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The January transfer window: From £2.36bn to £112m spent – and a collective refusal to gamble

Farewell to the transfer window when the spending stopped.

Thank Crystal Palace, Aston Villa and Nottingham Forest for their gallant late efforts on deadline day and give a nod of appreciation to Tottenham Hotspur, owners of the most expensive single deal, but the Premier League has known few January markets as dormant.

The recklessness of the summer met the restraint of a new year and, inside 32 days of cautious trading, just £112million ($143m) was spent across the Premier League. With the exception of January 2021, which was predominantly spent in a Covid-19 lockdown, not since 2012 has the combined outlay been as low.

A quiet month was predictable enough in this age of points deductions for the overspenders, but perhaps not this quiet. Just 28 senior signings were made by Premier League clubs and 13 of them were loans. Over half of the division did not spend a dime.

It will still go down as the second biggest spend in a single season after £2.36billion was spent in the summer, but this was a window in which clubs sat on hands and gave a shake of the head. Whether through necessity or choice, the most common approach was to manage and make do for what remains of this season.

That Crystal Palace ended the month as the biggest spenders underlined that this was a break from recent convention. Their moves for Blackburn Rovers midfielder Adam Wharton and Genk right-back Daniel Munoz elevated a traditionally frugal club above the other 19 members of class, with about £30million spent in the two deals. No chances are being taken at Selhurst Park with the relegation zone so uncomfortably close.

Wharton completed his move from Blackburn to Palace on deadline day (Crystal Palace)

Tottenham and Villa were next in line with business designed to boost their Champions League prospects, but this was not a window conducive to excessive investment.

Too many were fretting over the Premier League’s profit and sustainability rules (PSR) sharpening its teeth with fresh charges against Everton and Nottingham Forest, while others had spent all they wanted to — or had — in the summer when assembling deep squads. The lack of managerial changes in the Premier League this season (just two as opposed to eight this time last year) will have played its part in flattening the market.

The demand was never quite there, nor was the added liquidity that came with Saudi Pro League clubs injecting £245million when buying Premier League players in the summer. So many factors, so little business.

“The biggest factor has been the movement we’ve seen with PSR,” says Dr Dan Plumley, a sports finance expert and lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University.

“Particularly with what’s happened to Everton, with a second charge pending, and to Forest. You can overlay the independent regulator on top of that because that is partly what’s driving the Premier League to take these clubs to task more than they have before.

“You can look back to last summer and the behaviour of certain clubs. Chelsea, for example, were very aggressive in their spending on players with long-term contracts, but they’ve been unable to repeat the trick. Then you’ve got clubs like Arsenal, who spent big in the summer on players like Declan Rice, who could probably spend but they’ve chosen not to after being so busy.

“January is always quieter than the summer, that’ll never change. The kind of behaviour we see in January can be volatile year on year. I wouldn’t look at it on a trends basis because January can be very busy, with everyone jostling and panicking, or very quiet. There’s often no in-between with January.”

The January window that has just closed could hardly be more different to the previous one. Sandwiched by the traditional excess of summers, the January window of 2023 saw £815million spent, a figure that was almost double the previous January record set in 2018. A remarkable £275million was spent on deadline day alone.

All but four clubs found at least £8million to part with and two of those — Brentford and Tottenham — signed off deals that included an obligation to turn loan moves into big-money permanent transfers six months later.

Chelsea, who were signing Enzo Fernandez, Mykhailo Mudryk, Benoit Badiashile and Noni Madueke as part of a £290million spree this time last year, spent almost three times as much as the 20 Premier League clubs this time around, all by themselves.

Those gluttons of windows past turned out to be one of 10 Premier League clubs not to spend at all and one of seven not to complete a signing of note. Manchester United were the same, as were Arsenal, Liverpool and Newcastle United. It meant five of the seven biggest spenders in the summer failed to write a single cheque.

Manchester City did, signing youngster Claudio Echeverri for £12.5million, but that outlay came with the acceptance he would be loaned straight back to Argentine side River Plate.

Echeverri will be heading for Manchester City next season (Alex Caparros – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

That ensured only Tottenham of the “Big Six” clubs actively strengthened. Their signing of Romania international Radu Dragusin in a £26million deal ended up being the biggest Premier League deal of the window. Such a sum would not even have made the top flight’s biggest 30 transfers in the summer.

Even last January, it would not have stuck out from the crowd. Leeds United and Southampton, both relegated to the Championship, spent more than £35million apiece 12 months ago, while Bournemouth were committing £70million. The three clubs promoted from the Championship last season, meanwhile, have rustled up roughly £5million between them over the past month. It has been a collective refusal to gamble financially.

“Towards the bottom of the league, you’ve got clubs who might be close to the PSR limits and given the relative financial weakness of the bottom three compared to other seasons, that’s again a factor,” adds Plumley.

“Sheffield United can’t really spend, Burnley were unlikely to and the same with Luton. Then there’s Everton, where some sort of points deduction is likely to stick. You’ve got a situation where teams who would ordinarily have been in the mix are managing to stay clear, so didn’t see a need to spend.”

To see this rare show of austerity in all its detail was to stand the Premier League against its European rivals.

Serie A clubs spent almost as much (£86million) as those in England’s top-flight, while Germany’s Bundesliga (£70million) and Spain’s La Liga (£69million) were not far behind in an arm’s race that usually sees them as a dot in the Premier League’s wing mirror.

France and Ligue 1 took the honour — if there is such a thing — of being Europe’s biggest spenders of January. They spent £163million to stand out from the continental crowd, with Paris Saint-Germain, Lyon, Marseilles and Stade Rennais all spending north of £15million.

For the first time since January 2019, when surpassed by the Chinese Super League’s fleeting boom, the Premier League did not have the highest transfer expenditure of any league globally inside a window. According to Deloitte, the global accounting firm, not since the summer of 2011, when Serie A had cash on the hip, has another European league come out on top of all the spenders.

That is not to draw premature conclusions, of course. The Premier League comfortably leads the way across the 2023-24 season, with almost £2.5billion spent – less than last season’s final total of £2.78billion but still the second biggest on record across all of Europe. Any reports of the Premier League losing power would be greatly exaggerated.

Expect the summer to bring a challenge to the vast spending records of recent years. The muscle will still be there.

“In any normal window, the Premier League would be far and away the biggest spenders, but its lack of spending has brought the gap closer rather than any big plays strategically from other leagues,” adds Plumley.

“Get the crystal ball out for the summer, where we’re not sure what’s going to happen with Saudi Arabia, but the biggest clubs will always be in a position to spend again.

“You’ll still be looking at Premier League clubs dominating the European football market in the summer window. The finances haven’t changed. The power is still with the Premier League on the European landscape. It might have felt eerily quiet in this last month, but that’s been down to other factors, especially in this country.”

(Top photos: Getty Images)

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