Why is January’s transfer window slower than the summer?

The January transfer window in Europe is traditionally a lot slower than its summer counterpart, with clubs often deciding to stick with what they have until the end of the season. But why is that?

Obviously there’s the fact that January is just one month, as opposed to three of June, July and August during the summer, but the numbers show a massive increase in spending during the offseason when compared to midseason.

If we look at the last pre-pandemic window, 2018-19, compared to the previous two years, then it’s clear how much COVID-19 has impacted expenditure outside the Premier League. But the really stark figure is a league’s spending from January compared to the summer.

Transfermarkt breaks it down here across the ‘Big Five’ European leagues:

January 2018-19:
English Premier League (€205.10m)
Italian Serie A (€158.10m)
Spanish LaLiga (€101.45m)
German Bundesliga (€79.40m)
French Ligue 1 (€75.95m)

Summer 2018-19:
Premier League (€1.38bn)
Serie A (€1.16bn)
LaLiga (€928.05m)
Ligue 1 (€600.32m)
Bundesliga (€458.41m)

January 2019-20:
Premier League (€249.35m)
Serie A (€231.09m)
Bundesliga (€198.80m)
LaLiga (€159.13m)
Ligue 1 (€127.75m)

Summer 2019-20:
Premier League (€1.43bn)
LaLiga (€1.35bn)
Serie A (€1.21bn)
Bundesliga (€750.49m)
Ligue 1 (€689.55m)

January 2020-21:
Premier League (€96.74m)
Serie A (€85.16m)
Bundesliga (€49.15m)
LaLiga (€20.75m)
Ligue 1 (€17.80m)

Summer 2020-21:
Premier League (€1.44bn)
Serie A (€806.42m)
Ligue 1 (€439.74m)
LaLiga (€400.50m)
Bundesliga (€310.35m)

In some cases, you’re looking at more than €1bn of expenditure on players as the difference between the two windows. Financial pressure is part of it, but there are more reasons behind why clubs look to the summer rather than January as a time to strengthen.

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COVID-19 has hit finances hard

Football clubs across the world are still licking their wounds after nearly two years of the pandemic. The football economy was not in a great place even before COVID-19, but reduced income from gate receipts and a marginalised VIP market — not to mention sponsors, owners and investors facing red numbers on their non-footballing activities — have taken an even heavier toll.

When football clubs tighten their belts, the most obvious saving is to restrict spending in the transfer market, especially as many are struggling to uphold their current wage level, let alone add to the payroll.

As of now, fewer than 15 outright transfers of €10m or more have taken place in the January transfer window compared to nearly 50 in the last pre-pandemic window at this time.

Restricted scouting opportunities

As international travel restrictions were eased between European countries last summer there was a sudden upturn in live scouting across the continent. Scouts were more visible than ever in the dispersed crowds of half-empty stadiums, most top league clubs were present at the European Under-21 Championship and there was a sense of normality being restored.

However, as new COVID-19 variants emerged and coincided with the onset of the European autumn and winter, the traveling subsequently dropped off. As previously reported, the inability to follow a player live consistently over a prolonged period does impact a club’s decision-making. Even with the benefit of all the footage, statistics and analytical tools in the world, the lack of real-life evidence can put the brakes on transfer activity.

To complicate matters even further, the postponement of fixtures over the festive period has made late scouting checks on last-minute targets exceptionally tricky.

Availability of top players

The next best thing to adding new blood in the middle of the season is keeping your best players. Perhaps for the good of the game and competition, the cynical stockpiling of talent from the top clubs, which many predicted as a result of the pandemic squeeze, has not happened (at least not to a greater extent than previously.) Even with players whose contracts expire in the summer, surprisingly few clubs are keen to receive a small midseason transfer fee, rather than nothing in five months’ time, if it means they don’t need to sign a replacement.

With even medium-sized clubs fighting hard to hang on to their top players, the January transfer market is predominantly made up of those who’ve struggled to accumulate playing time (and will take weeks to prepare for full match fitness), or whose form has nosedived — in which case it’s often better to steer clear and approach the second part of the season with what you already have.

A different organisational approach

Whereas a transfer in previous years could often be sanctioned by just two people — the manager, who would find the player, and the owner or chairman, who would sign off on the finances — the overwhelming majority of top league clubs in Europe have a significantly more comprehensive decision-making processes in place now.

Several senior members of the sporting department — from chief scout to analyst, head coach and sporting director — will have their say on the prospective new signing before the dossier ends up on the desk of the chief executive. And only if the numbers add up will the board or owners be called into action.

Sure, there are still some clubs that operate in the old way, but there has been a clear shift toward a more transparent process of signing players, in which the new arrival has been vetted and given the all-clear by a group of people who are tuned in to the same operational principles. The result is that fewer prospective signings make it all the way to the boardroom, while there’s less risk-taking and fewer impulse signings.

A new breed of club owners

While Roman Abramovich’s arrival at Chelsea in 2003 and the Abu Dhabi-based ownership of Manchester City in 2008, among others, have provided a volatile football economy with a boost at various points in the shape of heavy, regular spending — which ultimately trickled further down the ecosystem — the vast majority of the newly arrived football investors are prepared to build more gradually and sustainably.

Rather than throwing cash at their club’s problems, owners of the 2020s tend to look for multiple marginal wins rather than one multimillion signing to provide all the answers.

Is the football club being run efficiently? Can small tweaks be made to remove bottlenecks and outdated ways of operating? How about the culture and the environment of the club — is the club a place where people come to grow and perform, or just to pick up a paycheck? Such questions are best answered before setting off on a spending spree.

And with the recent arrival of predominantly North American investors into European football comes an increased focus on analytics, often with cutting-edge ways of measuring the efficiency of the organisation.

Clubs can find solutions at home

Owners will often wonder why they spend millions on an academy when hardly any of the players get a chance in the first team. This question is increasingly being addressed by a new generation of head coaches whose love for their job is found in the art of coaching and developing talent, rather than bringing in a new superstar who could disrupt the dressing room harmony.

While the harsh economic reality is the most obvious explanation for decreased spending in January, it’s still true that a gradual emergence of coaches with a passion for player development, the nuances of tactics and whatever can be done to improve the performance of an athlete on a day-to-day basis is having an impact, too. Instead of expecting the transfer market to represent the only way out of trouble, the answer might already be playing in the U23s.