A notionally odd decision has occurred at the top of the Premier League. In a close race, you may have noticed that none of the teams in any kind of contention for the title have chosen to make any really big signings in the January transfer window.
The surprise here stems from the fact that, as a broad rule, the Premier League normally tends to see signing new players as the panacea for all problems and the entry to all opportunities. When searching for “progress” in any direction, clubs will almost always look at two options: a new manager, or new players, with the shared emphasis being on that which is “new,” and the shared assumption being that the “new” equates to “being good” more often than not.
It’s a Premier League tradition. It’s a Premier League convention. It’s a Premier League mindset with countless precedents. And yet this winter, despite the league being so close near the top—and hopes of “progress” so much stronger and more tangible for it—there are no new managers at the top five clubs and, even more strangely, there are very few significant signings.
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A quick run through confirms the details.
In third, Arsenal has signed Mohamed Elneny as a backup central midfielder; in second, Manchester City has signed no one; in fourth, Tottenham has signed Moussa Dembele but immediately sent him back on loan to the club it bought him from; and in fifth, Manchester United has signed no one. The only club with so-called title aspirations to sign anyone of note this January is the unlikely club in first place, Leicester City, having grabbed hold of Demarai Gray and Daniel Amartey, from Birmingham City and FC Copenhagen respectively.
Two kinds of explanations exist for this rough trend. Either it’s a broad, structural shift, or it’s a case of slightly coincidental timing, whereby a few teams happen to have individual reasons for not buying, all at the same time. I think, as if so often the case, it’s a little bit of column A and a little bit of column B. But I lean towards the slightly less interesting column B.
On the structural side, the closeness of the title battle might, conversely, have made the clubs involved less inclined to spend in January. Each of the clubs at the top has seen that they're doing well enough to be close to winning the title so, in some ways, they’ve all simultaneously been provided with more evidence than usual that they’re good enough to edge the title with what they have already and, conversely, that their opponents might not be good enough to do the same.
More broadly, a lack of January signings also points to the corporatization of high-end football, whereby as the amount of money increases, the aversion to risk does too, alongside it every step of the way. We see this risk-minimization trend across the game, so it makes sense that it affects January spending at the top now, too.
Specifically, these clubs could be less likely to spend in January because their seasons are now planned out in detail in advance, like a business, whereas spending midway through a season has always, in the past, been more closely associated with more amateurish attitudes and phrases such as “on a whim” and “taking a punt.”
Maybe, these days, the top clubs have begun to realize that, actually, not many great, title-winning recruitment decisions have ever taken place in January, where the market for players is highly hit and miss, and calm continuity actually more often wins titles? Even legendary January success stories such as Manchester United’s 2007 loan of Henrik Larsson seem to crumble once the details are inspected closely—perhaps the clubs really have caught on?
It’s a decent theory, almost certainly with some element of truth in it, but exactly how much truth is still probably up for grabs—still not exactly proven—because the individual reasons for individual clubs not buying big clouds the issue quite a bit.
Unfortunately for this budding football theorist, each of Manchester City, Arsenal, Tottenham and Manchester United might well be a more corporate entity than ever before—and that would explain why Leicester, the one club that could not possibly have planned for the season it’s currently having is the exceptional club in terms of buying players. But they each also have their own individual stories to explain their lack of spending, too.
Arsenal has a squad full of players and a manager who talks constantly about solidarity: buying now would probably mean sacrificing a young star such as Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and that’s just not Arsene Wenger’s style. City is likely to have a new manager in the summer, and perhaps wishes not to burden him with too many of the old manager’s signings. Tottenham is saving money for a new stadium. And Manchester United seems to be caught in some kind of directionless malaise, where inactivity isn’t really a preference but a default setting because it doesn’t know what else to do.
These are more leading questions than definite explanations, and rightly so, because trends only emerge clearly over the course of more than one season; requiring, for instance, lots of data as proof that they aren’t mere one-offs or points of comparison to prove that they are, in fact, trends.
What’s more clear is the effect that this generalised lack of January spending will have on the Premier League title race. The top clubs have given us no reason to believe that any of them will either dramatically break away or drop off from the rest. No one has initiated some great shift with some great signing.
So the news from January is, if anything: expect more of the same to come. And with what we’ve been able to watch so far, that’s certainly no bad thing.
Ethan Dean-Richards is a London-based writer. Follow him on Twitter