Fixture congestion, player fatigue, injuries and a wide-open race for the 2021 Premier League title means the temptation – and the need – to spend big in the January transfer window has never been greater.
But successful recruitment midwinter is notoriously difficult to do well. Think Liverpool signing Andy Carroll for £35million in January 2011 for the ultimate panic buy.
The aim is to not just relieve those on the front line, but to power the final push for glory, so new recruits will have to go straight into the action. Carroll, for example, didn’t play until March or score until April.
So, who do Liverpool, Manchester City, Spurs, Chelsea, Manchester United or Arsenal – who remain the established Big Six clubs of the Premier League, despite some enduring poor (or woeful in the case of the Gunners) campaigns so far – buy now to sustain their title and Champions League challenges, or in the case of the latter, to simply save their season?
Who can be back up for Harry Kane, replace Virgil van Dijk, replicate the achievements of Sergio Aguero or take the pressure off Bruno Fernandes, and who, crucially, who can come in and instantly make a telling contribution?
Until now, the answer to the final question has been a matter of judgement and intuition. But not any more.
Clubs are beginning to look beyond simple player data and are using artificial intelligence to calculate which players will fit and fire from day one.
Tottenham Hotspur have a decision to make – do they bring in more back-up for Harry Kane? And do Manchester City sign a new talisman to replace the extraordinary Sergio Aguero to give them a shot at the Premier League title this season
The man behind the AI
The Professional Zone – or Prozone – marked the beginning of digital performance analysis in sport, when the company began in 1998.
It was the brainchild of Ramm Mylvaganam. He came to the UK from Sri Lanka in 1968 to study chemical engineering at Aston University in Birmingham and he went on to work for Mars.
Years later, he recruited a group of technicians and pioneered his Prozone approach with Steve McLaren, who was the first-team manager at Derby County, under Jim Smith.
In an age before reliable GPS, the system used cameras positioned around a stadium, which enabled analysts to measure the movement and touch of the players
Suddenly, coaches knew exactly how far players were running, their strengths and weaknesses and where on the pitch they were effective.
Mylvaganam sold the company to US investors 15 years ago and it now operates as Stats Perform. His latest venture Ai Abacus aims to go beyond raw data and use it to predict the best outcome for clubs and players.
‘People always talk about chemistry between players, but up to now that has just been words,’ says Ramm Mylvaganam, the founder of Ai Abacus, a company that uses artificial intelligence to find the perfect match between players and clubs, based on style of play and the ‘chemistry’ a player will have with their new team-mates.
‘We have found a way of defining these criteria. We want to find out how people will play in another team. This enables clubs to make recruitment decisions.’
Mylvaganam may not be a well-known name outside boardrooms and analytics suites at top clubs, but his influence on football is legendary.
The former marketing director for Mars is the man who created Prozone almost 25 years ago. He is the reason why we now know how many kilometres a player runs, how many passes he makes, where they go and with what success.
He and his new company aim to go a step further.
To go beyond the numbers and allow the computers to crunch their way through millions, if not billions of data points, and then offer the best options for clubs in the transfer market, which will deliver players who fit and can fight on the field from the moment they walk through the door.
The Ai Abacus model is based on identifying potential options in terms of ability, individual strengths and price and then assessing a player’s ‘suitability’, in terms of playing style, and their potential ‘chemistry’ with new team-mates.
The best options are those talented players who score highly for both suitability and chemistry (see the panel below for further explanation).
Using the Ai Abacus system, can reveal who the data shows will make the difference in this year’s race for the title and Champions League places.
Who should Liverpool target to replace injured star defender Virgil van Dijk (left, top)? And after failing with their chase for Borussia Dortmund starlet Jadon Sancho (right) last summer, where should Manchester United look now?
Tottenham: Back up for Harry Kane
Pep Guardiola famously described Spurs as the ‘Harry Kane team’ in 2017. It wasn’t quite true then and it isn’t true now, with Jose Mourinho’s side grinding out results like a well-oiled machine.
And yet, Spurs’ so far successful assault on the title does depend on keeping Kane fit, or at least having a credible replacement. After all, Kane and Son Heung-min have combined to score 31 goals, which is the second highest total in Premier League history but also proves the team’s reliance on the duo.
