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Why Is January Transfer Business Scary?
When the calendar changes, people tend to find hope.
We often presume the new year should be better than the last, and those optimistic outlooks normally last a few weeks—then reality returns. I've discovered some of my own disappointments about new years don't come from anything under my immediate control, but football.
Every November and December, the footballing world is inundated with transfer rumours and speculation. It seems no footballer is left untouched, no club left unmarked. We receive every assumption the table's set for shocking deals and influential signings—the countdown to January finishes, one year becomes the next, and nothing close to the reported level of change transpires.
It's a massive letdown to those plagued by this football virus.
You would think after years of conditioning we'd be used to having our hopes dashed annually, but, once February arrives, 11 months is an age to forget whatever disappointment(s)—and the cycle repeats.
While flooded with loans and the occasional blockbuster, January is primarily a place to find value.
During the winter, a seller's market doesn't exist. Ideally, no manager/board wants to sell a major piece, because finding a commensurate replacement in January means spending far more than one's market value. This forces most clubs, instead of looking at household names, to rummage through lesser-known quantities.
In some cases, a strong scouting network and decisive monetary action provides dividends. In others, the requisite infrastructure and/or funds to secure would-be hidden gems is vacant. When done correctly, the ramifications of proper January business can be felt for seasons. Conversely, rushed or ill-advised winter business can set clubs back millions (and possibly years).
Former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson made arguably the Premier League's best January transfer window signing ever. Buying Nemanja Vidic from Spartak Moscow for £7 million in 2005/06, the Serbian centre-back was a cornerstone of Manchester United's defence for nearly a decade.
Playing 300 matches in nine seasons, winning nine major trophies, Vidic earned legendary status at England's most prestigious club.
Ferguson would've been confident in the now-34-year-old's abilities, but expecting him to captain the side on numerous occasions and become one of the EPL's best defenders on the back of £7 million from the Russian Premier League might've been a bridge too far.
It shows how expectation is key in our collective evaluation of success.
Were Vidic bought for £40 million, and replicated the same performances over nine seasons, it's possible his legacy would be similar, but understanding how value is perceived, his performances would have been expected at such a price. Though what he provided could've justified a £40 million tag, Sir Alex's sagacious £7 million investment makes Vidic's United career slightly more impressive.
Another illustration could be Fernando Torres. Not his story specifically but what he triggered after leaving Liverpool in 2011. The tale is well documented. Chelsea wanted a replacement for Didier Drogba. Owner Roman Abramovich was long enamoured with the Spanish centre-forward. Bidding multiple times, the price of £50 million was set, arranged and agreed, the move was completed—and it failed miserably.
Leaving west London for the moment, what frequently goes neglected in Torres' saga is what Liverpool did with Abramovich's millions. Then-Reds manager Kenny Dalglish didn't save the money, it had already been earmarked on two strikers: Andy Carroll for £35 million and Luis Suarez for £23 million.
Were he a more reliable footballer, Carroll has the ability to terrorise any defence through the air, but he's found more frequently on the physiotherapist's table than the pitch. That unfortunate fact derailed his Liverpool career. Dalglish's second striker, however, was a masterstroke.
Bought from Ajax, Suarez turned into a Premier League defender's nightmare. Quick, energetic, creative and clinical, the Uruguayan centre-forward was the complete package. In a month when most clubs are searching vigorously for strikers, Liverpool bought maybe the world's best, just two years in advance.
Sold to Barcelona for £75 million in 2014, the Reds made more from buying and selling Suarez (£52 million) than they did selling Torres (£50 million), while enjoying 82 goals over three-and-a-half seasons.
Torres was an abject winter failure for Chelsea. This isn't to suggest, however, that the Blues are complete failures in the January market. Almost to the point of embarrassment, the January window of 2014 saw Nemanja Matic return to Stamford Bridge from Benfica.
Jose Mourinho's first season back in west London was a measuring process. Finding what his team needed to win the title, 2013/14 was a dry run. Noticing Frank Lampard, Micheal Essien and other midfielders weren't capable of playing arduous Premier League minutes any longer, the Portuguese went to his native Portugal and bought back Matic.
Sold as a £3 million makeweight for David Luiz, Chelsea spent seven times that to re-employ him. Though humorous when announced, in his first Premier League start vs. Manchester City, the Serbia international displayed exactly why Mourinho demanded his services.
Adding offensive silk to their squad in the subsequent summer period, matched with Matic's imperative steel, Chelsea won a domestic double in 2014/15.
These vignettes display what January can give those with the proper mindset. Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar nor any number of world-class talent will move clubs this month, but it's possible a club doesn't require a world-class star to reach the next level—just the right player in the right position.
Falling in love with grandiose narratives of multi-million pound moves serves as a detriment. We assume something's value correlates directly to its quality. That isn't necessarily the case. Value, especially in football, is determined mostly by scarcity. Just because something is rare, though, doesn't mean it can't be found. If found, no matter the cost, the product—or in this case footballer—retains usefulness.
The January transfer window is an interesting ecosystem of economics, footballing prowess and luck. In many ways it's a lottery, but that risk can be curtailed by due diligence and intuition.
Some clubs have that combination in spades; most, unfortunately, don't.
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