The January transfer window
For the first time since 2006, each of Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham made at least one first-team signing in a January transfer window. Not even the runaway leaders are risking losing their footing in the race to reach the Champions League.
Manchester United and Jose Mourinho
When a child acts up in public, a parent should never give in to their demands. It sets a dangerous precedent, and teaches the child that they can get exactly what they want if they push the right buttons.
That said, Manchester United were absolutely justified in seeing Jose Mourinho throw his toys out of the pram and promptly swapping them for better ones. They are in a stronger position than when the transfer window opened.
Put to him in late December that he has spent almost £300m since being installed at Old Trafford in summer 2016, Mourinho’s response was simple. “OK, but it is not enough.” His side rounded off 2017 with three consecutive draws against Leicester, Burnley and Southampton, yet the finger of blame was being pointed elsewhere. The onus was now on United to spend.
Even when Mourinho later qualified his comments, stating that it “wouldn’t be very fair of me to say the club didn’t support” him in the transfer market, the seed had been planted and the message received. Yet there was still no expectation of business being done in the winter. Manchester City were so far ahead that there was no pressure to close that gap with new signings.
Trading a player the manager clearly never quite connected with for one of the best in the division therefore deserves great praise. The ‘real fee’ involved in signing Alexis Sanchez will continue to be peddled out, but the fact that Henrikh Mkhitaryan was also earning a solid wage is often forgotten. How bizarre.
There have already been signs that integrating Sanchez into the team will not be straightforward, yet the Chilean is a more suitable fit than the player he has replaced.
The midfield remains a problem, but Mourinho has been provided the toys he wanted elsewhere. The burden of responsibility is on him to play nicely.
Daniel Sturridge and West Brom
One gets the chance to improve his World Cup chances, the other give themselves a shot at Premier League survival. ‘You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’ was almost certainly Alan Pardew’s opening gambit.
“When we signed Son, it was at the end of the transfer window,” Mauricio Pochettino said earlier this month. “We tried from the beginning. First of all he said no. Then at the end, because he struggled to play, and was upset with the manager, they opened the door and we signed him.”
It is not that Tottenham are shopping in a different market to Manchester United or Manchester City, more that they have different priorities. They seek “opportunities” while the others can pick and choose puchases at will.
The parallels between Heung-min Son and Lucas Moura are obvious. Son was 23 when he joined for £22m; Moura is 25 and joins for £25m. Son’s chances in the Bayer Leverkusen first team were limited by the arrivals of Admir Mehmedi and Javier Hernandez; Moura’s were ended by Neymar and Kylian Mbappe. Son ended his final campaign in Germany as Leverkusen’s second-top goalscorer; Moura did the exact same in France.
If the latter comes anywhere close to matching the output of the former, Tottenham have found themselves a bargain.
A winter spent rectifying mistakes made in the summer. Theo Walcott has already shown signs of a new lease of life outside of north London, while Cenk Tosun fits the bill of central striker. Yet as with the last transfer window, one problem position has not been addressed. Cuco Martina is still starting games at left-back, and replacing him with Eliaquim Mangala is the bravest of moves.
As the ‘derisory’ late bid for Jonny Evans, panicked late interest in David Luiz and hilariously late realisation that they have conceded as many Premier League goals this season (34) as West Brom and Brighton suggested, Arsenal need a defender. And as Petr Cech’s continued downward spiral suggests, they also need a goalkeeper.
But this has still been a positive window. Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang are excellent players, while Mesut Ozil’s impending new contract is a boost. Gaps remain in the squad, but this was as good a window as Arsenal could expect with Arsene Wenger still in charge.
Not that it will stop Antonio Conte from complaining, but Chelsea have at least reinforced their squad. They needed competition for Marcos Alonso at left wing-back, and in comes Emerson Palmieri. They developed a weird and wonderful obsession with tall strikers, and in comes Olivier Giroud. They had a perceived dearth of options in midfield, and in comes Ross Barkley.
Combined with the £58m generated through the sale of Diego Costa, it has been a positive month. None of the incomings improve the starting XI, and the reigning champions could have done more to correct the numerous mistakes made in the summer. With uncertainty still surrounding their manager however, this was as good as they could have hoped for.
Bournemouth were the only club not to make a single signing. Eddie Howe is a man who knows his strengths, and transfers is not one of them. The 40-year-old realises good coaching can be just as effective as an expensive signing, if not more so. He’s a double winner this week.
Only six clubs have a better defensive record; only Swansea have scored as few goals. Brighton had the choice of adding proven experience or exuberant youth when it came to another forward. In Jurgen Locadia and Leonardo Ulloa, they chose both.
In a similar vein, Carlos Carvalhal has overseen defensive improvement. Andre Ayew should help coax improvement at the other end.
