Safety In Numbers

With Premier League clubs setting a new recording for January deadline day spending this week, it seems the thirst for a transformative mid-season signing is greater than ever. A total of £150m was spent on Wednesday, taking the month’s total to £430m and introducing a host of new faces to England’s top division. As Manchester City shore up their defence just for the hell of it, Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Tottenham secure the missing pieces of their respective jigsaws in the hope of securing a top four position, and Arsenal splash out on a new shiny thing to divert the attention of the masses, there was also renewed ambition towards the bottom of the league. The battle to beat the drop looks like going down to the wire, with arguably every team from tenth down in danger of facing demotion, but does splashing the cash guarantee safety?

Now the bi-annual willy-waving fiesta of transfer deadline day has been and gone, and Jim White has been disassembled and packed away into his trunk until August, Premier League teams can concentrate on the final push towards the end of the season. The Premier League title, already sewn up by Manchester City, is off the agenda, but Pep Guardiola will be hoping £57m Aymeric Laporte will provide an extra touch of class in the City backline as their bid for an unprecedented quadruple continues apace. The top four has begun to take shape, with four teams scrapping over the three remaining places behind City, and the coup of signing Alexis Sanchez might just have secured second place for Manchester United. Antonio Conte finally got his target man in the shape of Olivier Giroud, while Tottenham’s capture of Lucas Moura provides a shot of creativity into Mauricio Pochettino’s midfield. Whether Virgin Van Dijk can live up to his £75m transfer fee and rid Liverpool of their defensive woes remains to be seen. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s arrival at Arsenal is an exciting one, dampened only slightly by the exit of Sanchez. But beyond the top six, the most interesting activity in the January window took place towards the lower echelons of the table, with many of the sides in the relegation scrap paying eight figure sums to add quality to ailing sides. West Bromwich Albion potentially secured the coup of the window as Daniel Sturridge arrived on loan from Liverpool, but with the striker short on match practice, Alan Pardew will have to rely on his ability to stay fit if the Baggies are to survive. Swansea City, sitting in 19th place ahead of the deadline, spent £18m to bring Andre Ayew back to the club from West Ham just 18 months after selling him for £20m, though the Ghanain has struggled with injuries in East London, he’s made 18 appearances this season, scoring three goals and assisting two. Southampton, meanwhile, have gambled over £19m on striker Guido Carrillo from Monaco. The Argentinian’s high point in France this season came in a cup game, where he hit a hat-trick against amateur side Moulins Yzeure, but has found first team opportunities hard to come by. Huddersfield added some continental know-how to their backline with the addition of Monaco youngster Terence Kongolo on loan, and also sent £10m the way of Norwich City for the services of Alex Pritchard. The former Tottenham midfielder had impressed at Carrow Road in the first half of the season, but there were plenty of murmers that David Wagner had overpaid for a player yet to prove his worth in the top flight. Paul Lambert, embarking on his first transfer window as Stoke City manager, wasted no time in adding new faces to his squad, securing four new signings with a combined spend in excess of £19m. Young Greek left-back Kostas Stafylidis has arrived on loan from Augsburg to provide cover for Erik Pieters, while Swiss utility man Moritz Bauer offers flexibility down the right hand side. Badou Ndiaye, the Potters marquee signing of the window, will offer some much needed steel in a midfield that has too often been overrun in games this season. Brighton and Hove Albion made a double swoop for strikers as former Seagull Leonardo Ulloa arrived on loan from Leicester City looking to add to the 26 goals he scored in his first spell on the South Coast, while the £14m capture of Jurgen Locadia broke the club’s transfer record. The Dutch forward has hit nine goals in fifteen games for PSV Eindhoven so far this season, though the collective suspicion around strikers from the Eredivisie will follow him round like a bad smell unless he hits the ground running. Mike Ashley did eventually sanction some signings for Newcastle United, but their trolley dash in the last week of the window for anyone that remotely looked like they might be interested in a loan move could prove to be one roll of the dice too far. Chelsea’s left-sided winger Kenedy arrived a week before the deadline, while Islam Slimani, Leicester’s record signing that hasn’t quite worked out, and Martin Dubravka, Sparta Prague’s second choice ‘keeper, arrived just in the nick of time. Crystal Palace, who look as though they’ve got enough quality to emerge from the mire, spent £10m on strengthening the squad, with Jaroslaw Jach and Alexander Sorloth arriving to provide cover. But while it’s all well and good for teams scrapping around the bottom to throw money at the problem, can bolstering in the January window really prevent relegation?

