There are a host of top players set to become free agents in July 2022, including Kylian Mbappe, Paul Pogba, Antonio Rudiger and Paulo Dybala — enough even to fill a pretty good XI. But these stars will still end up costing their future clubs a lot in wages and signing-on fees.
Outside these superstars, clubs have some intriguing options for players who can be picked up for nothing if they can sort out a pre-contract agreement when the January transfer window opens in just under a month.
Here, we break down some of the players who may have slipped under the radar of the top clubs, but who could certainly be relied upon to do a decent job if signed.
– Stream ESPN FC Daily on ESPN+ (U.S. only)
– Don’t have ESPN? Get instant access
One of the most respected Serie A centre-forwards in recent years, Belotti has netted an impressive 94 goals from 204 league appearances for Torino. Though the club haven’t given up on extending the Italy international’s deal, there’s bound to be interest from Champions League-level clubs once he recovers from a two-month absence due to a hamstring injury.
Belotti is a physically strong player and there’s little fuss about him; what you see is pretty much what you get. At Torino since 2015, he tends to attract fouls and goes for power rather than precision when it comes to finishing. He can strike the ball equally well with either foot, especially from outside the box, while his stamina means he usually lasts the duration of games and his level doesn’t drop in the second half.
With Juventus’ austere new regime trying to balance the books following years of being one of the wage leaders in European football, the Italy winger could be one of the first players to be allowed to leave. Signed from Fiorentina for €40m with great fanfare in 2017, Bernardeschi was widely expected to become Italy’s outstanding creative player but, though his contribution has been valued, his impact on matches tends to come in occasional bursts.
Equipped with brilliant technical ability and a wonderful left foot, he can beat opponents for fun and engage in free-flowing combinations from a variety of attacking positions when in top form, yet he can look ordinary in the next game. He reportedly needs to take a serious drop in wages if he wants to stay at Juventus, but has plenty of suitors.
Witsel was tipped for superstardom when he broke through at Standard Liege as a box-to-box midfielder more than 10 years ago. With over 100 caps for one of the best national sides in the world (Belgium) it’s hard to say that he hasn’t really lived up to the billing, but injuries and a move to China at his peak means his club career never quite reached illustrious heights.
These days Witsel doesn’t cover as much ground as he used to in his twenties and is neither as diligent nor efficient in his defensive work. Yet, the Belgian is still a skilled playmaker who is able to control the pace of the game and lead from a deeper role in midfield. Any team in need of leadership should be looking closely at him.
Nketiah looks set to leave Arsenal in January (or next summer at the latest) after turning down a number of new contract offers. Having been used sparingly in the Premier League this season, partly due to injuries but also because of competition and his contractual situation, the striker has been in impressive form in the Carabao Cup and got on the scoresheet in both matches. He has also impressed for England’s under-21 team and was named captain at the 2021 UEFA European Under-21 Championships.
A quick, sharp centre-forward with fine movement off the ball, Nketiah first turned heads with his lightning pace and knack for goal scoring. It’s fair to say that he didn’t progress at the same rate as Arsenal’s other established academy products such as Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe, but he does seem to be turning into a well-rounded attacker with the ability to pick up the ball from deep. Wherever he ends up, his next club will land a forward whose career is on the up.
Boubacar Kamara could be a great option for a top club. NICOLAS TUCAT/AFP via Getty Images
Despite making several attempts, Marseille have not yet succeeded in getting one of their best players to sign a new contract and look set to lose out on at least €30m if the France U-21 midfielder departs for free next summer.
Capable of playing in the middle of the defensive line or just in front of it, Kamara, who always moves around the pitch with ease, is predominantly recognised for his destructive abilities. He’s excellent at winning the ball high up the pitch, wins nearly 75% of his headers (despite being only 5-foot-10) and has a first-class positional sense. Whoever gets Kamara’s signature may have landed the bargain of the year.
The Germany international is approaching the ideal age for a centre-back as he starts to make use of his experience. He can deputise at right-back — as he did for Germany during Euro 2020 in the summer — is well versed in playing with a high line and has decent enough pace over longer distances to chase down an opponent’s runs in behind.
Though he could be even more assertive in defensive challenges, Ginter dominates in the air and tends to perform on the big occasions (he has excelled against both Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund in recent games.) After missing out on Champions League football this season, he is said to be unhappy with the new terms offered by his club and could move on.
Being kept out of the team by former Liverpool goalkeeper Pepe Reina, the Athens-born Albania No. 1 was an undisputed regular for Lazio from 2017-2020. He has been in talks over a new contract over the past months but, unless he’s allowed more playing time by manager Maurizio Sarri, there’s little point in remaining in the Italian capital.
Imposing in stature, Strakosha deals well with crosses and set pieces. His vision and ability to pick out a long pass enables him to find his teammates and start counter-attacks early. Media reports have already linked him with a move to the Premier League and, at 26, he is young enough for a club to count on him for another decade.