And so another January transfer window closes, and if you found the whole experience a little underwhelming – despite Jim White’s best efforts to hype it up on Sky Sports – you are probably not alone.
While many clubs did do deals between Jan 1st and 31st, 17 out of the 49 in the Premier League were loans. Few, it seems, want to splash the cash as the deadline looms and be seen as buying in a headless panic.
Even fewer want to risk costly mistakes such as Benni McCarthy to West Ham (on £38k a week in 2011; fined £200,000 for failing to lose weight), Jean-Alain Boumsong to Newcastle (an eyebrow-raising £8m in 2005; ended badly) and Fernando Torres to Chelsea for a then-British record fee of £50m on Jan 31st, 2011 (just 20 goals in 110 games).
Although Bruno Fernandes joined Manchester United for £46.5m, while Tottenham signed Steven Bergwijn (£25m) and also converted Giovani Lo Celso’s loan to a permanent deal (£30m), big-money moves were few and far between.
Loan deals – often with a view to buy if things work out – have become an increasingly important factor in January. They offer a short-term fix at a crucial point in the season, when the hectic schedule of festive fixtures has left squads depleted by injury or short of cover. Arsenal were looking to fix such issues by signing Pablo Mari and Cedric Soares.
It also works for players seeking game time, which is why Danny Rose – out of favour at Spurs with Euro 2020 approaching – got his loan move to Newcastle. He gets to play more, the Magpie get an experienced international defender, and Spurs get him off their hands.
Some fans might question why their clubs go for players on loan rather than signing them permanently, but the reality is loans work better for the signing club mid-season because they don’t have to pay large fees and, in some cases, may not have to pay all the wages involved.
One way you could re-invent the January window is to turn it into an exclusive loan only window.
Total top-flight outlay during this January window was £250m, a lot more than the £180m spent in 2019, but miles off 2018’s £480m. When you look at the spend in the last summer window (£1.4bn), there is no comparison.
This lack of high-profile signings in January, compared to years gone by, leaves the likes of Sky Sports, BT Sport and other media outlets with a problem as the winter window becomes less dramatic, less filled with big stories, but solving this could be more obvious than you might think.
Fixing the window
One way the January window could be re-invented is to turn it into an exclusive loan-only period. Why not when 34% of the deals were loans anyway?
Manchester United’s last-gasp loan swoop for Odion Ighalo from Shanghai Greenland Shenhua appears symptomatic of the way in which big clubs are no longer prepared to take a massive gamble on big deals in January, when buyers are seen as desperate and it is very much a sellers’ market.
What does seem to have changed, however, is how many such deals now have option-to-buy clauses and incentivised structures which are more complex that the simple loans of the past. These serve to increase the chances of players remaining beyond the short term – but not if things don’t go well.
Essentially, a loan is a quick fix for a situation which means clubs don’t have to fully commit to a player’s future, but may well decide to do so if this ‘try before you buy’ period goes to plan.
Making the January window loans-only would not necessarily appease fans desperate for their clubs to make a statement of intent by spending big, but perhaps they would eventually be persuaded that January is best-suited to short-term solutions, while summer is when the serious business is done.
Another option might be to scrap the January window completely. However, the number of games that English sides play in December and January causes the kind of wear and tear that led, for example, to Manchester United being forced into scouring the globe for a suitable striker.
The athleticism required to perform consistently in today’s high-intensity game is a fragile thing, and it is unlikely you would be able to convince managers that stopping them from replenishing their squads would be beneficial to the game – or the players pressured into returning to action to soon.