Having already looked through the worst signings from every January transfer window since its inception, it’s time to look at the best.
As that list proved, there have been plenty of stinkers to arrive during the winter window, but this one will show that not every decision made at the midway point is born out of desperation and panic.
(Fees are taken from multiple sources, namely Transfermarkt.)
2003 – Jonathan Woodgate to Newcastle United – £12m
When you think about Jonathan Woodgate moves, your mind will most likely drift to one transfer in particular. But Woodgate enjoyed a good January transfer, firstly moving to Newcastle in 2003 which led to his move to Spain, but also in 2008 as he had a fruitful spell at Tottenham – going on to score the winner in that year’s League Cup Final.
But it’s his time on the Toon that’s under the microscope here, as the Englishman established himself as a fan favourite, earning plaudits for his all-round game and one particular UEFA Cup semi-final performance against Marseille’s Didier Drogba.
When Woodgate was able to play amid niggling injury issues, he impressed, prompting Real Madrid to sign him for £16.5m just eighteen months later.
2004 – Jermain Defoe to Tottenham Hotspur – £7m
I can’t think of a British striker at his age who has achieved as much in such a short space of time. His goal record for a 21-year-old is quite exceptional. I hope he will have a fine career at Tottenham.
Said then-Spurs boss David Pleat – how right he was.
Over the next ten years – barring a year-long spell with Portsmouth – Defoe smashed home 143 goals for the north London side, becoming the club’s leading Premier League scorer and 5th on the all time list of Tottenham bagsmen (although he has since been overtaken by Harry Kane on both counts).
Unfortunately for Defoe, these exploits only landed him a belated 2008 League Cup winners’ medal, but he didn’t appear in the final as he had moved to Portsmouth weeks earlier, and was cup-tied for Pompey’s FA Cup final later that year. Talk about rotten luck!
Fellow forwards Louis Saha and Bobby Zamora – who went the other way in the Defoe deal – were also considered.
2005 – Mikel Arteta to Everton – Loan
With Everton chasing Champions League qualification in the winter of 2005, David Moyes sought to add some flair and quality to an Everton midfield that was wounded by the loss of Thomas Graveson to Real Madrid, opting for Spanish midfielder Mikel Arteta on loan from Real Sociedad.
Whilst Arteta didn’t particularly hit the ground running, he did prove a useful acquisition for Everton, with the Spaniard beginning to show his best form when moved into the centre of the park from out wide. The crowning glory of his loan spell came in a 2-0 win against Newcastle, assisting both goals to confirm the club’s place in the Champions League.
That summer, the Toffees made the deal permanent for just £2.5m – as Arteta went on to contribute to 70 goals in 209 games for the Blues, before departing for Arsenal for £10.8m in 2011. Other mentions go to Kevin Campbell’s move to West Brom during the great escape, and Ryan Nelson’s move to Blackburn.
2006 – Nemanja Vidić to Manchester United – £7m
During Sir Alex Ferguson’s time at Manchester United, he showed an ability to scout players from all around the world. Whether it was Peter Schmeichel from Brøndby in Denmark, Park-Ji Sung from PSV in Holland, or Ole Gunnar Solskjaer from his beloved Molde – Ferguson was terrific in the transfer market.
One of his best signings from a smaller league was the acquisition of Nemanja Vidić, a towering Serbian centre half who was signed from Russian side Spartak Moscow in the winter of 2006. Whilst his debut didn’t go to plan (as another terrific January arrival in the shape of David Bentley ripped United to shreds for Blackburn), quickly after he established himself as one of the league’s most commanding defenders.
He dovetailed terrifically with Rio Ferdinand, too, as the pair became known as one of the greatest Premier League centre-back partnerships of all time – going on to win 15 trophies together at Old Trafford. Whilst Bentley was unlucky not to feature here, so too was Patrice Evra, who arrived from Monaco at the same time as Vidić.