Brazilian Carlos Vinicius, 25, who was signed on a season-long loan from Benfica in October, is yet to impress outside of the Europa League, and why would Mourinho and chairman Daniel Levy risk missing this golden opportunity to win the Premier League for the want of a bit more firepower?
So, who can they get at a price that Levy will be prepared to pay?
IDEAL TARGET: BREEL EMBOLO
Other possibles: Borja Mayoral, Ivan Toney
Breel Embolo has not scored lots of goals this season but he looks a good fit for Harry Kane
Breel Embolo is possibly not a name to thrill the Spurs faithful, but the Borussia Monchengladbach forward could be invaluable if Kane goes down – and in the past four seasons, he has missed 51 matches through injury and illness.
Embolo, 23, is a player Spurs themselves targeted two years ago, when he was on the market for £8m. Tottenham ended up paying £3m for a year-long loan for Vinicius, albeit with the option to buy for £40m at the end of the season..
Now, Spurs could expect to pay £28m for the Gladbach striker. He may have only scored three and assisted twice in 15 matches this season, but his profile fits Kane’s.
The Ai Abacus model has picked out Embolo because he plays in a similar formation to that employed by Spurs, he drops short and links well with runners going past him. He also pairs well with the full backs and is known for good movement in the penalty area.
The diagram shows a player’s suitability for a team, based on playing style, and their chemistry with potential team mates. Players who appear in the top right corner of the chart have high suitability and good chemistry and therefore are expected to fit in well and contribute from day one.
Borja Mayoral of Roma would be a cheaper option for Spurs
Brentford’s Ivan Toney has taken the Championship by storm
In considering transfer targets who could fit in from the moment they arrive, and at a reasonable price, Embolo is a good bet.
That said, Roma’s Spanish forward, Borja Mayoral, 23, who is on loan from Real Madrid, could also come into the reckoning if Levy wants to limit spending.
He is less well-suited to the Spurs game plan in terms of suitability and chemistry, with Roma favouring two up front, but a price tag of £18m tips the model slightly in his favour, by boosting the cost-benefit calculation.
The third option thrown up by Ai Abacus is Ivan Toney, the 24-year-old Brentford striker, who has taken the Championship by storm, scoring 16 goals in 21 games in his debut season.
He tends to play in a 4-3-3 formation in west London.
Toney was picked as a potential recruit for Spurs in the summer by scout David Pleat when he netted 49 goals in two seasons for Peterborough in League One, only for the coronavirus pandemic to scupper any deal.
The striker moved to Brentford for a fee of up to £10m, including add-ons, and could now command a price of £18m.
The increase on a relatively unproven, albeit exciting, player may put Spurs off the Championship man.
The diagram shows different options for Spurs if they choose to seek a back-up for Harry Kane. The overall score is based on suitability, chemistry and a cost-benefit analysis taking into account transfer fee, length of contract and wages. In this diagram, Breel Embolo is a better fit, Borja Mayoral is a cheaper option.
Manchester City: Aguero mk II
By their standards City are off the pace, but they are still well placed to strike after Christmas.
Their indifferent form at times this season has been attributed to various factors, including a diminished ability to hold the midfield while Fernandinho has helped out in defence, the departure of ‘the magician’ David Silva, and a lack of width following the exit of Leroy Sane, but the enduring issue is a shortage of goals.
Removing the ritual 5-0 thumping of Burnley, City have only scored 18 times in 12 games in the Premier League this season. Their frustrating 1-1 draw with West Bromwich Albion on Tuesday has underlined their lack of firepower and must make Guardiola even more determined to find a striker, who can fire them back to the top.
Sergio Aguero’s goals have powered Manchester City’s success in recent years and Kevin De Bruyne has been a key provider
At 32, Sergio Aguero, troubled by a knee injury since June, has not been able to have an impact this season and he will need to be replaced long term. With 256 goals in 375 appearances for City, Aguero is a huge part of the club’s success.
Gabriel Jesus, 23, is a fine striker, having netted 71 goals in 162 City appearances, but he doesn’t have the goalscoring instinct of the Argentinian.
