To Spend or Not to Spend?

The cruel reality of the EPL’s January transfer window...

No new year’s hangover is worse than that of an EPL team waking up January 1st in a pool of champagne and confetti to find themselves in the bottom three relegation places. If you lose in an American league like the NBA or NFL, you get the highest draft picks and an opportunity to bounce back from a bad season. In the Premier League, the bottom three finishers in the table are sent to a lower league, with promises of irrelevancy instead of parity.

Never before have the consequences of relegation been so high.

Every year in the Premier League, the money from the current TV deal is divvied out to every team, with the title winner claiming the most, and the Championship (English soccer’s 2nd division) bound 20th place getting the least. However, in the past decade the sums paid out from these deals have been increasing, with Sky and BT Sports set to pay £5.136 billion for the rights to live Premier League games for the 2016/17 season.

Will the bubbles burst for Big Sam and Sunderland?
Will the bubbles burst for Big Sam and Sunderland?

For the upcoming 2016/2017 Season, the Premier League winner will receive £150 million and the last place finisher £99 million. To put that in perspective, the worst team in the EPL would be making 254% more than their 2011 counterpart.

Clubs cannot afford to go down and come back up through promotion a year later either. Any club that goes down can’t keep paying their players Premier League money. As of 2011, the average Premier League salary was over five times that of the average Championship player. A Premier League squad is fiscally impossible to field in the Championship.

With the rewards so high, the prospect of losing out on a Premier League spot often kicks relegation-threatened teams into a frenzy of spending in January. Even if only one or two buys come good, that very well may be the difference between 17th and 18th place. The promise of a £99 million windfall (at minimum) makes spending millions in January a small price to pay.

So, the more money spent in January, the more likely a team is to improve in the table and stay alive in the Premier League, right?

Dead wrong.

Comparing league position before the window and at the season’s end, there’s no correlation between spending and improvement.

There were only two clear trends in the data, neither of which is particularly helpful: 1) Liverpool loves January deals and 2) Newcastle is on an expensive mission to turn transform their coastal town into a French colony by buying in bulk from Ligue 1.

The 2011 and 2013 January windows exemplify the absurdity of equating January spending to increased league position.


Nearly every team in 2013 below 12th in the table as of January 1st recorded a net spend in the subsequent January window (besides Wigan’s net spend of £0). Of those eight teams, two finished above their January 1st position, two finished below, and the three ownders of the relegation spots on new years went nowhere.

The biggest spenders of these bottom teams were Queens Park Rangers who spent £20.5 million on mercurial backup Loic Remy and defensive-liability defender Christopher Samba to solidify their grasp on 20th.


Among the bottom four teams at Christmas 2011 – Wolves, Birmingham, Fulham, and Wigan – only Wigan had a net spend during the window (even then, a marginal £0.6 million.) Only Birmingham was relegated, while Fulham made a pretty incredible leap from 18th to 8th.

Even at the top of the table, it seems dubious to attribute big spending to big results.

The largest spender of the 2011 Window were Chelsea, who spent £71 million on Fernando Torres (a frequenter of “Biggest January Transfer Busts of All-Time” lists) and David Luiz. While they saw their league position increase from 5th to second, Liverpool used the Torres money to buy his “Biggest January Transfer Busts of All-Time” list amigo Andy Carroll as a replacement. While Liverpool may be criticiezed for spending most of the sizable Torres fee on big Andy, they also purchased another striker that same January from Ajax: Luiz Suarez.

Big Andy (left) and Suarez (right)
Big Andy (left), Kenny Dalglish, and Suarez (right)

While there may be no clear pattern between January spending and better table position, there certainly are success stories. But the disconnect between money and improvement implies that there are other variables at play when making a “good transfer.” Player evaluation itself, individual managers along with a club’s specific finances all could play the pivotal role in a “successful transfer”. All these other options do have one thing in common: a certain degree of patience is required.

However the cruel reality of the January window is that clubs really don’t have any time. They have money and a short opportunity to spend it; all while the consequences for relegation loom. Yet spending in January is more akin to Roulette than refined investment.

This season, Norwich, Bournemouth, Newcastle, and Sunderland spent big to avoid the very real threat of relegation. For 17th place Swansea and last place Villa, no big-money moves were made.

As for who survives (probably not Aston Villa, sorry), there are still plenty of games to play.

Despite all the uncertainty and panic for relegation clubs in January, there is always one guarantee in the Premier League. And come May, the bottom three teams aren’t going to like it.

Images Via, Football Wiki, Sky Sports, The Liverpool Echo