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Editor’s Pick: Why did European football’s January transfer window turn into ‘A Quiet Place’?

The winter transfer window is generally opportunistic one for clubs to give a boost to their campaigns, but 2021 winter window had the air of lull for crucial financial reasons.

The mid-season January transfer window has always been spectacular for European football leagues. Over the years, this window has seen many lucrative deals, including Philippe Coutinho’s £142 million transfer from Liverpool to Barcelona, Virgil van Dijk’s £75 million worth move from Southampton to Liverpool, Bruno Fernandes’ journey from Sporting Lisbon to Manchester United for £67.7 million.

However, 2021 showcased an unusually quiet transfer window.

Starting with Premier League, the total gross transfer expenditure of the clubs fell from £230 million in January 2020 to just £70 million. And over 75% of this spending was driven by the ‘more than £10 million’ transfer deals of Benrahma, Amad Diallo and Morgan Sanson. The deal for Amad Diallo was agreed in summer itself, but the work permit was acquired in January.

Notably, the clubs spent a total of £45 million on players from non-English clubs during the window, which is substantially less than the £185 million spent last year. Moreover, Premier League clubs’ deadline day expenditure fell drastically to £7 million, compared to January 2020’s £25 million. Liverpool, Manchester United, and Arsenal were surprisingly the only ‘Big six’ Premier League clubs to spend during the window.

The story across Europe was not much different. The spending amongst the leading European leagues’ saw a massive reduction, compared to January 2020. Serie A spent £70 million compared to last year’s £180 million, Bundesliga’s expenditure reduced to £45 million from last year’s £165 million, La Liga spent £30 million compared to last year’s £110 million, and Ligue 1 reduced it spending from last year’s £100 million to £25 million.

Although the January window is traditionally quieter than the summer window, why did the expenditure decrease this much?

Pandemic has hit every sector around the world, including the money-rich European football. Europe’s biggest clubs lost a large amount of revenue over the past year as Covid-19 initially put every league on hold. Since matches were not taking place, clubs could not earn their broadcast revenue. Even when the fixtures got back on track, the lack of audience in the stadium due to pandemic protocols harmed their earnings. This is majorly why clubs were extra cautious when it came to spending money during the winter transfer window.

Another reason why Premier League specifically didn’t see big expenditure this time is the Brexit rules. Ever since Britain left the European Union, Premier League clubs can no longer sign European players freely as they are not a part of the EU’s single market anymore, with its provision for free movement of labour. 

Overseas signings now have new restrictions, which includes the prohibition on signing foreign players that are under 18, the three-signing limit for players under the age of 21, and the rule of allowing the signing of only six foreign players per season. Even European signings must follow the same protocols as the players from outside the EU have done until now, which includes obtaining a ‘governing body endorsement’.

This permit will be granted depending on players’ appearances in international matches as well as their country’s Fifa ranking. However, many clubs smartly and practically utilized the loan option to acquire necessary players and disperse off some players from their team on loan or permanently. Arsenal did a great job by saying goodbye to Mesut Ozil, Sokratis Papastathopoulos and Shkodran Mustafi, and allowing Sead Kolasinac to move to Schalke on loan until the summer. More importantly, they got Brighton goalkeeper Mat Ryan and Martin Odegaard of Real Madrid on loan.

Considering games are likely to be played behind closed doors, the summer transfer window is also likely to be quieter than the last one. Teams will have to come up with creative ways such as loans, loan with obligation to buy or swap deals to make sure they remain competitive and have healthy books.

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