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Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Five left-field European transfers you may have missed in the January window

By modern standards, this year’s January transfer window has been… quiet.

Premier League clubs spent around £90million on permanent transfers by the time the Thursday 11pm deadline elapsed, a figure dwarfed by last January’s £842million splurge. The 2011-12 season was the last time English top-flight clubs spent less in a winter window.

But enough about the Premier League. European teams have been active this month, with Ligue 1 leading the way.

The Athletic has scoured the globe for five intriguing moves that may have slipped under the radar.


Marcos Leonardo, Santos to Benfica

If this young striker has proven anything throughout his budding career, it is that he can step up.

The 20-year-old leaves second-tier Brazilian side Santos with 35 top-flight goals to his name, all from inside the penalty area. His team suffered a traumatic relegation last season, but their No 9 continued to sniff out chances, scoring more than double any other teammate in the league, and making it five in five for his country at the Under-20 World Cup in between.


Leonardo celebrates after scoring his team’s second goal against Boavista FC on January 19 (PATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA/AFP via Getty Images)

Leonardo is a poacher; he thrives on rebounds, sustaining his healthy scoring rate with bundled finishes and back-post slide-ins. But the Brazilian is adaptable in the penalty area — he can dink over onrushing keepers, rise to power home hopeful crosses and side-foot under outstretched arms. His conviction has only increased as his confidence in leading the line grows.

The goal below is a typical Leonardo run and finish, starting in the blindside of Gremio centre-back Bruno Alves, before darting in front of him to receive the through ball onto his left foot. The striker swivels sharply, before sending a shot bobbling into the far corner.

There were flashes of emphatic brilliance too, including this improvised finish to double his tally against Vasco da Gama. 

Shaping up to receive the ball across his body and take a touch, Leonardo jolts forward, bending a fierce drive into the far corner with the outside of his left foot — made all the more impressive by this being his “weaker” side.

Leonardo is not bursting with Brazilian flair — he is not particularly quick and deals more in goals than golacos — but he is intelligent and hungry.

Amid a flurry of exciting Santos strikers to come through the academy — from Kaio Jorge to Deivid Washington to Angelo — Leonardo was the only one who played and scored consistently, flying somewhat under the radar despite his first-team limelight.

In three substitute appearances for his new club, Benfica, he has scored three times; with his right, his left, and another with his head, from an average distance of 8.6 yards. 

That is very much a sign of things to come.


Gift Orban, Gent to Lyon

Orban is all about explosiveness and thumping finishes.

It was only in the last January transfer window that the Nigerian striker sealed a move out of the Norwegian second division, but Orban does things quickly. His 205-second hat-trick away to Istanbul Basaksehir in the Europa Conference League last season was the fastest in UEFA competition history, while his 22 goals in all competitions for Gent came in just over 27 full games.

Behind a stocky, compact frame, Orban packs a punch. His shooting technique is reminiscent of Sergio Aguero’s; his low centre of gravity helping him to strike cleanly through the ball on both feet.

The second goal of his record-breaking treble, dropping deep to flick the ball through to teammate midfielder Hong Hyun-seok, before rifling into the near top corner, showed his ball-striking power at its best.

Orban’s goals arrive in unstoppable gluts; he scored two braces, four hat-tricks and managed a four-goal haul against Zulte Waregem in the space of a year at Gent, while also enduring three separate streaks of five or more games without finding the back of the net.

Regardless of his form, the finishing fundamentals are there. As Samuel Cardenas, former chief scout at the club, told The Athletic back in April, he is a striker who can “do everything with both feet, scoring from outside the box, tap-ins, left foot, right foot, one-touch, two-touch, headers, from corners and counter-attacks.”

Off the pitch, Cardenas and his agent, Emefie Atta Aneke have been impressed by his attitude and tireless pursuit for goals. “He has a crazy winning mentality,” said Aneke. “Every training session, every shot, he needs to win; it means so much to him.”

A move to the French top flight is the biggest of his life. Lyon have taken plenty of risks this January; this one should work out.


Mohamed-Ali Cho, Real Sociedad to Nice

From the East of France to the South, an electric winger returns to Ligue 1.

Cho made history as a 16-year-old, becoming the second-youngest player to sign a professional contract at a French football club when he signed for Angers in 2020. His first goal in the top flight, turning current West Ham defender Nayef Aguerd inside-out with a clever turn before finishing past goalkeeper Alfred Gomis, showed his speed and enthusiasm on the wings.


