It is not quite right to say that this has been a quiet January for soccer’s billion-dollar transfer business. The month’s ordinary soundtrack — whispers gathering, phones pinging, the machine that produces vivid chyrons for breathless television broadcasts whirring to life — might have been muted, but that does not mean there has been nothing to hear. Listen carefully, and you might make out the sound of a bubble bursting.
The January transfer market is supposed to be many things, particularly in the Premier League, a place where the money flows in such great torrents that it eventually papers over almost any mistake. We expect — we want — the market to be a monument to immediate gratification. We cherish that it is panicked. We do not care if it is a source of long and lasting regret.
And there are many things it is not supposed to be. Judicious, for example. Restrained. Modest. This year, January was a month in which the most noteworthy and expensive deal involved Tottenham Hotspur’s paying a perfectly reasonable price for a central defender who slotted straight into Manager Ange Postecoglou’s team.
It should be no surprise, then, that this particular edition of soccer’s equivalent of Black Friday has felt, at times, like something of a bust. A year ago, Chelsea was busy spending $132 million on Enzo Fernández. This time around, the clubs of the Premier League parted with about $100 million between them over the course of January.
There are several reasons for that. One is that received wisdom has long had it that January does not lend itself to value: Most managers and executives now hew to the inverted Groucho Marx logic that anyone clubs are actively selling in January is not worth buying. It is possible to land a carefully-chosen target, of course, but it costs.
Given that most Premier League teams now have some semblance of long-term planning in place — and, indeed, a majority are still operating with the managers they had in the summer, another sign that the competition is getting smarter — only an exceptional opportunity, or an outright emergency, can tempt them to pay that premium.
A second reason is the way the Premier League’s financial might has distorted the market. Most of its teams, understandably, do not want to pay lots of players not to play soccer. They prefer to alter their squads, not bloat them. The problem is that few teams outside England can afford even to shop the pre-loved racks, and that is essentially creating a bottleneck.
The third, and the one that has been credited with having the most profound effect this month, is the sudden and very real specter of punishment for excess. Everton has already been docked 10 points for failing to comply with the Premier League’s financial regulations. A second charge now hangs over it as well, awaiting adjudication. At least on that one, Everton is not alone. Nottingham Forest faces punishment, too.
There is little question that this has had some effect on the rest of the Premier League: The clubs are, it seems, acclimatizing themselves to an environment where there are actual consequences for their actions.
Going into the final day of the window, more than half the league had not spent a cent on permanent transfers. The Newcastle coach, Eddie Howe, and his current counterpart at Manchester United, Erik ten Hag, have been quick to blame the need to keep in line with the catchily titled Profit and Sustainability Rules for their teams’ inertia this month.
Quite how that should be regarded has been a matter of heated debate. Everyone agrees that soccer should be sustainable. Clubs should not rack up colossal debts in pursuit of short-term satisfaction. Teams should allow the managers they employ the time and space to implement their ideas, to coach their players, to coax through talent from expensively-staffed academies.
One line of thought that runs contrary to this essentially boils down to equality and equity not being quite the same thing. The rules might inhibit Manchester United in some small way, but their impact is much more pronounced on Newcastle. It is valid — although that is not the same as correct — to suggest that the effect of that reality seems much fairer from one perspective than another.
Much of the opposition, though, is rooted in something far more simple. Frugality just isn’t very much fun. The Premier League and its fellow travelers in what might be described as the transfer industrial complex have spent decades hooking fans on a constant diet of teams’ hurling money around with reckless abandon. Pretending that Morgan Rogers leaving Middlesbrough for Aston Villa is worth a siren emoji just does not cut it.
As frustrating as it must be, though, it is hard to feel too much sympathy. Alien as it sounds, there was a time when transfers were not quite as central to the day-to-day existence of soccer as they are now.
