‘Winning the transfer window’ is misunderstood – most big deals don’t pay off

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The rumbling you can hear in the distance is the sound of the transfer market coming to life: not the whirring of fax machines these days, but the roar of the engines on private jets, soon to be drowned out by the clamour for more, more, more.

It never stops, really. But for the majority of the year it is a low hum, background noise. And then it explodes over the summer and again in January, when the market can begin seem to less like a mechanism and more like a sport in itself.

“Who’s winning the transfer window?” people will ask on social media — and the misguided response, almost always, will be the club spending in a wild, extravagant but compellingly eye-catching way, like Imelda Marcos on the last day of a trip to New York.

On August 5 last year, the first day of the new Premier League season, Sky Sports News revealed their “summer transfer window XI”, a line-up of the best buys of the summer as voted for by their viewers.

It had Fulham’s Bernd Leno in goal, Newcastle United’s Sven Botman in central defence and Manchester United’s Christian Eriksen in midfield — no complaints there — but beyond that it went rather awry: Djed Spence, Kalidou Koulibaly, Ivan Perisic, Yves Bissouma, Philippe Coutinho, Richarlison, Darwin Nunez, Raheem Sterling — none of whom has made anything like the impact imagined at the time.

And this was with three and a half weeks of the summer transfer window remaining — in other words, before the real desperation and panic began to take hold.

Seven of the 14 biggest Premier League signings of last summer came after that and, while Casemiro and Alexander Isak have made significant impacts at Manchester United and Newcastle United respectively, the contributions of Antony (Ajax to Manchester United for £82million), Wesley Fofana (Leicester City to Chelsea for £70m), Marc Cucurella (Brighton to Chelsea for £60m), Matheus Nunes (Sporting Lisbon to Wolverhampton Wanderers for £38m) and Lucas Paqueta (Lyon to West Ham for £36.5m) have ranged from inconsistent to minimal.

That is before we come to January and a marketplace that has long been regarded as the refuge of the desperate.

According to analysis by Deloitte, Premier League clubs committed to paying a combined total of £815m in transfer fees during the mid-season window.

Incredibly, Chelsea alone accounted for over £280m of that outlay — more than La Liga, Serie A, Bundesliga and Serie A combined. And for all the undoubted potential of Enzo Fernandez (£105m from Benfica), Mykhailo Mudryk (£61m from Shakhtar Donetsk, potentially rising to £87.5m), Benoit Badiashile (£32m from Monaco) and others, it would be polite to say Chelsea’s on-pitch vision, under their new ownership, is yet to crystallise.

It wasn’t just Chelsea. Leeds United and Southampton, both embroiled in a relegation battle and in severe need of firepower, broke their transfer records to sign Georginio Rutter from Hoffenheim for £35.5m and Kamaldeen Sulemana from Rennes for £22m respectively. Southampton have been relegated without Sulemana or Paul Onuachu, his fellow new signing, scoring a goal. With one game left, the same unhappy fate could yet apply to Leeds and the lesser-spotted Rutter.

At 21, Sulemana and Rutter are both young enough to prove their worth in the longer term — the same goes for most of Chelsea’s January intake, provided there is some kind of plan for their development — but the uncomfortable truth, as thoughts turn to next season and the boundless hope that a few eye-catching summer signings might bring, is that it becomes hard to place too much faith in the transfer market unless your club has shown a tendency to get things right.

Some do, such as Brighton & Hove Albion, whose ability to identify, tie down and, crucially, integrate and develop talent has become a rare source of wonder in English football. Manchester City and Liverpool can both count some spectacular successes over the past eight years under coaches, Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp, who tend to know what type of players they want and how to use them.


Who does your Premier League team want to sign in the summer?

Arsenal, after years of drift, seem to have struck on something similar under Mikel Arteta over the past couple of seasons. Newcastle United, contrary to everything that usually happens under a new ownership regime with cash to burn and a vast amount of ground to make up, have gone from battling against relegation to qualifying for the Champions League because their approach under Eddie Howe and Dan Ashworth has been remarkably measured.

But so many big transfers bring disappointment.

You can add more to this list: Nicolas Pepe (Lille to Arsenal for £72m), Kepa Arrizabalaga (Athletic Bilbao to Chelsea for £72m), Fofana, Nunez and, potentially, Mudryk. It is too soon to judge some of those signings — Grealish’s much-improved second season at Manchester City serves as a warning not to damn Antony, Fofana, Nunez and Mudryk after their mixed contributions this term — but they offer a pretty firm rebuttal to the assumption that a big, expensive, eye-catching deal comes with guarantees.

Beyond that, it is a reminder that there is no substitute for investing smartly with a clear vision in mind. Whereas Manchester City’s most expensive signings are Grealish, Kevin De Bruyne, Ruben Dias, Rodri, Riyad Mahrez and — once you take those astronomical intermediary fees into account — Erling Haaland, some of their big-spending rivals have had far more misses than hits at the top end of the market. Manchester United’s biggest signings, in the decade of regrets since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement, are Paul Pogba, Antony, Harry Maguire, Jadon Sancho, Romelu Lukaku and Angel Di Maria; Chelsea’s (even overlooking the wild spending of the past two transfer windows) are Lukaku, Kai Havertz, Kepa Arrizabalaga, Alvaro Morata, Christian Pulisic and Fernando Torres.

