Time for Premier League to rethink wisdom of transfer window system
Few other industries could survive making big-money decisions against the clock
Huge sum spent in this window may be an anomaly, but timing of spending is not
Using time-crunch as bargaining tool harms ideals system was meant to nurture
When UEFA's Professional Football Committee agreed in 2001 to introduce transfer windows to its leagues, it did so in the belief that the windows would bring the leagues in line with European labor laws, reduce the influence of agents and bring stability to the transfer markets.
After the busiest January since the first window in 2003, the contrast between that belief and reality couldn't look greater. From helicopters to private jets to excitable 24-hour rolling coverage from a team of reporters stationed outside training grounds across England, deadline day has swelled to epic proportions. The BBC's online team provided live updates and had its second-biggest traffic day ever. It seemed as though Twitter was only a few tweets from combustion.
Of course, half of those tweets were probably from people insisting they'd spotted Lionel Messi getting off a train in Stoke, or claiming their pal has a neighbor whose uncle does the catering at the Emirates and swears he's just had to rustle up a sandwich for Christopher Samba. It's lighthearted fun that news channels and social media have cranked up to an 11, and we're captivated by the escalating theater of the occasion.
But when you strip back the spectacle, there's something rather unedifying about multimillion-dollar institutions trying to complete big-money transactions -- of considerable consequence -- against the clock. Few other industries could survive such lunatic recruitment policies. In the closing hours, it's like watching looters prowl a fallen city: The difference between what clubs really need and what they can get their hands on can blur into nonexistence.
The scale of this year's winter spending may prove to be an exception. Though it's part of a general pattern of growth, the £225 million ($362 million) spent by Premier League clubs in this window is a staggering £195 million ($314M) more than changed hands last January, and still £50 million ($80M) above the record expenditure seen in January 2008. And just four clubs did the majority of the shopping: Aston Villa, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City.
The timing of Premier League spending looks to have taken up a more established pattern, however. About £120 million ($193M) was spent on the last day -- and £100 million ($161M) in the last few hours of the day with the moves of Fernando Torres, Andy Carroll and David Luiz. Premier League clubs completed 34 moves on Monday, 10 times the average of 3.3 per day the rest of the month. Five years ago, 12 deals went through on Jan. 31, compared to an average of 1.4 per day.
Some deals were surely on the table for longer and merely accelerated toward their conclusion under the weight of the deadline, but half of the league was linked with last-minute expressions of interest this week. The window system was supposed to level the playing field, but the apparent trend for late deals (aside from the obvious administrative pitfalls) has had precisely the opposite effect, as the window's biggest transfer chain demonstrates.
Chelsea could afford to make a reasonably late show of interest in Torres, trading on the assumption that he was disillusioned enough to force Liverpool's hand. When a £40 million ($64M) bid failed in that respect, a cash-up-front deadline day offer of £50 million ($80M) was possible thanks to funding from Roman Abramovich, and the Blues got their man. (Whether you think the deal is a "good" one hardly matters; Chelsea secured its target without incurring debt or selling a player.)
Though it had probably assessed potential alternatives in the first half of the campaign, Liverpool was faced with replacing Torres in the space of an afternoon. Given Kenny Dalglish's task this season, offers needed to target reliable goal-scorers and clubs likely to be swayed by a big money offer even at this late hour. Carroll hadn't been linked with Liverpool before Jan. 31, but he or his board (we still don't really know which) obliged. Liverpool paid over the odds, but now has two new front men -- younger than Torres and, thanks to the commotion, desperate to please -- for a net expenditure of around £8 million ($13M).
Now Newcastle, the least wealthy of the three clubs and arguably the most vulnerable to relegation with a weakened squad, had a £35 million ($56M) kitty but virtually no time in which to replace its top scorer. Despite making hurried offers for Johan Elmander, Carlton Cole, Nicklas Bendtner, Peter Crouch and later Charles N'Zogbia, the club ended the transfer window down to four strikers with nine goals between them. Shola Ameobi, who contributed four, broke his cheekbone this week and could now be out of action for up to six weeks. Of course Newcastle didn't have to take the money, but there are clubs bigger and smaller that would have done the same thing in the face of such an inflated offer. That's precisely what Liverpool banked on.
Besides reinforcing the fiscal pecking order, the transfer window has a habit of encouraging managers to spend in the same way that a diet-starts-Monday philosophy entices us to gorge ourselves over the weekend. While Arsene Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson are famed for their usually tiny appetites, Harry Redknapp cannot help but tuck in. His penchant for a spot of deadline day drama may have seen him come unstuck this time, however.
It's been clear since the summer that Tottenham needs a quality striker, but having failed with a late £25 million ($40M) bid for Carroll, it waited until the last minute to make bids of an appropriate scale for Fernando Llorente (Athletic Bilbao), Sergio Aguero (Atletico Madrid) and Giuseppi Rossi (Villareal). When those failed, it revived its interest in Atletico's Diego Forlan without success. To compound things, Robbie Keane had already been released on loan to West Ham, leaving Redknapp without a forward he paid £16 million ($26M) for only two years ago and down to three strikers with a handful of league goals between them.
It's hard to avoid the conclusion that Spurs would have been better served pursuing long-term targets such as Forlan and Luis Fabiano with serious intent from the outset, but the disruptive potential of the transfer window (who would have put Carroll in a Liverpool uniform before this week?) can be seductive. The last-gasp offers Redknapp subsequently made for Everton's Phil Neville, Blackpool's Charlie Adam and West Ham's Scott Parker are bemusing if one looks for logic beyond the suspicion that the manager felt the promised, unused funds burning a hole in his pocket. A top-four finish will now have to come in spite of, rather than thanks to, midseason investment policy.
Ultimately, it's up to the clubs to decide how to play the window, and deadline day is a valid trading day like any other. Its madness captivates an audience that is often otherwise turned off by the vast sums of money traded in the game, and apparently managers and chairmen get a kick out of it too. But the inclination toward using time (or the lack of it) as a bargaining tool harms exactly the ideals the window was supposed to nurture. If clubs cannot help but turn January into a high-stakes blinking contest, the wisdom of the window needs a rethink.