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Thursday, January 5, 2012
Transfer targets for top six clubs

By Michael Cox
Special to ESPN.com

Last year saw the busiest January transfer window in Premier League history, but the main movers have endured a difficult calendar year. Fernando Torres has been underwhelming, Andy Carroll hasn't been much better, Darren Bent now seems unhappy at Aston Villa after a bright start and Luis Suarez's performances have been undermined by his disciplinary problems.

With that in mind, managers might be hesitant to enter the market with as much gusto as they did in 2011. But the current top six are still on the lookout for new players.

Daniele De Rossi
Roma's Daniele De Rossi has been on Roberto Mancini's radar.

Manchester City

Almost every team that has performed well against Manchester City so far this season has done roughly the same thing: sat deep and narrow to prevent the likes of Sergio Aguero, David Silva and Samir Nasri both space to operate in and gaps to pass through. Even though Liverpool lost heavily to City on Tuesday, its approach in open play was correct: The Reds let Gareth Barry and Yaya Toure have the ball and focused their attention on defending inside their own third.

Toure makes fabulous driving runs but isn't a particularly adept passer, while Barry has enjoyed a good season and retains possession well but isn't the deep-lying playmaker a top-class side needs. The benefit of having a player of this mold is twofold, as Juventus' Andrea Pirlo has demonstrated particularly well this season -- not only does he offer creativity from deep, he forces the opposition higher up the pitch to close him down and leaves space for the attackers to exploit.

Toure's upcoming Africa Cup of Nations stint means that a central midfielder is needed in the short term. Fiorentina's Riccardo Montolivo has interested Mancini in the past; he's out of contract in the summer, as is Roma's Daniele De Rossi, even if he's a more combative player. A more astute purchase would be Athletic Bilbao's Javi Martinez, who has the stereotypical Spanish passing qualities as well as being able to play at center back.

Manchester United

Mauricio Isla
Udinese's Mauricio Isla could bolster United at both right back and in midfield.

United clearly needs another central midfielder. The home defeat to Blackburn showed how little creativity the Red Devils had, with winger Park Ji-Sung and full back Rafael Da Silva forming an unlikely midfield partnership. The away defeat to Newcastle demonstrated that they didn't have the combativeness required, either, with Ryan Giggs and Michael Carrick needing a more energetic player to cope with Newcastle's force.

Carrick has been in good form, however, and Tom Cleverley will return shortly from injury. United might soon find it has the guile needed, and instead need a box-to-box player.

Elsewhere, a new right back wouldn't go amiss. Having lost Gary Neville, John O'Shea and Wes Brown in the past year, United often looks undermanned in that role. Phil Jones and Chris Smalling are center backs rather than right backs, while Antonio Valencia is a right winger despite Sir Alex Ferguson often deploying him at right back. If Ferguson is clever, he might be able to get a player to fill the hole at both right back and in midfield -- Udinese's Mauricio Isla would be a decent purchase.

Tottenham Hotspur

Last season Tottenham lacked three things: a reliable goalkeeper, a battling partner for Luka Modric in midfield, and a true number nine. The signings of Brad Friedel, Scott Parker and Emmanuel Adebayor solved those problems and strengthened the spine of the team.

As a result, while Spurs might not quite be the best side in the league, they're arguably the side that doesn't have a clear weakness, at least as far as this season goes. If pushed, a backup winger would be useful, since Harry Redknapp doesn't seem to be a fan of Steven Pienaar, Giovani dos Santos or Niko Kranjcar, while Rafael van der Vaart has complained when used on the right.

But looking to the future seems more sensible. Friedel and Adebayor have both been impressive but are short-term solutions; Adebayor is on loan and wage demands might prevent a permanent move, while Friedel is now 40. With Tottenham's goalkeeping backups being 30-year-old Heurelho Gomes and 38-year-old Carlo Cudicini, a good young keeper needs to be signed.

Chelsea

Andre Villas-Boas has changed the way Chelsea plays in midfield and on the wings, and with Gary Cahill set to sign and become John Terry's long-term replacement, AVB may look to the full-back positions.

