When FIFA enforced a mandatory transfer window for the 2002/3 season they believed that it would be beneficial to the game by providing structure. Previously deals could be struck at any point during the season: players could switch teams whenever they wanted except for the last few weeks of the season. Clubs would fix their weaknesses in the middle of the season by organising short-term loans or contracts with other clubs. However, what has now happened is as dangerous to the game as the Bosman ruling was in 1995 where players suddenly had the power of free agency on their side to make a “decent” living.
There are many different issues regarding the current transfer windows: two windows is excessive, having a window puts too much pressure on a team to make moves, and having a window gives teams and players too much power to up their prices. The current system has a lot of problems, exemplified by the amount of business done in the last two days of the window each year, in January too, while the amount of money spent on trying to get a player before the window closes means that transfer fees often escalate rapidly because clubs realise they can extort one another.
But the window is supposed to work as a limiting factor. The age where any club could sign a player part way through the season meant that any large club could pick up an in form player from a smaller club while any underperforming player could be shipped out quickly. The combination of the transfer window and the limitations of squad size that UEFA and the FA have imposed on teams mean that teams have to compete with limitations that should make them more equal.
However, the window does still cause problems. The fact that it ends after the season has begun in every major European league is bizarre. Clubs are off for the summer in May and yet by September they haven’t managed to decide who is in their squad.
The window running into the season is a distraction as well. Teams should be settled by their first game if they want to play well but when clubs are still shopping for players or hoping to offload a couple it makes preseason look pointless. If you organise preseason and only half of the players in your squad by the first match were those that you trained it would lead to a difficult first game with many of the players learning in competitive matches.
The most poignant example of distraction in this year’s window was Gareth Bale’s prolonged transfer sag, culminating in him heading to Real Madrid. The saga wasn’t great for his former team, Tottenham, as they didn’t know when he was going to go and his refusal to train left them without their star player in the North London derby against Arsenal. When Arsenal tried to sign Yohan Cabaye from Newcastle it disrupted Newcastle because their star midfielder claimed he wasn’t mentally ready to play. The transfer window causes problems at the start of the season for almost every club as rumours spread about who is going to move where and which clubs are looking to buy one more player.
Many managers, including Alan Pardew, Arsene Wenger and Steve Coppell, have complained about how long the transfer window lasts and that it extends into the season, but it seems to be a cultural thing rather than a necessity to get business done in the last few days. The culture of panic buying is something created by limiting the amount of time managers have to fix their teams but not all managers seem to do it. While Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool were all panic buying in the last few days of the transfer window and paying exorbitant fees, Manchester City and Chelsea had already done their business and currently have settled teams that have had preseason to work together. Both of these clubs showed that buying could occur at the beginning of the window if a club could be bothered to go out and make a deal. Southampton is another example of a club that identified a few targets and bought them back in July rather than panicking at the end of August. Panic buying is not systemic because there are clubs who restrain themselves or who plan at the beginning of the summer who they want and how much they’re willing to pay.
The amount spent in England this summer on new players for the Premier League was £630,000,000 (~$ 979,300,000) of which around £140m was spent in the last 24 hours. The window closed with many deals still on the table that could have pushed up the amount spent by another £60m if the paperwork had gone through in time. These numbers clearly show the absurd amount that clubs are willing to spend on players. But what the numbers also show is that clubs spent half a billion pounds in the three months between this and last season but still felt required, for their own success and to appease the fans, to spend another £140m in the last 24 hours.
So what needs to happen? The current system is designed to be fair to all teams by restricting their purchasing time. The more organised a club is the more likely it is to succeed in both the transfer market and in the league. But there is a problem when the market closes. Because every club feels they have to make deals when the market closes the prices skyrocket and clubs make deals that they usually later regret. There is also the issue of teams disturbing each other with transfer speculation once the season has started. The easy way to fix that problem is to make sure that the window closes when the first game starts so squads have to be complete by mid August. The issue with this solution is trying to convince all the major leagues around Europe to start on the same weekend so this could be changed. But this doesn’t solve other problems that stem from the transfer window like what to do about the midseason window or the winters break strategy in Europe. Until further notice, the mayhem will continue each window.