This isn’t just a Premier League phenomenon. The cost of Barcelona’s combined outlay of €380m on Coutinho, Antoine Griezmann and Ousmane Dembele between 2017 and 2019 weighs heavily to this day. Likewise Real Madrid and their €160m outlay on Eden Hazard and Luka Jovic in the summer of 2019. Juventus have spent almost €900m on new players over the past five years and have gone from a position of supreme dominance in Serie A to one of underperformance on the pitch and turmoil off it.

Eden Hazard is unveiled by Florentino Perez, president of Real Madrid (Photo: Angel Martinez/Getty Images)

But it is more pronounced in the Premier League because there is so much money there. The financial rewards of staying up are enormous and so, too, is the cost of relegation.

Even with the benefit of parachute payments, Southampton’s broadcast revenue will fall from around £95m in the Premier League this season to around £45m in the Championship next term. If the decisions they have taken in recent months have looked desperate — sacking two managers, the money gambled on Sulemana and Onuachu in January — it is because they have been precisely that.

On stage at the StatsBomb conference at Stamford Bridge in 2021, Liverpool’s director of research Dr Ian Graham proposed that, even with 90 per cent certainty behind every assessment of a potential signing, there was roughly a 47 per cent chance the deal might not work out.

Graham casually reeled off a list of things that could go wrong: the player might not be as good as you think; he might not suit the team’s style; he might end up being played out of position; the manager might not like him; he might have fitness or personal issues; he might be no better than a player already in the squad.

Even if you were as much as 90 per cent sure in each of these six categories, Graham pointed out that this would amount to only 53.1 per cent certainty (90 per cent x 90 per cent x 90 per cent x 90 per cent x 90 per cent x 90 per cent) the deal would work — and this hypothesis related to a well-run club where as little as possible was left to chance.

The football industry’s adoption of ever more sophisticated data-driven scouting models has helped clubs make more informed decisions, but Graham’s point was that every aspect of every transfer carries risk. As Jeremy Steele, founder of the Analytics FC platform, told The Athletic in 2020, “Data is not a silver bullet. It’s not suddenly that you take on board data and you sign top players every time. But it allows you to gain a competitive advantage by reducing risk.”


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Every leading club’s recruitment department uses data analysis. But not every club is as clear on what the data means and how it relates to a long-term strategy and the team’s immediate needs. At Brighton both the vision and the implementation have been clear for several years. For all the talk of a long-term strategy under the new regime at Chelsea, that clarity is some way off.

And yet the feeling among Chelsea’s fans — quite understandably, quite inevitably — is that a big concerted push in the transfer market this summer will put them back on the right track. A new midfielder alongside Fernandez, a new goalkeeper, a new centre-forward, not forgetting a new head coach on course. It can often feel there is nothing wrong with a team that dropping another £250m in the transfer market won’t put right.

Looking at some of the names who might be on the move this summer — Declan Rice, Moises Caicedo, Alexis Mac Allister, James Maddison, perhaps Victor Osimhen or Tammy Abraham, perhaps even Harry Kane if Tottenham Hotspur were to dare cash in on him with only a year left on his contract — they look like much safer bets than some of the high-price, high-risk, disappointingly low-yield purchases of recent years.

But there are still no guarantees. Manchester City’s acquisition of Haaland might look like a no-brainer now, but, even as the goals immediately came in a flurry, there was a period of adaptation — not just for him, adjusting to new surroundings, a different way of playing and (at least in theory) a heavy burden of expectation, but for his coach and his new team-mates, adjusting to having a very different focal point.

Erling Haaland (Photo: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

Every transfer comes with a risk. Sometimes, not least when things get fraught in the desperate final weeks of the window, the gravity of the situation means adjusting your sights, settling for secondary or previously unconsidered targets, taking bigger risks and paying over the odds in the hope of salvaging a season or reducing the pressure on a manager, chairman or owner who is feeling the heat. And it is at times like that, buying from a position of weakness rather than strength, that the risks are multiplied.

But still the transfer market offers hope, particularly after a season of frustration, stagnation or worse. Every fan wants to believe that this transfer window will be different, even if logic and bitter experience tells them a club or regime with a reputation for getting things wrong is more likely to maintain that trend than suddenly hit upon a winning formula.

The transfer market is not an exact science. But nor is it forgiving of those who approach it in a haze of wide-eyed excitement or panic. Who will win the transfer window? Almost certainly the club that has done its homework and has a clear sense both of what is needed and, crucially, what is not.

A well-run club will already have its ducks in a row — like Brighton with their £30m deal for Watford forward Joao Pedro and several other deals well advanced, like their bid to sign James Milner on a free transfer from Liverpool.

Others will still be thrashing around in late August and it is often then, in the final days of summer, that one club or another, making a series of dramatic splashes and extravagant splurges, will be said to be “winning the transfer window”. But experience tells you they will be doing anything but.

(Top photo: All Getty Images)

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