Phil Costa picks out some of the stars currently shining in difficult circumstances, and which top-flight clubs should be taking notes
1. Julian Draxler (Wolfsburg)
A clever mover off the ball, an intelligent passer on it and comfortable playing on the left or behind the striker, he’d be an asset to any top European side
Everybody knows about Draxler's talent, so why's he still at Wolfsburg? After revealing his desire to depart for pastures new in the summer, the Germany international might not be there much longer. His long and rangy strides make him difficult to catch when in full flight, but his real quality is the excellent passing and vision that have picked apart many backlines in the past. Draxler is a clever mover off the ball and comfortable playing on the left or behind the striker. When he's in form consistently – and that's the big thing here – he’d be an asset to any top European side. It’s easy to forget he's still only 23.
Who he’d suit: Arsenal. The same link has surfaced during every window for the past four years, but that’s because it’s feasible. It may not be such a necessity now due to the emergence of Alex Iwobi, but the Gunners lacked a real technical presence on the left after Samir Nasri left for Manchester City, and Draxler would have been perfect at providing a counterbalance to the chaos of Alexis Sanchez and limitations of Theo Walcott. With the right coaching, he has the potential to become a world-class footballer.
2. Ever Banega (Inter)
Banega is at his best when dictating play in the final third, finding and linking with team-mates thanks to an effortless awareness of what’s going on around him
If you look across Europe, you won’t find many more accomplished attacking midfielders than Ever Banega. Inter haven’t got many things right recently, but signing the Argentine on a free from Sevilla was an inspired piece of business. The 28-year-old is at his best when dictating play in the final third, linking with team-mates thanks to an effortless awareness of what’s going on around him. Assured from dead-ball situations and shooting from range, the former Valencia man also likes to get stuck in with his terrier-like hunting of the ball. The perfect enganche.
Who he’d suit: Tottenham are well stocked in midfield, but aside from Mousa Dembele, they lack players who can put their foot on the ball and control a game. Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen are far more effective further forward, while Victor Wanyama and Eric Dier shine in their defensive work. Banega could offer a balance of both, and settle in quickly under compatriot Mauricio Pochettino.
3. Ruben Castro (Real Betis)
As you’d expect from a 35-year-old striker, he knows where the goal is - no other team in La Liga is as reliant on one player to score
Ruben Castro is like a fine rioja that gets better with age. The forward spent most of his career as a journeyman, before finally finding a home when he arrived at Real Betis in 2010. At 35 he's yet to lose his speed, plays as a lone striker and holds the ball up fantastically well for his team, linking play with his back to goal and bringing team-mates into play. He knows where the goal is too – he struck 19 La Liga goals last term, and no other team in La Liga is as reliant on one player to score.
Who he’d suit: Castro only just signed a new contract at Betis, and due to his age, it’s unlikely he'll ever be tempted by a move to England's top flight. But there are certainly sides who could use his predatory prowess. Sunderland are struggling at the foot of the table for a number of reasons, with their inability to find the net with regularity chief among them. The Black Cats have already got one veteran striker on their books – and there'd be nothing wrong with adding another.
Injuries have seen the 21-year-old’s development stall slightly, but he’s still an absolute joy to watch
There’s still a feeling of regret in north London over Serge Gnabry, who joined Werder Bremen from Arsenal in August after impressing at the Rio Olympics. Injuries have stalled the 21-year-old’s progress somewhat, but he remains an absolute joy to watch; capable of playing anywhere across the frontline, Gnabry is a quick, powerful player who's able to take players on for fun. Strong on both feet and from set-pieces, he's already made a significant impact with his new side.
Who he’d suit: Leicester may have to think about what happens next season, despite Riyad Mahrez having signed a new contract in the summer. With Bartosz Kapustka still very raw and Marc Albrighton reliable yet unspectacular, Gnabry could come into Claudio Ranieri’s side and provide much-needed cutting edge alongside Demarai Gray. However, having just moved back to Germany it’s unlikely he’ll be back in the Premier League anytime soon – especially with Bayern Munich lurking.
5. Jorge Meré (Sporting Gijon)
Not too interested in the finer side of defending, Mere uses his strength and agility to usher strikers off the ball, timing most of his tackles to perfection
When thrown in at the deep end, you either sink or swim. Jorge Meré, who was given his Sporting Gijon debut at 18, is practically floating on a lilo sipping a Pina Colada. He's considered the best talent to emerge from the club since David Villa, it’s easy to understand why. The Spain U21 international is rarely flustered and always in control, uses his strength and agility to usher strikers off the ball and times most of his tackles to perfection.
Who he’d suit: Under Claude Puel, Southampton are entering a new era as they look to build a young and exciting squad. Captain Jose Fonte has been a fantastic servant for the Saints but isn't getting any younger, which means planning will need to take place in the next year or so. With Maya Yoshida and Florin Gardos currently providing the cover, Meré could come in within the next two years and be an instant upgrade on them both – providing Virgil van Dijk with the solid long-term partner he deserves.
