Arsenal pivoted to brilliant effect, Chelsea bent FFP to their will and Man Utd were smart in the face of adversity. But Brighton are the new masters.
The losers – featuring Everton and Liverpool heavily – are here…
Facundo Buonanotte and Yasin Ayari
Those names might not be particularly familiar now but give it 18 months or so and both will be touted for nine-figure fees to clubs whose entire scouting network consists of one person combing through a Brighton squad list. The Seagulls spent £5.3m each on teenage midfielders Buonanotte and Ayari and will expect them to follow similar gilded development paths to January 2019 signing Alexis Mac Allister and winter 2021 addition Moises Caicedo.
Chelsea or Arsenal should save themselves time and just offer £100m now for Buonanotte, Ayari and Evan Ferguson, who himself moved to the Amex two Januarys ago. Sir Alex Ferguson once tricked everyone into thinking there is no value in the mid-season transfer window. Tony Bloom and his pals are meticulously disproving that theory.
Seriously though. Since the summer of 2020, Brighton have sold Anthony Knockaert for £15m, Ben White for £50m, Dan Burn for £13m, Yves Bissouma for £25m, Leo Ostigard for £4.5m, Marc Cucurella for £56m and Leandro Trossard for £20m. Those seven players were bought for a combined £52.3m and moved on for £183.5m, having made a mean average of just 62 Premier League appearances for the club.
There have been misfires, as with any transfer philosophy. Jose Izquierdo, Davy Propper, Alireza Jahanbakhsh and Jurgen Locadia constitute tough lessons and sharp learning curves. But Brighton, who also paid £3m in compensation for Graham Potter and his coaching staff before receiving £21.5m for the same group from Chelsea three years later, are better now than they ever have been. They have mastered the art of prioritising the system and structure over any individual, which is sensible yet brilliant business practice for a club which will never top the football food chain, but could easily keep climbing the table.
‘Chelsea may struggle to find another Abramovich in a different world,’ read the headline to a Guardian piece from March 2022, the sentiment to which was by no means unique; a line in a Reuters report two months later predicted that ‘the new owners might like to run a tighter ship’.
The wider belief was always that the Blues would struggle to adjust to a less lavish lifestyle once the billionaire was done with his toy – or had it confiscated. Yet Todd Boehly has sanctioned £567m worth of FFP-dodging transfers in his first season, more than a quarter of Abramovich’s total spend across 38 windows.
It is the biggest single-window spend of any team ever, summer or winter. A British record transfer. £99m worth of extra forwards. A £26m purchase sent straight back from whence he came. Joao Felix’s loan fee cost more than Brentford, Brighton, Everton, Fulham, Manchester City and Manchester United’s entire spend this month. And he might not even make their Champions League squad; Chelsea can only register three of those eight January signings to play in Europe.
It is a ludicrous way to run a business but good lord it’s fun to watch.
It is a ruthless but necessary way to examine transfers, to look at them through the prism of succession planning. Maximilian Wober (24), Georginio Rutter (20) and Diego Monteiro (18) hit that sweet spot as signings ideal for Jesse Marsch’s system and style, but also malleable prospects for a managerial successor to inherit and mould in their own image if the time comes.
Even with the continued absence of competent and proven left-back cover, Leeds enjoyed a great month which the loan arrival of Weston McKennie, the retention of Jack Harrison and the recouping of their initial outlay on Diego Llorente upgraded to an excellent one.
Perception and perspective is everything. The fear of the known that some Arsenal supporters are gripped by – as the side their recruitment team has carefully constructed enjoys a five-point gap atop the Premier League with a game in hand – is precisely the same trait that attracted Mikel Arteta to Leandro Trossard and Jorginho.
As alternatives to primary targets go, there have been worse. Kim Kallstrom and Lucas Perez this is not. Arteta pursued youthful but costly exuberance in Mykhaylo Mudryk (22) and Moises Caicedo (21), long-term deals which would have cost Arsenal upwards of £160m. For varying reasons they were deemed unattainable so affordable experience was favoured instead. Trossard (28) and Jorginho (31) plug necessary gaps in the immediate term at little expense while leaving the future picture this summer and beyond unencumbered and unobscured.
