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Smarter recruiting: The free agent market

Players can find themselves out of contract for many reasons, and sometimes these players don't find a new club during the transfer window. For clubs that find themselves short because of injuries or unexpectedly poor performances, the free agent market can beckon even when the window has shut. But finding value can be a risky proposition.

First, it's important to know that not every club can sign players outside the window. Leagues have different rules, but there's usually a maximum squad size set at the beginning of the season. If a Premier League club already has 25 names on its senior roster, then it won't be able to sign another prime-age player until the next transfer window. Some clubs do leave a space on their rosters, however, either because they simply don't have 25 senior players under contract or for situations like the one Liverpool find themselves in right now.

So here are some of the things to look for when assessing players outside of the transfer window:

Time away from the game. How long has it been since the player last took to the pitch? Maintaining a competitive level of fitness is difficult even in the thick of a football season, so players who have been out of contract may not be ready for action right away. Some players will have featured in reserve team matches or at least trained at their last clubs, but others who have been unattached for longer will need to have made other arrangements. What were their fitness regimens? Who oversaw their training? What else have they been doing to stay connected to the game?

When former Ireland international Paul McShane signed for Rochdale in October 2019, his most recent minutes with Reading's senior team had come more than six months earlier. A string of hamstring problems had curtailed his minutes and contributed to his release. But during his two months without a club, he had worked out at Bristol Rovers' training ground with a former coach from the Royals. He made his debut just two days after joining the injury-hit League One club and ended up covering plenty of ground at LCB, missing only a handful of matches through injury:

Injuries. A common story in the free agent market is that a player suffered a long-term injury that prevented him from playing until his contract ran out, and then his club didn't renew his deal. These can actually be advantageous situations, since the player may simply have been replaced in the lineup. If he's returning to fitness, then he may be able to pick up his career where he left off. But prospective new clubs will want to check into his medical history quite carefully to see whether the injury (or one like it) might be likely to recur.

Attitude. Another common situation is for a player to sign with a club, have a falling-out with a coach, lose his squad number, and agree to have his contract terminated. In one respect, this is a positive sign – the player wanted a chance to get on the pitch rather than sitting around collecting wages from a club that wouldn't use him. Yet it may also signal personality issues that could crop up at a new club, too. Does the player commit himself in training? Does he get along well with his teammates? Does he take instruction well from coaches? Or was he treated unfairly? It's essential to get the backstory, optimally from someone who doesn't have a vested interest, such as an ex-employee of the player's former club.

Recently Francesco Margiotta threw a little tantrum after Luzern failed to offer him an improved contract, so he became a free agent shortly after the summer 2020 transfer window had shut. The Juventus youth product, now 27, ended up at Chievo Verona in Serie B three weeks later, which was a decent level for him:

Finances. These days more and more players are finishing out their contracts in hope of a bigger payday at their next clubs. The reasoning is that by obviating the need for a transfer fee, they'll be able to negotiate higher wages and perhaps a signing bonus as well. Instead of paying a bumper fee to a player's old club, the new club pays the fee directly to the player. This strategy can go wrong, however, if no one is willing to pay what the player is asking, and the window closes without a deal. Indeed, some players hold out for huge signing bonuses because they need the money.

For example, when Lassana Diarra was on the market in 2017 and 2018, he was looking for cash to pay a court settlement stemming from his conduct at Lokomotiv Moscow a few years earlier. Fortunately, he still had something to offer as a holding midfielder, and he ended up at Paris Saint-Germain after a short stint in at Al Jazira in Abu Dhabi, which began in April 2017:

Of course, all of these factors can be worth considering when signing free agents during the transfer window, too. But outside the window, there is extra pressure on agents – and the players themselves – to paper over problems and portray a rosy outlook. At the same time, the clubs shopping outside the window may be especially desperate to fill holes in their squads. They need players who can come right in and make a difference, without adding to the injury lists or unsettling the changing rooms. All of this makes due diligence especially important, even when a deal is urgent for both sides.

On the plus side, the fact that the players in the market are unattached leaves some room for "try before you buy". Unlike players who are under contract, they can come and train with prospective clubs before signing. Moreover, their contracts are often short-term deals that include incentives and milestones to earn extensions. So there are ways to mitigate the possible downsides in the free agent market, but clubs with little margin for error will want to do everything they can to reduce those risks in the first place.

[Photo: Рыбакова Елена]

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