Premier League transfers: Is this the most difficult transfer window ever?

By Harry De CosemoBBC Sport
Robert Snodgrass, Andy Lonergan and Amad Diallo
Robert Snodgrass, Andrew Lonergan and Amad Diallo are three of only four players to make permanent moves to Premier League clubs so far this month

An out-of-favour winger, an out-of-contract back-up goalkeeper and a promising teenager who has never started a senior league match account for three of just four permanent signings made by Premier League clubs so far in January.

For all the noise around the mid-season transfer window, Aston Villa's signing of Morgan Sanson from Marseille on Tuesday was the first example of a top-flight club bringing in a first-team regular this month.

So why has so little been happening?

'We're not 100% sure what the rules are'

It has long been said that January is a difficult time for clubs to do business. This month has been like no other, with external factors having a major impact on the way deals are done right through the sport.

The combination of the coronavirus pandemic significantly curbing clubs' spending power and the United Kingdom's new relationship with the European Union post Brexit means rarely, if ever, have transfer deals been so difficult to complete.

A points-based system has been introduced for players from the EU, taking into consideration their experience and the level they have played at, while clubs in the UK can no longer sign anyone under the age of 18 from the continent and no more than three under 21. A minimum of 15 points is now required for a player to qualify, while a score of 10 to 14 will be reviewed by an 'exceptions panel'.

A UK border sign welcomes passengers on arrival at Heathrow airport
Britain left Europe's customs union and single market on 31 December last year

Travel restrictions imposed as part of the national lockdown have forced clubs into a different approach this winter, with younger players likely to suffer the most.

"Covid is having a bigger impact on the market than Brexit at this moment in time," says football agent Paul Stretford, whose clients include Wayne Rooney. "The new rules, which are a re-hash of the old rules from before we were part of the EU, have only been expanded to incorporate European players on top of international players from outside of Europe.

"The biggest impact could well be on clubs signing young European players to develop through their academy."

Queens Park Rangers director of football Les Ferdinand says he has approached the January window with caution, but a low budget meant that activity was always likely to be minimal regardless of the current issues.

"You can't get out and watch any players," he says. "A tool like Wyscout and all these different mediums you can use are great, but you have to go and watch them yourself.

"You're not dealing with one issue, you're dealing with two. It is likely that this month might be heavily laden with loans rather than people saying 'I'm going to buy this one or that one'.

"Brexit has taken a lot of countries off the radar for us, but we wouldn't have been doing a lot of deals anyway. We are not 100% sure of what the rules are.

"There is a points system but nobody has been able to use it yet because nobody is going abroad to get players unless they are the top ones, who are going to the Premier League. Everybody knows who they are, but with younger players, nobody knows how it works because it's not been delved into."

John Print, managing director at sports business consultancy Sprint MG, says he has had to tell clients that English football is no longer a viable place for their careers to thrive because of Brexit.

"The number of European players that can get through the new rules has definitely dropped," he says. "We're basically saying to a lot of players "the opportunities of you playing in the UK have gone" and a lot of players don't understand why. I think the biggest thing is educating the players to make them realise that it is just no longer an option."

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'Players with British citizenship at even more of a premium'

Some have argued that Brexit could lead to better development for homegrown players because clubs will have fewer options to look further afield.

Ferdinand says the current situation could force English Football League clubs into action regarding better scouting of British players, but there is a possibility for other markets to appear, too.

"Both of the current situations put you in a difficult position for wanting to make long-term signings," he says. "The only thing that comes out of this for the Championship teams is you are going to have to develop younger players. Maybe that can happen longer term.

"There will be some emerging markets; the Brazilian market is one that will appeal to the Championship. They've got a lot of good, young players, but it means going out to Brazil and doing more of your scouting further afield."

The FA is making clear its aim to help more English players get opportunities, according to Print.

"The situation is basically as I expected in terms of the points system," he says. "The remit for the FA is simple: they want more English talent to develop. They want the pathway from, say, the EFL clubs to professional football to be easier because it makes good on the whole system and ultimately the national team."

Stretford says fewer options for clubs could see British players increase in value while those from abroad decline.

"The criteria format means it is more difficult to get in, and that could have an impact of devaluing players from abroad. But I don't believe clubs will take British players just because they are British.

"If you want to play for a top club, you have to be able to compete with top talent from around the world. The only difference to that is the ability to bring those players in may well be changed.

"Players at the highest level that qualify under British citizenship may well be at more of a premium now than they have been because so many clubs will be chasing so few of that level."

'Creative recruitment is becoming much harder'

Norwich striker Teemu Pukki
Teemu Pukki was a relative unknown in England when he moved to Norwich and led them to promotion to the Premier League in 2018-19

Clubs in Europe who have formed a strategy around selling assets to British clubs will now struggle to do that because of the new points-based requirements.

Stretford says clubs from France, Portugal and the Netherlands will be among the hardest hit.

"Certain markets that are reliant upon the transfer system to meet budgets are affected," he said. "You particularly look at France, outside of two or three clubs. The German model is strong, but not as strong as the Premier League.

"Portugal would be one, a section of the Spanish market would be one, then you've got what you'd class as your 'second-tier' markets such as the Netherlands and Belgium, where a number of clubs are based upon a development and sale remit. The place they most want to sell their players to is the UK and therefore they are subject to the criteria and regulations."

Print says English clubs will also face difficulties.

"Brentford and Norwich City very much recruit based on statistics, and they pick out some gems from lower-level leagues," he adds. "Norwich's Teemu Pukki would not be signed were he trying to move in this window; he wouldn't have got anywhere near the points. For teams that are trying to be more creative in recruitment, it is becoming harder."

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