Brexitball: The January Window Reviewed

Andy Watson looks back at the January transfer window just gone to see what it can teach us about the post-Brexit market.

The January 2022 transfer window was the third window in which the new GBE regulations applied. 

In previous articles in this series, we have looked backwards to assess the impact that the regulations are going to have on the clubs in the UK so it was fascinating to have the chance to see the GBE regulations play out in real-time during the window.

In the rest of this piece, we’ll offer a summary of the GBE moves from the window and try to discover any interesting trends or tendencies in the market as it continues to adapt to post-Brexit reality.

Comparison to 2021

By the time the January 2022 window closed, there were 32 transfers and loans that would have required the player to attain a GBE to represent their new clubs. The Premier League accounted for 24 of those and the Championship saw 8 signings that required GBE clearance.

The equivalent transfer window last year was completely different. Of course, these differences shouldn’t be laid solely at the door of GBE regulations; the pandemic alone would’ve had a big influence on clubs’ transfer policy and the amount of money that would’ve been available to spend.

In January 2021, Premier League clubs only made 12 transfers from foreign leagues with six of them being loans until the end of the season. Compare that to 24 this time around and either clubs have gotten to grips with the regulations in 2022, there is more confidence in the market now and/or it is just a coincidence.

Premier League Transfers In That Required GBEs – January 2021

It is worth noting that, of those 12 transfers, only Martin Odegaard—a permanent transfer to Arsenal in the summer—could be said to be a first-team regular now. This further highlights the peril of January shopping but does indicate the type of transfer that some clubs are engaging in. 

Once again, we see Manchester City and Brighton pilfering the young foreign talent from obscure locations. None of Rosa, Stevanovic or Caicedo have made a Premier League appearance yet.

The Championship saw eight new arrivals from foreign shores in January 2021, exactly the same number as this time around. Five of the moves were loan signings and three of the clubs who ventured into the market are now Premier League sides. 

The Championship Transfers In That Required GBEs – January 2021

One big difference is that, in 2021, only two of the signings were from Band 1-3, whereas, after a year of adjustment and planning, five out of eight signings in 2022 came from these much more attainable GBE bands.

Interestingly, Nottingham Forest, Barnsley and Swansea were the clubs willing to look outside of the domestic market to improve their squads. However, as in the Premier League, none of the players in this list are currently starring for the first XI of the team they signed for in this window. 

That said, Zinckernagel and Dike are now starting players for the Championship teams they currently play for. There can be little doubt they have contributed to the game in this country but it is worth highlighting once again just how difficult it is to recruit successfully.

January 2022: The Premier League Imports

About half of the transfers and loans into the Premier League in the January window just past involved players from Band 1 leagues. This is no surprise as those leagues are of an equivalent standard to the Premier League and are traditionally where Premier League clubs have signed players from.

As you can see from the table above, Serie A was the most popular shopping area, although it’s worth noting that Robin Olsen was brought in before the January transfer window opened and Christian Eriksen was technically a free agent. The other Serie A transfers can also be explained by non-football performance reasons: Antonio Conte brought in two Juventus players to Spurs and the Pozzo family used their Udinese-Watford connection to effect the Samir transfer. 

Before we break down some of these signings, it is worth reminding you how well players tend to do when moving to England from different leagues. The figures below take players transferred permanently into the Premier League between the summer window of 2018 and the summer window of 2020 and show the percentage of minutes played for the signing club. 

Here are the results for Bands 1-3:

As you can see, signings from the Bundesliga seem to have particularly struggled to make a big impact for their new clubs. Most Band 2 and Band 3 signings seem to struggle as well, with the notable exception of Portugal’s Primeira Division which arguably provides the Premier League with some of their most impactful foreign signings. Luis Diaz and Chiquinho will put that trend to the test over the next few seasons.

Club Partnerships, Loans and Club Networks

Julian Alvarez comes to Manchester City very much hoping to kick start a market that is yet to be taken advantage of by clubs in England: that of Band 3 (Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, and Russia). Moving from one of the foremost teams in Band 3, River Plate, it will be intriguing to see what impact he is able to have in the best team in the UK.

Alvarez is one of a number of players to have been bought in this window and loaned out straight away. In Alvarez’s case, it is to continue his development with his old club. This has also been the case for Denis Undav, Maduka Okoye, Hayao Kawabe, and others announced in this window. The reasons for this are different for each player but speak to some of the complications involved when dealing with GBE legislation.

Club partnerships have been something that has been around in the game for a long time. Feeder clubs and parent clubs have been operating as a means of player development/player supply framework before Brexit was even a twinkle in Nigel Farage’s eye. However, club networks have never seemed so important in the game.

We have already mentioned Samir’s transfer from Udinese to Watford. It is well documented that the Pozzo family own both clubs and we have seen on countless occasions how they have moved players between the two clubs both for performance reasons and financial management.