So, whoever comes in now will need to start hitting the back of the net in January, but they could also be the club’s talisman for years to come, which will require serious investment.
IDEAL TARGET: ERLING HAALAND
Pep Guardiola is reported to be interested in Erling Haaland
Donyell Malen has scored 14 times in 29 matches for PSV
Benfica’s Darwin Nunez could be a replacement for Aguero
Other possibles: Darwin Nunez, Donyell Malen, Paulo Dybala
If City want to invest and benefit from a turbo-charged boost, Erling Haaland, 20, is their man.
Of course, he is a prolific goalscorer, netting 17 times in 14 appearances this season for Borussia Dortmund, but look a little deeper and no wonder Guardiola is interested.
Haaland was signed from RB Salzburg after Dortmund met his buyout clause of £17m in January and he was instantly successful.
Since then, his value has rocketed. His release clause of £65m does not kick in until 2022 and it is likely the German club will extract a big fee – more than £100m – to let him go him mid-season.
City could save some money by targeting the less well-established Darwin Nunez, 21.
The Uruguayan striker, who joined Benfica last year for £22m, is believed to be on Guardiola’s list of long-term options to replace Aguero, but is not seen as an immediate candidate.
Dutchman Donyell Malen, 21, is another possibility.
The PSV Eindhoven striker was at Arsenal’s academy from 2015 to 2017, but failed to impress despite scoring 27 goals in 67 games. He has come of age now, scoring 14 times in 20 matches this term.
The cost-benefit analysis of these players will hinge on the fee their respective clubs place on their assets.
Arsenal were linked with Malen earlier this year with a potential fee of £48m reported. That could put City off.
So, even with an eye-watering price tag in January, the prospect of immediate results leads Ai Abacus to make Haaland a narrow favourite.
He can play as a lone striker, supported by talented midfielders who join in, in a similar style to City.
At Dortmund, the analysis suggests, he combines particularly well with Eden Hazard’s younger brother, Thorgan, who plays as an attacking midfielder and winger and has registered three goals and three assists this season.
The diagram plots a player’s suitability for Manchester City and the chemistry they would have with existing players. It suggests Erling Haaland would be a good fit for the Citizens.
Paulo Dybala may not fit straight into the City side
In addition, Hazard has a similar profile to City’s own Riyad Mahrez. The numbers suggest there is also likely to be a strong link with Kevin De Bruyne, who has been a key provider of goals for Aguero.
Meanwhile, take a look at another high-profile option, Argentinian Paulo Dybala, 27. Located in the bottom right of the diagram above Ai Abacus’s data suggests Dybala is not a good fit for City, even though his ability is unquestioned.
At Juventus, he plays in a front two and comes deeper to receive the ball than a traditional No 9. With a pre-season to adjust, no doubt Guardiola could mould Dybala to what he needs, but in January he does not have that time and he looks less attractive for short-term impact.
Potential replacements for Aguero are scored on their suitability, chemistry with existing players and a cost-benefit analysis based on transfer fee, wages and contract length
Liverpool: Ideal replacement for Van Dijk
Liverpool’s youngsters have been outstanding since injury curtailed Virgil van Dijk’s season following Jordan Pickford’s desperate lunge in the Merseyside derby.
Since then, a catalogue of injuries has seen Joe Gomez suffer a serious knee problem, James Milner and Thiago Alacantara both out and Trent Alexander-Arnold also sidelined for a period with a muscle injury. Joel Matip is hobbling through games.
The academy graduates have stepped up, nowhere more so than in defence, where centre backs Rhys Williams, 19 and Nathaniel Philips, 23, as well as right back, Neco Williams, 19, have done exceptionally well.
Liverpool’s youngsters have done well to cover in Virgil van Dijk’s absence this season, but reinforcements are required
But opportunity does not knock often and Liverpool have a fantastic chance to consolidate their grip on English football and to launch a period of domination they have not enjoyed since the 1970s and 80s.
Does Jurgen Klopp risk relying on the kids, however wonderful they are, to bring the title back to Anfield for a second year?
Or does he go all in, sure up the back line and invest in a player, who will not only see the Reds over the line this year but enhance them for years to come.