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When the January transfer window was first introduced midway through the 2002/03 season, there was far less fanfare and media attention given to it than now, and aside from Jonathan Woodgate’s £9m transfer from Leeds United to Newcastle United, very few deals stood out for financial reasons. One of the most intriguing deals with the loan signing of World Cup winner Christophe Dugarry from Bordeaux to Birmingham. At the time the Blues were sat just outside the relegation zone, but had embarked on a terrible run of form, and wouldn’t win a game for two months between December and February. Though Dugarry took time to settle in the second city, his incredible run of five goals in four games during April lifted Steve Bruce’s side away from safety, and earned him a permanent contract at St Andrews. Remarkably the 2002/03 season is one of only three that, since the introduction of the January transfer window, has seen all three clubs in the bottom three on deadline day remain there at the end of the season. 2003/04 and 2009/10 followed suit, and both seasons saw the sides in the relegation zone fail to add serious quality to their squads for the second half of the season. In 2005/06, Portsmouth were stranded in 19th place, having won just four of their first twenty four games and sitting five points behind West Brom. Fortunately in Harry Redknapp they had a manager that thrives in a transfer window. If thriving is another word for totally bankrupting his employers. No fewer than five new faces were added to Pompey’s squad, with the signings of Pedro Mendes and Benjani Mwaruwari crucial, as the two combined to secure six wins in the club’s final ten league games and survive by the skin of their teeth. Sam Allardyce repeated Redknapp’s trick in 2013/14, introducing a host of new faces into a West Ham squad that were sitting in 18th with three months of the season to go. Though none of the new signings themselves played a major part in the Hammers revival, the chances are that the introduction of competition for places provided a much needed kick up the backside for Allardyce’s squad as, starting on the 1st February, his side embarked on a four game winning streak, doubling their win tally for the season and eventually staying up at the expense of Norwich City.

But while plenty of January signings have made an impact on struggling teams in the past, it seems more often than not it’s the men who sanction their signing that have provided the catalyst for a mid-season revival. Sam Allardyce, having saved West Ham from relegation in 2014 was subsequently binned off a year later but found himself in the midst of another relegation battle in 2016 having been parachuted in to replace Dick Advocaat at Sunderland. Undoubtedly the additions of Jan Kirchoff, Lamine Kone and Wabhi Khazri in the January window played a massive part in steering Sunderland to safety, but Allardyce’s influence cannot be understated and, just to prove the point, he did it again a year later. After his ill-fated spell as England manager he once again found himself a job at a Premier League struggler when the exit door was shown to Alan Pardew at Crystal Palace. Five months later, and with the inspired signings of Luka Milivojevic and Mamadou Sakho in the bag, Palace finished the season in the relative comfort of 14th. But new managers changing fortunes is hardly a new thing in the Premier League. West Brom’s great escape in 2005 was masterminded by club legend Bryan Robson, appointed after the sacking of Gary Megson, while Alan Curbishley (West Ham), Steve Bruce (Wigan), Roy Hodgson (Fulham) and Allardyce (again, this time at Blackburn) have all provided mid-season motivation after taking jobs at struggling sides. Looking at the bottom eight in the Premier League table after the deadline, and already four of those sides have changed manager this season. Hodgson, looking to add to his achievements at Fulham, took over from Frank De Boer after the Dutchman’s disastrous start at Selhurst Park. With Palace beginning to look stranded at the bottom of the league, Hodgson instilled some much needed solidity into the side’s defence, which in turn allowed his forwards freedom to attack. The result is a side that have emerged from the bottom three and now look odds on to secure safety. The jury is still out on Paul Lambert at Stoke and Alan Pardew at West Brom, but Carlos Carvalhal’s incredible start as Swansea manager provides an extreme example of just how much of a boost a new manager can provide. The Welsh side were looking dead and buried under Paul Clement, but an extraordinary run, including back-to-back wins against Liverpool and Arsenal, has brought the Swans back to within touching distance of safety. Of the four remaining sides yet to change manager it seems unlikely that the three promoted sides, Brighton, Huddersfield, and Newcastle, will take the drastic step of changing the man in the dugout, but there is a sense that Southampton’s Mauricio Pellegrino is living on borrowed time.

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Trying to predict who’ll be filling those three dreaded places come the end of the season appears to be a fool’s errand at the moment, as just when a team looks to be doomed they pull a run of form out of the hat and drag themselves out of trouble. Based on what history tells us, particularly in the last fifteen years, there is always one side in the mire at the end of January that never quite escapes the drop. While the impact of Carrillo and the future of Pellegrino remains to be seen, plenty of signs are pointing towards Southampton becoming the first casualty of the relegation battle, though similar could be said about Sturridge and West Brom. Huddersfield find themselves in the middle of a dreadful run of form, and with slim chance of the fabled ‘new manager bounce’ coming to their aid, they must be wondering if enough business was done in January to keep them afloat. The form of Swansea City, the signings made by Brighton, the experience of Rafa Benitez at Newcastle and the quality in Stoke’s squad all offer those respective sides hope of beating the drop, and there’s always the chance of a wildcard being sucked into the fray. Four times in the last nine seasons a team from outside the bottom five at the end of January has ended up in the bottom three come the final day. The basket case that was Newcastle United in 2009, Ian Holloway’s gung-ho Blackpool in 2011, Norwich’s disastrous loss of form in 2014 and Middlesbrough’s inability to score goals last season have all seen decent sides succumb to relegation, and while West Ham and Watford have both enjoyed spells of good form so far this season, neither are completely out of the woods. Javi Gracia has an uphill task after being brought in to replace Marco Silva following Watford’s abysmal run of form, while West Ham’s injury crisis has robbed David Moyes of some vital players, particularly Marko Arnautovic and Manual Lanzini, at a crucial time of the season. If neither side’s results pick up in the next month or so, they could well be part of the reckoning come May.

The sides down the bottom have done pretty much all they can with regards to preparing themselves for the battle ahead, but in just a few short months there will be at least three sides rueing an opportunity missed in January, when once again money started going out of fashion. At least none of them signed Nigel Quashie.

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