Ashley Cole has been excellent going forward this year and has more assists than any other Premier League defender, but he has looked much more vulnerable defensively, with Theo Walcott giving him a particularly difficult game in Arsenal's 5-3 win at Stamford Bridge. Along with Terry, Cole is one of only two Chelsea players to have started every league game this season, and with Yuri Zhirkov having moved on in the summer, there's no obvious backup.

On the other flank, Jose Bosingwa hasn't endured a great campaign and has never really returned to the level he demonstrated before his cruciate ligament injury in 2009, while Paulo Ferreira hasn't been a regular for years. Branislav Ivanovic has improved on the ball recently, particularly with his ability to come inside and cross with the outside of his right boot, but he's not the ideal player for Villas-Boas' system. A good attacking full back who primarily plays on the right but can also deputize on the left would be ideal -- someone like Darijo Srna of Shakhtar Donetsk, who has never got the chance to play in a big league but may now be too old. Sporting Lisbon's Joao Pereira, whom Villas-Boas knows from Portugal, would fit the bill.

Een Hazard
If Arsenal could afford him, Eden Hazard would be the perfect fit at the Emirates.

Arsenal

Those who want Arsenal to sign an out-and-out striker presumably either want Arsene Wenger to change his system or to push Robin van Persie away from the role where he's played the best football of his career. That doesn't really make sense considering the club's limited budget, unless Arsenal signed a player who could play two roles -- wide, on the same side as van Persie, and up front, as a replacement for the Dutchman, allowing him a rest.

In that sense, if you ignore his age and the short-term nature of his deal, Thierry Henry is exactly what Arsenal needs. He's able to play wide-left or up front, therefore making him the perfect replacement for both Gervinho and Marouane Chamakh while they are away at the Africa Nations Cup.

But, like Robbie Fowler's popular return to Liverpool in 2006, Henry's second stint shouldn't detract from the fact that Arsenal requires another attacker for the future. Chamakh has been dreadful for a year, and Andrei Arshavin hasn't been much better. Eden Hazard has been linked to the club, and though he might be out of Arsenal's price range, he'd be ideal, especially as he could recreate the partnership he enjoyed with Gervinho at Lille.

Elsewhere, injuries at full back mean that the Gunners have struggled in recent weeks -- their attacks lack width, and Johan Djourou's vulnerability was obvious in the defeat to Fulham. With Bacary Sagna, Carl Jenkinson, Andre Santos and Kieran Gibbs all set to return, however, it's difficult for Wenger to justify buying a fifth full back. Another short-term loan would be preferable.

Liverpool

The absence of Lucas Leiva has been a big problem in recent weeks, but the Brazilian will return next season, so spending millions on a similar player at this stage would be pointless in the long run. Meanwhile, Liverpool has the second-best defensive record in the league behind Manchester City, indicating that little work is needed at the back.

Instead, despite the purchases of Suarez and Carroll at this point last year, it's the attack that probably needs strengthening. Suarez's ban is clearly an issue, but so is his poor return of goals -- while always a threat, he's only hit five goals from 81 shots. By way of comparison, Stoke's Jon Walters and West Brom's Shane Long have also scored five times, from 33 and 27 shots respectively. Suarez contributes positively to Liverpool's attacking game, but he's not as prolific as in his Eredivisie days. Carroll's struggles, meanwhile, are plain to see.

Much like Arsenal, Liverpool could do with a forward who can also play out wide if necessary. A player like Napoli's Edinson Cavani or Marseille's Loic Remy would fit the bill, but those clubs are unlikely to sell a key player with the Champions League ties upcoming. Another move for Fiorentina's Stevan Jovetic, a target in the Rafael Benitez days, would also make sense, but the Italian club has just sold its other striker, Alberto Gilardino, and will be keen to keep hold of the Montenegrin. Waiting until the summer is Liverpool's best bet -- in that respect, maybe it's learned its lesson from last year.

Michael Cox is a freelance writer for ESPN.com. He runs zonalmarking.net.