Sir Alex Ferguson would always claim that the best way to participate in the January transfer window was from the outside, looking in on those clubs who had allowed themselves to be dragged into what the former Manchester United manager described as the “chaos” of the month-long, midseason transfer market. Jurgen Klopp, who persuaded Liverpool to spend a world-record fee for a defender by completing the £75 million signing of Virgil van Dijk from Southampton last January, might beg to differ with Ferguson’s long-held view but generally, the biggest and best-run clubs avoid the January market at all costs.
Van Dijk has been a huge success for Liverpool during his 12 months at Anfield and is, perhaps, the exception to the rule that states the January window is dominated by panic buying and expensive mistakes. Having banked the £75m for Van Dijk, Southampton invested £19.1m of their windfall on Argentine forward Guido Carrillo from Monaco. After just five Premier League appearances and no goals for the Saints, he was shipped out on loan to Leganes as a costly flop.
Carrillo is an example of why Ferguson, and many big clubs and leading managers, have been so reluctant to sign players in January. The biggest clubs now spend months working on prospective signings, scouting them and diving deep into their backgrounds off the pitch. Sometimes, circumstances dictate that they have to do deals in January, but for the top clubs, it is all about the summer window instead.
Chelsea have bucked the trend this month by securing an agreement with Christian Pulisic for the Borussia Dortmund forward to complete a £58m move to the club in the summer, with a loan deal, including an option to buy, also sealed with Juventus for Gonzalo Higuain. But there are two reasons for Chelsea’s January business.
First, the Blues are under threat of a worldwide transfer ban relating to the signing of Bertrand Traore, which could kick in this summer, so any deals done now are an insurance policy against any FIFA-imposed penalty. Second, the club’s failure to adequately recruit in the summer had left them short of a goal scorer so the move for Higuain, which followed Alvaro Morata’s loan move to Atletico Madrid, stemmed from mistakes made six months ago.
Tottenham didn’t sign a single player last summer, and their lack of depth is now threatening to ruin their season, with injuries to Harry Kane and Dele Alli coinciding with exits from the League Cup and FA Cup. But if Mauricio Pochettino adds to his squad before Thursday’s 11 p.m. deadline, it will be because injuries have forced the club’s hand. That scenario is when mistakes are made because the January window, and certainly the final week of it is a market for the desperate and ill-prepared.
Ultimately, the top players are simply not available in January, which is another reason why clubs would rather wait for the summer, when contracts may be running down and when all parties have the time to make a well-informed decision. If a top player is available in January, there will be a reason for it, and it’s usually a negative one, such as a contractual dispute, fitness issues or something else that would set an alarm bell ringing in the boardroom of the prospective buyer.
United signed Alexis Sanchez 12 months ago, with his contract running out at Arsenal, and the Chilean has so far done little to make his former club regret their decision to sell him. When Liverpool sold Fernando Torres to Chelsea for £50m in January 2011, injuries had already started to take their toll, and his dismal performances at Stamford Bridge suggested that Liverpool knew that the forward’s best days were already behind him.
And while Liverpool may have wasted £35m by signing Newcastle’s Andy Carroll as a replacement, they were also able to complete a £22.8m deal for Luis Suarez, who became a major star at Anfield. But again: why was Suarez available in January? Because he was serving a seven-game suspension for biting an opponent, and Ajax wanted to cash in rather than risk missing out with wealthier clubs being put off by the Uruguayan’s reputation.
As the January window enters its final four days, there is little prospect of Liverpool, Manchester City or United adding to their squads. Chelsea, who have been busy this month for reasons already mentioned, may yet allow Gary Cahill, Danny Drinkwater and Callum Hudson-Odoi to leave Stamford Bridge before the deadline, but there it’s unlikely that there will be further arrivals.
Arsenal, faced with an escalating defensive crisis, might have to find a new centre-half, but with the clock ticking, they will do well to find a signing who will prove as reliable as Van Dijk. But Liverpool and City now have settled squads due to intensive recruitment over the past 18 months, and neither are likely to do business for a quick fix that solves a short-term problem this week.
United, meanwhile, have a caretaker-manager in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who has unlocked the potential of a squad that was hugely under-performing with Jose Mourinho. So they can focus on getting their summer signings lined up rather than engaging in panic buying this week.
The busy clubs will be those with problems, those at the wrong end of the table who are prepared to gamble on a risky signing keeping them up or a bigger club paying the price for poor planning last summer. But ultimately, Ferguson was right. The January window is no place for a club that knows how to do its business.