2007 – Javier Mascherano to Liverpool – £18.6m
Having been embroiled in one of the most controversial transfer sagas of all time when he moved to West Ham in the summer of 2006, Javier Mascherano would have been mightily relieved to leave east London the following January – especially when he saw who his suitors were.
The Argentine was terrific for Liverpool, offering vital solidity at the base of the Reds’ midfield, allowing the likes of Steven Gerrard and Xabi Alonso to go and play further up the pitch. That sort of firepower – including the irresistible Fernando Torres – took Liverpool to second in the Premier League table, their then-best assault on a league Championship in the modern era.
Mascherano eventually departed in 2010 for Barcelona – a lifelong dream of his – going on to win the lot, whilst Liverpool never truly replaced him until Fabinho walked in the door nearly ten years later.
It pained me not to include cult hero Clint Dempsey in this list, or Villa forwards John Carew and Ashley Young, whilst David Unsworth’s final day penalty kept Wigan up having signed in the winter. But they were all pipped by the tenacious Argentine.
2008 – Branislav Ivanović to Chelsea – £10m
From one side of Moscow in 2006, to the other in 2008, as Branislav Ivanović joined Chelsea from Spartak in a deal worth around £10m. Unlike Vidić, however, Ivanović didn’t hit the ground running, waiting over eight months for his first Chelsea appearance due to a lack of match fitness, and only really beginning to solidify himself after a memorable Champions League brace away to Liverpool over a year after signing.
Crucial goals would become the Serb’s party piece whilst in west London, as he went on to score the crucial goal in the 2012 Champions League quarter-final against Napoli, as well as the winners in the 2013 Europa League Final and 2015 League Cup semi-final
Whilst he is most fondly remembered for his antics further up the field, Ivanović was also a terrific defender, playing vital roles in the sides that won ten trophies during his nine years in the capital.
2009 – Ben Watson to Wigan Athletic – £2m
This was a relatively slow window (as you can probably tell), but Wigan managed to sign the two players who have scored arguably the most important goals in the club’s recent history. Charles N’Zogbia arrived from Newcastle, before going on to score vital goals against Arsenal and West Ham which secured the Latics’ safety in both the 2009/10 and 10/11 seasons.
But Ben Watson scored the winning goal in the 2013 FA Cup Final (just a matter of weeks after returning from a broken leg), winning Wigan their first and only major honour – sealing his place in Latics and Cup folklore, and more importantly, this list.
It wasn’t just that goal, though. Watson played over 130 games for Wigan – with 77 of those coming in the Premier League – contributing 20 goals in the process. At just £2m, I think it’s fair to say Wigan got their money’s worth with this one.
2010 – Landon Donovan to Everton – Loan
Out of all the windows on this list, this was easily the hardest to pick from. But not because this was filled with great signings, but the opposite, leaving our best bets as Landon Donovan, Maxi Rodriguez and Victor Moses.
In the end, we’ve opted for Donovan as, whilst brief, his first spell on English soil was pretty successful. In just ten games, he contributed five goals and assists, helping the Toffees to an 8th place finish and becoming a fan favourite along the way.
He would return two years later and enjoy another decent temporary spell, but this is easily the most underwhelming inclusion we’ve seen so far.
2011 – Luis Suárez to Liverpool – £25m
There have been some absolutely terrific players in the Premier League down the years, but few made the game look as easy as Luis Suárez did. Signed from Ajax on deadline day – alongside Andy Carroll – the Uruguayan proved anything but a panic buy, as he bagged four goals and laid on five assists in his first four months at Anfield.
Over his next three full seasons, Suárez was involved in a staggering 120 goals in as many games for the Reds, as he helped to carry Liverpool to the brink of greatness in 2013/14 with a 31-goal season. Unfortunately for him, though, it just wasn’t enough, as Manchester City pipped Liverpool to the league.
He made mistakes whilst on Merseyside, but it’s hard to take anything away from the incredible show he put on during his time here.
