January transfer window: Spending frenzy by clubs shows that player acquisition has become a game

There are many ways to remember this January transfer window, which roared to a shiny, moneybags finish on Wednesday. The record figures, affluent managers complaining about not having enough money or the curious story of Chelsea’s pursuit of a big man up front — from Andy Carroll to Peter Crouch to Edin Dzeko, before finally setting up shop with Olivier Giroud.

The latter narrative is equal parts mirth and head-shaking. If you consider the rise in quality from Carroll to Giroud, Antonio Conte is indeed “overachieving” as he claimed after the shock 0-3 rout to Bournemouth at home on deadline day. But the pleasure of acquiring Giroud’s services dissipated quickly. If it helps Chelsea feel better, though, other marquee January acquisitions like Alexis Sanchez, Virgil van Dijk, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Cenk Tosun lost their first league match in the company of their new employers.

FC Barcelona's new signing Philippe Coutinho during the presentation. Reuters

FC Barcelona's new signing Philippe Coutinho during the presentation. Reuters

Although it was just one game, the results brought to mind past aversion to the January transfer window. In the first decade of this century, clubs would generally keep their wallet shut as it was considered disruptive for the squad to deal with additions. It brought more harm than good, the pundits claimed. But there’s another aspect to the low spending which is seldom considered.

According to Deloitte’s Sports Business Group, the net expenditure on transfers this season amounts to just 17 per cent of the revenue forecast for Premier League clubs in 2017-18. This matches up to the average spend on transfer fees over the past 15 years; so, even as Premier League clubs become richer, they are still spending in line with their bounteous revenue. The market is guiding the hand.

In terms of the numbers, though, the more considerable point is that there was no net profit for the Premier League this time around, unlike last January when Chinese Super League clubs shook business. The net spend in the 2018 winter window was in the region of £140 million. Although one may argue that the revenues in the last 12 months have been stable and do not adequately reflect the record spending we have seen this January, the expenditure is not a wild outpouring of the finances.

A World Cup year may have forced moves for players who want playing time before the showpiece event, but a look at figures from previous windows shows that does not necessarily drive up transfer activity in the winter. In fact, January 2010 (£33 million) saw the lowest spend on transfers in England since the second transfer window’s inception in 2003. Even four years ago, the expenditure remained at £130 million — nearly £100 million less than the erstwhile record which was set in 2011 — and a net spend of what seems a rather unexceptional £35 million.

But what remains noteworthy is that the transfer expenditure this winter has been driven by the heavyweights. From spending a mere £40,000 last January, the ‘Big Six’ touched the figure of £265 million this time. The desperation to finish in the top four is behind the frenzied transfer activity, particularly in Chelsea and Arsenal’s case. Having made a profit from the sale of Philippe Coutinho, Liverpool has not necessarily gone dipping in the same sea and even Tottenham Hotspur bought Lucas Moura for a reasonable sum.

As for the Manchester clubs, United spent nothing as it swapped Sanchez for Mkhitaryan. However, it is City’s acquisition of Aymeric Laporte which raised a few eyebrows but it seems manager Pep Guardiola is minded to mount a challenge for the Champions League trophy. The league race, of course, has been run, for all practical purposes.

Yet, City is likely to break Chelsea’s record from 2015 January when it spent the highest amount ever for a side which eventually became champion in May – all of the £26 million, though, was assigned for Juan Cuadrado, who failed to enthuse the observers at Stamford Bridge.

But the expenditure has not touched its extremities yet. The record outlay this winter may be broken in 12 months’ time, as the clubs are still making sense of the £5.1 billion television broadcast deal. It could be argued that the excess cash is giving rise to wanton spending but such is the overwhelming power of the transfer window that money has ceased to be a factor for Premier League clubs and their fans.

Yet, if there is something we learnt from this transfer window, it was that the narrative will not be dominated by the desire to secure the best players alone. It could very well be argued that despite the spending, not everyone has actually improved their squad.

Is Manchester United a better team with Alexis Sanchez in it, even though it will probably mean that Paul Pogba is limited in his midfield role now? Is Arsenal more defensively secure now, despite Arsene Wenger’s insistence to not address the overarching problem with his team? Has Liverpool covered all bases, although no additions were made in midfield following Coutinho’s departure?

It is difficult to say yes to any of those questions. But the transfer market has had a power of its own for a while now, with squad improvement not necessarily the driving motive. Sometimes, you buy a player to keep the fans happy. Sometimes, you even pursue Crouch at the creaky age of 37 to make a point to the board. There are multiple motives and intrigues in the dizzying world of transfers.

It was rather appropriate that a set of Premier League fixtures was overshadowed by the deadline day transfer activity on Wednesday. Player acquisition is a game unto itself now, with records broken every now and then. The trend shall continue for a while.

Updated Date: Feb 01, 2018 16:24 PM

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