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In the future: teams won’t panic in January

In the future, the January transfer window will involve fewer big name, big money transfers as Premier League clubs avoid deadline day panic buys to improve performance in the second half of the season. Clubs will instead rely on data analysis and risk management strategies to drive long-term player acquisition plans which will reach five, maybe even ten years into the future. If necessary, perhaps due to injuries or underperforming players, teams will make mid-season purchases based on detailed predictive models to assess the short-term impact of various potential targets, the relative difficulty of the remaining fixtures, and whether the players’ market values justify the financial risk.

Some clubs will enact these strategies do so because it’s the smart, cost efficient thing to do, but most will be forced to under pressure to spend only what they take in from break even clauses like UEFA’s Financial Fair Play. Whereas once clubs could simply spend beyond their means to compete, flashing cash at the first opportunity, most will need to be much smarter to punch above their weight in the fiercely competitive Premier League.  

I know. It sounds fantastical. After all, what football fan doesn’t live for the heady final day of the January transfer window, when helicopters packed with owners, managers and agents land and take-off live on camera, fans huddle in car parks waiting for any news (and news crews), and Jim White shepherds his flock on Sky Sports waiting to announce the next multi-million pound mega-deal? It’s such fun! At least for fans and the media.

For football clubs however, acquiring players in the January window can be expensive and inefficient, particularly for the vast majority of English teams without the financial means of the perennial top four. For one, the element of a mid-season “deadline” arguably further inflates transfer fees for obvious top prospects at peak market value. It’s a sellers market, as underperforming clubs, desperate to pad their faltering squads, will pay a premium for talent to teams happy to sell players at an inflated fee. 

Additionally, some clubs seem to buy players in January for the sake of buying players. While a risky panic buy for a player at peak market price limits a club’s purchasing power down the line, the manager, who on average won’t stay longer than a couple of seasons at the most, has nothing to lose in buying a player…any player. In fact, under pressure managers often risk criticism if they don’t make any moves in January, setting the stage for moves more driven by appearance than necessity.

Planning transfer decisions in the few months and weeks leading up to, or even during, the January window also forces clubs to work with market as it is at a particular moment in time. That means clubs are limited to a very narrow set of options: whichever player happens to be available and whichever club happens to be willing to sell. The ‘right’ player at the ‘right’ price within an arbitrary thirty-day time frame however may not always be the right fit for the team.

This demonstrates why long-term planning in player recruitment is so important. A team that doesn’t plan is likely to make more mistakes and take pricier risks in the summer transfer window, which necessitates the panicky plugging of holes in January. That leads to the perpetual cycle of expensive, poorly performing teams who lose even more money as they slip further down the table.  

The key to breaking this cycle and allowing clubs to make more long-term plans in player recruitment is better due diligence through the application of contextual intelligence. Too often today, managers and recruiters use analytics as a check and balance on players they already want, rather than a means to seek out previously unconsidered, and undervalued, players. Put simply; data currently informs, but doesn’t drive the recruitment process.

Ted Knutson for example recently demonstrated the value of this approach for the Guardian, using a few key performance indicators as part of a theoretical search for a way Liverpool might replace Steven Gerrard. Eventually a more complex model would ideally add weights for average opposition and team-influence on individual performance metrics as well, isolating a stronger signal from the noise. 

“One of the biggest mistakes football’s recruiters make is that we focus on the individual and forget the context – the nuances of how the player will adapt to the team dynamic” – Blake Wooster, 21st Club

More sophisticated analysis will include simulations revealing the likelihood of certain players boosting team performance in the near term, based in part on the remaining games for the remainder of the season.

Finally, teams will also look at various types of biometric data linked to game intelligence, factors like decision-making under pressure or foresight, spatial awareness or the ability to adapt to change. Teams will one day ensure test results from such cognitive examinations are included as part of any potential transfer deal, revealing vital strengths and weaknesses in addition to the routine medical.

Such advances will save clubs tens if not hundreds of millions of pounds in the transfer market. They will prevent clubs from paying down expensive mistakes for years which limit their purchasing power over time, ultimately making them less competitive. Jim White might have less to do on future deadline days, but football as a whole will be better off for it.


This article by @RWhittall is the fifth post in the ‘Future of Football’ series for @21stClub.

Related posts:

#1 The Future of Football series – how teams will win 10 years from now

#2 In the future: the manager will become obsolete

#3 In the future: football clubs will be more social

#4 In the future: player safety won’t be used for competitive edge

About Richard Whittall

Richard Whittall has created 28 entries.