None of that, though, explains why everyone has been so parsimonious, so uncharacteristically cautious. Yet the trend is widespread enough to suggest that there has been a more fundamental change, that English teams no longer suspect they are being taken for a ride, but know they are, and are determined to put a stop to it.
England for many years stood as a last, defiant bulwark against the idea that recruitment should be overseen not by a club’s manager, but by a technical — or sporting — director. Such an appointment, it was thought, would only undermine the authority of the man tasked with picking the team; in a country that sanctified the memories of Matt Busby and Alex Ferguson and Brian Clough, the manager’s position was inviolable.
That is no longer the case. Of the elite, only Manchester United does not have a technical director, and it is in the process of finding one. Away from Old Trafford, most teams have moved to bring in an individual or a team of people to sift through data, to compile scouting reports, and to assist — to choose a euphemism — the manager with recruitment. The days of a coach being allowed to bring in players on a whim are over.
It is not a perfect system, but it is designed to prevent a club’s having to resort to last-minute purchases, desperate rolls of the dice. It is structured to make clubs less wasteful, more efficient. Its corollary is that it attracts managers more accustomed to working with what they have, or what they are given, rather than demanding money be spent to solve problems that have proved beyond them.
And this is its effect: a handful of unremarkable deals, players brought in to cover a particular need rather than to meet a vague desire, over the course of a month that does not warrant the comic, childlike pomp and ceremony England usually reserves for the transfer window. A dull January is not a cause for concern. It is not a sign of a lack of ambition, but the hallmark of a league that is getting that little bit smarter, that at last is thinking with its head, rather than its pocket.