After weeks and perhaps years of negotiations and debate, welcome change is coming to the Premier League’s transfer window. Finally.
Executives from 20 Premier League clubs met at a hotel in central London on Thursday, and by the time they left, they had voted – not unanimously, but with a 14-5 majority – to move the league’s summer transfer deadline up several weeks, to 5 p.m. on the Thursday before the start of each season.
In that hotel conference room, concerns were surely raised. Many of them were probably valid. The Premier League has taken its transfer window out of line with the rest of Europe, and taken a risk that could inflict short-term damage.
But it has gambled on its own financial might. And on its place atop club soccer’s hierarchy. And in the current global soccer climate, that’s a damn good bet. It’s also an admirable one.
Some will say the move is an overreaction to recent events. But it’s not. It’s also not an overhaul. It’s a meaningful change to a flawed system that is now slightly less flawed and could yet become even less so.
It was certainly spurred by recent events. Frustration among managers grew as several high-profile players effectively staged holdouts, as their transfer sagas seeped into the season – one week, two weeks, three. Some, like Philippe Coutinho, have missed five matches in all competitions. Others, like Alexis Sanchez, returned to the pitch only to be well off the pace while rumblings of teammates’ disdain toward them leaked to the media.
But why? Why was it like this? Why was it possible?
The transfer window was introduced and deadline day set as it was because it aligned with UEFA deadlines to register players for continental competitions. The simple idea: Get all your business done before those competitions begin. Enter them with a set squad. With no drama.
And yet only now has the Premier League realized, Huh, maybe we should apply that same principle domestically.
It’s intuitive. The window system is structured to allow clubs two opportunities to overhaul or fiddle with their squads. One is the offseason. One is smack dab in the middle of the season. If clubs can’t recruit new players six matches in, why could they after three?
There are two main complaints about the pre-season deadline, but one is irrational. Some managers and pundits argue that the in-season deadline allowed clubs to better identify weaknesses over a season’s first three weeks and address them in the transfer market. But no legitimate weakness would have been unrecognizable prior to a season opener, and no sound reasoning for making a purchase could be applied based on three games. The small sample size led to panic buys. The earlier deadline will save managers and sporting directors from themselves.
Twenty games represent a much bigger sample size, and that’s why the January window is in place. Clubs aren’t locked into their rosters for full campaigns. If reinforcements are necessary and affordable, they will come. The wait might not be ideal. But that wait commences in November or December, when squad shortcomings are glaring. Not in late August.
Late August does, however, house the main concern. The Premier League’s transfer deadline is the date after which clubs are no longer allowed to bring in new players. It has nothing to do with sales. Barring a similar change in the rest of Europe’s top leagues, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Juventus will be able to buy players off English clubs up until the end of the month. The English clubs won’t be able to bring in replacements.
That’s technically a problem. The Premier League’s website, ironically, admits as much: “We operate in a European, and often a global market, so while [managers] might be happy that the window closed in England they would be less happy to see their Spanish, German or Italian rivals continue to trade and pursue their transfer targets.”
But in practice, especially after a year or two of adjustment, market forces should naturally bring a correction. The financial strength of the Premier League should end up rendering the pre-season deadline the de facto European deadline, even if La Liga and the Bundesliga don’t officially fall in line.
First of all, a club rarely has an obligation to sell a player. A Premier League sporting director can explicitly tell potential bidders, Our deadline is your deadline. They of course would have the freedom to renege on their word and sell on Aug. 31, but no club will be left empty handed, with a star player suddenly no longer on board and no time to bring in a replacement.
We might have even seen a miniature version of this last week. The Spanish deadline is currently Sept. 1, one day later than England’s and Germany’s. On the Friday after what is commonly referred to as “Deadline Day,” Coutinho still could have been sold to Barcelona. But once the English window shut on Thursday at 11 p.m., there was no chance Coutinho would leave. Barcelona’s deadline – if Liverpool even considered selling at all – was Aug. 31.
Another issue is the supposed advantage other European clubs will have when bidding against a Premier League side for a player. But sellers will soon realize, if they don’t already, that without the possibility of an English bid as leverage, a player’s price tag won’t be nearly as hefty. They’ll set soft deadlines in line with the Premier League’s, and, if they’re smart, they’ll make a definitive decision on that Thursday before Premier League kickoff. Effectively, the deadline for any player with Premier League interest would be that Thursday.
And once other leagues recognize this, they should fall in line. In five years, it seems likely that others will have settled on a similar early-August deadline.
In fact, UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin has already backed the Premier League’s change. “I am aware there are serious discussions around Europe regarding the shortening of the summer transfer window,” he told The Times. “In my view, it is not good when footballers play for one club when the league starts and another club when the transfer window closes. There is a lot of uncertainty for a long time. Therefore I would say that the window might be too long and I would support it being shorter.”
With it shorter in only one league, there may yet be unforeseen consequences. There very well could be an unwillingness around Europe to conform. This very well could be seen as a disastrous decision in ten years’ time.
But the Premier League – with its £1.4 billion of transfer expenditures this summer alone, with its lucrative TV contract, and with the skyrocketing revenues of its individual clubs – was in a unique position to lead the charge on transfer window reform. It was the only league that could start the wave. It has, and admirably so. Now it will hope that it can carry the rest of Europe with it.
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Henry Bushnell covers soccer – the U.S. national teams, the Premier League, and much, much more – for FC Yahoo and Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.