Obafemi Martins deserves a mention as – like Ben Watson – he went on to score the winning goal in a Cup final after signing for Birmingham that winter.
2012 – Gary Cahill to Chelsea – £7.5m
During an era in which Chelsea have splurged away money on some of the most ridiculous signings ever seen in the Premier League, the purchase of Gary Cahill has to go down as one of the best value for money deals not just down the Kings Road, but in the league’s history.
From January 2012 until Cahill’s departure in the summer of 2019, the Englishman played just shy of 300 games for the Blues and won every trophy available to him – as well as playing the full 120 minutes of Chelsea’s victorious 2012 Champions League Final.
That sort of longevity is rarely matched in modern football, let alone at a club with standards as high as Chelsea, with that being the defining factor when compared to fellow January arrival Papiss Cissé.
2013 – John Stones to Everton – £3m
After eleven years as Everton manager, David Moyes departed for Manchester United in May of 2013 – but he left Everton with the perfect parting gift. Typically scrupulous in the transfer market, his final act for the Toffees was to sign an 18-year-old John Stones from Barnsley off the basis of a recommendation by Everton’s chief scout.
Despite signing in January, Stones didn’t make his first appearance for Everton until August of that year in the League Cup against Stevenage, before slowly edging his way into the first-team picture under Roberto Martinez. The Spaniard showed great belief in Stones – handing him 94 appearances during his three seasons on Merseyside.
Stones caught the eye with his ability on the ball and strength in the tackle, prompting Manchester City to shell out a record £50m on the Englishman – making him the then-second most expensive defender of all time, behind David Luiz. Whilst his time at the Etihad hasn’t always been smooth, Stones is enjoying a career renaissance this season.
Honourable mentions include Daniel Sturridge’s move to Liverpool, and Moussa Sissoko’s swap to Newcastle.
2014 – Juan Mata to Manchester United – £37.1m
In terms of players still playing the game, I believe Juan Mata’s career has to go down as one of the most underrated out there. A Copa del Rey winner with Valencia, a World and European Champion with Spain, before winning both major European honours with Chelsea as well as the FA Cup.
This was all before he left Stamford Bridge for David Moyes’ Manchester United in January of 2014, hoping to offer a faltering Red Devils side some much needed creativity in the middle of the field. Whilst his contribution didn’t reap dividends for the team’s league position, Mata did contribute to eleven goals in just 15 appearances until the end of 2013/14.
Over the next six-and-a-half years, Mata has had a hand in a further 86 goals for United, winning another FA Cup and Europa League, as well as the EFL Cup. It’s fair to say the Spaniard in Salford has certainly left his mark.
2015 – Jermain Defoe to Sunderland – £3m + Swap for Jozy Altidore
This was perhaps the most difficult year to choose from. In January 2015, Wilfried Zaha returned to Crystal Palace, whilst Michael Keane’s move to Burnley and Ryan Bertrand’s switch to Southampton have both proved great deals for different reasons. In an alternate dimension, Dele Alli would have continued his collision course with stardom, but his career has stagnated over the last twelve months.
So instead, it’s Jermain Defoe again, a Premier League goal machine whose consistency and reliability in front of goal will be remembered for many years to come. His time at Sunderland was terrific, as his signing almost single-handedly saved the club from relegation for two consecutive seasons.
Defoe bagged four from his arrival until May – including a memorable derby winner against Newcastle – before notching 33 in his two full seasons at the Stadium of Light. His exploits may not have been enough to save the club from an inevitable relegation in 16/17, but he left the club as a legend both on and off the field.
2016 – James Maddison to Norwich City – £2.4m
Norwich’s signing of James Maddison back in 2016 is a perfect example of some of the terrific scouting and work the club have conducted in the transfer market over the past few years, signing the now-England star for just over £2m.
