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Player Power and the Transfer Deadline: A Broken System with No Simple Resolution

The current transfer deadline system, in which players and clubs remain in limbo weeks into the season, is unsatisfactory and one in which all parties lose.

The announcement last week that the Premier League clubs are considering bringing forward the end of the transfer window to the beginning of August may be unworkable in practice, but that they are even discussing the issue suggests how problematic the early weeks of the season have become with players and clubs in limbo as deals are resolved.

Philippe Coutinho, Alexis Sanchez, Diego Costa and Virgil van Dijk have not yet played a minute of football this season, while Gylfi Sigurdsson just made his first cameo for Everton on Monday, and, while it is possible that injury plays some part in that, at least some of them have been sidelined pending a move.

It’s all deeply unsatisfactory. The season has started and yet it feels as though it hasn’t started for real. This is the phony war, and it doesn’t suit anybody. Fans who buy season tickets or television subscriptions have a right to expect to see the best available players. The players, presumably, want to play. And which club, really, can afford to go through the first two or three weeks of the season at a handicap while they get their squads sorted?

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It’s not just a Premier League issue–Ousmane Dembele has been suspended by Borussia Dortmund after refusing to train as he seeks a move to Barcelona–but as the league whose clubs buy and sell the most, it’s natural that the Premier League should be where most of the issues have occurred. Sigurdsson and Van Dijk both made clear their desire to leave their clubs–Swansea and Southampton respectively–after interest from Everton and Liverpool. Sigurdsson ended up appearing in just one of six possible friendlies for Swansea before his move was finally agreed, while Van Dijk was sent to train alone and remains a Southampton player.

Both Coutinho and Sanchez have suffered convenient minor injuries that have kept them out of action, while Diego Costa is still in Brazil, having refused to return to training with Chelsea after receiving a text from Antonio Conte in June telling him he was no longer in his plans. Given his obvious desire to leave the club–and his habit of returning for preseason either late or in poor shape–Conte’s stance is perhaps understandable, although neither club nor player emerge well from the present stand-off.

In such circumstances the player almost always gets his way. It’s a rare club that would dare hang on to a valuable asset in the hope that he will somehow rediscover his commitment to the cause. Manchester United did it successfully with Wayne Rooney and David De Gea, and United and Liverpool both effectively did deals with Cristiano Ronaldo and Luis Suarez to stay for one final year, but those are exceptional cases.

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Far more common is what happened with Lamine Kone at Sunderland last season. The central defender had been outstanding in his first six months at the club after joining from Lorient, but after Sunderland turned down an offer from Everton, his form tailed off significantly; that, in turn, has dissuaded potential buyers and he remains at the Stadium of Light.

Or take the case of Saido Berahino. West Brom turned down a £15 million bid for the forward from Tottenham in August 2015, valuing him at £25 million. He eventually left the club an acrimonious 18 months later, joining Stoke for £12 million. In that time he started only 20 games and scored only four goals.

Perhaps an argument could be mounted that Sunderland and West Brom sent out a message–something people in football are said to be doing bewilderingly often–to other wantaway players: they would not be pushed around. But the cost of the stance was clear: they were left with disaffected players, and so effectively lost not only Kone and Berahino in the form they’d been in before the wrangling, but also roughly £15 million each as valuations dropped.

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But it’s Diego Costa who may have the greatest longest-term impact, with both Chelsea and the player threatening lawsuits. That’s something causing consternation among football’s governing bodies. There have long been threats from FIFPro, the international players union, to challenge the present transfer system at the European Court of Justice. Stefan Szymanski, a professor of sport management at the University of Michigan recent described the present system as “a global trafficking scheme in human labor” in a column in the Financial Times, suggesting it breaches European Union legislation on the freedom of labor.

Were that found to be true, the consequences would be even more seismic than the Bosman ruling of 1995, which allows players to leave at the ends of their contracts without a fee being paid.

But that could take months if not years to settle. The Premier League's plan to close the window earlier might have helped resolve Van Dijk's situation earlier, but unless the change is also applied elsewhere, players looking to move outside of England could still end up in the sort of limbo Coutinho finds himself.

There is widespread agreement that the present situation is unsatisfactory; resolving it is another matter.