With an injury crisis in full swing and the dead time of the holiday break dragging on, many — including Hansi Flick — are calling for Bayern Munich to bring in reinforcements for their depleted squad. Several voices have suggested that the squad is too thin and that without new players for the second half of the season the club cannot meet its goals. While ambition is a virtue, the question really is this: can January signings make a significant impact on second-half performance? And if they can, how can a team go about maximizing their chances of success in winter signings.
Omar Chaudhuri, the head of football intelligence for the cutting-edge football analytics firm 21st Club gave a lengthy interview to The Athletic on just this topic. The picture he paints is bleak. Most January transfers have no significant impact on team performance, and if you want to get a player in the January window you have to play through the nose for him.
Their conclusion is that January player acquisitions almost never have a significant impact on the remainder of the season. Chaudhuri broke down the negligible point gains that could be attributed to winter signings:
We have looked at net spend in January relative to the rest of the league and how that correlates to points-per-game change over the rest of the season. Essentially, there is no correlation, or a very slight positive correlation. If you look at the average for teams historically, a team that spends £30 million historically generates just 0.1 points-per-game on average more after January. So over 19 games, you’re looking at one or two points.
Most teams focus on strikers and other offensive players in the January window, and 21st Club documents a particular spike in demand for strikers at that time. The logic seems to be that, in light of the value of goals in league standings, it is easier to buy in a couple of guys who will add enough goals to make the difference rather than bringing in players to strengthen a team’s defensive spine. The problem, though, is that most of those strikers end up shooting blanks for the remainder of the year.
Strikers make up 20 percent of January signings in the big five leagues, according to 21st Club. But only 14 percent of those strikers scored five or more league goals during their first half-season after arriving, and a whopping 55 percent of them fail to score a single league goal. Chaudhuri said,
The only January arrival in recent years who has made it to 10 goals in the second half of the season was Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. But he was an established 28-year-old star, and Arsenal paid Borussia Dortmund £56m for him in January 2018... Even strikers who turned out to be successful at their clubs — Luis Suarez at Liverpool, Edin Dzeko at Manchester City, each arriving in January 2011 — managed four and six goals respectively in their first half-season with their new club.
The data accumulated by 21st Club and The Athletic on winter transfers is damning. It looks even worse when you do a proper consideration of the true value added by the new arrival. To assess their value, you cannot simply look at the goals they scored: rather, you have to look at the number of goals they scored over their replacement player. If the player who would have played the spot without the arrival would have scored three goals anyways and the new arrival scores six, the transfer is really only adding three goals of value rather than six. Most winter transfers simply are not worth the price paid.
Good long-term investments are hard to come by in the winter window. Usually there is a reason why that player is available at that time, and it is not a good one. This is likely one of the underlying reasons as to why Bayern are exploring loans for the period rather than purchases. Agents surveyed by The Athletic feel that the winter window is becoming virtually irrelevant.
However, there is hope
Chaudhuri explains it is possible to make successful transfers in the winter season. And the method he describes is remarkably similar to Bayern’s player acquisition philosophy of tracking only the best players and moving when that target player becomes available rather than buying out of desperation. Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and Hasan Salihamidžić have articulated this concept many times. Chaurduri said,
The biggest signing in January history in England — Liverpool buying Virgil van Dijk for £75m two years ago — was one of the best, but that is because it was so different from most normal winter buys. It was not a case of taking a punt on an available player, unsettled at another club, in the hope that he would improve the team. Instead, it boiled down to Liverpool, having long identified Van Dijk as the best in the world in his position, being happy to pay the top rate for a top player. There was no element of risk about it. Similarly, Manchester City paying £57m for Aymeric Laporte that same window was the conclusion of an 18-month pursuit of a player Pep Guardiola knew was perfect for his style, rather than a risk.
The moral? Go big or leave your wallet in your pocket.
Bayern’s situation is even more complicated due to the upcoming summer window. The club philosophy of living within their means leads to the conclusion that whatever they spend in the winter window will not be available for the larger moves they are likely planning for next summer. If they spend say €60 million now on incoming transfers, then that is €60 million they won’t have available to spend on the big fish in the summer.
The data suggests that if Bayern stick to their long-term approach of buying the Best Player Available in the winter, it will give them the best chance of success. However breaking with that model to buy “filler” players or “warm bodies” is likely to prove in the end to be a waste of money.