It is no bad thing for Arsenal to end up with proven quality instead of unknown quantities. The youngest squad in the Premier League will not suffer for adding a Belgian international with a comparable Premier League record to Marc Overmars (25 goals and 13 assists in 117 appearances to the Dutchman’s 25 goals and 19 assists in 100 appearances), nor a Champions League and European Championship winner.
Had Arsenal spent the winter negotiating separate club-record deals to no avail and without a contingency plan, criticism and frustration would be warranted. That they quickly pivoted to sign what are essentially squad replacements for Nicolas Pepe and Mohamed Elneny makes this a functional if underwhelming window. Arsenal are in a far better place than they started the month and Arteta and Edu have done more than enough to earn faith in their decisions.
It felt as though Anthony Gordon would never attract offers of such excess again. Everton knocked back bids of £40m and £45m for the winger in the summer in what seemed like a romantic, sentimental mistake.
That was a sliding doors moment and Gordon strolled straight through in lamentable form, dodging life in a crowded mid-table Chelsea attack – and an Everton relegation battle – and landing on his feet as a probable starter for Champions League-chasing Newcastle. For a forward with almost as many career yellow cards (13) as combined goals and assists (15), that’s not a bad outcome.
‘Wolves boss Julen Lopetegui is looking to bolster his squad with up to six new signings next month,’ was the claim from BBC Sport in mid-December. ‘It is understood Wolves are looking to strengthen in the forward and central defensive positions, while also looking at physical and creative additions in midfield.’
Consider every box ticked: six new signings; more strength in the forward (Matheus Cunha and Pablo Sarabia) and central defensive positions (Craig Dawson); physical (Mario Lemina) and creative (Joao Gomes) additions in midfield. Bringing in experienced goalkeeping cover in Dan Bentley was just new sporting director Matt Hobbs showing off to give Wolves a leg up towards safety.
There is a vague sense that Pep Guardiola has sent his “little Philipp Lahm” to the slaughter, such is the inherent risk of sanctioning Joao Cancelo’s loan exit at least in part because of an 18-year-old’s precocious brilliance. But that is one mighty show of faith in Rico Lewis.
It could be that problems behind the scenes forced Manchester City’s hand either way. Guardiola has been refreshingly candid about his reluctance to keep unhappy players and Cancelo had been noticeably poorer than usual recently.
Yet allowing the Portuguese to leave mid-season without a replacement is a stark reflection of Guardiola’s opinion on Lewis, as well as a damning indictment on Manchester City’s lacklustre squad planning. Neither they, the manager, nor the player could possibly have expected an academy graduate to step up and acclimatise so quickly, not least as a starter worthy of replacing someone still widely recognised as one of the Premier League’s finest full-backs.
A transfer window of quiet, sensible, understated competence at Old Trafford. It will never catch on.
Man Utd shed the wages, the ego, the baggage and the Piers Morgan of Cristiano Ronaldo, so they brought in a risk-free, effective and more suitable replacement in Wout Weghorst. Man Utd lost the choice loan stylings of Martin Dubravka, so they drafted in Jack Butland to take his place on the bench. Man Utd were rocked by the news of Christian Eriksen’s injury, so they moved quickly to secure Marcel Sabitzer as a viable stand-in.
Faced with less than ideal circumstances and unplanned issues, the responses were smart and impressive. Those usual pitfalls were avoided, those solid summer foundations were consolidated and the window-centric aspect of their rebuild can recommence at the end of the season.
The inability to secure a centre-back – and thus the need to recall Jan Bednarek from a stirring loan at Aston Villa – was offset by those final moves. Southampton had experienced a solid transfer window, improved as they were by Mislav Orsic, Carlos Alcaraz and James Bree, before £40.5m attacking pair Kamaldeen Sulemana and Paul Onuachu arrived to remove some of that goalscoring burden from the shoulders of James Ward-Prowse.
One crucial difference between old and new Fulham can be seen in their two most recent Serbian signings. Sasa Lukic is an excellent purchase from Torino, someone sporting director Tony Khan described as “a talented and versatile midfielder whom we’ve followed closely for years”. That is a slight contrast to January 2019, when the club’s official website explained that Lazar Markovic had joined as a free agent after ‘Fulham received very good recommendations from Aleksandar Mitrovic regarding the player’. He’s a brilliant striker but perhaps not the best scout.