Premier League Transfers: Everything You Need to Know

Nothing gets soccer fans as excited as a new signing. It is impossible to forecast what lies ahead when a player joins a new club, but at the time of the unveiling, the supporters are invariably filled with optimism for what lies ahead.

Transfers in the Premier League work differently from those in Major League Soccer and other major American sports. To get a grip of the system, we have prepared this useful guide containing everything you need to know about transfers in the Premier League.

When Can Clubs Make Transfers in the Premier League?

The task of regulating soccer transfers falls to FIFA, the world governing body. In 2002, FIFA made the transfer window compulsory after negotiations with the European Commission. Before 2002, transfers in the Premier League could occur at virtually any time. Clubs were able to trade for the majority of the season, although there tended to be a cut-off in March after which deals could not be completed until the end of the campaign.

Although the introduction of the transfer window was a FIFA ruling, England’s Football Association (FA) is able to set the exact dates on which it falls. The main transfer window is in the summer. From around the middle of May until the middle of August, Premier League clubs are free to buy and sell players as they please. Clubs are also given another opportunity to trade in the middle of the season. This period is called the ‘January transfer window’ as the opening and closing dates usually correspond with the first month of the year.

It is technically possible for Premier League clubs to agree on deals outside of these two windows. However, the player in question is not able to complete his move until the market is open for business. Indeed, soccer players can only be registered to new clubs in FIFA’s system when the transfer window is open.

Is the Transfer Window a Good or Bad Thing?

As with many such matters, it depends on who you listen to. The transfer window has both advocates and detractors, but most followers of the game consider its introduction to have been a positive development in the regulation of transfers in the Premier League.

The fact that it is not possible to buy (or sell) players right the way through the season helps managers with their planning. Once the summer window is closed, they know that their squad will remain untouched until January. This allows them to work on tactics and training schedules without any fear that the team’s star man could suddenly depart for a rival club a day or two before a key match.

The presence of the transfer window also makes it harder for players to become unsettled. They know that they will be with their present employers until the market opens for business once more. Without such a system, clubs could nefariously plant stories of their interest in a particular player in an attempt to affect his performances for his current team.

Some contend that the transfer window should be scrapped, arguing that it encourages panic buying and short-term thinking. There is also a wider question of whether it is fair that employees (in this case players) are tied to an employer (in this case clubs) until a particular date in the calendar.

Nevertheless, it is increasingly rare these days to hear calls for the transfer window to be scrapped. At the same time, there is widespread recognition that the system is not 100 percent perfect. Former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger has suggested transfers in the Premier League should be limited to two per club in the January window. Both he and ex-Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini have argued that intra-Premier League transfers should not be permitted midway through the season.

In 2018, the division’s 20 clubs agreed to close the summer transfer window before the first round of fixtures with a view to promoting competitive fairness. However, this arrangement was abandoned in 2020. It is not yet clear whether this was a temporary solution to difficulties caused by the coronavirus pandemic, or a permanent switch.

What Is Transfer Deadline Day and How Does It Work?

Transfer deadline day refers to the final day in which clubs are permitted to make transfers in the Premier League. In an ordinary year, it tends to fall at the end of August and then again at the end of January.

Transfer deadline day receives widespread coverage among Premier League supporters. In comparison with their counterparts in Spain, Germany, Italy, and France, English clubs have often left their shopping until the last minute, which has made for some dramatic moments just hours before the closure of the transfer window.

There is often a sense that clubs are desperate when they make a signing on transfer deadline day. With time running out, they often rush deals through without sufficient thought. At times this has come back to bite them.

West Ham United’s addition of Benni McCarthy at the end of the 2010 January transfer window is a case in point. The South African was a major flop at Upton Park, failing to score in 14 appearances in all competitions. In the end, West Ham were happy to pay the striker £1.5m to end his contract with the club.

On the final day of the 2011 summer transfer window, Arsenal bought Andre Santos from Fenerbahce for a fee of £6.2m. Hopes were high for the left-back but he proved to be a major disappointment, leaving the Gunners wishing they had kept the receipt.

