Science and data are changing the old definition of football

LONDON – The exact location of the barrier has always been disputed. At Manchester United, for a while, it was close enough to 30 for it to be a natural watershed. As the players approached their 30s, Alex Ferguson, the club’s manager at the time, gave them a day’s rest after a game in the hope that the break might soothe their grumbling bodies.

Arsenal’s Arsene Wenger was a bit more nuanced. He had a formula. After the midfielders and forwards reached the age of 32, he was only willing to give them a one-year contract extension. “That’s the rule here,” he once said. “After 32, you go from year to year.” He made an exception for central defenders; They could sign contracts that would take them to the age of 34.

But while the exact cutoff has always been subjective, the broad and longstanding consensus in football is that it lies somewhere in there. At some point in the players’ early third decade, they cross the line that separates summer from fall, present from past. And once they do, they can officially be considered old.

This emphasis has long informed both the recruitment and retention strategies of teams across Europe. The vast majority of clubs have followed a simple principle over the years: buy young and sell old.

For example, Tottenham’s signing of 33-year-old Croatian midfielder Ivan Perisic last month was the first time the club had signed a 30-year-old since 2017. Liverpool haven’t done it since 2016. Manchester City did not pay. A fee for a player over the age of 30 for nearly a decade. Goalkeepers, who are widely considered to boast great longevity, are the only players with an exception.

Instead, players nearing the twilight of their careers are generally viewed as a burden to carry. This summer was such a case: Bayern Munich managed to alienate the nearly 34-year-old Robert Lewandowski by trying (unsuccessfully) to use Erling Haaland, who is ten years his junior, as his successor.

Meanwhile, Liverpool have begun to dismantle their proud attacking triangle, replacing 30-year-old Sadio Mane with 25-year-old Luis Diaz and adding 23-year-old Darwin Nunez, who turns 31, to replace Roberto Firmino. October. As he looks to overhaul the squad, Manchester United have released a raft of players – Nemanja Matic, Juan Mata and Edinson Cavani among them – in a market already saturated with veterans including Gareth Bale and Angel Di Maria.

The reason for this is, of course, straightforward. “The demands of the game are changing,” said Robin Thorpe, a performance scientist who spent a decade at Manchester United and now works with the Red Bull chain of teams. “There’s a lot more emphasis on high-intensity sprinting, acceleration, deceleration.” Younger players are better equipped to handle this workload than their elders.

Just as importantly, though, recruiting young players promises “more investment when you get them going,” says Tony Strudwick, Thorpe’s former United colleague who also worked at Arsenal. Clubs can recoup their costs – perhaps even a profit – on a player bought in their 20s. Those that are more than a decade or so are considered a depreciating asset in a strict economic sense.

These two ideas are, of course, related, and so it is important that at least one of them may be rooted in outdated logic.

According to consultancy firm Twenty First Group, players over the age of 32 play more minutes each year in the Champions League. Last season, players over the age of 34 – practically ancient, in traditional football thinking – logged more minutes in Europe’s big five leagues than in any previous season for which data was available.

More importantly, it hasn’t come at any significant cost to their performance.

“Age has its pros and cons,” former Barcelona right-back Dani Alves, now 39 and determined to continue his career, told The Guardian this month. “Today I have experience that I did not have 20 years ago. When there’s a big game, 20-year-olds get nervous and anxious. Not me.”

Data from Twenty First Group backs Alves up. Although 20-year-old players make more than 30-year-olds – 14.5 tackles per 90 minutes, as opposed to 12.8 – this reduction is offset in other ways.

In both the Champions League and Europe’s top domestic competitions, older players win more aerial duels, complete more dribbles, pass with greater accuracy – if they are central midfielders – and score more goals. Players over the age of 30 are twice as likely to model the twenty-first group of the world’s top 150 players than they were on the same list ten years ago.

The data clearly shows that 30 is not as old as it used to be.

From a sports-scientific point of view, this is not surprising. The idea of ​​30 as an immutable threshold for aging predates interest in football conditioning: Strudwick noted that the current generation of players in their 30s may be the first to be “exposed to hard sports science early in their careers. “

There is no reason to assume that they will age at the same rate or time as their ancestors. “Look at the position the players are in when they retire,” Strudwick said. “They don’t let their bodies go. They may need to push a little less in the preseason and it may take them longer to recover, but from a physical and performance standpoint, there’s no reason they can’t add value in their 30s.

According to Thorpe, longevity can only be achieved by improving nutrition and recovery techniques.

When he was at Manchester United, he said, “It was always a rule of thumb that players over 30 had the second day off after games. It felt intuitively right.” However, the truth was that the rest was not always needed by older players. players.

“When we explored this, when we looked at the data,” Thorpe said, “we found it was more individual. Some of the older players could practice, while some of the younger players needed more rest.

As he argued that these kinds of views are more embedded in the sport, he argued that “more players should be able to do more later in their careers”. Luka Modric may have been joking when he told an interviewer before the Champions League final in May that he planned to play “until 50, like that Japanese guy. [Kazuyoshi] Miura”, but it is no longer as absurd as it once sounded.

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

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

A more scientific approach may flatten the downward curve of a player’s performance graph, or even delay its onset, but it cannot eliminate it entirely. At some point, the player will enter what Strudwick calls a “crash phase.” The one thing no club wants – what no club can afford – is to pay a premium salary to a player when that moment comes. This is what makes clubs, still, believe that the threshold is 30: not what players can contribute, but what they are worth.

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