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Analysis: How top Premier League clubs should approach the transfer window

| 26.07.2021

It’s not just the weather that’s been heating up this summer as Manchester United’s signing of Jadon Sancho has increased the pressure on their rivals among England’s top clubs to match their ambition ahead of the 2021-22 season.

Here we’ve taken a data-driven look at how Premier League title challengers should approach the transfer window.

We’ve analysed every summer signing made by a club who had finished in the top six during the previous season, filtering out those who didn’t go on to feature for at least 900 minutes – 10 matches’ worth – in the Premier League within a year of joining.

This leaves us with almost 500 players in the competition’s history who played a meaningful role after moving to a top club.

What nationality of player should you sign?

Let’s start with something simple covering all of our players: does nationality matter?

Interestingly, purchasing an English player tends not to go well, with fewer than one in six first-team arrivals helping their new club to win the title at the first attempt.

This compares to more than a third of new players from Portugal or the Netherlands, who lead the way among the 10 most common nationalities signed.

Transfer window

Manchester City are the perfect example of a Portugal-centric strategy paying off, having won the league last season with new signing Ruben Dias playing a starring role.

Neighbours Manchester United have made the most of Dutch arrivals, with the likes of Robin van Persie and Jaap Stam lifting the trophy within a year of arriving at Old Trafford.

Argentinian players also have a habit of hitting the ground running and after their nation’s Copa America success over the summer – along with Portugal and the Netherlands impressing at Euro 2020 – there is no shortage of transfer targets for top clubs to consider.

Renato Sanches, Denzel Dumfries and Lautaro Martinez are reportedly all on the radars of leading English sides.

Which leagues should you be shopping in?

Perhaps of more relevance to the modern club is which leagues they should be scouring for talent who can make an instant impact.

Shopping locally tends not to win you titles, with less than 15% of arrivals from another English club lifting the Premier League trophy in their debut season. 

Transfer window

The Portuguese league has been the best place for a title hopeful to sign players over the summer by a comfortable margin and it looks like some Premier League clubs have learned this lesson.

Porto’s Jesus Corona is rumoured to be attracting interest from Arsenal and Tottenham while his team-mate Otavio is reportedly being tracked by Liverpool.

There are worse omens for players arriving from either the Bundesliga or Serie A, who rarely win the title at the first attempt.

Sancho and Ibrahima Konate (Liverpool) may therefore have to be patient for success at their new clubs.

It’s rare for a big striker to move to a rival

One of the few transfers which would eclipse the arrival of Sancho would be Harry Kane moving to another Premier League club this summer.

History suggests this is far from certain, however, as he would become just the seventh player in the competition’s history to do so after a 20-goal season.

Transfer window

Even if Kane were to move, his chances of adapting seamlessly to his new surroundings are not good.

Only one of the previous six 20-goal men – Les Ferdinand in 1995 – went on to match their previous goal tally the following season.

Goal-hungry clubs should shop in Spain

In the last 10 seasons, fewer than one in five of the players who moved between Premier League clubs after scoring a double-digit number of goals were able to repeat the trick at the first attempt.

Transfer window

Of the other ‘big five’ European leagues, recruits from Spain’s La Liga managed to immediately replicate their goalscoring exploits more than 40% of the time.

The Italian top flight has a poor track record of providing reliable goalscorers, with just one of the eight high-scoring players signed from Serie A in the last decade going on to net at least 10 times for their new Premier League owners.

Don’t worry about experience when signing a defender

Switching our attention to the other end of the pitch, fans often feel reassured when an older defender joins a big club – they’re paying a premium for all those seasons of experience that will help them to marshal the back line.

However, the data shows younger defenders are far more likely to reduce the rate at which their teams concede goals.

Therefore, Manchester United should pause before splashing out on 28-year-old Raphael Varane and any club considering a move for 30-year-old Kalidou Koulibaly should also think carefully.

Transfer window

Defensive signings aged 23 or under are the most successful; think Ruben Dias and Ben Chilwell (both 23 when they signed last season), or Rio Ferdinand moving from West Ham to Leeds at 22 and then to Manchester United a year later.

Those aged 28 and over – probably signing their last big contract and at the peak of their defensive powers – have struggled to move the needle at the back.

Manchester City signed a 32-year-old Martin Demichelis from Atletico Madrid in 2013 but conceded more goals than the previous season, as did both Arsenal and Spurs when they each signed former Chelsea man William Gallas.

Don’t mess with a winning formula

Regardless of what your team needs in this transfer window, a good strategic question to ask is whether it makes sense to put all of your eggs in one basket or spread your transfer cash around the team.

The league table provides an easy answer to that question: of clubs who finished in the top six in successive seasons, those who made fewer signings over the summer fared better on average.

Transfer window

Perhaps the best-known example of changing too much at once is Tottenham, who dropped from fourth to fifth in 2012-13 after adding six new first-team players and then dropped again to sixth the following year after adding five more funded by the sale of Gareth Bale to Real Madrid.

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Stuart Walker