Dayot Upamecano is a perfect fit to replace van Dijk
Jules Kounde could be a potential target for Liverpool
IDEAL TARGET: DAYOT UPAMECANO
Other possibles: Jonathan Tah, Jules Kounde
The Ai Abacus analytics support the view that Dayot Upamecano should be the Reds No 1 target in the transfer window with a high suitability rating based on playing style and good chemistry with the Liverpool players.
In the Ai Abacus analysis, he comes out as a more attractive option than either Jonathan Tah, 24, the Bayer Leverkusen defender, or Jules Kounde, 22, who plays for Seville.
Tah was linked with Liverpool in 2016 when the club decided to sign Matip and Ai Abacus modelling has previously narrowly favoured him. But he has only made six Bundesliga appearances this season, having been left on the bench in the early weeks.
Kounde was one of a clutch of central defenders linked with Liverpool after Van Dijk’s likely season-ending injury. His contract at Seville, where he has made 14 appearances this season, including five in the Champions League, runs until 2024.
However, it is believed Klopp had hoped to move for Upamecano at the end of the season. The 22-year-old has a clause in his contract, which runs to 2023, that allows him to leave for £38m in the summer.
Liverpool may have to pay more in January, but on the other hand, Upamecano’s wages are less than established Premier League stars at ‘only’ £40,000 per week.
The diagram shows the suitability of potential signings for Liverpool and the chemistry those players may have with future team mates. Players in the top right corner of the chart are considered to be the best fit for the Reds and therefore most likely to contribute straight away
The good fit with Liverpool stems from the RB Leipzig style being similar, with both employing a press, so Upamecano is comfortable playing a high defensive line with space in behind. He is also a ball-player, which makes him a strong match.
Jonathan Tah of Bayer Leverkusen was a target in 2016
Comparing Upamecano’s combinations with team-mates at Leipzig and the player profiles at Anfield suggests he will enjoy a strong pairing with Andy Robertson, Fabinho, and Matip. So he can slot straight in.
But perhaps the clincher, and a further justification for paying a higher fee now, is that Upamecano scores highest for his pairing with Van Dijk himself, so when the Dutchman is fit again they could make a formidable partnership for any title defence next season and beyond.
The pair have complementary styles, Upamecano winning more one-vs-one duels and Van Dijk more effective in the air. This could be the foundation for that period of domination that Reds fans crave.
The diagram summarizes three options for Liverpool if they decide to replace Virgil van Dijk
The table shows the chemistry rating for different pairs of players in Liverpool’s back four. Upamecano pairs well with Joel Matip and Fabinho, but also van Dijk himself
Manchester United: If not Sancho, then who?
United were so convinced that Jadon Sancho, the Dortmund flier, 20, was crucial to their title challenge this year that it would seem remarkable if they did not explore the option, or at least an alternative, again in January.
United might not be not buying to bolster a title push now – but who knows in this bizarre season? – but probably rather to secure a Champions League spot and to put in place a squad that can return to fight for domestic supremacy another day.
The first question for United is: do they still want most to invest up front? The Red Devils are leaking goals at an alarming rate in big games and would appear to benefit from recruitment in defence and midfield too.
Assuming the tactical analysis that led them to Sancho is still sound (which admittedly is quite a big assumption), and that the price tag, which would be north of £100m for the fee alone is still too much (a smaller assumption), then where should United turn?
IDEAL TARGET: JULIAN BRANDT
Borussia Monchengladbach’s Marcus Thuram could take the pressure off Bruno Fernandes
Other possibles: Marcus Thuram, Emiliano Buendia
If the aim is to unlock more creativity and reduce the reliance on Fernandes, who has 16 goals and assists in 17 matches for United this term, Borussia Dortmund’s Julian Brandt, 24, and Borussia Monchengladbach’s Marcus Thuram, 23, are both contenders.
Brandt is a winger, who was pushed inside into an attacking midfield role last season, often in the 4-2-3-1 formation favoured by United.
He is a big influence on the Dortmund team, delivering 13 assists and seven goals in 42 appearances last term.
The diagram looks at potential signings’ suitability for Manchester United and their chemistry with existing players. The players in the top right corner are likely to be the best fit
Looking at combinations, it appears one reason Brandt scores highly as a potential target for United is that the Ai Abacus analysis suggests he is expected to pair particularly well with Paul Pogba.
