Kevin De Bruyne is the best recent January transfer... who is the worst?
You want evidence that the game is changing? Consider the fact that La Liga and the Premier League (probably the two strongest leagues in the world) each had a positive net transfer spend during the January window that shut on Tuesday. According to data from Transfermarkt, English top-flight clubs sold players for some $15 million more than they bought, while Spain was also in the black.
Or how about this? Of the 10 most expensive transfers this winter, five involved players going to Chinese clubs and odds are, you're probably unfamiliar with one of them: Zhang Chengdong, who swapped Beijing Guoan for Hebei China Fortune.
OK, we get it: There's lots of cash in the Chinese Super League. But another three of the 10 were players joining French sides: Julian Draxler and Goncalo Guedes to Paris Saint-Germain and Dimitri Payet to Marseille. The remaining two, Gabriel Jesus to Manchester City and Morgan Schneiderlin to Everton, were Premier League buys though the former is a bit of a special case, given his deal was actually sealed back in August.
The general perception is that the winter transfer market offers little value: clubs have to pay a premium since teams don't generally want to let good players go in mid-season because it's highly disruptive. As a result, you end up overpaying, which then means your transfer is likely to be a bust since he won't live up to the fee.
We all remember Fernando Torres moving to Chelsea back in 2010 and Andy Carroll joining Liverpool to replace him. Neither panned out, despite a combined fee approaching $100m, which is why we've hung on to the "no-value-in-January" truism ever since. And, to be fair, it's pretty accurate if you're talking about the top end of the market and prising talent loose from competitors.
Such deals are better left for the summer. You have more time to complete them and crucially, you can get things wrapped up during the off-season, unlike January, where players might be fielding calls from agents even as they prepare to play meaningful league matches. Throw in the fact that top players are likely to have played European football in the previous six months (and therefore are more likely to be cup-tied) and it's not hard to see why stars tend not to move, except in specific circumstances.
Scan the list and you'll see patterns emerging. Axel Witsel and Saido Berahino were both five months away from free agency, meaning their clubs had every incentive to sell. Draxler and Payet both forced moves from Wolfsburg and West Ham respectively, receiving a fair amount of public stick as a result. The likes of Schneiderlin, Oscar, Manolo Gabbiadini, Memphis Depay and Jeffrey Schlupp were all (to varying degrees) surplus to requirements at their respective clubs.
Of course, that doesn't mean there are no bargains to be had. On the contrary, that's where you can find value though it might not always be a perfect fit. It's not a coincidence that four of the top five in my (highly subjective) list of top winter transfers over the past five years fit those categories.
With that in mind, here's an attempt at ranking the five best -- and worst -- January transfers of the past five seasons.
1. Kevin De Bruyne, Chelsea to Wolfsburg, 2014, £18m
This was a perfect storm of a transfer made possible by several concurrent factors. Chelsea had signed De Bruyne for £6m just 18 months earlier, making the prospect of tripling their money extremely appealing. Particularly since manager Jose Mourinho did not seem to rate him at all. Wolfsburg knew they were getting a proven commodity in that he had already spent a season on loan in the Bundesliga at Werder Bremen and performed very well. At that price, it was a logical calculated risk even though he had hardly played the previous six months. Wolfsburg were vindicated on the pitch when he helped them finish second the following season and they were vindicated off it when they then sold him to Manchester City for a whopping £58m.
2. Philippe Coutinho, Inter to Liverpool, 2013, £8.5m
Coutinho was the classic example of the high price you pay for impatience, in this case Inter's. The Italian club had bought him as a 16-year-old thinking they had found their very own Kaka. But he spent the next four-and-a-half years either out on loan, on the bench or being played in a range of positions (from striker to winger) that simply did not suit him. The nerazzurri viewed him as a perpetual project who might not be worth pursuing while Liverpool viewed him as a potential superstar. And they were vindicated: today he's a two-time club player of the year and arguably the most important player in Jurgen Klopp's squad.
3. Nemanja Matic, Benfica to Chelsea, 2014, £22m
Matic had been at Chelsea before as a 21-year-old midfield playmaker but by the time the Stamford Bridge club came knocking again, he was a different player: a big, tall powerhouse of a defensive midfielder. He slotted into the side ahead of the back four and has been there ever since, helping the Blues win a Premier League title while earning a place in the PFA Team of the Year. Matic has been a starter for three different Chelsea managers and that's unlikely to change any time soon.
