Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Transfer window of opportunity disappoints

No takeovers, no £100m Kaka, no Robinho-style steal, no big names: 2008/2009's January transfer window was a shadow of the start of season sales. The obvious pick out of this lacklustre window is the farcical 'Robbie Keane returns to Spurs' story, the Irish whinger making a south-bound trip down the road he'd taken North only six months before to follow his 'boyhood dream' move to Liverpool. Farcical because it went against Rafa Benitez's continued assertions that Keane would continue to be a Liverpool player - though I doubt he was really as sincere as his words suggested - and farcical because the player's desire to fight for a place at Liverpool was clearly inhibited by his ego, and his desire not to sit on the bench at a top three club. Keane scored seven goals in around 28 appearances, which, given his proven pedigree in the Premiership, wasn't really good enough.

It obviously takes a player a while to settle at a new club, but Keane is nearly 30, a well-travelled and expensive forward (some £71m has been spent on the man in his career), a potent goalscorer with international experience, who did have plenty of starts for Liverpool. 28 appearances does not equate to limited chances - as Andy Gray would say, it only takes a second to score a goal. Liverpool find themselves second in the league, and in the Champions League knockout stages. It's not as if they haven't been winning games, and ergo scoring goals. He might not have played 90 minutes every time, but with Keane's experience, you could forgive Benitez for having expected a better return.

The third farcical point is Liverpool's title challenge. In Torres they have perhaps the most deadly forward in the league, but he hasn't been properly fit all season, and now has to carry the weight of the team's attack on his shoulders for the remainder. Support can come from Babel, N'Gog and El Zhar, but that's all they will be, support. Benitez maybe would have wanted to prove a point by allowing Keane to go, but he hasn't done himself any long-term favours by letting him do so with half an hour to find a replacement.

The only other major transfer of the window - Andrei Arshavin's incredibly protracted, probably dodgy, we'll turn a blind eye anyway switch to Arsenal - was verging on farce too. For 31 days, Arshavin wasn't, to paraphrase most football pundits, 'the sort of player Arsenal needed'. Then panic sets in hours before the window was shutting, and suddenly Arshavin is the player Arsenal cannot afford to miss out on, lest they fail to qualify for the Champions League. More pressing for Arsenal had surely been a holding midfielder in the Flamini role, which would allow Nasri and the returning Rosicky more freedom, and the inconsistent Diaby, Denilson and Song chance to improve. Arshavin is not going to score 15 goals coming from midfield, even though he will likely be given a totally free role behind one of Van Persie or Adebayor. Obviously the lad is top class, but his is a signing that needed to be made in August, not now, and one world class signing with four short months to make an impact might not be enough to give an inconsistent Arsenal side the necessary boost they need.

Returning to Spurs (like a certain Irishman), Tottenham continued this month's 'variations on a theme' transfer policy: the theme being ex-players, the variations being Keane, Pascal Chimbonda and Jermaine Defoe. Rumours that Ossie Ardiles and Jurgen Klinsmann were returning to White Hart Lane proved to be unfounded. Harry Redknapp, for all his transfer guile and experience, has never been in a position where resources are plentiful and the club is genuinely attractive, and Spurs were the busiest signing club in the window. After also capturing Wilson Palacios from Wigan, they had only spent a million or two less than billionnaires Man City, but Redknapp has got to do more with his usual wheeling and dealing than simply save Spurs from relegation. A top half finish is imperative now, given how close the table has been this season, but Redknapp will not have any excuses come the end of the season should they fail to head significantly upwards.

For most of the other clubs in the UK engaging in transfer activity, the credit crunch had a major impact on their plans. Outside of the Premier League, most clubs could only loan players to each other, with the occasional five or six-figure fee being splashed by a Championship team. Even Chelsea, so often the funds behind a merry-go-round of transfers, were restricted to a loan signing of the quality but inconsistent Ricardo Quaresma.

It seemed a case of two approaches in the Premier League. Spurs, Man City, Wigan and Arsenal, and to a lesser extent Hull, Pompey and Stoke, took the 'spending money to make money' path i.e. the monetary reward of staying in or succeeding in the Premiership. But for many other clubs including Blackburn, Sunderland and Middlesborough, it was more a case of keeping hold of assets already at the club - Roque Santa Cruz, Kenwyne Jones and Stewart Downing respectively - to aid their bid for survival or glory. Even in the multi-billion pound football industry, caution seemed the watchword.

But despite the economic climate and most clubs' lack of funds or willingness to break the bank, it was nevertheless a record January spend for the British transfer window: some £160m went on new players. However, for the incredible combined price paid, it will be interesting to see whether the rest of the Premier League season delivers its money's worth.

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