England only adopted the current transfer window system in 2002. Before that, teams could register players at any time up until the end of March. (That idea, which had far more actual sporting merit, had been introduced in order to prevent teams from strip-mining players from direct rivals.)
The theory was that doing so would engender stability: Managers would know which players they could count on for huge tracts of the season. As tends to be the case, though, it may well have had the reverse effect, creating an artificial deadline that turned both the summer and winter windows into increasingly mindless frenzies.
But more pertinent, perhaps, is that what is happening in England is not unique. Nor is it, in any real sense, new, not to anyone who happens to like soccer and be from any other country.
Of the many deals that did not happen over the course of January, the most instructive involved Lazio’s trying and failing to sign Morgan Whittaker, a promising wing at the second-tier English club Plymouth Argyle. Just to be clear: That is Lazio — the former employer of Hernán Crespo and Juan Sebastián Verón and Christian Vieri — not having sufficient clout to take a player from the largest city in England never to have hosted top-flight soccer.
This is, though, where much of Europe has been for some time: scrabbling around for scraps from the Premier League’s table. More than anything, this January is best presented as something between a restorative and a correction, drawing England back into line with everyone else.
In many ways, it is in everyone’s interests for this new reality to hold. The Premier League’s teams — the game’s apex predators — benefit from the market’s cooling off, just a little: It means there is more value to be had for buyers, and a broader customer base for vendors. Reducing costs across the board does not reduce competitiveness, but it does help make clubs more sustainable.
Whether that is how it will work, though, is a different matter. January has been quiet before. Three years ago, as the game was still reckoning with the financial shortfall caused by the coronavirus pandemic, England’s clubs turned off the taps, spending barely a third of what they had the previous year. Within a year, they were back to breaking records. History would suggest that that sound is not a bubble bursting. It is energy being stored, compacted and compounded, waiting for its release.
Scandal: Italian Soccer Actually Innovates
At the start of the season, it was improbable enough that Juventus — still emerging from several years of corruption allegations, points deductions and boardroom chaos — would challenge for the Serie A title.
The idea that it would do so with a team full of bright young things seemed almost impossible. Italian soccer is a conservative place, where players are still considered ingénues until they are well into their thirties, and even by those standards Juventus — and in particular its coach, the arch-pragmatist Max Allegri — is not exactly inclined to lean on youth.
And yet here we are: Juventus is just a point behind its opponent this weekend, Inter Milan, thanks in no small part to the efforts of Fabio Miretti, Samuel Iling-Junior and Kenan Yildiz, none of whom would yet be old enough to drink in the United States.
As is so often the case, their emergence can be traced in some way to necessity — in all likelihood, had Juventus’s last few seasons not been so rocky, they would not have been given a chance — but there is innovation at play here, too.
In 2018, Juventus took advantage of a change in Italian soccer’s rules and started to field a youth team, now rebranded as Juventus Next Gen, in the country’s regionalized third tier. The idea was to expose some of its most promising young players to the sort of soccer that matters, away from the sterilized atmosphere of youth games.
Miretti, Yildiz and Iling-Junior all cut their teeth there, as did Matías Soulé (loaned out for this season) and Nicolò Fagioli, whose rise has been curtailed by his involvement in one of Italy’s occasional, but reliable, betting scandals. There is a message in that for all of Juventus’s peers and rivals: Doing things differently does, just occasionally, get results.
In many ways, it’s admirable that Manchester United has responded to Marcus Rashford’s, let’s say, busy social calendar by at least considering the idea that the striker might need support rather than reflexively reaching for punishment. By soccer’s standards, this counts as almost dangerously progressive.
It is just a shame that it is undermined, just a little, by the relatively hard-line stance taken by the club — or at least its coach, Erik ten Hag — to Jadon Sancho and his various breaches of protocol. Perhaps they were materially worse than Rashford’s. Perhaps the context in which they occurred was manifestly different. Still, it does at least create the impression that discipline is something that happens to the expendable much more than the indispensable.