Turns down a move to Everton in the summer so he can stay in London. A few months later, he leaves his role as Arsenal’s third-choice striker to stand second in line (at the very worst) for the Premier League champions. Although he has now lost 3-1 and 3-0 in the past two days.
The prospect of Sean Scannell being recalled to replace Joe Lolley is hardly mouth-watering, but swapping Martin Cranie for Terence Kongolo is the most impressive feat in West Yorkshire since the trains ran on time despite some light rainfall. And hey, at least Alex Pritchard will be useful in the Championship.
Virgil van Dijk
There is a danger that Jurgen Klopp assumes one individual can fix the systematic problems in Liverpool’s defence, but at least Virgil van Dijk finally got his wish.
The second most expensive footballer in history. Somehow.
Still first-choice goalkeeper for a Premier League club. Somehow.
A month to prove that while Arsene Wenger still rules Arsenal with an iron fist, a couple of fingers have been prised away from the chalice. From 2010 to 2017, the Gunners signed three first-team players in the January transfer window, with Nacho Monreal, Mohamed Elneny and Gabriel Paulista the exception to Wenger’s rule of avoiding a winter of potential discontent. In 31 days in 2018, the Arsenal squad has been dramatically overhauled.
Olivier Giroud, Theo Walcott, Francis Coquelin and Mathieu Debuchy have all departed, while Wenger may still need assistance swallowing his pride over the Alexis Sanchez situation. The Frenchman rarely entertains the thought of losing one member of his squad – his family – in any transfer window, never mind five in one month.
The incomings point further to the increased influence of Sven Mislintat and Raul Sanllehi, and a less dictatorial approach to transfers. Arsenal have brought in Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, wonderful players in their own right, but a departure from the norm. Of Wenger’s six signings over £30m, Granit Xhaka was 23, Mesut Ozil and Shkodran Mustafi were 24, Alexis Sanchez was 25 and Alexandre Lacazette was 26. At 28 going on 29 in the summer, Aubameyang is the odd one out.
The Gabon international is the fourth player aged 28 or over that Wenger has signed for more than £10m. The previous three, Mathieu Debuchy, Petr Cech and Mikel Arteta, were all defensive players, and cost a cumulative £32m. Aubameyang is the first offensive player Wenger has signed at this age since Davor Suker in 1999.
Considering Wenger has led calls for the January transfer window to be scrapped ever since its introduction, even as recently as September, it is quite the change of heart. Either that, or these are the first signs of the club removing at least a semblance of his power. The eventual divorce will still be messy.
No club may have technically added more players to their first-team squad, but that’s a very optimistic way of selling the arrival of a back-up goalkeeper, temperamental left-back and a striker who was fourth-choice at another club.
More instructive is that no club spent less money. All 12 of Newcastle’s January incomings and outgoings were loan deals, such is Mike Ashley’s refusal to look beyond the end of his nose. In not doing so, he is cutting it off to spite both face and fanbase.
Newcastle entered the transfer window with a Championship squad fighting against Premier League relegation, and leave it in very much a similar state. Kenedy is a young, hungry but unproven addition, while Islam Slimani is likely available for ten of their remaining games. So averse to breaking his own club’s 13-year-old transfer record, Ashley has forced his manager to borrow Leicester’s most expensive player ever. It is a bizarre predicament.
The club’s hierarchy covered their backs. A move for Daniel Sturridge was in place, but West Brom pipped them to it (offered more in bonuses). Nicolai Jorgensen was lined up, but Feyenoord were at fault (they wanted £20m and Newcastle offered £15m). A move for Kevin Gameiro was mooted, but it was doomed from the very start. Each approach feels like a masquerade, an attempt to prove to a disillusioned support that they tried their hardest, but couldn’t quite get deals over the line.
It is quite the gamble, and a remarkably unnecessary one at that. Three teams in the bottom half – Brighton, Southampton and Swansea – reacted to the danger of relegation by breaking their transfer record. Five of the other seven spent some form of fee on signing a player. Of the other two, Newcastle lost out to West Brom for Sturridge, and were left scrambling to complete deals before the deadline. It is not a good look.
Benitez will play the game in public, but the Spaniard will feel betrayed. Broken promises have followed broken promises throughout his tenure at St James’ Park, and this is simply the latest example. If he keeps Newcastle up, it will be in spite of this month, not because of it.
“Attempts to reach a deal have proved to be exhausting, frustrating and a complete waste of time,” was the sentence a ‘source close to’ Ashley chose when describing takeover negotiations with Amanda Staveley and PCP earlier this month. Alanis Morisette would have an absolute field day.
But then perhaps this should come as no surprise, considering one of the staple items manufactured by Ashley’s other wonderfully run company. Sports Direct produce so many of those massive mugs that he has simply taken to treating each Newcastle supporter as such.
