January transfer windows are rarely very exciting, but the one that closed on Thursday can probably be classified as boring. Not quite a non-event, but probably as exciting as a Butterworth bachelor party.
The most notable moves in the English Premier League (EPL) were Daniel Sánchez’s arrival at Arsenal on loan from Barcelona and Chelsea’s rather bizarre decisions to loan in Gonzalo Higuaín, whose stay at Juventus has been akin to a Buddhist meditation. And buying Christian Pulisic from Borussia Dortmund for £57.6 million (R1 billion) and then immediately loaning him back to the German club was even more odd.
There was also the ever-promising but not always delivering Michy Batshuayi move from Chelsea to fifth from bottom Crystal Palace. Oh, and the awkward but effective Peter Crouch returned to top-flight football by signing on for Burnley from Stoke. The 38-year-old insisted: “I feel that the older I get, the more hungry I am.”
What is important at this time, as the race to the end hots up, is to assess the impact the summer signings had on the top teams.
Liverpool under Jürgen Klopp have been the best they have been since before Nelson Mandela’s release from prison.
Having cruelly missed out on the Champions League trophy last season, and eyeing their first EPL crown since 1990, Liverpool opened the cheque book in the summer and came back with £200 million worth of signings.
The team’s best acquisition was Brazilian goalkeeper Alisson who, at £65 million, broke the world record for a goalkeeper transfer fee. Alisson should take a huge chunk of credit for Liverpool keeping up with, and then overtaking, the Manchester City mean machine at the top. Should Liverpool claim the title, the Anfield faithful should bow to this man.
The other signings have blown hot and cold, but have come through at key moments. Klopp insists that the public should “really expect a lot more” from Naby Keïta, his £52 million signing. Keïta has yet to live up to the extremely high expectations that everyone had when he arrived, and has yet to claim a permanent starting place.
The same goes for the £44 million Fabinho. While the defensive midfielder has also yet to live up to his full billing, his versatility and ability to fill in at central defence during an injury crisis has made him indispensable.
Xherdan Shaqiri was used to a lot more game at Stoke City, and has had to work harder to get into Klopp’s team. And when he has been on the field, he has had all and sundry gasping for breath at his natural ability and his ease of doing business.
His two goals in the 3-1 victory against Manchester United in José Mourinho’s last match in December – a game in which he came on as a second-half substitute – earned him hero status at both Liverpool and Manchester, where United fans were thanking him for finally triggering the Portuguese mentor’s axing.
Much has been said about Riyad Mahrez’s battle to integrate since arriving from Leicester City for a £60 million fee, a record for the tiny team he was part of in the fairytale 2016/17 season.
Even though he has yet to cement himself a starting berth, he has played in more games than all other players.
He has used his game time to slot in nine goals this season, making the attacking midfielder the fifth highest converter in the team. However, he has battled to shake off his ballooning of an 86th minute penalty in the 0-0 draw at Anfield, a moment seen by many fans and pundits as a key turning point in the league race.
The other significant signing was 18-year-old Claudio Gomes, whose Paris Saint-Germain youth contract had come to an end.
The defensive midfielder, who has been a fixture in the French junior squads since the age of 16, has not had much game time. But City boss Pep Guardiola describes him as “good, so good”. He is one for the future.
Spurs made history by becoming the first club in the Premier League era to not make a summer signing.
Disgruntled fans did not buy chairperson Daniel Levy’s line that it was worth sacrificing strengthening the team for the shiny new stadium, which is set to soar above the budgeted £1 billion.
Initially, the lack of signings did not seem to affect the team’s title chase as they have kept within touching distance of Liverpool and City. But with injuries to key players such as Harry Kane and Dele Alli, and Son Heung-min’s departure for the Asian Cup for much of last month, it was anticipated that Spurs would dip into the transfer market. It was not to be.
A “disappointed” Mauricio Pochettino took comfort in that “we are close [to the leaders] ... and we will fight to the end to be as high as we can”.
Jorginho, the Blues’ only significant summer signing, is a shadow of his former self at Napoli last season, where he also played under his current manager, Maurizio Sarri.
Sarri, who has been attacked for his rigid application of tactics, has stubbornly stuck with Jorginho, who he calls his “plan A”.
The arrival of Sokratis Papastathopoulos – don’t let someone without front teeth repeat this name to you – in August last year was hailed as the big answer to Arsenal’s defensive frailties. And it was. The big man has solidified the Arsenal defence and gives no quarter to the most lethal attackers.
Mourinho was characteristically morose when his bosses refused to entertain his extravagant demands in the summer.
After two seasons of generously signing cheques and getting little in return, the club’s chief executive, Ed Woodward, told Mourinho to live within his means.
Satisfying Mourinho’s splurges was not bearing fruit and he was feuding with his stars – who included the £100 million Paul Pogba – instead of getting the best out of them.
In the end, Mourinho had to settle for £52 million Fred as his one major signing, with the others being place-fillers. But the midfielder, United’s third most expensive in history, has only started seven games out of his total 15 appearances in United colours.
Acting manager Ole Gunnar Solskjær, who has played Fred twice since his arrival, has promised to give him more game time so that the Brazilian can do for United what he does for his country and what he did for Shakhtar Donetsk.