how the pandemic transfer window unfolded

It was the end of April and Juventus’s sporting director, Fabio Paratici, was talking about the upcoming transfer window for the first time: “We will have to be creative, imaginative.” He was absolutely right. More ideas, less money.

Five months have passed since then and we have just been through an extremely long and intense transfer window. It was unique because the circumstances had changed. There were some great ideas, although not all of them came through. It was a stop-start window, at times coming to a complete standstill, at others exhilarating. Above all, it was a window in line with the summer of a pandemic – it changed the world and therefore the transfer market.

Many clubs’ resources were limited by La Liga’s strict economic control and salary caps applied to every club, all of which found their income heavily hit by the coronavirus crisis. Barcelona, who on the final day of the window announced losses of €97m (£88m) over the financial year, needed to move players on and reduce their wage bill in order to bring new signings in.

Related: Premier League: the big winners and best signings of the transfer window

The Spanish giants could only get Sergiño Dest once they had sold Nélson Semedo and unable to force Ousmane Dembélé or Samuel Umtiti out or to raise greater funds on those who departed were forced to abandon negotiations for Eric García and Memphis Depay on the final day. Real Madrid have given the world the concept of galácticos but this time they did not sign a single player, determined as they were to reduce costs, stabilise and consolidate. Real were hoping for a discounted fee because of Covid-19 and maybe thought that they could sign Jadon Sancho for €90m plus bonuses in late September. “It was so close to being done, the player was disappointed,” someone close to the England international kept saying for months. But Dortmund were never going to give a discount to anyone.

Manchester City managed the money available well, Arsenal landed Thomas Partey by paying the release clause of €50m in one instalment, which surprised Atlético Madrid, who had not expected this to happen five hours before the window closed. The Partey deal in many ways reflect the way transfers are seen on social media these days. Simply reporting that Atlético were unimpressed seemed to anger some Arsenal fans, but then the transfer window on social media is also like this: dreams, intoxicating moments, collapses and even some insults.

In the end no one could deny the Arsenal fans their wildest dream. The club paid the full clause out of the blue, without any negotiations. That made the dream a reality. Atlético’s directors were upset, but Arsenal’s top-secret strategy had been perfect: ingenuity and creativity is what made the difference in this window.

Chelsea were the exception globally, conducting an impressive transfer window despite the pandemic, planned well in advance. Roman Abramovich was clear: we only buy the top targets, no plan B thank you very much. It was a good year to buy high-quality players – as there was less competition – to bridge the gap to the other top teams in England.

No one shopped like the Blues and an array of sporting directors across the world were amazed when talking about Abramovich’s spending: not only signing Hakim Ziyech, Timo Werner, Kai Havertz, Ben Chilwell, Thiago Silva and Édouard Mendy but also blocking the offer from Bayern Munich to sign Callum Hudson-Odoi late in the window. It was a significant offer but the player decided to stay with his manager, Frank Lampard, who asked the board not to sell him.

This was another feature of the transfer window, calls in the middle of the night, such as the one about the Havertz deal being concluded at half-time of the Champions League final between Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain. Yes, at that moment Bayer Leverkusen’s directors did call Roma: “We sold Havertz to Chelsea, it’s all done, we want Patrik Schick.” Two weeks later both deals were official.

But it was Liverpool who made the deal of the year. In June, Thiago Alcântara had shown up at Bayern Munich’s offices to sign an extension with a club photographer present. Instead he surprised everyone by saying: “I want to think about it, I need to talk about it with my family, I’ll update you all tomorrow.”

Twenty-four hours later, he turned up at Säbener Strasse again to talk to Bayern’s directors and with tears in his eyes said that he wanted to leave. Video calls with Jürgen Klopp had convinced and enthralled him, much more than Barcelona’s last-minute attempts. When I had the numbers of the Thiago deal confirmed to me I couldn’t not quite believe it. Once the details were out there my iPhone exploded with joyous Liverpool fans: the transfer window on social media is – thankfully – also like this.

Acquiring a player of Thiago’s quality for €25m plus bonuses is extraordinary. Taking advantage of opportunities was decisive this window. Real Madrid had to sell because of substantial losses and Tottenham pounced, signing Sergio Reguilón, a left-back with fantastic potential. Antonio Conte’s Internazionale also benefited, acquiring Achraf Hakimi for €40m. The Moroccan already has a goal and two assists in 120 minutes of Serie A football.

Ingenuity and winning strategies – that was the transfer window in the time of Covid. There were very few cash investments, even top clubs in the Premier League and La Liga were forced to sign players with options to buy next summer, when they have been used to spending €200m or €300m in one pre-season. Juventus, for example, signed Federico Chiesa from Fiorentina for a €2m loan fee to be paid now, €8m payable for the second year of the loan in June 2021, as well as €40m as an obligation to buy in 2022 and another €10m in bonuses to be paid over four years.

An eye-catching payment schedule, but necessary in a market so devoid of cash that Gareth Bale returned to Spurs on loan and Luis Suárez signed for Atlético Madrid from Barcelona on a free transfer. A year ago, those deals would have been unthinkable. Without the virus, Juventus would have offered €100m to Manchester United for Paul Pogba. They had put the money aside but could not invest it in one instalment and so had to give up on the deal.

Other special mentions must go to Juve and Manchester United. The bianconeri acquired the Swedish jewel Dejan Kulusevski in a deal from Atalanta. He was born in 2000, has an incredible future ahead of him and cost €45m with add-ons included. He is so good that Cristiano Ronaldo has already fallen in love with him.

Manchester United, meanwhile, signed the 18-year-old Amad Traoré from Atalanta by investing €30m plus €10m in add-ons. On the morning of deadline day, the United manager, Ole Gunnar Solskjær, told him: “You are a talent for the future, we’ll wait for you.”

Traoré will arrive in Manchester in January. United’s scouting team considers him to be one of the top-three talents born in 2002 in the world despite playing only 25 minutes of Serie A football (during which time he scored).

Everton also deserve to be praised – a manager with not so much money but lots of ideas made a difference. Carlo Ancelotti bombarded players such as James Rodríguez and Allan with phone calls and messages to convince them to join him. He managed to and now he is dreaming of achieving big things with Everton. The Carlo factor made a difference.

All in all, it was a difficult market and very hard for everyone involved. The next summer one could be even worse for those clubs who could lose players on Bosman deals at the end of their contracts. Like a certain Lionel Messi, free to sign a pre-contract with any club in January. They are getting ready in Manchester, just as they are in Paris, but that is a whole different story.

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