“I have talked in the past about the short blanket – if you cover your head, your feet are cold; if you cover your feet, your head is cold,” was the analogy Newcastle boss Benitez used to describe his former flame in September. The Spaniard was discussing a “balance” that Liverpool still struggle to find with consistency between their defence and attack.
This January has subverted the Liverpool stereotype. Virgil van Dijk has arrived in a move that will surely strengthen the defence in time, yet that rampant forward line has been suddenly and unnecessarily weakened. Daniel Sturridge’s face might never have fit under Jurgen Klopp, but Danny Ings is a considerable downgrade in his place.
Whereas the departure of Philippe Coutinho can be absorbed by the rest of the squad for the next few months, the exit of another squad member with no replacement feels like a mistake. Coutinho was a wonderful player but never an integral one, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Adam Lallana are perfectly capable of shouldering that burden. The same cannot be said for Ings or Dominic Solanke, the next taxis off the rank in the case of injuries to forwards. It is a risk that did not need to be taken.
Liverpool deservedly remain favourites to seal a place in the top four, but this month has done more to harm their chances than enhance them. Their heads may now be covered, but their feet are peeking ever so slightly out of that blanket.
An ill-timed bout of headsgoneitis after avoiding the affliction in the summer. Being unable to leave Leicester is nothing new for Riyad Mahrez, but having to win back the support of a fanbase and squad is unfamiliar and uncomfortable territory.
Manchester City enter February 15 points clear at the top of the Premier League table, but the mask slipped somewhat in January. The unbeaten run was ended at the hands of Liverpool, and their transfer business was mixed at best.
The club’s social media channels announced the club-record signing of Aymeric Laporte as ‘defensive reinforcements acquired’, but City wanted more. Guardiola knew that securing signings in the summer would be complicated by the World Cup, as well as a deadline that has been brought forward to before the season launch, and so Fred, Alexis Sanchez and Riyad Mahrez were all targeted. That none arrived will hardly knock the leaders off course, but provides proof that dominance on the pitch is more difficult to replicate off it.
In a display of scouting eclipsed only by Chelsea and their search for any tall striker, West Ham embarked on a similarly uninspiring quest for a permanent answer to the central midfield problem. The only difference is that theirs ended in failure.
Harry Arter, Jonjo Shelvey, Joe Allen, Scott Arfield and Francis Coquelin were all linked, as were Josh Maddison, Ibrahim Amadou and Leander Dendoncker. This follows a summer of embarrassing back and forth over William Carvalho. Joao Mario arrives on loan, and will have to hit the ground running.
“We’ve signed who the manager wants,” said co-owner David Sullivan in December. “The manager had a policy of wanting older, proven Premier League players,” he added, placing further blame squarely at the feet of Slaven Bilic.
That tactic of scapegoating the old manager will only work if different mistakes are avoided under the new one. If West Ham do not pull clear of relegation, accountability should fall on the common denominator. Or the dildo brothers, as Sporting Lisbon would prefer.
Having been the only Manchester United player to appear in each of their 36 games in all competitions, it is no coincidence that the first match Marcus Rashford missed this season came on Alexis Sanchez’s debut. The Chilean is a guaranteed starter, leaving two positions behind a central striker. Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard are in considerably better form than Rashford, and Juan Mata might even have edged ahead of him.
Perhaps he and Rashford could swap numbers. Manchester City’s erstwhile captain watched from the bench as Aymeric Laporte settled snugly into the defence. Guardiola has finally lost patience with those injuries.
On the one hand, they signed a striker. Heck, they spent a club-record fee in doing so. But on the other, they spent a quarter of the Virgil van Dijk money, and did absolutely nothing to replace the Dutchman. Southampton have built their success on buying players cheap, helping them fulfil their potential, selling them on and reinvesting the money. You cannot skip part of that cycle and expect it to still work.
The sacking of Marco Silva suggested that Watford recognised the situation they had stumbled into, yet their additions this month indicate otherwise. Bringing in Sunderland’s record signing on loan does not a successful fight against a declining season make.
In May, Davy Klaassen captained Ajax in the Europa League final. In June, he joined Everton for £23.6m. He made his debut in July, featured heavily in August but has not been seen in the Premier League since September. Sam Allardyce was not kidding when he described it as a “weird situation”; he is now stuck on Merseyside.
After spending the lowest amount on transfers in the summer (£25m), Stoke rank seventh for biggest Premier League outlay in January. Paul Lambert clearly puts out more than Mark Hughes.
If his tenure at Crystal Palace thus far did not earn him considerably more backing in the transfer window, what will? Why oh why did Palace leave everything so late?
For catching a train from Lille to London, only for his club to refuse to let him join Crystal Palace. It was not quite Peter Odemwingie, but it was close enough.
Planet Sport recommends: The day Paolo Maldini tried his hand at professional tennis. (Tennis365)