The worst ever deadline day deals took place earlier in 2011. Chelsea splashed out £50m to sign Fernando Torres from Liverpool, who used most of the proceeds to buy Andy Carroll from Newcastle United. Both players failed miserably with their new sides.

It should be said, however, that some last-minute transfers in the Premier League have worked out brilliantly. One such example is Luis Suarez’s move to Liverpool in January 2011, on the same day that Carroll made his way to Anfield. Suarez remains one of the club’s best-ever players in the Premier League era.

Another success story came on deadline day in the summer of 2004. Manchester United wrapped up a deal for Wayne Rooney just a few hours before the window closed, paying £20m to sign the then-teenager from Everton. Over the course of the next 13 years, Rooney found the back of the net on 253 occasions to become United’s all-time leading goalscorer.

What Is a Transfer Request and How Do They Work?

Soccer players can hand in a transfer request in a bid to secure a move away from their current club. However, it is important to note that transfer requests have no legal basis. They are simply a formal way for a player to make his intention to leave public.

Clubs are not obliged to listen to transfer requests, although in many cases they do. When a player has made it clear he no longer wants to play for a particular team, it can be counterproductive to keep hold of him. Marko Arnautovic, Pascal Chimbonda, and Jose Fonte left Stoke City, Wigan Athletic, and Southampton respectively after handing in transfer requests.

A transfer request does not always work, though. Steven Gerrard famously asked to leave boyhood club, Liverpool, in 2004 but the club refused to cooperate. Wayne Rooney later backed down from his desire to leave Manchester United when they rejected his transfer request. In 2019 Crystal Palace did not act upon Wilfried Zaha’s appeal to be allowed to join Everton.

Transfer requests are not as common today as they once were. This could be because players are reluctant to forego loyalty bonuses that are often contingent upon (among other things) not asking for a move. Moreover, the majority of transfers in the Premier League take place without the need for a transfer request.

What Are the Most Expensive All-Time Transfers in the Premier League?

Player Transfer (£)
Paul Pogba £89m
Harry Maguire £80m
Romelu Lukaku £75m
Nicolas Pepe £72m
Kepa Arrizabalaga £71m

The Premier League is the richest soccer league on the planet. In the 2019 summer transfer window, the division’s 20 clubs spent around $1.76 billion on players. In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, Premier League sides still managed to splash out a combined $1.61 billion the following year.

The most expensive of all transfers in the Premier League was Paul Pogba’s £89m switch to Manchester United in 2016. United had to swallow their pride before completing that deal: a few years earlier, Pogba had left the club to join Juventus on a free transfer.

Manchester United are also responsible for the second priciest deal involving a Premier League club. In 2019 they paid close to £80m to sign Harry Maguire from Leicester City. That remains the most expensive signing a Premier League club has made from a domestic rival.

Joint-third on the list is Romelu Lukaku – and you can probably guess where he ended up. Manchester United paid £75m for the Everton striker, which is the same amount Liverpool spent on Southampton center-back Virgil van Dijk in January 2018.

Arsenal broke their club transfer record to buy Nicolas Pepe from Lille in 2019. The Ivory Coast international did not come cheap at £72m, nor did the £71m Kepa Arrizabalaga when he moved to Chelsea in 2018.

Which Have Been the Biggest Bargain Transfers in the Premier League?

As you can see from the figures above, transfers in the Premier League often involve massive sums of money. That is not always the case, though. English clubs, like their counterparts in other countries, are always looking for value in the market.

Perhaps the biggest bargain transfer in Premier League history came in its very first season in 1992/93. Manchester United paid just £1.2m to sign Eric Cantona from Leeds United. The Frenchman went on to inspire United to four league titles in his five seasons at Old Trafford.

Very few fans had heard of N’Golo Kante before he joined Leicester City for £5.6m in 2015. But the unknown Frenchman proved to be a revelation as a ball-winning midfielder, and he was integral to Leicester’s stunning title triumph in his only campaign at the club.

Manchester City paid £6m to bring Vincent Kompany to the Etihad Stadium. The Belgian started out as a midfielder, before becoming the club’s greatest ever central defender. He won four league titles before departing after 11 years in Manchester in 2019.

