15 February ~ Have Premier League clubs ever been so shrewd with their signings? Thierry Henry has scored two decisive goals for Arsenal during his short loan spell in England. At Tottenham, Harry Redknapp has acquired a goalkeeper and two strikers to match the rest of the team's quality without spending a penny in transfer fees. Demba Ba has proved a sensation at Newcastle and Manchester United have profited from re-signing Paul Scholes. Further down the table, Liverpool's free signing Craig Bellamy has scored ten goals and assisted a further five this season, while Everton's season has began to turn around thanks to loan and free signings.
As we enter the business end of the season, these players could be priceless for their clubs as they jostle for positions at the top of the table. While big money signings Sergio Aguero, Juan Mata and Phil Jones have each had successful starts for their new clubs, they are easily rivalled in terms of impact by the likes of Ba, Emanuel Adebayor and Brad Friedel.
The Premier League in recent times has been a setting for crazy money transfers. Over the past five years clubs have spent nearly £3 billion on transfer fees alone. The impact these "free" players are having up and down the table is quite remarkable. Previously, for the bigger clubs in the league, free transfers were rare and taking loanee players unheard of. This season has broken the mould with devastating effect.
Tottenham appear to have profited more than any other team. This time last season, after 25 games, Spurs were in fifth place and had a goal difference of plus nine. This year, with Adebayor, Friedel and, admittedly, the £5.5m signing Scott Parker, they are two places and nine points better off with a goal difference of plus 24. The free signing of Louis Saha looks as though it might help further.
Arsenal, without Samir Nasri and Cesc Fabregas, are worse off, but where might they be without Henry and, for that matter, Yossi Benayoun? Taking into account the pair's decisive late goals alone, the Gunners could well be out of the FA Cup and would have four less points in the league. Meanwhile, Ba's 17 goals so far this season have transformed Newcastle from relegation fighters to Champions League contenders.
Managers can congratulate themselves. The 2011-12 season has been one of bargains for the big teams. But there must be worries for the clubs about how sustainability of it all. Loans are temporary and players are usually free for a reason. Henry is on his way back to the US; Manchester City could recall Adebayor rather than hand him to a rival; and Chelsea may act in the same way with Benayoun. As for the free signings, aside from the sprightly 26-year-old Ba, Friedel (40), Scholes (37) and Bellamy (32) surely cannot maintain their excellence for much longer.
Because big clubs are new to this game, it is quite difficult to foresee the result of these shrewd but possibly unsustainable signings. Answers may be found by looking further down the Premier League table. This time last season, Wigan had Tom Cleverley and Bolton had Daniel Sturridge. Wigan survived the drop, and Bolton did so with ease.
This season both sides are clearly missing their ex-loanees. They currently make up the bottom two positions and could well be relegated. Never mind the difference this season's free signings have had on their sides, what impact might the absence of these players have next season should they not be around anymore? William Turvill