A solid XI of free agents available right now: Isco, Vrsaljko, Quintero…

Francisco Alarcon
Francisco Alarcon

Halfway through the season isn’t when you’d ordinarily expect to pick up free agents, but there are a number of high-profile players available this January.

From those that were released by their clubs last summer to those that have become available more recently, there are a range of interesting options out there for thrifty directors of football looking to bolster their squads on a shoestring budget this January.

Here’s a full XI of players that are available as free agents during this winter transfer window.

GK: Loris Karius

“I’ve played over 200 games in the first division and national teams so I knew my qualities,” the goalkeeper told ESPN after departing Liverpool last summer.

“I knew I had plenty to offer. I am only turning 30 and that’s not old for a keeper, but of course last season was difficult.”

There’s some confusion over whether Karius is actually a free agent or not – but if he’s not right now, it appears he will be soon enough.

When the German goalkeeper signed a short-term emergency contract with Newcastle United in September, the reports vaguely specified “until January”.

Karius never actually made an appearance for Eddie Howe’s Magpies, and it appears he’ll depart Tyneside without doing so, particularly with Martin Dubravka recalled from Manchester United.

RB: Sime Vrsaljko

The Croatian right-back started the 2018 World Cup final and made 100 appearances for Atletico Madrid, but went from a first-teamer to a fringe player over the course of his injury-laden five years in the Spanish capital.

Vrsaljko was released by Atletico last summer and joined Olympiacos, signing a three-year deal. He made nine appearances for the Greek champions but terminated his contract by mutual consent in November. He’s still only 30.

CB: Michael Hector

It’s strange to think that Hector is still only 30 years old given he’s had an extraordinarily well-travelled career, having represented Reading, Chelsea and Fulham – and no fewer than 15 further clubs on loan, ranging from Sheffield Wednesday to Eintracht Frankfurt, Didcot Town to Dundalk…

Fulham signed the defender from Chelsea back in 2019, and he made 19 appearances in their promotion-winning campaign. The former Jamaica international has barely featured since then, making just 10 appearances for the Cottagers over the final two years of his contract.

Released last summer, Hector remains a free agent. There have been media reports linking him with returns to Sheffield Wednesday and Reading, but nothing’s materialised just yet.

CB: Eliaquim Mangala

We were going to include former Liverpool defender striker Steven Caulker, but the experienced Sierra Leone international has just signed for Kolo Toure’s Wigan.

So we’re going for former Manchester City megaflop Mangala. Since departing the Etihad in 2019, the French defender has represented Valencia and Saint-Etienne.

Remarkably he managed to pick up nine bookings in 14 Ligue 1 appearances last term, getting suspended no fewer than three times during his half-season stint as the fallen giants suffered relegation to Ligue 2. Surprisingly enough they didn’t extend his contract.

Still, Mangala is still only 31. That £32million fee back in the day, and a career spent in top leagues across Europe, shows that Mangala probably isn’t entirely useless, contrary to popular belief.

LB: Danny Rose

Rose signed a two-year deal with Watford but left halfway through following the Hornets’ relegation last summer.

Prior to his contract at Vicarage Road, he was reportedly training back at Tottenham, but we can’t see the 32-year-old left-back joining Antonio Conte’s project any time soon.

CM: Danny Drinkwater

Unlike his former midfielder partner at Leicester, N’Golo Kante, Drinkwater failed to make a success of his time at Stamford Bridge.

He described his five-year stint at Chelsea as “a shambles” and only made 23 appearances for the club. He was unsurprisingly released in the summer but has failed to find a new club since then.

The Premier League winner did make 23 appearances for Reading last season, showing he can still offer something at the Football League level, but in over six months as a free agent he’s yet to find any suitors.

 Credit: Alamy
Credit: Alamy

READ: Ranking every first team signing Antonio Conte made at Chelsea

CM: Alan Sonora

One of the lesser-known names in this XI – look, you got us, we struggled for centre-mids – American midfielder Sonora is rated as one of the more valuable free agents about by Transfermarkt.

The New Jersey-born 24-year-old, who is also eligible to represent Argentina, scored 11 goals and registered seven assists in 84 appearances for Atletico Independiente but was let go when his contract expired on New Year’s Day.

It remains to be seen what’s next, with some reported MLS interest, but you imagine he’ll be snapped up pretty soon.

FWR: Juan Fernando Quintero

The Colombian was one of the most highly-rated youngsters of his generation, having been named the MVP at the 2013 South American Youth Championship a decade ago.

He never quite fulfilled that potential – certainly not on a consistent basis – but the streets won’t forget his wonderful performances at the 2014 and 2018 World Cups. Quintero also featured for River Plate as they famously beat fierce rivals Boca Juniors in the 2018 Copa Libertadores final.

The 29-year-old recently left Chinese side Shenzhen at the turn of the year. We hope he returns to South America and starts doing ridiculous things like this again soon.

CAM: Isco

There was a spell, about five years ago, when Isco was genuinely one of the very best players in the world, favoured by Zinedine Zidane to start Real Madrid’s victorious 2017 and 2018 Champions League finals ahead of Gareth Bale.

But his last few years at the Bernabeu saw Isco’s stock wane considerably as his involved dwindled. He joined Sevilla in the summer but he failed to rekindle the spark at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan and terminated his contract by mutual consent in November.

“Isco is a great boy and I wish him the best. He leaves a player who has great capacity, but he did not meet the club’s expectations,” explained Jorge Sampaoli.

FWL: Cristian Tello

The La Masia academy graduate featured off the bench, scoring a penalty in the shootout, as Real Betis beat Valencia in the Copa del Rey final last season.

The winger had spent five years at the Benito Villamarin, making over 150 appearances for Betis, and lifting the King’s Cup was a fitting way to bow out before leaving on a free.

Tello subsequently joined LAFC for the remainder of the 2022 MLS campaign – winning the Supporters Shield alongside Gareth Bale – but now finds himself with an uncertain future. LAFC announced that they have options for 2023 and 2024 for the Spaniard, but it’s unknown whether they’ll be sticking with him.

 Credit: Alamy
Credit: Alamy

READ: Where are they now? The 14 Barca kids given debuts by Pep Guardiola

ST: Vincent Aboubakar

File this one in the maybe pile. It hasn’t officially been announced, but Cameroon international Vincent “better than Salah” Aboubakar is supposedly a free agent now – at least, according to the Daily Mail via reports in France.

Saudi club Al Nassr have yet to announce whether the striker, who gave us one of the most iconic celebrations at Qatar 2022, has officially been let go.

But there are suggestions that his contract is being terminated to allow the club to register new star signing Cristiano Ronaldo as one of eight allowed foreign players.

If he does get let go, Aboubakar might not find himself a free agent for long.

“Besiktas need the new striker. [Vincent] Aboubakar is the priority,” says Fabrizio Romano.

“They love the player and they are trying to sign him Al Nassr. This is the final step needed, and then Weghorst will be able to join Manchester United as their new striker.”

A transfer merry-go-round involving Manchester United, Al Nassr, Besiktas and Burnley? What a time to be alive.

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