Cho has returned to Ligue 1 with Nice (Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images)

While rarely amongst the goals, Cho’s dribbling ability and quick feet shone through a miserable relegation season for Angers. It convinced Real Sociedad to pay €11million (£9.4million) to bring him to San Sebastian in what, at the time, was a record fee for the club.

Things did not go to plan for the young winger in La Liga, but Cho did not leave without showing glimpses of his game-breaking quality. His second start in the Spanish top flight was his brightest, ripping Atletico Madrid’s right side to shreds with fearless dribbling and teasing deliveries into the box, teeing up a big chance for Brais Mendez before standing a cross to the back post for forward Nigeria international Umar Sadiq to score.

Across the course of his short Spanish career — amounting to just 819 league minutes across two seasons — there were only six players who averaged more than his 6.4 carries of 10+ metres per game, while 11.2 per cent of his carries were take-ons, highlighting his positivity with the ball.

This campaign, the sheer volume of his dribbling output down both sides of the pitch is clear to see.

With Cho’s false start falling so early in his professional career, there is still plenty of time for the 20-year-old to get back on track at Nice. He brings versatility and excitement, able to play anywhere across the front three and inject a burst of pace.

Cho has something to prove, and with his new club just four points off Paris Saint-Germain at the top of Ligue 1, there is a real opportunity to shine.


Arthur Vermeeren, Royal Antwerp to Atletico Madrid

There is a theme developing through this list. 20, 21, 20 and now just 18 years of age, Vermeeren is yet another unfathomably young head on mature shoulders making a big continental move.

The Belgian midfielder did not make his maiden first-team start for Antwerp until November 2022, helping his side to a 2-2 draw with reigning champions Club Brugge, but he quickly became an indispensable part of a title-winning team. Incredibly, it would be the first of 64 consecutive starts across all competitions for manager Mark van Bommel’s side, playing 99.4 per cent of the available minutes in that run.

It quickly became clear that Vermeeren had what it takes to control the tempo of a game; technical elegance, an expansive passing range, intelligence and awareness in his movement, along with that all-important ability to receive on the half-turn, slink into the space, and stride forward with the ball at his feet.

His touch map from his six games in the Champions League group stages — his first taste of European football — illustrates his metronomic role, dictating their possession play, receiving from the goalkeeper and centre-backs, and looking to move forward with his incisive progressive play. 

Despite his slender 5ft 7in frame, Vermeeren averaged 2.4 tackles per game throughout his two seasons in the Belgian top flight, more than capable of holding his own as a lone pivot in scrappy midfield battles.

Five days shy of his 19th birthday, Vermeeren already has 3,500 minutes of top-flight football to his name. He has captained a team in Europe’s premier competition and was standing centimetres away from centre-back Toby Alderweireld as he struck the most dramatic of injury-time goals to seal a first title in 66 years.

He will not be prominent in Madrid just yet, but as manager Diego Simeone begins to plan for life without club legend Koke, there couldn’t be a more grounded, well-rounded midfielder waiting in the wings.


Owen Moxon, Carlisle United to Portsmouth

Finishing off closer to home, and League One leaders Portsmouth have capped off a satisfying January transfer window with one last intriguing deal.

Following the arrivals of forward Callum Lang from Wigan and midfielder Myles Peart-Harris from Brentford — both hitting the ground running early in their south-coast careers — Portsmouth announced Moxon on deadline day, off the back of an exceptional 16-assist season in the division below. Only Salford’s Elliot Watt, and Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne could match that creative output in the English pyramid last season.


Moxon in action against Leyton Orient on October 14 (Stu Forster/Getty Images)

It’s been a tough season in the third tier, but Moxon has still been responsible for 14.8 per cent of Carlisle’s chances created this season, while his defensive work has been tireless. He has taken more touches, completed more passes and carried the ball more than any other teammate, and only trails midfield partner Jordan Gibson for shots and touches in the attacking third.

His role is all-action, but Moxon’s game is ball-progression. Via powerful forward carries and searching long passes — as shown by the graphic below — he excels at moving his team forward and finding teammates in dangerous areas. 

Moxon will also bring set-pieces and long-distance threat to Fratton Park — he created 54 chances from dead-ball situations last season, while attempting the most (57) shots from outside the box of any League Two player, scoring twice. 

Add to the mix his tenacious defending, completing an average of 3.5 tackles per game across his two seasons at Carlisle, and there is a commanding, match-winning midfielder in the making.

Now 26, Moxon is somewhat of a late bloomer in footballing terms, only turning professional two years ago. Joining a team with a strong grip on Championship promotion, this move should only accelerate a heartening rise to the top.

(Top photo: Guillermo Martinez/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)



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