The new season had not even begun before managers voiced concerns about the uniquely timed World Cup in Qatar this November and its impact on the transfer market.
“The players are very focused on this World Cup already, which is a good thing because they come in in shape and take care of themselves,” Chelsea boss Thomas Tuchel said on Aug. 5. “It is also a bad thing. They are focused on the World Cup and not here [on their clubs]. A part of them, I have a feeling, is already thinking about November.”
A week later, Tottenham head coach Antonio Conte joined in. “Every season there are different targets; this season there is the World Cup,” said the Italian. “Many players ask to play regularly to give [them] more time to play games.”
If Sunday’s “Battle of the Bridge” is anything to go by, Tuchel and Conte rarely agree on much nowadays, so perhaps we should all take notice this time. There are less than 100 days to go until the World Cup begins in Qatar. In a typical season, when an international tournament would take place in June and July, the January transfer window would feature players reconsidering their futures and weighing up short-term moves as the scramble to stay relevant for their country accelerates.
Some feel the clock ticking louder than others. With a fortnight to go in this transfer window, players on the fringes of the first team everywhere will be weighing up whether to stay patient and wait for their chance, or push for a move to keep their World Cup dreams alive. ESPN takes a look at some of those facing the Qatar conundrum.
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The warning signs have been there for a while. Chelsea signed Raheem Sterling, narrowly missed out on Raphinha to Barcelona, and are still trying to land at least two more attacking players with two bids rejected for Everton’s Anthony Gordon and talks continuing over Barcelona’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
The widespread upgrade being sought in those positions — especially after allowing Romelu Lukaku and Timo Werner to leave — suggests Pulisic has a battle to be much more than an impact player at Stamford Bridge this season. He did feature in Chelsea’s opening two games, but only from the bench, playing a combined total of 30 minutes. A continuation may be enough, of course, given he is a guaranteed starter for the USMNT in November regardless, and there is even an argument that limited game time will keep him fresh for Qatar.
Pulisic also has two years left on his Chelsea contract, so the situation could be reviewed after the tournament or next summer — but an offer of first-team football at a progressive club may have an appeal for both the Blues and the player. Manchester United’s loan enquiry for Pulisic could therefore be a game-changer. It remains to be seen if Chelsea would be willing to allow him to join a domestic rival — Newcastle, Juventus and Atletico Madrid are also monitoring the situation — but United can at least offer European football without the upheaval of moving to another country three months before the World Cup.
As another winger watching the club pursue players in his positions, Hudson-Odoi is in a similar state to Pulisic at Chelsea — but under much greater pressure in terms of an international place. In fact, there is little chance of the 21-year-old forcing his way into England’s plans, given his last cap came in November 2019.
But a glimmer of hope for Hudson-Odoi will come from Gareth Southgate having an expanded 26-man squad to choose, and the manager is also known to select players on form, so a blistering run in the next couple of months could give the winger some hope. Chelsea would currently prefer a loan rather than a permanent transfer, however, with Newcastle and Aston Villa among many sides to have registered an interest.
Gallagher excelled on loan at Crystal Palace last season and broke into England’s senior set-up by making four appearances across the campaign, the latest of which came in their final match — a 4-0 Nations League home defeat to Hungary in June. Yet there is strong competition for places in Southgate’s squad, and Gallagher is an outsider to make the final 26 in any case, let alone if he is not playing regularly at Chelsea.
The 22-year-old was introduced as a substitute in Chelsea’s first two Premier League games, appearances which totalled only seven minutes. Crystal Palace and Newcastle are among the clubs keen on Gallagher should he become available, but head coach Thomas Tuchel is a fan of the midfielder and the situation has been potentially complicated by an injury to N’Golo Kante. The French World Cup winner was substituted in Sunday’s 2-2 draw against Tottenham with a hamstring problem and a lengthy spell on the sidelines would make Chelsea even less inclined to part with Gallagher.
Alonso has wanted to move to Barcelona for months. The Catalan club’s ongoing financial issues, plus wrangling with Chelsea over a transfer fee, have been major contributing factors but the left-back is also pushing because he has a genuine chance of making the Spain squad for Qatar. Spain boss Luis Enrique left Alonso out of his squad last November, stating: “I must admit this is the time I’ve been unfairest with a player, in this case Marcos Alonso because for what he had done in the previous games, he deserved to be here and even to start.”