Julian Brandt of Borussia Dortmund is an option for United
Norwich’s Emiliano Buendia has been highlighted
Pogba, however, is widely expected to leave Old Trafford after his agent, Mino Raiola, all but announced his departure this month.
The model also predicts excellent links with Alex Telles, Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford and Fernandes too.
One of the objectives of signing new players is to bring out the best in what you already have, so Brandt ticks many boxes. The Germany international would likely cost far less than Sancho too.
An interesting option highlighted by Ai Abacus is the Norwich attacking midfielder, Emiliano Buendia, 23,
Buendia was highlighted by many commentators as a potential recruit after United failed to land Sancho in the summer, but the Old Trafford hierarchy never entertained the move.
The Argentinian has been a revelation since his arrival from Getafe in 2018, impressing last season despite his team’s relegation from the Premier League. This season he has made 14 appearances for the Canaries in the Championship with four goals and six assists to his name. He would be a cheaper option than both Sancho and Brandt too.
Meanwhile, the artificial intelligence suggests Thuram, who has four goals and seven assists in 18 appearances this season, would not only link well with Fernandes, Rashford, and Telles.
Tactically flexible, Monchengladbach have played United’s preferred formation, 4-2-3-1, so Thuram, the son of French World Cup winner, Lilian, could slot straight in.
The table summarizes different options for Manchester United if they want to sign a creative attacking midfield player in the January transfer window
Arsenal: Szoboszlai might not be the answer
Pre-season, Arsenal fans may have had some misgivings over their club’s options in the attacking midfield department, but might have felt there were more pressing priorities elsewhere.
The talk was of the need to secure Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s signature on a new contract and the desire to stiffen the middle of the pitch with the acquisition of Thomas Partey 27.
However, 12 games in and just 10 goals scored, creativity is now a major concern.
Willian, 32, signed on a free transfer from Chelsea is yet to deliver, Nicolas Pepe, 25, is struggling and Mesut Ozil is all but gone. On average, Arsenal create less than 10 shots per game, with little more than three on target.
The need to unlock the undoubted talent of Aubameyang, 31, who has 74 goals in 123 appearances for Arsenal, and Alexandre Lacazette, 29, who has 52 in 141 games, is clear.
IDEAL TARGET: FLORIAN NEUHAUS
Dominik Szoboszlai has already been linked with Arsenal
Other possibles: Dominik Szoboszlai, Lorenzo Pellegrini
Arsenal have already been linked with Dominik Szoboszlai, 20, the talented Hungarian, who plays for Austrian side, RB Salzburg.
And the Ai Abacus chemistry analysis suggests he would fit in and link well with a number of players at the Emirates.
However, his positional profile, often playing on the left of a midfield four, and differences in style between RB Salzburg and Arsenal count against him.
The diagram illustrates which players would be a good fit in a creative midfield position at Arsenal. Those in the top right considered the best fit
Roma’s Lorenzo Pellegrini would be expected to link well with Granit Xhaka and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang
Whoever Arsenal move for in January, Arteta may feel he needs a player who can slot right in.
Florian Neuhaus may be a good option for the Gunners
Borussia Monchengladbach’s Florian Neuhaus could be the answer.
The 23-year-old has been likened to the Bayern Munich and German international, Thomas Muller, who has been capped 100 times for his country.
Neuhaus’ positional awareness and ability to slip in between the opposition lines of defence and attack is highly praised.
Hard to pick up, he has scored 12 and assisted 16 goals in 89 appearances for Gladbach, and is comfortable playing behind one or two strikers.
Neuhaus has spoken of the need to have a good understanding with team mates in order the break the lines. And his chemistry analysis is particularly strong. He is expected to pair well Pepe and Willian, and could be a creative option alongside Partey.
Roma’s Italian midfielder, Lorenzo Pellegrini, 24, is an equally strong match, who pairs well with Aubameyang and Granit Xhaka, although after the latter’s sending off against Burnley that might not be in his favour.
Pellegrini’s cost benefit analysis is less attractive than Neuhaus, however.