One of the smallest transfer fees in Premier League history was the £60,000 Everton paid Sligo Rovers for Seamus Coleman in 2009. The Irishman has been a dependable figure at right-back ever since and is closing in on 350 appearances for the club.

Kolo Toure was only a fraction more expensive at £150,000. That was a minuscule amount for Arsenal to pay for the Ivory Coast international, who went on to become a mainstay at center-half throughout the 2000s.

What Is a Free Transfer and How Do They Work?

As you can probably guess, a free transfer is one that does not involve a fee. Occasionally a club might allow one of their players to join a rival for nothing. More often than not, though, free transfers in the Premier League take place when a player is out of the contract. Players’ deals typically run until June 30 of a given year, after which they can freely choose another club to join.

Before 1995, it was much more difficult for a soccer player to move to another team even after his contract had expired. In such cases, the club that had most recently held the player’s registration could still demand compensation when he wanted to sign a deal elsewhere.

Jean-Marc Bosman, a Belgian player, was frustrated in his attempt to join Dunkerque from Liege after the expiration of his deal with the latter in 1990. He took his case to the European Court of Justice, which ruled in his favor. As a result, free transfers are sometimes referred to as ‘Bosman deals’.

Some free transfers have been hugely successful. James Milner joined Liverpool from Manchester City for nothing in 2016 and has gone on to win multiple trophies at Anfield. Zlatan Ibrahimovic proved he was not over the hill when Manchester United brought him in on a free transfer in the same year. A decade earlier, Chelsea won the race to sign Michael Ballack on a Bosman from Bayern Munich.

Free transfers are sometimes seen as ‘free hits’ that entail no risk. That is an oversimplification. Because there is no fee due to a player’s previous club, Premier League teams are usually willing to give the player a hefty signing-on fee or a larger pay packet than they otherwise would have done.

That is exactly what Manchester United did when Alexis Sanchez joined from Arsenal in 2018. Technically this was not a free transfer but a swap deal, with Henrikh Mkhitaryan moving in the other direction. But because United did not have to pay Arsenal any money, they handed Sanchez an incredibly generous wage that made him one of the highest-earning players in the world. The Chilean was a major disappointment at Old Trafford, scoring only five goals in 45 appearances in all competitions.

Other failed free transfers include Mark Bosnich to Chelsea in 2001, Ian Rush to Leeds in 1996, Joe Cole to Liverpool in 2010, Jose Bosingwa to Queens Park Rangers in 2012, and Nicolas Anelka to West Bromwich Albion in 2013.

The most shocking free of all free transfers in the Premier League occurred in 2001. Sol Campbell was Tottenham Hotspur’s captain. He had come through the club’s academy and was regarded as one of the best center-backs in the English game. Imagine the surprise, then, when Campbell agreed to join Arsenal, Tottenham’s arch-rivals. Since he was out of contract, Spurs could not even console themselves with a transfer fee.

What Is a Loan Transfer and How Do They Work?

A loan move is a temporary transfer for a specified period of time. Rather than buying a player’s registration on a permanent basis, clubs can look to borrow him for anything from a month up to a whole season (and sometimes even longer).

Clubs may agree to loan out their players for numerous reasons. It is often younger players who are sent out on loan, in a bid to get them some useful first-team experience elsewhere. Senior players also embark on loan moves, though, usually in cases where they have not been able to secure a permanent transfer, or where the club in question has not yet made a decision on their long-term future.

In the Premier League, loan players are ineligible to play against the clubs that own their registration. Premier League clubs can sign a maximum of two players on loan at any one time. They are not permitted to sign more than one player on loan from each rival Premier League club.

One of the most successful loan transfers in the Premier League involved Jurgen Klinsmann and Tottenham. The German striker scored nine goals in 15 games for the club in 1997/98 to drag Spurs clear of relegation trouble.

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Greg Lea

Expert on Soccer

Greg Lea is a freelance soccer journalist from London. He is the former editor of The Set Pieces, and has contributed to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, and ESPN. A Crystal Palace fan, he is a long-time subscriber to the belief that it's the taking part that counts. Email: [email protected]