Fighting over free agents is becoming football’s new normal.
As top players have become more comfortable with allowing their contracts to run down or actually expire, the pool of talent available each summer without paying a transfer fee to get them signed has become deeper.
Kylian Mbappe was expected to be the feature free transfer of this summer, but even with his future now resolved, that still leaves – among others – Paul Pogba, Paulo Dybala, Ousmane Dembele and Christian Eriksen looking for new homes. Franck Kessie has already agreed to join Barcelona as a free agent when he leaves AC Milan. Andre Onana of Ajax will be making the same sort of move to Inter Milan.
If anything, though, the array of talent on course to be available next summer will be even more decadent.
Although 12 months is a long time in football and new contract extensions and sales will dilute this list to an extent, the range of players potentially on offer as things stand is extraordinary.
Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are set to be available on frees after the 2022-23 season, which – even now, with their combined age of 71 – is quite a phrase to type.
In addition, the all-conquering Liverpool forward line of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino would each be at the end of their current contracts, with Salah saying on Wednesday: “I’m staying next season, for sure.”
It remains unclear whether Salah will sign a new deal at Anfield. Liverpool want to keep him, the Egypt international says he’s happy and wants to stay but so far contract talks have failed to reach a satisfactory conclusion. Discussions with Salah’s agent will resume following the Champions League final against Real Madrid on Saturday.
Liverpool remain hopeful that a compromise can be reached, so the 29-year-old (he turns 30 on June 15) will not join the likes of Bayern Munich’s Serge Gnabry, Memphis Depay of Barcelona and Real Madrid trio Toni Kroos, Karim Benzema and Marco Asensio in being available for nothing come the summer of 2023.
Were he not seemingly determined to leave Bayern this year, Robert Lewandowski would also be among this elite group.
When the clock is ticking on a contract – particularly when a player enters the last 12 months of one – the power tends to shift in their favor, and their representatives might be emboldened to ask for more money to sign a new deal.
What agent and club both know is it will cost the player’s current employers a significant sum to sign somebody else to come in and fill that position; if, indeed, the departing player is replaceable. On top of that, there is no guarantee whoever they sign will prove as reliable as their predecessor. Different clubs, though, approach this in very different ways.
What is particularly noteworthy is the age profile of some of the players nearing the end of their deals.
Gone are the days, for instance, when this market was limited to those past their primes or players who had suffered injury issues or losses of form.
In a few cases, some of the brightest young talents in Europe will be available.
Gavi’s Barcelona contract is due to expire in 2023, when he’ll be just 18. So, too, is 20-year-old Ryan Gravenberch’s Ajax deal. In France, Houssem Aouar, who has long been a fixation for English sides, is yet to extend a stay at boyhood club Lyon that’s currently set to end on the very day he turns 25.
Among those slightly older than those three, however, there’s an off-the-peg solution for almost every position imaginable:
Jan Oblak (Atletico Madrid), Kalidou Koulibaly (Napoli), Milan Skriniar (Inter Milan), Thomas Lemar (Atletico Madrid), Adrien Rabiot (Juventus), Konrad Laimer (RB Leipzig), Evan Ndicka (Eintracht Frankfurt), Goncalo Guedes ( Valencia), Fabian Ruiz (Napoli), Jose Gaya (Valencia), Carlos Soler (Valencia), Thilo Kehrer (Paris Saint-Germain), Marcus Thuram (Borussia Monchengladbach), Daichi Kamada (Eintracht Frankfurt), Filip Kostic (Eintracht Frankfurt) , Alex Grimaldo (Benfica)… and that’s not an exhaustive list, either.
From the clubs in this season’s Premier League alone, there are more than a few eye-catching situations – some of which will be resolved before current deals run out, some of which will not.
In cases where The Athletic believes a club holds the option of an extension, that’s indicated in brackets.
At present, though, all the players listed have contracts due to expire at the end of the 2022-23 season.
Bernd Leno, William Saliba (option).
Sergi Canos (option), Mathias Jensen (option), Luka Racic, Mads Bech Sorensen (option), Tariqe Fosu (option), Mads Bidstrup (option), Saman Ghoddos (option), Joel Valencia.
Yves Bissouma, Joel Veltman (option), Adam Lallana, Neal Maupay, Leandro Trossard (option), Alexis Mac Allister, Shane Duffy, Jason Steele, Haydon Roberts, Matt Clarke, Jan Paul van Hecke, Reda Khadra, Teddy Jenks.
Will Norris, Wayne Hennessey, Nick Pope (option), Matt Lowton, Kevin Long, Johann Berg Gudmundsson, Ashley Westwood.
N’Golo Kante, Jorginho, Marcos Alonso, Ross Barkley, Thiago Silva, Kenedy, Marcus Bettinelli, Harvey Vale.
Jeffrey Schlupp, Wilfried Zaha, Joel Ward, Remi Matthews, Jack Butland, Luka Milivojevic, Nathan Ferguson.
Allan, Seamus Coleman, Abdoulaye Doucoure, Tom Davies, Yerry Mina, Andros Townsend, Salomon Rondon.
Adam Forshaw (option), Kiko Casilla, Luke Ayling, Mateusz Bogusz, Sam Greenwood, Leif Davis, Jack Jenkins.
Daniel Amartey, Youri Tielemans, Kasper Schmeichel, Jamie Vardy, Caglar Soyuncu, Jonny Evans, Ryan Bertrand, Nampalys Mendy, Hamza Choudhury, Ayoze Perez.
Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Naby Keita, Adrian.
Raheem Sterling, Ilkay Gundogan, Riyad Mahrez, Gabriel Jesus, Benjamin Mendy.
Nemanja Matic, Cristiano Ronaldo (option), Marcus Rashford (option), David de Gea (option), Luke Shaw (option), Diogo Dalot (option), Phil Jones (option), Axel Tuanzebe (option), Andreas Pereira (option) ).
Jonjo Shelvey, Federico Fernandez, Matt Ritchie, Ciaran Clark, Mark Gillespie, Emil Krafth, Freddie Woodman.
Michael McGovern, Sam Byram, Christoph Zimmermann (option), Kenny McLean, Kieran Dowell, Jordan Hugill, Onel Hernandez, Danel Sinani, Akin Famewo (option).
Theo Walcott, Oriol Romeu, Moussa Djenepo, Mohamed Elyounoussi, Nathan Redmond, Yan Valery.
Troy Parrott (option), Cameron Carter-Vickers, Alfie Whiteman, Jack Clarke.
Peter Etebo, Adam Masina, Craig Cathcart, Dan Gosling, Moussa Sissoko, Rob Elliot, Joshua King (option), Adalberto Penaranda, Dapo Mebude.
Darren Randolph, Issa Diop (option), Manuel Lanzini (option), Craig Dawson, Aaron Cresswell.
Willy Boly, Leander Dendoncker (option), Nelson Semedo (option), Matija Sarkic.
(Top photo: Andrew Powell / Liverpool FC via Getty Images)