The table evaluates Arsenal’s midfield options, which include Florian Neuhaus, Lorenzo Pellegrini and Dominik Szoboszlai
Chelsea: The final piece of the jigsaw – a holding midfielder?
It’s hard to imagine that Chelsea need any more players after an extraordinary, and highly effective, spending spree that racked up a bill of well over £200min the summer.
However, the one ‘gap’ Blues boss Frank Lampard is believed to have an eye on is in defensive midfield.
On the face of it, Chelsea look well covered with N’Golo Kante, 29, Jorginho, 28, and Mateo Kovacic, 26.
However, it appears Lampard does not see Kante as a holding player and since Chelsea often play with two defensive midfielders, he is thought to want more cover.
So, what are the options?
IDEAL TARGET: ADRIAN FEIN
Manuel Locatelli has helped Sassuolo to fifth in Serie A
Other possibles: Manuel Locatelli, Boubacar Kamara
Manuel Locatelli, 22, is credited with being a driving force in the upward trajectory of the unfashionable Serie A team, Sassuolo, who currently sit fifth in the table.
He may be just what Lampard is looking for.
Schooled at AC Milan, Locatelli is disciplined and talented. He sits deep, holds his position, is effective at breaking up play and noted for being good in transition, launching attacks with trademark switch passes.
The Ai Abacus model, predicts Locatelli, who has been capped by Italy six times, will link up brilliantly with the Chelsea defenders as well as Hakim Ziyech, which should help him hit the ground running.
The diagram shows the suitability of players in defensive midfield for Chelsea looking at the match between the playing style of the selling and buying clubs as well as the chemistry between each player and their future team mates. The best options tend to be in the top right of the chart.
PSV’s Adrian Fein could be a good fit in Chelsea’s midfield
The chart above shows that Locatelli is the top match for the chemistry he is expected to have with Chelsea players, but the model suggests the playing style at Sassuolo is different, which impacts his suitability for a January move.
Well matched for style and chemistry is German, Adrian Fein, 21, who is currently on loan at PSV Eindhoven with an option to buy from Bayern Munich.
Boubacar Kamara (left) is a defensive midfielder at Marseille
A Bayern academy graduate, Fein played on loan in Bundesliga 2 last season helping Hamburger SV to a fourth-placed finish. This term he has made 10 appearances for PSV and scored once and has two assists.
The Ai Abacus model credit PSV and Chelsea with a similar playing style, so he should fit into the system well.
He is also expected to pair strongly with Ziyech, Jorginho and left back, Ben Chilwell. And he is a cheaper option.
Meanwhile, Boubacar Kamara, 21, is establishing himself as a defensive midfielde at Marseille, where he came through the youth ranks.
Kamara was linked with both Manchester City and West Ham earlier this year, the former reportedly considered him as a centre back. Kamara has strong chemistry with Chelsea players, but compared to the other options he looks a less attractive buy.
The table compares three players who could slot into a defensive midfield position for Chelsea
How artificial intelligence predicts player chemistry
Ai Abacus can now predict how players will combine
A footballer’s individual performance is dependent upon how they fit into the style and dynamics of a team. Ai Abacus has created a system that predicts how well the playing characteristics of a new recruit will complement those of prospective teammates.
In other words, they have found a way to rate the chemistry between players who may never have played together before.
By analysing millions of passages of play, the model identifies the most prominent player characteristics that give good outcomes on the pitch. This includes collecting on-field data:
- What is the player’s overall ability?
- Who does he link up with effectively?
- Who does he link up with most often?
And considering off-field characteristics to determine what type of person a player performs best with, based on:
- Language, previous team mates, age, nationality
This chemistry model uses artificial intelligence, which has been developed at the University of Southampton, to determine what makes successful pairings for each player and therefore it can predict which players will link well as team mates.
Ai Abacus combines the chemistry model with information about playing styles and a cost-benefit analysis, which incorporates transfer fee, wages and agents’ fees, to evaluate the best transfer options for buying clubs.
The company has access to detailed data on 125,000 players in 53 leagues and 84 competitions, worldwide, including the National League, Bundesliga 3, Japanese JI and Brazil’s top tier, the Brasileirao.