The importance of smart decision making in the January window

By the AI Scout

The January transfer window is an opportunity for football clubs to recruit players to help strengthen their team, whether they’re challenging for the title or promotion, pushing for European qualification or trying to drag themselves out of relegation danger. But recruitment in January is notoriously difficult. And with clubs at all levels impacted by the Coronavirus pandemic, it’s imperative they sign players during the upcoming window who deliver value-for-money and performances on the pitch.



Unsurprisingly, the Premier League has consistently outspent the other Top 5 European leagues over the last five windows, investing an astonishing £1.23bn on players. That is roughly the same as the combined expenditure of all Bundesliga, La Liga and Ligue 1 clubs during the same period.

Spend during the 2018 January transfer window was particularly high, totalling £815m across the Top 5 European leagues. The vast majority of this was spent by La Liga and Premier League clubs, with a number of big money transfers including Philippe Coutinho (Barcelona, £130m), Diego Costa (Atletico Madrid, £54m), Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Arsenal, £56m), Aymeric Laporte (Manchester City, £59m) and Virgil Van Dijk (Liverpool, £76m).

Interestingly, the 2017 January window saw Premier League clubs record net transfer receipts of £40m. This was the first time ever in a transfer window that Premier League clubs received more in transfer fees from overseas and EFL clubs than they paid out.



Whilst total expenditure increased in January 2020 (£785m) compared to the previous year (£515m), the ongoing financial impact of the Coronavirus pandemic means we’re likely to see clubs across Europe rein in their spending during the upcoming window.

A number of clubs will be looking to strengthen their teams due to fixture congestion, player fatigue and injuries. But January transfer business can be volatile. Selling clubs are unsurprisingly reluctant to sell their best players halfway through the season and buying clubs are often desperate to strengthen so either pay an inflated fee to get their preferred target or have to settle for a player who has been made available as he’s not performing for his current club.

With clubs’ spending power restricted by the pandemic, they’ll need to act smarter during the upcoming window to identify and recruit the right players, at the right price.



Whether buying with an eye on success or safety, players recruited in January are often expected to hit the ground running and make an immediate impact. When clubs get their recruitment right, it can transform a team and a season. But when they get it wrong, it can be a very expensive mistake. To illustrate just how hard it can be, the below takes a look at some of the best and worst January transfers of recent years.

Bruno Fernandes - Hit

Bruno Fernandes arrived at Manchester United from Sporting Lisbon in January 2020 with a reputation as a goal and assist machine, and he hasn’t disappointed. In his first 42 appearances, the Portuguese attacking midfielder has contributed 25 goals and 15 assists. With United just outside the top four last January, Fernandes was brought in to help the team qualify for the Champions League. They did it with ease, finishing in 3rd place. Immediate impacts don’t come much more immediate.

Virgil Van Dijk - Hit

When Virgil Van Dijk joined Liverpool from Southampton halfway through the 2017-18 season, Jürgen Klopp’s side suddenly looked much more solid at the back. With Van Dijk in the starting lineup during his two full seasons, Liverpool won 75% of games. When he was missing, the win percentage dropped to 40%. The Reds have coped well without the Dutch defender this season – losing just one game since his injury in October – but even at £75m, there’s no doubt he remains one of the best ever January signings having helped Liverpool win the Champions League and Premier League in the last couple of years.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang - Hit

The Arsenal striker may be going through a relatively lean period at the moment but Gunners fans will have fond memories of the impact he made when he arrived from Borussia Dortmund in January 2018. Ten goals and four assists in 13 Premier League appearances that season showed just how quickly he adapted to Arsenal’s playing style and his new teammates. The transfer fee of £56m was an Arsenal record at the time and may have appeared a gamble for a 28-year-old, however Aubameyang’s 57 goals in 98 Premier League games proves it was money well spent, particularly if he can quickly rediscover his goalscoring form.

Andy Carroll – Miss

A decade after his £35m transfer to Anfield, Andy Carroll remains the seventh most expensive English footballer of all time. Having agreed to sell Fernando Torres to Chelsea for £50m, Liverpool were desperate to sign a replacement and Newcastle held out for an inflated fee for a player who, despite scoring 11 goals, was only half way through his first season in the Premier League. Injuries and poor form blighted his time at Anfield, scoring only 11 goals in 18 months. And when Brendan Rodgers took over as Liverpool manager in 2012, bringing with him a more dynamic style of play, the target man was loaned out to West Ham before being signed permanently the following summer.

Fernando Torres - Miss

The £50m fee Chelsea paid Liverpool for Fernando Torres in January 2011 set a new record for a British transfer. The striker had been a huge success on Merseyside, becoming the fastest player in the club’s history to score 50 goals and was named in the FIFA World XI in 2008 and 2009. A similarly fast start eluded him at Chelsea where he took 903 minutes to score his first – and only – goal for the club that season. The Spaniard went on to score 45 goals in 172 appearances for the Blues and in a 2017 interview put his struggles down to the fact that Chelsea’s players and playing style simply didn’t suit him.

