Science and data are redefining old football

LONDON. The exact location of the threshold has always been a matter of controversy. At Manchester United, he was close enough to 30 for a while that it served as a natural watershed. When players turned 30, Alex Ferguson, the club’s then manager, used to give them an extra day of rest after a game, in the hope that the break would help soothe their creaky bodies.

Arsene Wenger from Arsenal was a little more subtle. He had a formula. As soon as midfielders and strikers reached the age of 32, he was ready to offer them a one-year contract extension. “That’s the rule here,” he once said. “After 32, you go year after year.” He made an exception for centre-backs; they could sign contracts that made them 34 years old.

But while the exact cut has always been subjective, the broad and long-held view in football is that it’s in there somewhere. At some point in the beginning of the third decade, the players cross the border that distinguishes summer from autumn, present from past. And once they do, they can officially be considered old.

This distinction has long been used in both recruitment and retention strategies for teams across Europe. The vast majority of clubs tend to stick to a simple principle for years: buy young and sell old.

Tottenham’s signing last month of 33-year-old Croatian midfielder Ivan Perisic, for example, marked the club’s first signing of an outfield player at the age of 30 since 2017. Liverpool have not done this since 2016. Manchester City did not pay dues. for a fielder over 30 for almost ten years. Goalkeepers, who by all accounts boast a longer lifespan, are the only players granted an exemption.

Instead, players nearing the end of their careers are usually seen as a burden to be shifted. This summer was a case in point: Bayern Munich managed to alienate the almost 34-year-old Robert Lewandowski by (unsuccessfully) trying to appoint ten years his junior, Erling Haaland, as their heir.

Meanwhile, Liverpool have begun work on destroying their vaunted attacking trident, replacing 30-year-old Sadio Mane with 25-year-old Luis Diaz and adding 23-year-old Darwin Nunez to replace Roberto Firmino, who is in October. Seeking to revamp their squad, Manchester United has released a set of players including Nemanja Matic, Juan Mata and Edinson Cavani to a market already saturated with veterans including Gareth Bale and Angel Di Maria.

The reason for this is, of course, simple. “The demands of the game are changing,” said Robin Thorpe, a performance specialist who spent a decade at Manchester United and now works with the Red Bull team network. “There is a lot more focus on high-intensity sprinting, acceleration and deceleration.” It is believed that young players are better prepared for such a load than their older ones.

Just as important, however, bringing in younger players promises “a higher return on investment when you want to transfer them,” according to Tony Strudwick, Thorpe’s former United teammate who also worked at Arsenal. Clubs can recoup their costs, and maybe make a profit, by acquiring a player when he is 20 years old. Those ten or so years older are viewed in a strictly economic sense as rapidly depreciating assets.

The two ideas are of course related, and so it is important that at least one of them can be based on legacy logic.

Players over 32 consistently spend more time in the Champions League every year, according to Twenty First Group, a consulting firm. Last season, players over the age of 34 – practically ancient in traditional football thinking – totaled more minutes in Europe’s big five leagues than in any previous season for which data was available.

More importantly, it had no measurable impact on their performance.

“Age has its pros and cons,” said former Barcelona right-back Dani Alves, now 39 and determined to move on with his career. told The Guardian this month. “Today I have an experience that I did not have 20 years ago. When there is a big game, 20-year-olds get nervous and worried. I do not. “

Twenty First Group data supports Alves’ view. Although players in their 20s press more than those in their 30s – 14.5 pressing in 90 minutes rather than 12.8 – this reduction is compensated in other ways.

In both the Champions League and major European tournaments, older players win more aerial duels, dribble more, pass more accurately (if they are central midfielders) and score more goals. There are more than twice as many players over 30 in the Twenty First Group’s ranking of the world’s top 150 players now than ten years ago.

The data is very clear that 30 is not as old as it used to be.

From the point of view of sports science, this is not surprising. The idea of ​​age 30 as a permanent threshold for aging predates football’s interest in physical fitness: the current generation of 30-year-old players, Stroudwick noted, may be the first to “be exposed to serious sports science from the start of their careers.” careers.”

There is no reason to assume that they will age at the same rate or at the same time as their ancestors. “Look at the state players are in when they retire,” Stroudwick said. “They didn’t let go of their bodies. They may need to be pushed a little less in pre-season and their recovery may take longer, but from a physical and performance standpoint, there is no reason why they can’t provide value in their 30s.”

According to Thorp, life expectancy can only be increased through improved nutrition and recovery practices.

When he was at Manchester United, he says, “The rule of thumb has always been that players over 30 get a second day off after games. Intuitively, this seems to be correct.” However, the truth was that it wasn’t always the older players who needed a break.

“When we researched this, when we looked at the data,” Thorp said, “we found that it was more individual. Some of the older players could train, while some of the younger ones needed more rest.”

As these sorts of ideas become more and more embedded in the sport, he says, it follows that “more players should be able to do more later in their careers.” Luka Modric may have been joking when he said in an interview ahead of the Champions League final in May that he intended to play “until 50, like that Japanese [Kazuyoshi] Miura“But this is no longer as absurd as it might once sound.

What clubs don’t seem to have noticed – that players over 30, with rare exceptions, are still viewed as a burden rather than a blessing – is, as far as Stroudwick can see, now almost exclusively an economic issue.

“The player lifecycle is an inverted U,” he said. “But salary expectations are linear.”

A more scientific approach could flatten the downward curve of a player’s performance graph, or even delay its onset, but it cannot eliminate it completely. At some point, the player will enter what Stroudwick called the “wind down phase”. The one thing no club wants – and no club can afford – is to pay a player a bonus salary when that moment comes. This is what still motivates clubs to believe that the threshold reaches 30: not what players can contribute, but how much they are worth.