The January window has only just closed, with over £620 million spent by teams in Europe’s major leagues, but the biggest clubs are already preparing for what could be the most spectacular summer of transfers with Erling Haaland, Kylian Mbappe, Paul Pogba and maybe even Cristiano Ronaldo ready to switch clubs at the end of this season.
January was not without some eye-catching moves, with Dusan Vlahovic’s €70m transfer from Fiorentina to Juventus proving to be the most expensive deal, ahead of Ferran Torres’s £46.3m switch from Manchester City to Barcelona.
– Stream ESPN FC Daily on ESPN+ (U.S. only)
– Don’t have ESPN? Get instant access
But the biggest players only tend to become available in the summer window, and the race to sign the best talent is likely to be more competitive than ever before. That’s not just because of the players that are expected to move but also because the 2022 World Cup in Qatar will be held in the winter, meaning an earlier start so clubs will have to get their business done quickly to have players available at the beginning of the 2022-23 season.
Some players, including Mbappe and Pogba, go into this summer as free agents and able to decide their own future without two clubs having to negotiate a transfer fee. There are others, such as Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling and Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah, who will have just 12 months remaining on their contracts and will be in a strong position to push for a move or lucrative new deal.
Then there is Haaland, the Borussia Dortmund forward who is wanted by all of Europe’s top clubs and available for €75m due to a release clause in his contract with the Bundesliga team.
So, as some of the biggest stars prepare to move this summer, what is the latest on their futures?
The free agents
There are several top players entering free-agent status at the end of this season, including Chelsea’s Antonio Rudiger, Juventus forward Paulo Dybala and Barcelona winger Ousmane Dembele. But the biggest focus will be on Mbappe, the Paris Saint-Germain forward, and Pogba, the Manchester United midfielder.
Mbappe, 23, is almost certain to move to Real Madrid on a free transfer, despite efforts by the PSG hierarchy to persuade the France international to sign a new contract to stay at Parc des Princes. Manchester City and Liverpool have both maintained a long-standing interest, but he has done nothing to suggest that he wants to go anywhere but the Santiago Bernabeu, so it will be a major surprise if he is not a Real player by the start of next season.
And Mbappe could be joined in Madrid by Pogba, who appears to be heading out of Old Trafford after six disappointing years at United. Sources have told ESPN that the 28-year-old favours a move to Real this summer, but he is also the subject of interest from PSG and former club Juventus.
United have accepted that Pogba will leave for nothing six years after signing for a then world-record £89.1m transfer fee from Juventus. Pogba’s United teammates Jesse Lingard, Edinson Cavani and Juan Mata also become free agents in July, raising the prospect of a busy summer of ins and outs at Old Trafford. Sources have said that West Ham, Newcastle and Tottenham will be options for Lingard, while Uruguay forward Cavani is likely to return to South America. Mata, meanwhile, has options in the Middle East and MLS.
Rudiger, Dybala and Dembele are likely to be in big demand due to their pedigree of playing at the highest level for major clubs in recent years, and all three will interest teams who want to reduce their spending on transfer fees.
The cut-price superstar
The biggest story of the summer window will be Haaland and which club is able to sign the Norway striker from Dortmund. Although every leading club in Europe has shown an interest in the 21-year-old, sources have said that the race to sign him is now down to a battle between Real Madrid and Manchester City.
Manchester United are out of the running, while Chelsea’s interest last summer has waned following the £97.5m signing of Romelu Lukaku. Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain are outsiders worth keeping a close eye on, especially if Bayern lose Robert Lewandowski and PSG are unable to persuade Mbappe to stay — but it has now boiled down to Real versus City in the race for the hottest young talent in football.
Sources have said that Haaland favours a move to Real and the Spanish club believe they can finance a deal for a player who will command wages of £30m per year. With Gareth Bale, Isco and Marcelo out of contract this summer, Real will get almost £1.5m off their weekly wage bill, so the money is there to sign and pay Haaland.
Steve Nicol says Erling Haaland could be the answer to Man City’s hopes of winning a first Champions League trophy.
City are a serious threat to Real, however, due to the financial power of the Abu Dhabi-owned Premier League champions and the ability to offer Haaland the chance to work with coach Pep Guardiola. If Haaland wants guaranteed success, nobody in world football can match City’s consistency in terms of major honours in recent years. Right now, Guardiola’s team are favourites to win the Champions League and arguably much likelier to win it than Real within the next two to three years, so they could have a significant edge over Real.
