The January transfer window: Very much the Mos Eisley of the global footballing landscape. Rarely if ever does there come a better opportunity to separate gullible clubs from their cold heart cash.
It is commonplace to note that the best clubs do not tend to business in the one-month long midseason window. If you see Bayern Munich announcing a signing in January it seems more often than not that they are merely letting you know that they have got a new addition for the summer wrapped up nice and early. If this transfer market has a defining figure, in England at least, it is perhaps a Sam Allardyce or Harry Redknapp, called in to save a club on the brink of the abyss, wheeling and dealing to the last moment to strengthen their squad.
Their success serves as a reminder that there are enough exceptions to the rule of January to make the whole process something other than a wasted endeavor. For every Fernando Torres and Andy Carroll there is a … well, you’ll have to wait and find out.
Here’s a look at the best midseason signings Premier League clubs with a slight caveat. Liverpool and Manchester United have been very, very good at this whole January business but in the interests of offering as broad a pool of players and scenarios as possible we’re limiting every club in here to two representatives. Sorry, Philippe Coutinho and Patrice Evra.
10. Christophe Dugarry (Bordeaux to Birmingham, loan, 2003)
To begin at the beginning. The first January window of 2003 brought with it many of the sort of disastrous deals that are so familiar this month, from an injury-addled Robbie Fowler joining Manchester City to Middlesbrough gambling that Michael Ricketts’ hot streak would last. But it also brought one of the best examples of that ideal midseason archetype, the desperate gamble of a relegation threatened club who just needed a bit of magic.
World Cup winner Dugarry provided that in abundance, a run of five wonderful goals in four games, the best a wonderful free-kick against Southampton, taking Birmingham City away from danger and firmly into mid-table. In a way, the love affair between the Blues and their French fancy was all the sweeter for it not working out in the long term, Duggary failing to see out even the first season of the two-year contract he subsequently signed. It may not have lasted long but it was the most beautiful of affairs.
9. Clint Dempsey (New England Revolution to Fulham, $4M, 2007)
The most expensive player sold by an MLS club at the time, Dempsey joined a Fulham side full of American imports and immediately looked at home in the Premier League. On the way to becoming the Cottagers record scorer in the top flight, he established himself as one of the competition’s most effective attackers, finishing fourth in the 2012 PFA Player of the Year voting behind Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney and Paul Scholes.
One of the great trailblazers for Americans at the top level of the English game, perhaps his finest moment in a Fulham shirt came in April 2010 in the Europa League round of 16 second leg against Juventus. A pass from Dickson Etuhu to the edge of the box gave Dempsey time to turn and look up, spotting Antonio Chimenti off his line. A feather light chip and the ball was lofted into the net, Fulham coming back from 3-1 down in the first leg to eliminate one of Europe’s superpowers in one of the most remarkable nights Craven Cottage has witnessed.
8. John Stones (Barnsley to Everton, $4M, 2013)
In many of these instances, it is what a player has done on the pitch that makes him stand out. Certainly, Stones achieved a great deal in his three-and-a-half years at Goodison Park, establishing himself as an England international and winning the club’s young player of the season prize in 2015. Perhaps most significant, however, was the sheer profit Everton managed to make on Stones, the prime example of shrewd recruitment from the lower leagues turning an almighty profit (this very easily could have been Dele Alli but for the missteps of his career).
A prospect signed from the Championship was sold to Manchester City in the summer of 2016 for $67 million, making him the second-most expensive defender in history behind David Luiz. It was no less of a successful move for Barnsley, the $9 million they received as a sell-on clause more than they had been paid for any player in their history.
7. Bruno Fernandes (Sporting to Manchester United, $63.5M, 2020)
Two years after his long-awaited move to Old Trafford and Fernandes already looks like one of the best, probably the very best, signing Manchester United have made since Sir Alex Ferguson’s appointment at the club. His impact in the Premier League was immediate and sizeable, not once was he on the losing side in a top-flight game in that first half season as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side flew up the table to qualify for the Champions League.
Under the then-manager there was precious little to the tactical plan beyond relying on the best players to deliver; Fernandes has done that time and again even if at times he has not jelled as well with Cristiano Ronaldo as might have been hoped. That is the slightest of clouds in what is almost entirely silver lining for the 27-year-old, who has 47 goals and 36 assists to his name from 108 games.