4. Riyad Mahrez, Le Havre to Leicester City, 2014, £400,000
The narrative about how Leicester plucked him from obscurity isn't quite accurate: half a dozen clubs were actively tracking Mahrez in the French second division. The difference is that while most were waiting for his contract to expire a few months later so they could get him on a fee, Leicester believed enough to seal the deal immediately even if it meant spending a little more money. Mahrez soon became a fixture at the club and, in 2015-16, was voted the Premier League's Player of the Year as he helped Leicester win the title and pull off the greatest upset in the history of team sports.
5. Gary Cahill, Bolton Wanderers to Chelsea, 2012, £7m
Another example of the power of looming free agency. Cahill had just turned 26 and had become a regular for England. Bolton were in the relegation zone but also knew he would walk for nothing six months later. So they opted to cash in. (They were relegated at the end of the season by a single point and haven't been back, leaving some to wonder whether they wouldn't have been better off keeping him and forgoing the money). Cahill played some 220-plus games (and counting) for Chelsea while helping them win a host of trophies over the past five years.
1. Oumar Niasse, Lokomotiv Moscow to Everton, 2016, £13.5m
He arrived on Deadline Day with Everton in mid-table, so doesn't necessarily fit the "panic buy" category. Played a total of 143 league minutes for Everton through the end of the season and then wasn't given a squad number by new boss Ronald Koeman the following year. Left for Hull on loan last month but with a contract through 2020, unless there's a sudden spike in performances it's unlikely they'll get much back for him. The odd thing is that you could sort of see this coming.
2. Wilfried Bony, Swansea City to Manchester City, 2015, £25m
Nobody scored more goals than Bony in 2014, and City felt they needed more depth up front beyond Sergio Aguero, Edin Dzeko and Stevan Jovetic, all of whom had injury issues at one time or another. Bony scored just twice in 10 games, and even after Dzeko and Jovetic left, he struggled to make an impact, with just four goals in 26 matches the following year. He's now on loan at Stoke, where he's hardly tearing it up. Given that he's 28 and is under contract through 2019, it's safe to say City won't be getting much of a return.
3. Lucas Silva, Cruzeiro to Real Madrid, 2015, £10m
Real Madrid were flying at the time -- top of the table and with a 22-game win streak in all competitions -- but it was clear to many that they needed to add depth, especially in defensive midfield after the departure of Xabi Alonso and Casemiro. So they turned to Lucas Silva, who was almost 22 but had been voted the top defensive midfielder in the Brazilian league. His importance only grew after injuries to Sami Khedira and Luka Modric, except Lucas Silva ended up making just three league starts and failing to convince anyone. The following year he was loaned to Marseille, where he managed just 11 starts. Health problems scuppered another loan move last summer and meant his last competitive game was some eight months ago. He's now back at Cruzeiro on loan, but Real are on the hook for him until 2020.
4. Seydou Doumbia, CSKA Moscow to Roma, 2015, £12.5m
Roma were desperate for a proper center-forward to help sustain their title challenge and thought they had one in Doumbia, who'd been a prolific goalscorer for CSKA Moscow. But the fact that he was at the African Nations Cup meant he didn't actually make his debut until mid-February. He ended up making just 13 Serie A appearances (seven of them off the bench) and netting two goals. Since then, he's had two poor loan spells -- back at CSKA and at Newcastle, where he played a total of 32 minutes in four months -- before turning the corner this season at Basel, with 10 goals in the first half of the campaign. Roma will be hoping that it generates enough interest to get some of their money back though at 29 and with two years remaining on a hefty contract, they're not holding their breath.
5. Yohan Cabaye, Newcastle United to Paris Saint-Germain, 2014, £19m
Cabaye had been a revelation for Newcastle and PSG, keen to both bolster the midfield and bring in a French "cover boy," picked him up that January. The problem was Cabaye failed to establish himself in a midfield that already included Marco Verratti, Thiago Motta and Blaise Matuidi. He was often rotated in and out and the relationship with manager Laurent Blanc wasn't great either. He was sold at a loss of £9m to Crystal Palace, where he was reunited with Alan Pardew.
Gabriele Marcotti is a Senior Writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.