But Real will always have the glamour and pull of being the biggest club in the world, and few players turn down the chance to pull on the iconic white shirt.
The 12-month contract stars
There is some serious talent in the world game who will enter the final 12 months of their contracts at the end of the season, including Salah, Sterling, Sadio Mane and Marcus Rashford. The majority of these players are unlikely to move this summer, but their long-term future will be dictated by whether they opt to sign a new contract over the months ahead. But each player is different.
United have an option to extend Rashford’s contract by a further 12 months, so it is almost certain that the club will take away any immediate pressure by triggering that to keep the England forward until 2024. However, the inability to secure Pogba and Lingard to long-term deals has led to both becoming free agents, so United need to avoid a similar issue arising with Rashford in two years’ time.
Salah and Mane are problems for Liverpool, though, due to both players being 29 years old. Top clubs have become increasingly reluctant to hand expensive long-term contracts to players approaching their thirties as their transfer value will fall dramatically but also the concern that, by the time they hit 33 or 34, they may no longer be able to justify their big wages.
But right now, Salah and Mane are at the peak of their powers and it would be unthinkable for Liverpool to make a decision based purely on age and finances rather than performances. Yet both players now have less than 18 months remaining on their Anfield contracts, and Liverpool must either come up with a new deal this summer or risk losing one or both for nothing in 2023. Alternatively, they could offload one this summer and spark a transfer scramble. That may seem unlikely, but the January signing of Luis Diaz from Porto points to Liverpool planning for the future.
So, while Jurgen Klopp will clearly want to keep both Salah and Mane for the long term, decisions made by the club and players this summer could lead to an unwanted exit for one of them.
City have a similar issue with England winger Sterling — although the 27-year-old has less leverage than Salah and Mane because he has become a less regular starter under Guardiola. Sterling’s reduced importance has taken the pressure off City to give him a new contract, so they may look to offload him this summer in order to avoid the financial hit of him leaving for nothing in 2023. City are blessed with attacking talent and Sterling could prove to be surplus to requirements — but the player could also play hardball by refusing to leave and instead choose to run down his contract.
The ageing goal scorers
Bayern Munich’s situation with Lewandowski is similar to Liverpool’s with Mane and Salah, but the Poland forward’s incredible goal-scoring consistency is outweighed by the fact that he will be two months short of his 35th birthday when his contract expires in the summer of 2023.
That reality means Bayern are unlikely to come up with a long-term deal, so a move may suit both club and player this summer. Having signed him on a free transfer from Dortmund in 2014, Bayern may be content to lose Lewandowski for nothing in 2023. But if another club is prepared to offer Lewandowski the chance of a two or three year contract this summer, it will be tough for Bayern to say no if they have the opportunity to receive a transfer fee.
And then there is Ronaldo, who will have a year to run on his United contract this summer. The Portugal captain turns 37 this weekend, and his recent output and performances for United suggest that, after almost 20 years at the highest level, time is beginning to catch up with the former Real Madrid and Juventus star.
Sources have told ESPN that Ronaldo will wait until Manchester United announce the identity of their new manager before deciding on his own future at Old Trafford. But that decision may be taken out of his hands if his new boss chooses to move in a direction that doesn’t include the five-time Ballon d’Or winner.
When he made clear his desire to leave Juventus last summer, Ronaldo had few options before United and Manchester City fought it out for his signature late in the transfer window. If he becomes available this summer, he may find that his options are limited to the Middle East, MLS or a return to Portugal, but because of the uncertainty surrounding United right now, there is no guarantee that Ronaldo will still be at the club next season.
The players ready for the next step
Vlahovic’s January move from Fiorentina to Juventus saw one of the game’s rising stars take a step up the ladder ahead of the summer window, but the 21-year-old is not the only emerging player who will secure a big move this year.
West Ham midfielder Declan Rice could be the biggest transfer between Premier League clubs with Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United all interested in the 23-year-old. Rice’s ability to dictate a game from central midfield has been a constant since before his impressive performances for England during Euro 2020, and West Ham could demand a transfer fee in excess of £80m for the player.
Jude Bellingham is another young player high on the wanted lists of some top clubs, with Liverpool and Manchester United also interested in the Borussia Dortmund teenager.
Liverpool and Manchester City are both watching the progress of 20-year-old Bukayo Saka at Arsenal and could make a move if the Gunners fail to qualify for the Champions League. Saka’s contract at the Emirates expires in 2023, so Arsenal face a crucial summer in their bid to keep the England youngster.