Back then, Enrique opted for Jose Gaya and Jordi Alba as his preferred left-back options with Alonso struggling for minutes at Chelsea. However, once Ben Chilwell sustained a serious knee injury, Alonso was a regular during the second half of the campaign at Stamford Bridge, earning the 31-year-old recalls for Spain’s matches in March and June. But Chilwell’s return, combined with Marc Cucurella’s £53m arrival from Brighton, means Alonso will be on the periphery once again — a move this summer is vital for his hopes of going to Qatar.
Hazard’s three years at Real Madrid have been a disaster — with 28 league starts, four goals, and many injuries — but there are signs his luck might have changed just in time to go into the World Cup fit and in form. Surgery in March to remove a metal plate inserted in his leg after a broken ankle has left the 31-year-old pain-free for the first time in years.
Belgium coach Roberto Martinez always kept the faith, despite Hazard’s struggles — he made three starts in the UEFA Nations League in June — and at Madrid, Carlo Ancelotti intends to make greater use of Hazard this year. His preferred left-wing spot is occupied by Vinicius Junior, but Ancelotti sees potential in a “false No. 9” role as back-up for Karim Benzema.
“Physically, he’s fine,” Ancelotti said after Hazard helped turn a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 win in Madrid’s LaLiga opener at Almeria. “I think he’ll get minutes.” Hazard has been desperate not to leave Madrid as a failure. This season he’ll get opportunities to shift that narrative, even if it’s as a useful impact substitute, rather than the main man. — Alex Kirkland.
Craig Burley feels Marcus Rashford should jump at any opportunity to leave Manchester United for PSG.
Rashford’s problem isn’t that he’s not getting enough games, it’s that he’s not doing enough with them. He played 32 games last season but was dropped by England ahead of the March internationals because his form didn’t warrant a place in the squad. Five months on and the issue is still the same. The 24-year-old has been linked with a move to Paris Saint-Germain and although United insist they won’t let him leave, there is an argument that a change of scenery might do him good.
He will almost certainly stay at Old Trafford this summer, and with few other options in Erik ten Hag’s squad, he is likely to continue to get opportunities. It will be up to him to do enough to ensure Southgate has to pick him for the World Cup but the season has not started well for Rashford or Man United. — Rob Dawson.
When Conte doesn’t want a player, they are usually left in no doubt. Reguilon, who has made 67 appearances for Tottenham in two seasons, was left out of the club’s preseason tour of South Korea and was not included in either Premier League matchday squad so far this season. Conte’s wing-backs are essential to his 3-4-3 system and he views his left-side option as a battle between Ryan Sessegnon and Ivan Perisic, the latter of whom arrived on a free transfer from Inter Milan this summer.
Spurs are also planning for the future with 19-year-old Destiny Udogie arriving for an initial £15m before being loaned back to former club Udinese. Reguilon has been linked with a move back to Spain — his last international cap came in September and only regular action could see him force his way back into contention.
Ndombele is a long shot for the France squad. His last cap came in a 2-0 World Cup qualifying win over Kazakhstan, and since then he has been frozen out by Conte and sent out on loan to Lyon. The 25-year-old surely has no future at Spurs while Conte is at the helm, but an issue with his possible departure is Tottenham’s determination to recoup the majority of the £53.8m they paid Lyon to sign him three years ago. Napoli appears to be his most likely destination — a positive spell in Serie A may push him back into France coach Didier Deschamps’ thinking for Qatar.
Vestergaard’s move to Leicester from Southampton has not worked out as he would have liked. The Foxes paid £15m to sign him last summer but the centre-back started just six league games having been a regular at Saints. Now, Vestergaard is seeking a move away from the club amid concerns over his place in Denmark’s starting line-up having played a key role in their run to the Euro 2020 semifinals last year.
Leicester have made just one summer signing to date — goalkeeper Alex Smithies, 32, on a free transfer from Cardiff — and are under financial pressure to raise funds via player exits with Wesley Fofana, James Maddison, Youri Tielemans and Jamie Vardy among those attracting interest. A loan move may suit all parties, but Vestergaard could face being dragged into what looks like being a frantic end to the window for Leicester.