6. Gary Cahill (Bolton to Chelsea, $9.5M, 2012)
So often the January market is the time for quick fixes, what former Arsenal recruitment chief Raul Sanllehi described as a “tactical” market. Yet for a relative pittance even a decade ago, Chelsea secured a center back who would be a cornerstone of their dressing room for seven-and-a-half years. In a squad that could easily slip into politicking and intrigue, Cahill was a steady hand on the tiller, trusted to take the armband from John Terry on his retirement.
Cahill left Chelsea with every major European club honor to his name and 290 appearances in the bank. That’s not bad for a player who many expected to be a backup when he arrived.
5. Jermain Defoe (Toronto to Sunderland, swap deal, 2015)
A great many of the players that follow on in this list made decisive contributions to successful title challengers, taking their club a rung or two up, if not higher. But that ability to get just a fraction better is no less critical at the bottom of the table. Indeed, for two years Defoe was among the players who at least postponed the inevitable for Sunderland, prolonging a stay in the Premier League that seemed to be designed for nothing more than annual scrabbles away from the trap door.
For the price of one Jozy Altidore, Sunderland received four crucial goals that kept the specter of relegation at bay in 2015, none more memorable than the match-winner in the Tyne Wear derby that brought tears to Defoe’s eyes. The following season he repeated the trick, scoring decisive goals against Crystal Palace, Aston Villa, Swansea and Chelsea, all worth the precious points that kept them up once more. Even he could not keep David Moyes’ side up in 2016-17, though he did more than his fair share, scoring 14 of the 29 goals the Black Cats would score in the entire league campaign.
4. Robert Huth (Stoke to Leicester, initial loan, 2015)
Leicester are another club with an impressive collection of winter hits, right up to Youri Tielemans in 2019, and in another world we would have Riyad Mahrez at this spot, a January signing before Leicester’s promotion to the Championship. Former Chelsea center back Huth has quite the case anyway. When he arrived from Stoke, the Foxes were moored at the bottom of the table, fighting for their Premier League lives.
Scarcely 15 months later, Huth and Leicester were England’s most unlikely ever champions, a title built just as much on the foundations built by the German, Wes Morgan and Kasper Schmeichel as it was the heroics of N’Golo Kante, Mahrez and Jamie Vardy further up the pitch. Huth even made an impact further up the pitch, scoring a brace in the 3-1 win over Manchester City in February after which Claudio Ranieri’s side started to believe.
3. Luis Suarez (Ajax to Liverpool, $30M, 2011)
Not even the highest profile Liverpool addition of a frenetic conclusion to the 2011 window — that honor went to $47 million Fernando Torres replacement Andy Carroll — at the time Suarez was best known for denying Ghana a place in the 2010 World Cup semifinals and a biting incident at Ajax. The disciplinary issues would not be addressed, but the Uruguayan was worth all the difficulties that came with him during three-and-a-half years at the club.
His 133 games brought with them 82 goals and one near miss of a title challenge; his 2013-14 season was among the best individual campaigns by a Premier League player and briefly had Liverpool believing the title was theirs.
2. Nemanja Vidic (Spartak Moscow to Manchester United, $9.5M, 2006)
Sir Alex Ferguson could not have wished for a better Christmas than the one that arrived on Dec. 25, 2005, when Manchester United agreed a deal to bring Serbian international Vidic, a player they had been tracking for several years but who seemed destined for Fiorentina before the Premier League side stole a march. At the time, the Red Devils were engaged in a doomed pursuit of Chelsea at the top of the table and had gone, by their standards, a devastating three years without a title.
With Vidic at the back, joined by fellow January addition Patrice Evra, United would reel off three straight league titles and reestablish themselves as a major force in Europe, not least because of their rock-solid defense. In eight-plus years at Old Trafford, the center back won five Premier League titles, three League Cups, a Champions League and a host of individual honors. He is one of the best players in his position in the history of the league.
1. Virgil van Dijk (Southampton to Liverpool, $100M, 2018)
Not merely the best of January additions, but perhaps the great Premier League signing of the decade, one that ranks alongside Eric Cantona, Dennis Bergkamp and Alan Shearer as one of the most transformative additions to a club. It is to the credit of Jurgen Klopp and Michael Edwards that they firmly believed this was the case. When Southampton pushed for them to desist in their illegal approach in the summer of 2017, Liverpool eyes did not wander elsewhere.
They had spotted their man and come January he was theirs, the deal agreed in time for him to make an immediate switch. Since joining Liverpool, he has been the best center back in the world and it has not been all that close, taking Klopp’s side from a very good team to something special, European and English champions and perennial contenders for both. At almost any fee that represents money perfectly spent.