English football’s top six has often appeared a closed shop in recent seasons with the Premier League’s traditional heavyweights having dominated at the top of the division, though this season – more than any in recent memory – has seen the status quo threatened.
Just seven points currently separates the entire top half as we approach the mid-way point of the season, a refreshingly competitive division seeing several sides push to upset the established order.
With the January transfer window now open we’ve decided to look at the outside contenders for European football and where each side could strengthen their challenge this winter:
Leicester – Striker
Leicester’s progress in recent seasons has seen the Foxes push hard to turn the Premier League’s ‘big six’ into a seven, with Brendan Rodgers having made notable strides with his side over the past two campaigns.
After shocking the sporting world with their Premier League title triumph five years ago, Leicester have since built a side that looks capable of sustaining a place at the top of the division for several seasons.
The club’s recruitment staff have brought in young and exciting talents with potential to grow, either to form part of a successful team or to be sold on at huge profits with the likes of Wilfred Ndidi, Caglar Soyuncu and Youri Tielemans all likely to be attracting interest from elsewhere.
Leicester are the only club to have gate-crashed the ‘big six’ in the past four seasons after finishing fifth last term, and the Foxes are well-placed to better that this season – currently sitting third and just one point adrift of league leaders Liverpool.
Rodgers’ side are well-stocked across the squad but a lack of cover for Jamie Vardy remains a concern, with Kelechi Iheanacho having scored just nine league goals since a £25m move to the club three-and-a-half years ago.
Vardy remains undoubtedly one of the best in the business but celebrates his 34th birthday this month and easing the goalscoring burden on the forward’s shoulders could prove the difference in securing a top four finish or missing out once more.
Southampton – Full-back
Southampton’s full-back pairing of Ryan Bertrand and Kyle Walker-Peters have been almost ever-presents this season and have impressed during a strong start for Ralph Hasenhuttl’s side, though there is an apparent lack of depth beyond the first-choice duo.
Jack Stephens was used as an auxiliary left-back during Bertrand’s one-game absence earlier in the campaign, with youngsters Yan Valery and Jake Vokins the only specialist cover at either full-back position.
Hasenhuttl has been strongly linked with a loan move for Manchester United youngster Brandon Williams and it would be a deal that makes sense for the Saints, the 20-year-old having struggled for opportunities this season and comfortable on either flank.
Southampton are understood to face competition for the one-cap England U21 international from Newcastle and Bayer Leverkusen, however, and Williams is likely to choose a side where he is guaranteed games as he bids to make the Young Lions’ squad for this summer’s European Championships.
Manchester United have turned down an initial approach from Southampton to loan Brandon Williams.
Newcastle United are also interested in the player.
(via @TelegraphDucker) pic.twitter.com/CRqSfZGcmN
— Transferchanger (@TransferChanger) January 6, 2021
With both Bertrand and Walker-Peters both fixtures in a side currently sitting sixth in the Premier League, the Saints may find it difficult to secure a deal.
Everton – Creative Midfield
Carlo Ancelotti’s arrival at Everton was greeted with huge excitement and the three-time Champions League winner has made a positive start to his first full season on Merseyside, the Toffees currently level on points with fourth-placed Tottenham in a tightly-contested top half.
Everton’s summer recruitment focused on strengthening a previously powder-puff midfield and the signings of Allan and Abdoulaye Doucoure instantly improved the spine of the side, with James Rodriguez adding creative quality before injury halted his progress.
Ancelotti is believed to be eyeing more midfield additions during the winter window with out-of-favour Real Madrid star Isco linked with a loan switch, the Italian keen for additional creativity despite the recent upturn in form from Gylfi Sigurdsson.
Sami Khedira is another player who would add depth and has been linked with a reunion with Ancelotti as the veteran prepares to leave Juventus, whilst easing the burden on Dominic Calvert-Lewin could also be on the club’s agenda.
Calvert-Lewin has been in superb form this season with 11 goals in 16 league appearances, though Everton’s second-highest scorer in the Premier League is Rodriguez with just three goals.
Aston Villa – Left-back/Left centre-back
Aston Villa’s business was largely conducted in the summer with the hierarchy backing Dean Smith once more after the club narrowly avoided relegation, their recruitment having paid dividends with a hugely impressive start to the season.
Villa currently currently sit three points adrift of the Champions League places but have games-in-hand on all of the sides above them, the summer signings of Ollie Watkins, Matty Cash and Emiliano Martinez having all contributed greatly to the cause.
Winter window additions are unlikely to be a major priority given Villa’s progress this season, though the recruitment of a new left-sided defender is likely to be high on Smith’s wish-list in the near future.
Neil Taylor is out-of-contract at the end of the season and appears unlikely to be offered an extension, whilst there is limited natural cover for Tyrone Mings on the left-side of the club’s centre-back pairing.
Finding a player within Villa’s budget and one who can fulfil both roles will prove difficult mid-season, and Smith may just leave his business until the summer unless the right player emerges this month.
West Ham – Striker
David Moyes will be searching for firepower this month with West Ham short of striking support, the club’s over-reliance on Michail Antonio set to be addressed in the coming weeks with reinforcements.
West Ham have acknowledged that the club-record signing of Sebastien Haller is a deal that has failed to work out, the £45m forward having been allowed to leave for Ajax this week at a significant loss following his failure to make an impression.
Former Hammers’ favourite Marko Arnautovic has been linked with a return to the London Stadium and previously thrived during Moyes’ first spell in charge, though there are many amongst the fanbase likely to still feel aggrieved over the manner of the Austrian’s exit to China.
Josh King is another player with Premier League experience and versatility to add to the West Ham attack, with the Norwegian out-of-contract at the end of the season and attracting interest from several top-flight sides.
Another player linked and available on a free transfer at the end of the season is Napoli star Arkadiusz Milik and the arrival of the 26-year-old would certainly represent a coup for Moyes and an improving side, the Poland international having scored 38 league goals in just 53 starts since moving to Naples.
Wolves – Striker
Also assessing their attacking options are Wolves, a fractured skull injury to Raul Jimenez having left Nuno Espirito Santo’s side without their talisman and a focal point in attack.
Wolves’ lack of a senior centre-forward has seen them drop to 13th in the Premier League, though after successive seventh-placed finishes they undoubtedly possess a squad capable of competing for Europe with the right additions.
Daniel Podence and Pedro Neto have impressed as a fleet-footed forward line, but summer signing Fabio Silva is raw and inexperienced at this level with the 18-year-old prospect still adapting to the demands of English football.
Wolves are another side to have been linked with Josh King alongside the likes of Newcastle and West Ham, whilst one intriguing option could potentially emerge in the form of Diego Costa.
The former Chelsea star is now a free agent after cancelling his contract at Atletico Madrid, and could be the latest Jorge Mendes-represented player to head to Molineux this month.
Costa may not be quite the same tour de force that scored 52 goals in just 89 league appearances during his previous spell in the Premier League, but would add a different dimension to the Wolves attack with his battering-ram style sure to upset opposition defences.
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