After signing, Maddison was sent on loan at Aberdeen, before really making his mark in the Championship during the 17/18 season. Whilst Norwich finished a disappointing 14th in Daniel Farke’s first season, Maddison contributed 22 goals and assists in the league.
After such a stellar season, the big clubs circled, with Leicester eventually securing the young Englishman for £22.5m – a smooth £20.5m profit on what the Canaries paid just eighteen months prior.
Other contenders included Abdoulaye Doucouré’s move to Watford, and Sunderland’s relegation saviour Lamine Koné.
2017 – Wilfred Ndidi to Leicester City – £15m
Replacing the metaphorically large boots of N’Golo Kanté was never going to be easy, but Leicester made it look just that, as only six months after the Frenchman’s departure, they bought the man best tasked with mimicking his role in Leicester’s side.
Since Ndidi’s arrival, he has featured in the top two for tackles made in each full season, as well as the top three for interceptions in both 2018/19 and 2019/20, proving crucial to Brendan Rodgers’ side.
It’s a wonder that, at just 21 and highly thought of at previous club Genk, how Leicester were able to snap the Nigerian up ahead of bigger clubs. Whilst the Foxes had been crowned Premier League Champions only six months previous, they were 14th at the time, and only six points above the relegation zone.
One thing is for certain, though, that Leicester will make a lot more money back from Ndidi than the £15m they paid four years ago. Other worthy mentions go to Gabriel Jesus and Luka Milivojević.
2018 – Virgil Van Dijk to Liverpool – £75m
Perhaps the most influential January window signing ever, Virgil Van Dijk’s long-awaited arrival at Liverpool sparked the Reds’ transformation from nearly men under Jurgen Klopp to bonafide Premier League greats.
His impact was instant. Within four months, Liverpool had reached their first Champions League final in eleven years, before winning one a year later, along with a Premier League title in 2020 – a season in which Liverpool went the opening 27 games unbeaten, too.
Whilst Van Dijk is the most expensive Premier League arrival ever seen in a January window – and the second most overall behind Philippe Coutinho’s move to Barcelona – he has been worth every penny. Prior to injury in October of last year, the Dutchman had played just over 90% of all Liverpool games since his arrival – a period which coincides with the most successful years of the Reds’ recent history.
2019 – Christian Pulisic to Chelsea – £57m
Knowing that they were likely to be on the end of transfer ban in the coming weeks – and were also probably going to lose the mercurial Eden Hazard – Chelsea acted quickly to sign a player ready for first-team football, but also one good enough to one day match the achievements of the Belgian superstar.
Step forward Christian Pulisic; an American winger who earned his stripes during a three-and-a-half year spell with Borussia Dortmund where he contributed to just shy of 50 goals for the German outfit.
His first season in England showed plenty of promise, too, as Pulisic notched 21 goal involvements in an injury-hit first 12 months in English football, which ended with a goal in the FA Cup Final. At just 22, there should be plenty more to come from the kid from Hershey.
2020 – Bruno Fernandes to Manchester United – £49.5m
During a season in which Bruno Fernandes has contributed to eighteen goals in just seventeen league games, and had his impact at the club compared to that of United legend Eric Cantona, it’s pretty obvious that he is the latest worldie to arrive during the winter window. Much like the aforementioned Van Dijk, Bruno’s influence on Manchester United has been seismic, though his arrival was belated.
Of course, Van Dijk now rightfully has the silverware to back up his impact at Liverpool, which leaves Bruno some way behind. However, Liverpool were already an upwardly mobile side, whereas Manchester United seemed to be drifting under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer – placed 5th and just four points above 14th placed Newcastle at the time of his arrival.
Since then, the Portuguese international has been involved in 44 goals in just 47 games – an absolutely staggering total which has taken United to the top of the Premier League table at the time of writing. Whilst he is yet to lift silverware during his first year in Manchester, you wouldn’t bet against him breaking that duck soon.
But who would you have included? Be sure to let us know!