Denis Undav’s transfer from Union Saint-Gilloise to Brighton is an interesting one. For those who know anything about Brighton’s recent seasons in the Premier League, there is a clear need for the south coast club to improve their chance conversion. With Undav now the Belgian league’s top goalscorer, this move makes sense for performance reasons. But there is little risk involved in the transfer as the selling club is also owned by Brighton’s owner, Tony Bloom. 

It is not too late for owners of Premier League or Championship clubs to create new partnerships or club networks. But across the rest of the world—certainly in the higher GBE bands—clubs have finally woken up to their potential. Expect club values to increase by the millions.

Wolves and Grasshoppers

Wolves’ relationship with Grasshoppers of Zurich isn’t quite as clear as the ones discussed above. There is a business relationship there and certainly, lots of Wolves players have been loaned out to the Swiss club over the last couple of seasons. 

However, it appears to be the case now that Wolves are using Grasshoppers as a kind of holding bay for talent, harbouring players who are not in Wolves’ first-team plans right now or are not currently able to register with themselves at this moment in time.

Scott Sellars, Wolves’ technical director, used this quote when the confirmation of Grasshoppers’ Japanese star Hayao Kawabe was made public:

“Due to the GBE criteria for signing international players, Hayao is a player who is eligible to sign for a British club this month, but may not be in the future, which is why we’ve moved now to confirm his signing.”

Kawabe is on the fringes of the Japanese international setup. The points aggregated from his minutes for Japan are not enough to fulfil the 15 points required to get GBE clearance. He would have also missed the threshold playing in a Band 5 or 6 league, such as the J-League. However, in a Band 4 league—such as the Swiss Super League—he picked up enough points this January window to get a GBE, confirming the transfer and allowing Wolves to hold his registration. 

The fact that he has remained in Switzerland suggests that his contribution to the first team is not vital at the moment. However, he may be a useful asset in future seasons. The problem for Wolves was that, by the summer, he may have lost the points required for a GBE, depending on international minutes and domestic performance. This is why the deal was signed in January.

This kind of player trading and holding is something that we could see much more often with the GBE regulations. To try and sign a player outside of Bands 4-6 without them holding the necessary auto pass reserved for regular international players of Top 50 FIFA ranked nations may only be possible if they make a secondary move to a club where they are able to gain the points required.

This sort of dealing was seen in the January 2022 dealings with Brighton’s signing of Kacper Kozlowski. An exciting young talent, Kozlowski went out on loan to the aforementioned Union SG in Belgium for minutes and experience in a Band 2 league. It is good for his development to play regular football but also a move was necessary for him to play for Brighton in future. 

Auston Trusty was announced as an Arsenal player this January. A 23-year-old MLS full back who lacked the points to achieve a GBE, he remains in the US for now. However, rumours are circulating that he will go off to Europe for a loan before he is able to play any part for Arsenal. It will be interesting to see if he does play any part for Arsenal at all.

The Championship

It is also noteworthy to observe the Championship’s transfer dealings in January 2022. 

Only eight transfers in that period would have required any dealings with the Home Office. Given that five of them came from Bands 1 and 2, the suggestion is that most clubs are not bringing players through the exemption panel. However, it is still interesting that so few clubs dipped their toe into the foreign market in this window.

Looking back over recent history in recruitment, it is perhaps no surprise to see which clubs have been ambitious in their January business. Barnsley, Middlesbrough and Nottingham Forest have recruited more extensively than most from outside the UK, as discussed in this earlier Brexitball article, and once again, they have picked up interesting players this January.

A number of players have become eligible from earlier spells playing in English football. Riley McGree is eligible for a GBE despite coming over from the MLS due to his minutes playing for Birmingham City between October 2020 and January 2022. Daryl Dike played for Barnsley in the Championship last season so no issues there either. 

Richie Laryea was an interesting one from Forest. He wouldn’t have ordinarily been available but his regular Canadian international appearances meant that, when Canada entered the Top 50 in the FIFA rankings, he became eligible for an autopass. This is switched on work from Forest and offers a possible loophole for other clubs to follow.

Conclusions

It is clearer than ever before that preparation is the key when shopping for players in the global transfer market. Not only do you need to be as sure as you can that the player can add some value to the club but also you need a long term strategy to make it work. If you find some interesting talent in one of the hundreds of leagues where it is difficult to obtain a GBE, then what are you able to do with that information?

Alternatively, it may be a more suitable course of action for many clubs to continue to either look domestically for their recruitment or rely on their own youth system. It can take a lot of expense and expertise to be successful in player trading across the globe.

With the market of available players under the GBE regulations totalling less than 5000 players, that pool is small but geographically massive. But there are some clubs that are much more accomplished at fishing than others. If other clubs aren’t careful, they could be left behind.

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