next four years with the Bern-based outfit, and was linked with a handful of European sides, most notably Roma.
Instead, he signed for Saudi Arabian outfit Al-Ittihad in a deal worth a reported £6 million in January 2019, but the marriage between the two would be short-lived. A dispute between the player and club attracted FIFA attention, and Sanogo’s contract was terminated in September. Capped twice by the Ivory Coast, Sanogo is still only 30, and a return to Europe would surely seem to be the most likely outcome in January with reports in Turkey already having linked the midfielder with top flight outfit Yeni Malatyaspor.
3. Hatem Ben Arfa
A man with all the talent of a Ballon d’Or winner but the work rate of a sloth and the attitude of a spoilt teenage pop star, Hatem Ben Arfa’s career has been a tale of what could have been, at the age of 32, one suspects his chances of turning that around are long gone. With that being said, Ben Arfa displayed yet again last season what he is capable of so long as he is pandered to and put up with.
The former Hull City loanee lit up both Ligue 1 and the Premier League with the likes of Lyon, Marseille and Newcastle. He was truly outstanding in his first full season in England, but then came a fallout with manager Alan Pardew. At the time, Newcastle fans sympathies lied with the Frenchman, but he has since shown himself to be a serial plague within a dressing room.
Redemption came a few years later with Nice, where Ben Arfa had a season so impressive he was recalled by France and signed by PSG, but low and behold, drama was to follow. Ben Arfa had more fallouts in the French capital, and he didn’t register a single appearance in his final season with the club. He returned to action last season with Rennes and showed more than a hint of just how brilliant he can be when he turns on the style, but he chose not to extend his stay in Brittany. He has been a free agent since the summer, but has been heavily linked with a move to Serie A side Genoa.
2. Michael Bradley
Michael Bradley isn’t fit to lace Hatem Ben Arfa’s boots in terms of technical ability, indeed few players are, but I suspect I know which of the two players most managers would prefer to have in their dressing room. Bradley only very recently became a free agent, having spent the last five years serving as Toronto FC captain, where he was the third best paid player in the MLS with a $6 million a year salary.
It is still possible that Bradley could be retained or return to Toronto, but at the time of recording the club are yet to take decisive action meaning the American is a free agent. Bradley is one of only a few US internationals to have made a real impression in Europe, having starred for the likes of Roma and Borussia Monchengladbach. A hard working and intelligent midfielder who can play anywhere through the spine of a team, even having been deputised at centre-back on occasion, Bradley has won 151 caps for the USMNT.
That is an extraordinary record, and he should overtake Cobi Jones’ all time record within the next couple of years. Toronto FC are said to be in talks with Bradley about extending his stay at BMO Field, and it would be typical if those talks reach an amicable conclusion before this video comes out, but at the time of recording, Michael Bradley takes second place in this seven.
1. Zlatan Ibrahimovic
There are no prizes for guessing who takes top spot in this seven, since even at the age of 38, Zlatan Ibrahimovic will be a real asset to whichever club he ends up joining over the next month. One of the finest centre-forwards of his generation, Zlatan Ibrahimovic has never stuck around at a single club for too long. He has turned out for the likes of Ajax, Juventus and Barcelona, but it is with LA Galaxy in his late 30’s that the boastful Swede has been at his most prolific.
Of course, MLS defences are not as formidable as those in Serie A or the Premier League, but 53 goals in 58 games for a player of his age remains an extraordinary achievement. His heroics saw him twice named as LA Galaxy’s Player of the Year, twice named as LA Galaxy’s Golden Boot winner and twice named in the MLS Best XI. Following those two seasons, though, Ibrahimovic announced last month that he wouldn’t be extending his time in LA.
Instead, a return to Europe maybe for one last hurrah looks to be firmly on the cards. Jose Mourinho ruled out a move to Tottenham, which wouldn’t have suited Ibrahimovic playing second fiddle to Harry Kane at this stage in his career, but other European giants do seem keen. AC Milan have been the most heavily linked, and their odds in the ‘Ibrahimovic’s next club’ market reflects that, with Real Valladolid, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid said to be his next most likely destinations.