The exact point of the threshold has always been in dispute. At Manchester United, for example, the 30-year mark has always seemed like a normal limit. When the players hit their thirties Alex Ferguson, the club’s manager at the time, tended to give them an extra day of rest after games, hoping the extra leave would help them recover, while fitness kicks in. in regression.
Arsenal’s Arsene Wenger was more accurate. He had a formula. When the midfielders and strikers reached the age of 32, they were offered a contract extension for a maximum of one year. “That’s the rule here,” the coach once stated. “After 32, the basis for renewal is year after year.” make exceptions for area defenders; In their case, it was acceptable to sign contracts extending to the age of 34.
But while the given deadline has always been subjective, the broad and enduring consensus in football is that it exists in one form or another. When the player crosses the age of thirty, they cross the boundary that separates summer from autumn, between the present and the past. Once they do, they are officially considered senior citizens.
This determination has long guided player recruitment and retention strategies from clubs across Europe. The vast majority of clubs generally adhere to a simple principle: buy young players and sell old players.
Tottenham’s acquisition of Croatian midfielder Ivan Perisic, 33, last month, for example, was the first time the club had had a winger over the age of 30 in their squad since 2017. Liverpool have not done so since 2016. They haven’t signed Manchester City on players throughout the day. Age 30 for over a decade. Goalkeepers, considered by almost everyone to be the longest-lived, are the only players who benefit from an exception.
In general, players who have reached the end of their careers are seen as a burden that the club must get rid of. The early European signing window is a case in point: Bayern Munich sacked Robert Lewandowski, now 34, by trying (unsuccessfully) to sign Erling Haaland, a decade younger, as his successor.
Meanwhile, Liverpool have begun work on dismantling the much-lauded attacking trident, replacing Sadio Mane, 30, Luis Diaz, 25, and taking Darwin Nunez, 23, to succeed Roberto Firmino, who turns 31 in October. In their effort to reorganize the squad, Manchester United have released several experienced players – including Nemanja Matic, 33, Juan Mata, 34, and Edinson Cavani, 35.
The reasoning behind this is obviously very objective. “The demands of the sport are changing,” said Robin Thorpe, a performance scientist who has worked for Manchester United for ten years. He now works in the Red Bull Club Network. “There is a lot of focus on high speed sprints, acceleration and deceleration.” Younger players are seen as better equipped to handle these demands than older players.
Equally important, though, is recruiting young players promises “a greater return on investment when the club later wants to transfer them”, according to Tony Strudwick, Thorpe’s former United teammate and former Arsenal consultant. Clubs are now able to get their money back – and perhaps even make a profit – when they acquire a player in her early twenties. Older athletes are seen as quickly depreciating assets in purely economic terms.
These two ideas are of course related, and so it is important that at least one of them is based on a logic that has lost its validity.
According to data from consultancy Twenty First Group, players over the age of 32 play more minutes in the Champions League each year, consistently. Last season, players over the age of 34 – almost microbes according to conventional football thinking – captured more minutes on the pitch in Europe’s five major leagues than in any previous season for which data is available.
Most importantly, this happened without much cost in terms of performance.
“Age has its pros and cons,” former Barcelona right-back Dani Alves, 39, who is determined to continue his career, told the Guardian this month. “Today I have an experience that I didn’t have 20 years ago. When a big match arrives, the 20-year-olds get nervous and anxious. Not me.”
Twenty First Group data confirm Elvis’ assessment. While players in their twenties put more pressure on competitors than their counterparts in their thirties — an average of 14.5 times per game, compared to 12.8 — this disparity is compensated in other ways.
In both the Champions League and the major European national leagues, older players win more aerial fights, complete more dribbles, pass more accurately – in the case of midfielders – and score more goals. The number of players over the age of 30 who are part of the top 150 players in the Twenty First Group on the Planet model is now more than double what it was a decade ago.
The data very clearly shows that the 30-year-old is not as old as he used to be.
From a sports science perspective, this is not surprising. The idea that the 30s mark was a fixed threshold for old age came before football developed its interest in fitness. Strudwick points out that the current generation of players in their 30s may be the first to “learn about the benefits of cutting-edge sports science early in their careers”.
There is no reason to assume that they will age at the same rate, or from the same time, as their ancestors. “Look at the physical condition the players maintain when they retire,” Strudwick said. “They don’t neglect their bodies. They probably need to be pushed a little less in pre-season, and their recovery may take longer, but from a physical and performance standpoint, there’s no reason why they can’t add value to their teams until the late 30s.”
Thorpe said longevity will only increase with advances in nutrition and recovery techniques.
When he worked at Manchester United, the rule of thumb was to give players over 30 days of age extra rest after matches. “It seemed like the right thing to do, intuitively.” But the truth is, it wasn’t always the older players who needed a break.
“When we looked into it, when we looked at the data, we found it was an individual problem,” Thorpe said. “Some of the older players were able to train, while some of the younger players needed more rest.”
With these results gaining momentum in the sport, he argues, the resulting result was that “more players will have the ability 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 intended to play “until I’m 50, like that Japanese guy, [Kazuyoshi] Miura. “But this is no longer as ridiculous as it once seemed.
These clubs seem to have not noticed — and continue to view 30-year-olds as more of a burden than an advantage — that it is now almost exclusively an economic problem, according to Strudwick’s explanation. “The player’s life cycle is shaped like an inverted U, but salary expectations are linear,” he said.
A more scientific approach may have smoothed out the downward curve in a player’s performance or late start chart, but there’s no way to eliminate it permanently. At some point, the player will enter what Strudwick defines as a “retreat phase”.
The one thing that no club wants – and no club can afford – is to pay a player high salaries when that moment comes. What motivates clubs to continue to believe that 30 is the deadline is not what players can contribute, but the cost of that contribution.
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