By Ewan Roberts
The January transfer window is rapidly gathering pace. Clubs are readying themselves for the deadline-day pandemonium like turkey-fuelled shopaholics trying to break down the doors of Primark on the opening day of the January sales before racing down the aisles, gouging the eyes of fellow shoppers, just to find a pair of half-price knickers.
With business predominantly conducted in the final embers of the window and selling teams reluctant to allow their best players to leave, clubs are often forced to sift through cast-offs and disgruntled backups, or overpay for talent that will take time to settle. So just how effective are January signings?
Not very, is the answer you'll often hear. Every club has a roll call of January flops: for Liverpool there's Andy Carroll, for West Ham there's Benni McCarthy, for Tottenham there's Ricardo Rocha and for Middlesbrough there's Afonso Alves.
When Chelsea signed Fernando Torres for £50 million he was supposed to be the final (expensive) piece of Roman Abramovich's puzzle. The season prior to his move to west London, the Spaniard had notched a goal every 95 minutes in the league. But, in his first half-season at Stamford Bridge, he scored just once in 762 minutes spent on the pitch.
|OF GREAT IMPORT
Most notable January signings
CHELSEA - 105 Games, 27 Goals
MAN UTD - 252 Games, 18 Goals
N'CASTLE - 41 Games, 19 Goals
M'BORO - 49 Games, 13 Goals
MAN UTD - 316 Games, 7 Goals
EVERTON - 41 Games, 18 Goals
LIVERPOOL - 83 Games, 42 Goals
"The January market has never been the best market and that has proved itself over the years," says Sir Alex Ferguson. "You get very few big transfers - all the big transfers are done in the summer."
The Manchester United boss is no stranger to the pitfalls of recruiting players in the winter window himself. In January 2006, Sir Alex purchased Patrice Evra for £5.5m from Monaco and Nemanja Vidic from Spartak Moscow for a fee in the region of £7m.
The Serbian centre-back struggled initially with the pace of the Premier League (to the point that he considered returning to Russia), while Evra was hauled off just 45 minutes into his Red Devils debut against Manchester City. The French full-back initially looked as disastrous and error-strewn a signing as Italian goalkeeper Massimo Taibi, and would complete 90 minutes just twice in his first half-season in England.
But the pair are now established, successful components of the league leaders' side and the 31-year-old Evra is enjoying his most productive season to date, bagging four goals and four assists in the Premier League this year.
Few, if any, January signings have made a telling contribution to a title challenge. Sir Alex signed Henrik Larsson on a short-term deal, who would later be granted special dispensation to receive a Premier League winner's medal, but his one goal in seven league appearances hardly propelled the Red Devils. Likewise, Jose Antonio Reyes lifted the league title with Arsenal, though made just seven starts as Arsene Wenger's 'Invincibles' romped to glory.
While many players struggle initially - perhaps because they are not afforded a pre-season at their new club, are forced to adapt extremely quickly to new surroundings, learn the language, find a home and adjust to new team-mates and the more frantic pace of the physical Premier League - a rare few make an immediate impact. Take, for example, Nikica Jelavic and Papiss Cisse.
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Yet this season Jelavic and Cisse have struggled. The Croatian hitman has bagged a goal every 313 minutes this year but struck every 106 minutes last season, while his shooting accuracy has dropped by 21 per cent. The Magpies man scored every 86 minutes in his first half-season with the club (converting 50% of the clear-cut chances that fell his way) but has notched every 414 minutes this year (with a clear-cut chance conversion rate of just 18%).
Christophe Dugarry, one of the first January imports, scored five goals on the way to saving Birmingham City from relegation back in 2003, though would notch just once more before leaving the club on a free transfer a year later.
The recurring theme is that those players who make an instant impact – perhaps because of their status as an unknown entity – struggle to maintain that form during the rest of their career at the club. Another trend is that lower-ranked teams can plunder the market with greater instant success, while there is little room for the best sides to dramatically improve.
There is a bittersweetness about the January window, with very few players able to make both an immediate impact and go on to have long-term success - it is generally one or the other (though there are exceptions, such as Demba Ba and Brede Hangeland). Of course, if a club is mired in a relegation battle, then a short-term Band-Aid - such as Wilson Palacios for Spurs in 2009 - is all that is required.
Perhaps the exception that proves the rule is Luis Suarez, who joined Liverpool at the same time as Carroll but has blazed a trail in stark contrast to his fellow forward. The Uruguayan hit the ground running and continues to drive Brendan Rodgers's Reds. The best January signing ever? He could well be.
For the class of January 2013, however, regardless of how well they play between now and the end of the season, it is clear that their true worth will not be revealed for some time. Tottenham fans should not worry if Lewis Holtby struggles to usurp Clint "five goals in five games" Dempsey, nor should QPR supporters get too excited if Loic Remy is as prolific as Cisse or Jelavic were.
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