To say the January transfer window has been as limp as Martin Tyler’s you-know-what on a winter’s eve would be a bit of an understatement. Far from Jim White chatting away until steam blows out of his ears and nothing-to-do chavs shoving love-making-props in the faces of helpless reporters clutching umbrellas outside of poorly-lit training grounds, the biggest deal in the Premier League thus far has been Morgan Schneiderlin’s £20million move to Everton. A decent player switching clubs for a decent fee, but hardly worth sticking Jim White’s yellow tie in the washing machine for.
Of course, the January transfer window has always lacked the glamour, revenue and excitement of its considerably larger summer counterpart, but the current one appears to be a particularly special case. Whilst there has been no consistent pattern to the Premier League’s winter expenditure over the last six years, January 2017 stands alone as the only window in which the division is on course to come out with a positive collective net spend, currently at £5m.
Plenty can change between now and Tuesday week, when the window slams shut at 11pm. Yet, amid a campaign in which the top six has broken away from the rest of the pack to reach its own unprecedented level of competitiveness, the lack of activity – the refrain from taking an educated risk mid-season – is truly baffling. One can only assume the five below have already conceded defeat to Chelsea in the title race (Pep Guardiola already has) and are now preparing for the summer window that will lead them into 2017/18.
Some might argue that’s a sensible strategy, considering the Blues are already seven points ahead of their closest rivals, second-placed Tottenham, and twelve beyond Manchester United in sixth. Admittedly, Antonio Conte’s boys show little signs of relenting, even convincingly dispatching of Leicester City on the road last weekend in the absence of their (and the Premier League’s) top scorer Diego Costa.
Yet, there are still 17 games left to go, so to catch the Blues by the end of matchday 38, Spurs would have to average just 0.4 points per match more than their London rivals until the end of May; hardly inconceivable considering Chelsea still have to play Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester City and Manchester United and have struggled in the London derbies this season – still waiting to win one by more than a single goal.
And the title race thus far has been decided by a tactical innovation on Antonio Conte’s part. Whilst prior title races have come down to the quality of player, the size of bank balance or the men in the dugout, the current one is quite simply a story of Chelsea switching to 3-4-3 and the rest of the Premier League struggling to come up with an answer.
Credit to Chelsea and of course Conte, but that proves how little has truly separated the teams at the top this term. Perhaps more significantly, it suggests the most marginal of gains from Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester City, United or Spurs could quickly alter the balance of power and current flow of momentum at the Premier League’s summit.
Mid-season, the most likely source is a new signing, a star-studded arrival of real quality or simply someone who gives their new club a different option for the remainder of the campaign; a towering striker who can grab goals from the bench, an extra centre-back who’d slot into a back three, an old-fashioned winger who can provide extra width in attack, or a creative central midfielder to help unlock tight defences. One extra addition and the consequential tactical alterations could make all the difference in a title race that’s still wide open, even if Chelsea are a length ahead.
At the same time, not a single club in the top six, including Chelsea, can say their squad doesn’t need minor surgery. Arsenal need an alternative on the right wing; Manchester City need a whole new defence; Chelsea need a natural right-wing-back; Spurs need another striker; Manchester United need more Mourinho players; and Liverpool need added depth in most departments. Alas, even the most convincing of shouts tipping one of the top six to swoop for someone this month have turned out to be Chinese whispers. Yes, there is a subtext to that last remark.
Once again, most would argue waiting until the summer is a far more sensible strategy in this day and age. So many clubs have been caught by January transfer booby-traps (Fernando Torres and Andy Carroll in the same window, for example) that many are now arguing for the abolition of the winter window. The summer allows far longer to broker deals, without the added premium clubs demand for selling mid-season. Generally, January facilitates for panic buys and transfer fees getting out of hand.
But unless a club brings in a new signing to even slightly change the state of play, it’s hard to imagine any catching up with Chelsea. That may contradict prior remarks about how open the title race still is, but just as Conte’s switch to 3-4-3 inspired Chelsea’s rise, the rest of the top six’s likeliest chance of bringing something new to the table for the remainder of the campaign is inevitably via the transfer market.
It’s good to see long-termism coming back to the Premier League, but paradoxically, conceding in the short-term could cost clubs dearly in this instance. Only one club can win the title and only four can qualify for the Champions League, meaning at least two will have failed to meet their season aims come the end of May.
The after-effects could be monumental. We all accept it’s impossible for every club to fulfil their expectations in the Premier League these days, but final standings will affect who clubs can target in the summer and perhaps most crucially of all, which managers start next season under pressure.