Those who love transfers and the excitement of Deadline Day “will they, won’t they” wheeling and dealing were distinctly underwhelmed last week, particularly if they were Premier League fans. Take a look at the game’s biggest clubs (as defined by revenue) and you’ll note that the top 10 added, at best, two instant-impact projected starters, and that’s assuming Sacha Boey at Bayern Munich and Timo Werner at Tottenham Hotspur don’t turn out to be squad players, which is entirely possible.
Indeed, according to Deloitte, the Premier League saw spending crater, going from £815 million ($1.028 billion) a year ago to £100m this window. That’s a pretty vertical nosedive for the world’s richest league. In fact, it’s the lowest spend — excluding COVID-impacted seasons — in more than a decade.
There are a number of reasons why this happened.
1. The January window is usually slow
In general, clubs don’t like to move out players who are contributing in January — and players who are contributing, unsurprisingly, tend to be more expensive because, well, they’re contributing. There’s half a season to go and if you move somebody out, you need to find a competent replacement or risk slipping down the table. But, of course, a competent replacement is probably contributing elsewhere and that club will be reluctant to move him out.
– Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga & more (U.S.)
So to get your January target, you often have to overpay relative to what would be required in the summer, and it often only happens if your counterpart can find a replacement. The sort of players you’d want to shift are more likely to move on loan — where there will be a loan fee, at most, but no transfer fee — and even that can be tricky, because if they’re at a bigger club, their salaries might make them prohibitive for smaller clubs.
2. January 2023 was a Chelsea-fueled outlier
The London club’s massive January spree (£265m/$335m) distorted the numbers considerably, pushing things up to £815m (more than $1 billion), but that was far from typical. Take out the COVID years (when it was considerably lower) and according to TransferMarkt, it was around £220m in 2020 and £205m in 2019. So yes, spending is down, but nowhere near as monstrously down as the headline figures suggest.
3. The domino effect is a thing
Go back to point one and consider how, when a club spends on a player, the old club needs to find a replacement … and that replacement’s previous club has to find a replacement. And so on. One major transfer can, and does, generate a chain reaction and money recirculates. But if there’s nothing to set it off, it won’t happen.
For example, if, say, Arsenal had decided they needed a center-forward and opted to spend £100m on, say, Newcastle United’s Alexander Isak, Newcastle might have splashed £60m on AFC Bournemouth’s Dominic Solanke as a replacement. And Bournemouth might have felt they needed to fill Solanke’s big shoes by acquiring Jean-Philippe Mateta from Crystal Palace for £30m. And Palace might have then snapped up Elijah Adebayo from Luton Town for £20m. And Luton could then have taken Oli McBurnie from Sheffield United for £5m.
And then, suddenly, £215m has been spent on a big game of musical chairs, all prompted by one deal.
4. Profit and sustainability rules — and their enforcement — have had an impact
The regulations, which were brought in a few years ago along the lines of UEFA’s Financial Fair Play (and then tweaked last year), aim to curb the amount of losses a club can sustain over a rolling three-year period. It wasn’t entirely clear how aggressively they’d be enforced, but clubs got their answer this season when Everton were docked 10 points for past breaches. As if that wasn’t enough, the Premier League introduced “real-time” monitoring and an expedited process so that violations this year will be punished by the end of the campaign.
As you might have seen, Nottingham Forest and Everton (again) were charged under those rules. Their impact has perhaps been overstated a little, but they undoubtedly affected the January transfers of Everton and Forest and probably others who might have been at risk like Chelsea and Newcastle.
For clubs on the PSR (profit and sustainability rules) bubble, it’s not worth taking the risk, particularly when it doesn’t look like you’ll hit your revenue targets for the season. (For example, you imagine Chelsea thought they’d be further up the league table and Newcastle expected to still be in Europe — and with the revenue to match — rather than where they are now.)
5. Many of the big clubs — for differing reasons — opted to sit this one out
We covered Chelsea and Newcastle, but clubs facing transition are also unlikely to act. Come the summer, Manchester United will have a new minority shareholder (Sir Jim Ratcliffe), a new chief executive (Omar Berrada), a new sporting director type (Sir Dave Brailsford) and possibly a new manager. Liverpool will also have a new manager and a new director of football. Common sense — and common business practice — tell you the time to spend money isn’t when new management have yet to take over.
Arsenal (around £200m on Kai Havertz, Declan Rice and Jurriën Timber) and Manchester City (marginally more than that on Jérémy Doku, Josko Gvardiol, Matheus Nunes and Mateo Kovacic) splashed the cash in the summer and, perhaps because they’re doing well in the table (both just two points off the top), they probably saw no need to invest further in winter.
Simply put, these are the sort of clubs that inject serious liquidity into the market — cash that then trickles down.
6. There was little urgency in the bottom half of the table
They call it “panic buying,” and it’s what happens when teams are desperate to get out of the relegation zone — or, just as often, not get sucked into it. That’s when clubs are willing to pay for midseason reinforcements, figuring it will cost them less than getting relegated.
Except, rightly or wrongly, there’s a sense that two of the three relegation spots are already decided and that Sheffield United and Burnley are going down. Let’s be honest: plenty had Luton Town joining them, although after they took 11 points from their past six games, that might prove to be a spectacularly bad verdict. But with those three clubs joined by Everton and Nottingham Forest — two clubs in dire financial conditions as mentioned above — many of those between 10th and 15th place felt relatively safe.
7. This is a blip because the winter window is odd, not an industrywide trend
The January window doesn’t follow traditional transfer market logic, it offers a small sample size that makes it more susceptible to freak events, and it generally doesn’t mean much at all when it comes to trend spotting.
Want evidence? Consider that the biggest-spending league was France’s Ligue 1, which customarily brings up the rear. (And, no, it’s not all Paris Saint-Germain either: in fact, they were outspent by Lyon as four clubs passed the €20m mark, compared to just one in the Premier League.) The second biggest-spending league wasn’t even in Europe, nor was it the Saudi Pro League: it was Brazil’s Serie A, thanks to deals like the one that took Luiz Henrique from Real Betis to Botafogo, making him the second-most-expensive incoming transfer in the league’s history.
The Premier League was third, just ahead of Serie A in Italy and LaLiga, with MLS clocking in at a more-than-respectable seventh.
And the Saudi Pro League, you ask? The summer’s wild spenders who were going to buy the entire sport, redefine football and build a juggernaut on the gulf? Well, for whatever reason, they mostly stayed put, coming in at 15th place, behind the Russian Premier League (despite the sanctions), the Ukrainian Premier League (despite the war) and the Belgian top flight (despite, well, the fact that there’s no oil in Belgium).
The bottom line here? Don’t worry about the lack of transfer activity in the January 2024 Premier League window. There are reasons for it, but it’s nothing concerning. And expect them to bounce back, money in hand, next January.