The reporters have shuffled back indoors, and the BREAKING NEWS is that there is no breaking news. January transfer window deadline day has come and gone, and what a hoot it was. Premier League clubs broke a record, with an overall outlay of just over £150 million on fees reconfirming the league’s financial might, as well as its willingness to assert said financial might.
Is this normal? Well, no. The other major European leagues didn’t get anywhere near such eyebrow-heightening levels of expenditure – in Germany, Bundesliga clubs spent £18.9 million; in Italy, Serie A clubs spent £4.6 million; and in Spain, La Liga clubs spent £0.9 million.
So, is this good? The general vibe is, again, no. The thing about deadline day is that it can promote panic, and panic can lead to irrationality. This is why the last day of the window is considered by many the worst day to conduct transfer dealings. Consider this, along with the Premier League’s high stakes, and it’s easy to see why spending so big at the last gasp could be viewed as decidedly bad practice.
There is an inescapable economic reality behind the spending. Premier League clubs make more money from television revenue than their foreign counterparts, as confirmed in Deloitte’s Annual Review of Football Finance 2017. This is the proverbial elephant at the negotiating table; clubs from Germany, Italy and beyond know that if a side from England’s top tier comes calling for one of their players, that player’s price can instantly be ramped up.
Ultimately, however, this economic reality is but one element behind the Premier League’s deadline day extravagance. Cultural and footballing factors also play a determining role.
In a country that is becoming increasingly tolerant, even encouraging, of the USA’s Black Friday tradition, it makes sense that deadline day, a day of equally chaotic, occasionally nonsensical spending, would be celebrated. But, while similar ideals exist elsewhere in Europe, their approach to deadline day is quite evidently dissimilar.
German football expert Lars Pollmann believes that, while smaller spending power is pertinent, there is another explanation as to why Bundesliga clubs spend less than their Premier League peers on the transfer window’s final day. “It’s certainly part of the culture,” he says. “Bundesliga clubs don’t believe in the big-money quick-fix as much as Premier League clubs do.” He underlines this alternate mentality by bringing up Bundesliga clubs’ consistent promotion of coaching talent from within, arguing it comes as part of a broader emphasis on “smart investment in people.”
Adam Digby, who writes about Italian football and is the author of ‘Juventus: A History in Black and White’, explained the contrasting methods on the peninsula. “Deadline day in Italy is very different to the dramatic event it has become in the UK,” he said. “Rather than counting down the seconds until the window slams shut, Serie A agents and directors all head to a hotel in Milan to conduct their business under one roof.” He adds that: “Italian clubs make far fewer changes to their squads in January. This particular window is viewed as a ‘repair market’ where teams correct errors, fill gaps or cover for injuries rather than making major signings.”
Intriguingly, while La Liga spent the least out of all four major European leagues discussed here, Spanish football writer and Tifo Football’s very own Euan McTear feels this is more to do with the financial disparity. “I would say the main difference is in the middle class,” he says. “Obviously Barcelona, Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid and Sevilla have money to spend, but the mid-table La Liga clubs are unable to spend like the mid-table Premier League clubs. Instead, they rely on loans and free agents.”
Still, it’s fair to say that the difference in deadline day expenditure between the Premier League and Europe’s other top leagues has as much to do with contrasting attitudes as it does economics. While clubs in other countries are not able to compete financially with those in the English top flight, there is a sense that they wouldn’t try to even if they could, that there is some sort of competitive advantage to be gained from not indulging in the late rush for talent.
It’s no coincidence that, while the Premier League is still getting used to the concept of the sporting director, in Germany, Italy and Spain the role is common and established. The idea is that, by having someone in charge of transfer strategy, the club can develop a long-term focus on a specific playing style or other objective, and will not be driven off course by the wants of one potentially ephemeral and/or unsuccessful managerial spell.
Such long-termism isn’t always on show in the English game, though there are notable outliers who appear to have learned from those abroad. Some, such as Manchester City, have done so simply by hiring from those abroad. Unsurprisingly they, brief dalliance with Riyad Mahrez aside, knew exactly what they wanted from the January transfer window and got their business done before deadline day.
Liverpool, like Manchester City, spend big, but they also know who to spend on. Having pursued Virgil van Dijk since last summer, they landed their man on January 1. He was their only signing of the window. Others, such as Burnley, Southampton and Leicester City, have gained respect for building competitive sides through fairly modest spending. One undisclosed fee for a youth teamer from the latter aside, they all kept quiet on deadline day.
Each of these clubs also has a clearly defined style of play, which perhaps further indicates the holistic benefits of a long-term approach. As exciting as Arsenal’s £56 million capture of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is, it leads to tactical questions that will take time to answer. Will the Gabonese play up front with Alexandre Lacazette? If so, how does Arsene Wenger ensure balance in the side? And, if not, what will become of the French striker, who just seven months ago became the club’s all-time record signing?
Late spending such as this creates more uncertainty than it alleviates. And so, while the Premier League’s financial might is undoubtedly an advantage, deadline day is perhaps the worst possible day to wield it.