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Premier League’s fear of the drop set to outbid race for top in January transfer window

Manchester United's Morgan Schneiderlin talks to Luke Shaw

The transfer window opens on Sunday , with business expected to commence from Monday, yet despite the traditional hype and speculation it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the most significant deals have already been done.

Oscar from Chelsea to Shanghai SIPG for £52m is one of them. Carlos Tevez from retirement to Shanghai Shenhua for £600,000 a week is another. All right, to be technically correct Tevez joined his new club from Boca Juniors, but you get the point.

When a leading South American player has had his fill of appearing for the best sides in Europe and returns home to rejoin the club where he started out, it normally means he has accepted he is past the apex of his career and is content to wind down what remains of his footballing usefulness in comfort and familiar surroundings. Terming it retirement might be a bit harsh, but Tevez must have assumed, like everyone else, he was heading for a somewhat quieter life, not the biggest pay-day of an already well-remunerated career.

People can scoff about the standards in China, the recent defeat by Syria and the Fifa ranking that places the republic between the Cape Verde Islands and the Faroes, and quite rightly they are doing. It may also be the case that all China is doing at the moment is paying well over the odds for players either past their peak or not in anyone else’s plans. Yet if this is the start, how does it all end?

When the Premier League first began throwing its money around, English clubs were accused of more or less the same thing: recruiting exotic mercenaries rather than importing the very best players from around the world. But look how little time it took for that perception to change. The Premier League has never really had a rival for spending stupid money before, and one hesitates to imagine how colossal the amounts racked up by the Chinese equivalent of Sky’s transfer totaliser might be, say, 10 years down the line.

One thing China’s business model is already doing is making the Premier League economy look sensible and restrained. When Everton recently confirmed they were pursuing an interest in Charlton’s Ademola Lookman in a deal that might cost around £10m, everyone credited Steve Walsh (Everton’s director of football, newly poached from talent-spotting for Leicester) with a good eye for an opportunity, or wondered why their own club could not be as quick off the mark. Few expressed surprise at a 19-year-old with only League One experience being valued at £10m, that is just the going rate for a promising teenager these days, and if Chinese purchasing power and television deals continue to exert an inflationary influence it will probably turn out to be money well spent.

January transfer windows have tended towards the uneventful in recent years, with clubs working out some time ago that summer is the best time for both planning and doing business, though this one could be a little different because everyone still has plenty of money to spend.

The big clubs are mostly saying they do not need anyone, which on the face of it could be true, though with Liverpool and the two Manchester clubs struggling to stay in Chelsea’s slipstream the opportunity presents itself for judicious reinforcement.

Pep Guardiola might like an extra full-back at Manchester City, though most supporters would suggest the area that needs strengthening is central defence. While City have denied any interest in Virgil van Dijk, the Southampton centre-back has plenty of admirers. At least Van Dijk, should he go anywhere, would be capable of slotting straight into the team. Just about any team.

The main issue with leading clubs is what might be termed Wilfried Bony syndrome, bringing someone in at considerable expense then finding it difficult to give him enough games to play. Anyone bought in January is unlikely to come cheap, because it is such a seller’s market, and even a player brought in as cover for an injury or an Africa Cup of Nations absence has to be good enough to warrant selection ahead of those already at the club.

Guardiola, like Antonio Conte, Jürgen Klopp and the rest, complains on an almost weekly basis that the hardest part of his job is leaving good players out, so there may be more outgoings than incomings at the top clubs this month. Then again, this is the month where actions speak louder than words. Certainly Manchester United appear to have players to spare, with Memphis Depay, Morgan Schneiderlin and perhaps a few others counting the cost of previous rebuilding programmes begun but not completed.

Everton have been touted as likely recipients of at least one of those players, and a little wise spending now could not only compensate for the long-term injury to Yannick Bolasie but consolidate the club’s position as fringe European contenders. Everton have money and a new manager and did not quite sign all the players they would have liked in the summer, so they can expect to be busy this January, though attempting to crack the top six seems the upper limit of their realistic ambition.

Because Leicester are back on relegation-dodging duty this season, the top six is back to looking settled and impregnable. Manchester United and Tottenham would doubtless like to go higher, though it would be a major surprise at the end of the season were the top six to feature any new additions from below. Ronald Koeman said a few days ago that Everton’s ambition is to finish the season roughly where they are now, which might have been an evasion but was a neat way of putting it. Best of the rest might not sound all that great when you consider what Leicester achieved last season, but look where Leicester are now, not to mention where they might end up.

As ever, fear of relegation will drive a lot of January spending. Not perhaps at Hull, whose parsimony is one reason they are finding life such a struggle this season, but certainly at those clubs who feel they might be in a false position and could zoom up the table with a little added help.

Crystal Palace and Sunderland, in other words, particularly as the former are under new management. Swansea, unless they fill their managerial vacancy very quickly, might have left it too late, while Leicester have the players they need to get out of trouble and just need to get back to bringing the best from them.

At half way it seems clear that this is not a crazy season like last time; the biggest clubs all have capable managers and potent squads and are not about to stand aside and let someone else through. Chelsea lead the way and will take some catching. That is the position at the start of the window, the mid-point of the season, and the way they are playing it is going to take rare ingenuity on the part of their rivals if the gap is going to be closed via the January sales.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Paul Wilson, for The Observer on Saturday 31st December 2016 12.00 Europe/London

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