We have come a long way in football analysis. The average fan is now capable of picking out more complex tactical structures. We are far better at pin-pointing young talent. Brands have been built around the hunt for the next Mbappe; ScoutedFTBL, Jacek Kulig and Football Daily are all great examples. A victim of this wave of analysis and reporting is the perception of an older footballer. Even in this summer transfer window, we saw a debate amongst Manchester City fans towards the prospect of signing Lionel Messi. Many fans felt more interested in spending vast sums of money on a player who was not 33 years old.
We also see a negative perception of older XIs. FourFourTwo predict Crystal Palace to place 16th this season. Football Daily backed this up, even quoting the possibility of relegation. Particularly the latter point to the squad age profile. Just 6 of their top 15 players for league minutes in 19/20 were below the age of 30. Both publications presume that this season, with such an old squad, Palace will struggle.
When we look at the physical changes in a player as they get older, we can see where the narrative has originated. The most basic concept is that a player will lose maximum endurance levels. This is because our bodies use oxygen less efficiently as we get older. The sweet spot for endurance as described by Christopher Minson (Professor at Uni of Oregon), usually falls between 25 and 32 years old.
Along with this, players will generally see their acceleration decrease after the age of 25. Our muscle mass declines by 10% from after 25 years old until 50 years old (And decreases further after this). Peak Performance also studied that our ‘fast-twitch muscle fibres’ begin to decline more rapidly from our mid to late twenties. The muscle fibres are particularly crucial for a footballer, as they are big contributors to pace and power.
This goes in tandem with increased injury risk. As we age, our bones become more brittle and can break easier. Our muscles lose strength. Our joints lose cartilage. This leads to swollen/painful muscles, and more injuries around the knees and achilles. So far this season, there have been injuries to
10 Premier League players. Just 2 of those players are under the age of 26. A small reflection of the scientific research.
While these physical disadvantages can be brutalising to players, with age also comes clear advantages to a player’s mind. The years of experience helps, particularly with set pieces. We have seen Lionel Messi go from scoring six free-kicks from 2014 to 2016, to 11 in the past two years (Understat).
The same concept applies to a player’s vision. Age does not negate a player’s ability to time and place a pass; instead, the years of practice can sharpen a player’s passing range. This can be linked to why, since he moved to Chelsea at 27 years old, Cesc Fabregas has enjoyed major success in both England and France well into his thirties.
The negative factors of age can be completely negated for a certain position on the pitch. Of the top 20 appearance makers for Premier League goalkeepers in 19/20, just five were under the age of 27. The other 15 were 27 years old or over, with eight being over 30 years old. Vicente Guatia, Hugo Lloris and Kaspar Schmeichel remain as some of the top goalkeepers in the league, despite all being in their 30s.
This is because the gain in experience is essential to a Goalkeeper. The more shots a goalkeeper faces, the more penalties taken against them, the better they become. The negatives of being over 30 are minimal in relation to a keeper. The loss of acceleration is perhaps the only relevant physical change, as it would affect a keeper’s ability to rush off their line. The loss of endurance and physical strength is irrelevant when a player is stationed in one small area for 90 minutes.
When we move outfield, though, things become more complex. Rather than certain positions requiring different ingredients, it can largely come down to tactical blueprint. Crystal Palace feel comfortable to field an XI of over 28-year olds, while Chelsea hold a policy of offering nothing more than a 1-year contract extension to over 30 players. Analysing both shows where and when older players excel.
At Chelsea, the club is generally given the majority of the ball in a Premier League match. This means their defensive line is usually high up the pitch, meaning there is heavy importance of speed on the defenders. Players like David Luiz and Gary Cahill were played regularly while they remained in their mid-20s.
With Chelsea wanting to keep the ball, they are more likely to press to win it back, rather than remaining passive. Their midfielders must be energetic, going forwards and backwards. N’Golo Kante and Mateo Kovacic are tasked with being all action CMs, while the more sluggish Jorginho is ironically often criticised for his lack of pace.
With opposition defences dropping deep, there is less need for a striker to get in behind. It is much more important for a striker to be able to get the ball to stick closer to the goal. Didier Drogba was perhaps the best example of an older player remaining integral to a side. Famed for his heading and strength, Drogba played until he was 34 and won the UCL in 2012. He was even brought back as a 36-year-old, scoring four goals in less than 900 minutes when Chelsea won the league in 2015.
Crystal Palace are pretty much the complete opposite. Under the management of Roy Hodgson for the past three years, Palace are all about passive organised defending. They are usually under attack from quality teams, so they need experienced defenders who are less likely to make a mistake. Gary Cahill moved to Palace after being deemed surplus to requirements at Chelsea. Instead of playing a high line, Palace’s deep defence lets Cahill’s experience excel. He made 25 league appearances last season as Palace kept ten clean sheets.
In midfield, Palace rely on the experienced set of centre-midfielders including James McArthur, James McCarthy and Luka Milivojevic. Even though 32-year-old James McArthur covered the 6th most kilometres in the league last season, this has been through low intensity running. Palace set up in a 4-4-2, with the CMs more concerned with marking zones than chasing the ball. There is not much need for explosiveness, and there is less stress on the bodies of Palace midfielders.
Upfront, however, is where Crystal Palace have continuously lined up with a younger set of players. While Wilfred Zaha has led the line since 2016 and is yet to turn 28. He has been joined by Andros Townsend (29) and Jeffrey Schlupp (27) in the past few years. Before them, it was Yannick Bolasie and Frazier Campbell. Palace rely on counter-attacks for their goals, so the need for a younger quicker striker is greater than Chelsea.
We can see the clear parallels between the sides, and in pointing them out, we have managed to distinguish when and where an older player can be used well. This analysis should also go some way to dispel the myth that a player approaching 30 is near the end of their career. Much like Gary Cahill, they are simply approaching a different stage. It is up to the team to decide if they should change style to get the best out of the qualities of an ageing player.
Written by Alex Barker | Feature Image by Marc Atkins/Getty Images
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