The January transfer window used to be busy, almost laughably so, but not anymore. The last chance for managers to strengthen their squads before the end of the season, regardless of their respective ambitions, most clubs felt compelled to act. Better to take the hit and bring a couple of players in than risk being caught short, or so the theory went.
In January 2011, a period perhaps best remembered for Fernando Torres moving to Chelsea, and Liverpool replacing their Spanish striker with Luis Suarez and Andy Carroll, Premier League clubs made 51 signings in total. At the moment, albeit with four days remaining until the transfer window closes, less than half that number of deals have been done. Six clubs haven’t signed anyone.
It’s a significant shift in emphasis and part of a wider trend too. The January transfer window was once football's equivalent of a soap opera played out on rolling Sky Sports News coverage, but that drama and uncertainty has subsided in recent years. The number of significant deals has been scaled back as clubs with the time and resources to plan ahead no longer find themselves caught unawares when the window opens.
Premier League clubs are now better prepared than ever before. They shortlist, analyse and sound out potential targets on a constant basis to make best use of their budgets and avoid succumbing to pressure and short-termism. This wasn't always the case. The frequency with which clubs used to act on impulse made for bad business practice but good entertainment.
A large part of the appeal of the January transfer window was the sense of panic, giddiness and desperation it induced in so many clubs. Without robust analysis and recruitment teams in place, decisions were often made in a rush. Last-ditch loan deals and spiralling prices for average players were all too common. Many acted in haste and were forced to repent at leisure.
The hit rate for January signings was too low. Lacking the time to adapt and ease themselves in, lots sank without trace. Clubs threatened by relegation often gambled on bringing in a goalscorer but plenty left without once finding the net. It was something that West Ham United seemed to specialise in, with Mido, Benni McCarthy, Wellington Paulista, Marouane Chamakh and Marco Borriello all added to their list of misfiring strikers.
Similar deals are still done, but far less frequently than they used to be. Clubs generally have more thorough recruitment processes in place and are more wary of speculative signings. With squad-building acknowledged as such a vital factor in a team’s success, much less is left to chance. A measure of sanity has belatedly swept through the Premier League.
Only injury-hit clubs like Aston Villa, who have made four signings so far, find themselves forced into unexpected activity. For the most part, the frenetic pace that previously characterised the January transfer window has abated. Clubs are becoming more sensible and forward-thinking, which means the dramatic late signings that turned this month into a self-contained spectacle have largely disappeared.
That isn’t to say that rushed decisions aren’t still made, but they’re more a product of poor planning and misfortune rather than a matter of course. Manchester United’s flawed pursuit of a striker following Marcus Rashford’s injury is a prime example. It’s a reminder of how things used to be, with temporary and ill-fitting solutions like Islam Slimani and Odion Ighalo linked to moves so far.
Even though top-level players have become more expensive there’s been a general downward trend in January spending. There have been significant peaks and troughs, with the £430million spent by Premier League in 2017 smashing the previous record by a huge margin, but that increasingly feels like an aberration. Last year was a much more moderate £180million and the current total of around £40million is indicative of how most clubs now operate.
Lots of managers used to bemoan the lack of value in the January transfer window yet participated anyway. Since clubs started taking player recruitment more seriously, instead of leaving it to the whims of one man, that situation has changed for the better. Bad deals will still be done, and money wasted on players who don’t work out, because there are far too many variables to account for when weighing up a potential signing, but at least it won’t be for want of trying.