Wilfried Bony - Miss

The Ivorian striker scored more goals than any other Premier League player in 2014, so it was no surprise when Manchester City paid Swansea City £28m to secure his services in January 2015. Unfortunately, Bony is one of the most obvious examples of a player who simply wasn’t suited to his new teammates and the club’s style of play. City’s fluid attacking football didn’t play to his strengths and he scored just 10 goals in 46 appearances before rejoining Swansea after Pep Guardiola made it clear he was surplus to requirements.



As we’ve seen in previous years, January recruitment can often be based on subjective judgements and impulsive decision-making as clubs look to strengthen their squads for the second half of the season. With the financial impact of the Coronavirus pandemic being felt at all levels of the game, clubs and player agents need to work even harder during the upcoming window to make sure new signing are the right fit for a team in order to maximise the return on investment.

Ai Abacus’ predictive insights can help to inform recruitment decisions, providing greater assurances and helping to mitigate financial risk. The AiA Simulator harnesses the power of artificial intelligence to predict the likely success of different transfer scenarios. Three metrics rate the value and suitability of a player to a prospective team to present an objective view of a proposed transfer;

Playing Style Index rates the likely fit of a player based on similarities in the playing style and formation of their current and prospective team.

Player Chemistry Index predicts how well the playing characteristics of a new recruit will complement those of his prospective teammates to produce positive on-pitch performances. Click here to find out more about how Ai Abacus predict chemistry between prospective teammates.

Cost-Benefit Index rates value for money by evaluating a player’s current market value and predicted performance versus the proposed contract length, transfer fee and weekly wage.



It’s been widely reported in the media that Arsenal are looking to inject creativity into their midfield during the January transfer window. Big name players such as Willian, Nicolas Pépé and the ostracized Mesut Özil have all failed to make an impact this season, whilst Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette have only six Premier League goals between them. Having invested around £77m in the summer transfer window, the Gunners are unlikely to have significant funds available to spend in January so will need to identify targets who will deliver value-for-money as well as adding creativity to the team.

Using the AiA Simulator, the below graphic analyses the suitability of attacking midfielders under the age of 25 and with a market value of less than £50m. Bubble size reflects the current market value of each player, calculated by Ai Abacus’ Transfer Valuation Model.

Arsenal had been strongly linked with a move for Hungarian star, Dominik Szoboszlai. However, the 20-year-old has now signed for RB Leipzig from sister club Red Bull Salzburg. Based on the analysis, a move to the Emirates might not have been the best move for the highly-rated prospect, who may have taken some time to adapt to Arsenal’s playing style and formation.

With the Gunners currently just four points above the relegation zone, having made their worst start to a season in 46 years, there is an immediate need to address the team’s lack of goals and creativity during the January transfer window. Arsenal should therefore focus on recruiting players who are well suited to the style and dynamics of the team so that they integrate quickly and deliver results on the pitch. The below takes a closer look at three possible targets.


Florian Neuhaus 

Borussia Monchengladbach’s Florian Neuhaus is rated highly for style suitability and predicted chemistry with Arsenal players. He has been likened to German legends Toni Kroos and Bastian Schweinsteiger, and has the positional awareness and ability to slip in between the opposition lines of defence. The 23-year-old became a regular for the German national team in 2020 and has been linked with a move to Bayern Munich. His Cost-Benefit score of 51 suggests a proposed transfer fee of £35m would be a fair price but Gladbach may take some convincing to sell one of their prized assets.

Lorenzo Pellegrini

AS Roma’s Lorenzo Pellegrini has excelled in 2020 and is reportedly a target for some of Europe’s top clubs, particularly with his contract due to expire at the end of next season. The 24-year-old has all the attributes to play as a No.6, No.8 or a more advanced No.10 role behind the striker. He could be a good fit for Arsenal, suiting the positional profile and adding creativity to the midfield alongside more defensive-minded players such as Thomas Partey and Granit Xhaka. His Cost-Benefit score of 56 is the highest of the three players, indicating he could be the best value-for-money even though the overall cost of his proposed transfer is the most expensive.

Emiliano Buendía

Arsenal are already being linked with a move for Norwich’s Emiliano Buendía in January. Despite playing in a side that finished bottom of the Premier League last season, the diminutive Argentine was the leagues 4th highest chance creator with 83. He has carried that form into the Championship, with six goals and seven assists so far this season. Despite not being rated as highly as the other two players for style suitability and player chemistry, the 23-year-old could still be a good fit for Arsenal. Likely to be the cheapest of the three players, Arsenal may opt for a player with a proven ability to create chances in the Premier League.