6. Marko Arnautovic (Stoke)
The Austrian boasts a silky first touch and dazzlingly quick feet, and can also rely on his imposing 6ft 4in frame to change a game if things aren’t quite going his way
After Jose Mourinho labelled him a "fantastic person with the attitude of a child" during his days at Inter, Marko Arnautovic finally realised that you need more than talent to succeed. Now the Austrian boasts a silky first touch and dazzlingly quick feet, and can also rely on his imposing 6ft 4in frame to change a game if things aren’t quite going his way. He's thrived with added responsibility at Stoke this season, often proving to be his underachieving side's sole shining light.
Who he’d suit: Everton expressed an interest in Arnautovic last summer before opting to sign Yannick Bolasie instead, but the Toffees should still be keeping tabs on the forward as he enters his peak years. With Kevin Mirallas, Gerard Deulofeu and Aaron Lennon all struggling for consistency at Goodison Park, the 27-year-old's well-rounded game could suit the Toffees.
7. Benjamin Henrichs (Bayer Leverkusen)
Pep Guardiola was a massive fan of David Alaba due to his versatility, and while it would be premature to say Henrichs is at the Austrian’s level, it's certainly the case that they share many similarities
If you thought Philipp Lahm's successful career would have inspired a young generation of full-backs in Germany, you’d be wrong. It’s a big problem for Die Mannschaft, who have been forced to play clunky centre-halves out wide in the recent past, but Benjamin Henrichs could change all that. Originally an attacking midfielder, the 19-year-old has refined his game to become a reliable right- or left-back for Bayer Leverkusen. He's strong in the tackle and a shrewd interceptor of the ball, while also intelligent in possession and rarely beaten when coming up against the league’s pacier wingers.
Who he’d suit: Pep Guardiola was a massive fan of David Alaba due to his versatility, and while it would be premature to say Henrichs is anywhere near the Austrian’s level, they share many similarities. With Aleksandar Kolarov, Gael Clichy, Bacary Sagna and Pablo Zabaleta all over 30, City need to start scouting full-backs and the German teenager fits the well-rounded profile Guardiola admires. However, with only 14 first-team appearances to his name, the best place for Henrichs to continue his development is at Leverkusen.
8. Ivaylo Chochev (Palermo)
Chochev could therefore, be a perfect January acquisition for the Swans, bringing some much-needed bite and resilience to the midfield
Palermo and their famous pink jerseys are synonymous with Italian football. Things are looking bleak for the Sicilians at present, though, with club owner Maurizio Zamparini continuing to hire and fire managers for fun. While the team may be short on quality and spirit, Chochev lacks neither; the very definition of an all-action midfielder, the Bulgarian is fantastic in the air and at his best when breaking up play in midfield.
Who he’d suit: Swansea love to get the ball down and play but clearly lack a strong presence in the side, a weakness which was made even more obvious when Ashley Williams joined Everton. Jack Cork is underrated but cannot do all the leg work in midfield alongside the lightweight Leon Britton and Ki Sung-Yeung. Chochev could therefore, be a perfect January acquisition for the Swans, bringing some much-needed bite and resilience to the midfield.
9. Allan Saint-Maximin (Bastia, on loan from Monaco)
Saint-Maximin is surprisingly good at taking shots from range, too, although he lets himself down when he has time to think about his final ball rather than going with his instincts
France seem to have an innate ability to produce attacking talent, with Allan Saint-Maximin the latest star off the conveyor belt. Currently on loan at Bastia from Monaco, the 19-year-old is benefitting from regular football and impressing with his pace and trickery on the counter-attack. Saint-Maximin is surprisingly good at taking shots from range, too, although he lets himself down when he has time to think about his final ball rather than going with his instincts.
Who he’d suit: Premier League sides can no longer afford to take too many gambles on young players due to the large financial rewards at stake, but sometimes the bigger picture is too appealing to resist. Watford have shown with Isaac Success that they are willing to give opportunities, and Saint-Maximum could be a shrewd purchase for the Hornets with his speed and versatility. Odion Ighalo has failed to hit the heights of last season and it’s likely that another big offer from China may be given a bit more thought this time around.
10. Quincy Promes (Spartak Moscow)
In 2016, players going under the radar isn’t a thing. The majority of top clubs have a scout in every corner of the world who are ready to pounce on the next superstar talent, but nobody looked hard enough in Moscow to find Promes. The 24-year-old Dutchman is a right winger who's lightning quick, direct, excellent with his use of the ball and deadly in front of goal. To top it all off, Promes is just as good at setting up his team-mates as he is scoring himself.
Who he’d suit: West Ham looked to add quality in wide areas over the summer, but signed a below-par player in Gokhan Tore and slow starter in Sofiane Feghouli, while Andre Ayew is only just returning after injury. Promes would add real quality from either flank, providing incision and purpose alongside the smoother Dimitri Payet and Manuel Lanzini. The former Twente man would also fit in well at Crystal Palace, who rely on service from their wingers to supply record signing Christian Benteke.