On the field, the action continues to come thick and fast in the Premier League. Liverpool and Manchester City remain locked in a title race of the highest quality, there are compelling battles both to finish in the top four and to avoid relegation, and the most recent round of fixtures saw not one but two seven-goal thrillers.
Off the field, however, there has been a distinct lack of activity – and not just in the search for a successor to long-serving chief executive Richard Scudamore. England’s top-flight clubs appear to be largely hibernating through this winter transfer window, with spending on course to be dramatically down on recent seasons.
By any measure, this has been an oddly quiet transfer window for the Premier League so far. With just over a week until the deadline, the 20 clubs have collectively spent around £94m – less than a quarter of the sum they splashed out last January. The majority of teams haven’t made any permanent signings, with only seven recruiting additions, while the bulk of the money spent has been on one player – £58m Christian Pulisic – who will not even wear Chelsea’s colours until next season.
To put those figures in greater context, the £94m spent so far is less than in any January window since 2012 and slightly less than promoted Fulham alone spent last summer. Even allowing for the usual increase in activity in the last few days of the window, the final total will all but certainly be down on the record £430m lavished last year and likely come in at less than the £215m spent in January 2017.
It is not just the amount invested that is down; so is the volume of deals. There have been just seven permanent signings, compared with 33 in January 2018, 34 in 2017 and 43 in 2016, and one of those – former France midfielder Samir Nasri to West Ham – was a free transfer.
With few incomings to occupy them, clubs taking the opportunity to offload fringe players has been a trend this month. Liverpool shipped out Dominic Solanke to Bournemouth for £19m, Southampton recouped £10m on selling Manolo Gabbiadini to Sampdoria, and Leicester sent Vicente Iborra back to Spain in a £9m deal with Villarreal.
More big sales from Premier League sides to overseas clubs are forecast before the window closes. Chelsea striker Alvaro Morata is considered likely to leave for a fee of around £40m, perhaps to Atletico Madrid, while Blues prodigy Callum Hudson-Odoi has been the subject of a £30m bid from Bayern Munich. West Ham, meanwhile, face a battle to keep Marko Arnautovic in the face of £35m interest from China.
While there is no arguing about the trend, the reasons for the drop in transfer activity are less clear.
Premier League clubs are certainly not short of cash. They made a collective pre-tax profit of £1.03bn in 2016-17, the last season for which full data is available, and – fuelled by dizzying increases in the value of their broadcast rights – have been in an era of sustained financial stability since 2013-14.
Despite their affluence, spending in the last summer transfer was also down year on year, from a record £1.43bn in 2017 to £1.23bn. That figure still represented the teams’ second biggest spend of all time, however, and there were also the twin hindrances to business of a World Cup and a new early transfer deadline – after clubs agreed to finish trading before the season started – so it is difficult to draw too many conclusions.
If cash flow were the problem, though, we might expect to see more loan deals instead of permanent transfers due to the decreased outlay required. Yet incoming loans, too, are down drastically this January, with just three so far: Nathaniel Clyne to Bournemouth, Oumar Niasse to Cardiff and Jason Puncheon to Huddersfield.
Uncertainty can affect the will to spend – for instance, clubs who fear missing out on Champions League qualification or slipping into relegation and the heavy financial blows that ensue can be reluctant to increase their financial obligations by making the sort of big-money signings that are most likely to revive their fortunes. But on the other hand, these scenarios can equally spur clubs into business, so it feels like an unreliable explanation.
It’s possible that a degree of frugality has been brought about by entering the final year of the current broadcast cycle. New contracts with domestic and overseas television companies take effect from next season and, while an increase in value on the current cycle – worth more than £8bn over three years – is expected, largely flat domestic television revenues and the shifting sands of digital media have led to a belief that the huge growth of the Premier League era is slowing.
A late flurry of activity as the deadline draws nearer is typical, and – with a couple of big deals – it is possible that Premier League spending could yet reach the £200m-mark that it hovered around in 2016 and 2017. But with the departures of Morata, Hudson-Odoi and possibly Arnautovic in prospect, it is perhaps equally likely that England’s top clubs will finish this odd January window with a collective transfer profit.