The January transfer window can often frustrate as much as intrigue, with clubs seemingly unwilling to go big unless they are verging on the desperate.
With the top end of the Premier League so close at present, no club has really gone all-out in the first almost-three weeks of the winter window to bring in serious reinforcements, with the almost sole exception of Chelsea re-signing Nemanja Matic.
Everton have added Aiden McGeady to their squad, but Liverpool, both Manchester clubs, Arsenal and Spurs are without a single senior signing this month.
It would be simplistic to think that a failure—or a purposeful dismissal of the opportunity perhaps—to see more new faces sign up this month would simply mean a repeat performance of the first half of the season for the league's top seven sides. Would it be close to the truth, though?
Top Three Settled?
Manchester City have a top-class squad, packed from front to back with international experience, plenty of depth and—as everybody must know by now—bucketfuls of goals. Ninety-nine strikes in all competitions by mid-January implies a huge force to be reckoned with.
They might be capable of further improvement in the odd area, perhaps centre-back, but they still have unbelievable strength and quality. City have to be considered the favourites for the title at this point.
Unstoppable at home and fast-improving away, they are the team to finish ahead of if other teams have designs on the title. Not signing anybody in January is not going to affect City in the slightest; they've played without Joe Hart, without Vincent Kompany and without Sergio Aguero, yet still remain a force.
Arsenal it is, though, who lead the league table after 21 matches. Anybody who still doesn't rate them as a title threat yet is simply late to the party.
Sure, the Gunners could collapse on the home straight—but they could just as easily win their final (very, very winnable) five games on the bounce.
Does a lack of January signings hamper them? Arguably only in the striking department. With Theo Walcott now injured, all eyes will be on whether Olivier Giroud can recapture regular goalscoring form and stay fit. In the line of final third players behind him, there are few teams with the depth that Arsenal can boast, but they'll need a more regular supply of goals than Giroud's two in his last seven.
Elsewhere, they'll be fine without further additions and have every reason to think they can end their long trophy-less wait by claiming the biggest domestic one of all.
Chelsea's signing of Matic doesn't automatically make them a bigger favourite for the title, but they have been immensely impressive in the regularity of their results and their midfield has always been of great strength. Another first-team signing in that regard does no harm and adds technical ability and tactical intelligence, a nice alternative for Jose Mourinho, allowing him to play a true 4-3-3 system when required as much as having a 2-1 midfield.
In Eden Hazard, Oscar and Willian they have three game-winning attacking midfielders and although questions continue over which of their centre-forwards are good enough to help win a title, Chelsea are irrepressible enough to grind out wins whoever scores the goals.
No further signings makes no difference to them in the title race; they're in it and will perhaps turn out to be Manchester City's biggest threat.
The Race for Fourth
All eyes are on Merseyside at the moment in the battle for fourth place and the final Champions League spot, with Liverpool leading Everton by one place and one point—and the second Merseyside derby of the season less than two weeks away.
Liverpool need strengthening at full-back and in midfield, but no incoming deals wouldn't necessarily hamper their challenge for the top four—if all the other teams failed to improve further, too.
They've shown they can outscore teams and they have arguably two of the best four or five centre-forwards in the entire Premier League in their side. If those two and two or three other key players stay fit, Liverpool perhaps have the strongest looking combination of tactics, squad players and form to take fourth place.
Not signing anybody isn't going to get them any closer to the title, but it could well still be enough for that huge step into Europe.
Everton have strengthened somewhat with the signing of McGeady, but while pacey, direct and skillful, he's not a match-winner who fans will expect to rock up and create 25 or 30 good quality goalscoring chances for his team-mates in what remains of the campaign. The Irishman could easily be seen as an impact sub, an alternative for Gerard Deulofeu, but won't be likely to add goals from the second line of attack in the way Ross Barkley can, for example.
With just 34 goals this season, Everton have scored fewer than six of the top seven sides in the league and McGeady alone isn't going to change that. On the other hand, they've dominated games they might previously only have been competitive in and have become a very hard-to-beat outfit—their two defeats is the best in the league, bar none.
No further signings could, in this instance, make a difference—they don't have the depth in midfield of other teams. Roberto Martinez has his side playing at full capacity and, at that level, they are capable of taking fourth place even if Liverpool continue to play well.
But they could also be undone by losing just two or three individuals over the remaining 17 games of the season and miss out entirely on Europe, something they'll be desperately hoping to avoid. Martinez would need every piece of motivation and managerial ability he can muster to keep the Blues above the next pair of teams, with expectations of improvements on both.
Off the Pace—For Now
Spurs, sixth, Manchester United, seventh. Not too many observers would have predicted that pair in those places at this point of the season, with both having an awful lot to do to make up ground to claim a top-four spot.
Which is far from the same as saying they can't do it.
The sheer quality in the squad lists from both teams is there for all to see and, truthfully, Spurs at least should be performing better than they are. New manager Tim Sherwood needs to balance out a weak front line with huge stocks of midfielders. Now Jermain Defoe-less, they are a striker light and no signings during January would be a bit of a shock in that regard.
Would it stop them getting a top-four spot? Quite probably. Four decent games does not an Emmanuel Adebayor make; the Togolese forward needs to show his best form for the rest of the campaign to drag his side back into the reckoning.
They're only two points off the pace at present, but it could quickly slip away from Spurs if the altered team shape and relatively thin No. 9 options do not work themselves out.
Manchester United need midfield reinforcements, that is abundantly clear to all, but a spine comprising Michael Carrick-Wayne Rooney-Robin van Persie is still up there with the best in the league. If David Moyes—even without signings—can get the supporting cast in order, find some sort of form from a second central midfielder and quit the over-reliance on delivery from wide areas and Adnan Januzaj-inspired moments of individualism, United could still easily crush half a dozen teams on the spin.
Fitness, focus and mentality have always been paramount at Old Trafford and if enough players are keyed into those traits, they are still a top-four threat.
Four home defeats in 11, though, does not indicate that such a turnaround is immediately going to be found, and Moyes will have to pull out all the stops to get his side back up there. Without signings, United could still be a top-four side. No problem. But, at present, they most certainly don't look it.
Biggest January Winners
In the event that January passes by without signings, Manchester City and Liverpool look as though they'd be the biggest winners—one taking the league title, the other capable of finishing fourth due to no other clubs strengthening enough to ease their hold on the position.
It's subjective, injuries could ruin everything and, in all likelihood, at least two of those top seven clubs will add a significant new face to their first team squad. But it's already been an odd January in a very strange season.
Don't rule out the craziest decision-making of all being that most teams decide they have enough to get by.
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