Why the transfer market is a cult of promises, trickery and misdirection

Before the transfer window had even closed, the plans were in motion. There would be a protest outside the Emirates Stadium at 7pm sharp on Tuesday. Arsenal's fans had had enough. They finished 12 points behind the Premier League champions last season. Now Arsene Wenger had gone through the entire summer and -- uniquely, among the top five leagues in Europe -- he had not bought a single outfield player. Enough was enough. Out went the rallying cry: #wengerout

Things were only slightly better at Manchester United. On Sunday evening, as the pundits on Sky Sports pored over Louis van Gaal's side's defeat at Swansea, one sentence was repeated, again and again. "They have 36 hours to sort this out," it went. The curtain was almost drawn on the transfer window, and with it their hopes of challenging for the title. They had already signed six players this summer, but more were needed. Out went the rallying cry: #signsomeone, #signanyone.

On Tuesday evening, just after the window had shut, James Corden -- the "funny-man" and television presenter -- could not contain his joy. His beloved West Ham had signed four players in the final nine hours of the window: a winger from a Championship club, a Premier League journeyman, a substitute striker and a player they had on loan last year.

It was, he told Twitter, the "best" transfer window in West Ham's history. David Gold, the club's chairman, shared his exhilaration and jubilation. It felt a little like they had won a cup, or qualified for the Champions League.

These are all manifestations of the same phenomenon. We live in an age in which we are all part of the cult of the transfer. It is one in which we are all complicit, all enablers: the media love the clicks and hits that transfers guarantee; the vast majority of fans, too, adore the speculation.

Now, there is quite a prolific cottage industry dedicated to criticising the transfer window. Some see it as a horribly modern phenomenon, proof of how money now dominates the game and dictates its outcome, how what was once a sport is now essentially an exercise in financial determinism.

Others deride it because of the economics of it all: more than £1 billion spent this summer by the Premier League clubs alone, money seeping out of our pockets -- in the form of ticket prices and subscription packages -- and into the hands and pockets of players and agents and clubs.

More still view it all as a spectacular waste of time, choosing to highlight how, for all this conspicuous consumption, the product is really getting any better, and if it is, why the Premier League elite seem to fall ever further behind the giants of Europe. They wonder, too, what it all means for the England national team and the development of English players.

These are all valid concerns, but they are shared only by a minority. The clicks and the hits do not lie: the vast majority love transfers, love deadline day. And that is valid, too, because of what new players represent. They are hope. A new signing, a clutch of new signings, gives supporters, however briefly, the chance to dream that better is to come. We might all know, deep down, that spending sprees never really have the desired effect: look at Liverpool last season, Spurs the year before.

As a rule, the more players you bring in, the less impact each of those signings will have. We might all know that it is not particularly good business -- or sporting -- sense to wait until the last day and then fill your shopping trolley with whatever is left.

But we can all hope, and we can all dream, that this time, for us, it might be different. That is why a handful of Arsenal fans wanted to protest outside the Emirates. Not because they wanted Arsene Wenger to spend money for the sake of it, but because they wanted him to acquire hope.

It is not surprising that fans encourage their clubs to spend. It is not surprising, as a consequence, that the media reflect that tendency. What is surprising is that those in football -- the clubs, the players, the managers and the agents -- are just as guilty for fuelling this spiralling addiction to spending money. They are complicit in the cult of the transfer.

The reasons for that are clear. Clubs like to look ambitious. Players like to get pay-rises. Agents like to get commissions. Managers like to put pressure on their boards. In the long-run, everyone wins from the belief that transfers are the be all and end all.

The problem is that this has given rise to a skewed logic, one that is best exemplified by the idea, mentioned above, that Manchester United had just 36 hours to save their season. The cult of the transfer has tricked us all into thinking that only signing new players can solve problems. It is has led us to believe in magic bullets.

What struck me most about the repeated comment that United had to sign someone, anyone, was that it immediately dismissed the idea that there might be any other way for Van Gaal to change his side's fortunes than simply by purchasing.

It reduced the game, in other words, to the level of FIFA and Football Manager. It turned it into an algorithm. United need these attributes, and thus they must go and find them. Pace: 18. Decision-making: 15. Finishing: 15.

Real football is more complicated than that. It is not a question of totalling up the attributes of your players and then letting the artificial intelligence handle the rest.

There is coaching, and tactics, and training methods, and team spirit, and a million more things. Anthony Martial, the player they eventually signed to save their season, may be the next Thierry Henry or the next Karim Benzema or a bit of both, but he won't be either unless he is in the right team playing the right way in the right atmosphere. That's why we have managers.

That is not to say transfers are not crucial. They are. But they are not a solution in and of themselves. There is no better example of that than Angel Di Maria, last summer. Di Maria is a wonderful footballer. He looked as much of a sure thing as anyone. And yet he did not work out at United because the system, the environment, was not right for him. One player -- with perhaps one or two exceptions -- cannot be expected to solve everything.

And yet those in the game continue to indulge the belief that they might, for their own, cynical reasons. Executives like to pretend one player makes the difference because that is much easier than confronting the reality, which is that success is an elusive, slippery sort of thing, one constructed from many factors, not all of them easy to define. Wearing a suit is an admission that you believe in order. Football is not ordered. It is messy. Executives would prefer if it was not.

Agents, of course, like to believe in magic bullets because they are the ones supplying them. Most of all, players and managers give credence to them because it deprives them of responsibility: if players do not succeed this season, it is not because of their failings but because the team-mate they required did not arrive; if managers miss their targets, it is because the executives missed theirs.

The cult of the transfer is really a cult of blame-shifting. How can I win the league when you did not buy me the one player I needed? How dare you sack me for not doing my job when you did not do yours? It is in the interests of everyone and anyone to pretend there is no coaching, no tactics, no training, no team spirit.

There are only transfers.