In the Premier League and beyond, some of the biggest money paid this summer has been for players either approaching or past 30 years old.
One of the big anomalies of this summer’s transfer window has been the amount of money spent on what are perceived to be ‘older’ players.
Whether it’s the reportedly boracic Barcelona dropping £40m on the 33-year old Robert Lewandowski, Lionel Messi still plodding along for PSG at the ripe old age of 35 or Cristiano Ronaldo still seeking Champions League football at 37, the stars of 10 years ago remain the stars of today, and it doesn’t end there.
From the Harry Kane saga of last summer, to Nottingham Forest agreeing to pay Jesse Lingard anything between £80,000 to £200,000 a week when he turns 30 at the end of the year, the peak age of a footballer coming at around 27 years old is starting to look a little out of date.
At the end of the 2019/20 season, for example, the top goalscorers in four of the top five European leagues – Jamie Vardy, Messi, Lewandowski and Ciro Immobile – were all 30 or older while, of the two joint-top scorers in France who were under 30, one of them – Wissam Ben Yedder of Monaco – was 29.
This isn’t entirely down to position, although it is clear that some positions age better than others. At one extreme, one statistical analysis carried out by The Athletic (£) found that, in terms of their desire to take on and beat opponents, wingers start high and peak in their early 20s, with a big fall-off in the number of ‘take-ons’ attempted coming from around 29 years old on.
At the other end of the spectrum, goalkeepers seem to peak around two years later than those in outfield positions, a statistic most likely influenced by a combination of the fact that much goalkeeping is learned behaviour such as closing down angles and positioning of the body and the fact that less running, with all the attendant wear and tear issues that this brings upon muscles and joints, is required when you’re keeping goal.
It is also worth remembering that there are fewer players now whose players are ended prematurely by injury.
Boots are no longer clogs, match balls no longer resemble medicine balls, and pitches are lush green carpets for most professionals in comparison with the mud baths of the past, but it should also be added that injuries that were likely career-ending 60 or 70 years ago can be perfectly recoverable nowadays, thanks to developments in the ways in which they are treated.
We understand how to treat serious injuries much better than at any point in the past. It’s entirely plausible that if you’d mentioned a ‘metatarsal’ to the average player of the 1950s, they might have thought you were talking about a dinosaur.
Injuries are treated very differently to the ways in which they were in the past. Professional clubs now have phalanxes of nutritionists, injury specialists and analysts whose job it is to ensure that players are playing to the peak of their condition for as long as possible. Players simply can’t be completely disposable assets any more in the Premier League, and this becomes all the more accentuated the closer to its peak you get.
They are, if nothing else, highly valuable financial assets, and the trend for amortising player contracts means that they’re much less likely to be kicked to the kerb than they used to be.
Lifestyle choices made by players are also probably healthier than they used to be. With the possibility of contracts worth millions of pounds a year being an appropriate carrot on a stick, players seem to make fewer of the slightly silly choices that they used to. Practically none, for example, smoke anymore (a habit for some players that lasted into the 1990s and beyond), while alcohol use among young players also seems to be more moderate than it used to be, and nutrition is taken more seriously.
This, we might reasonably surmise, is in no small part because players are introduced to professional clubs in a very different way to the past. Being signed into a youth academy at eight or nine years of age is a very different form of preparation for life as a professional athlete to being plucked from a successful youth team once you’re already in your teens. Good habits are bred into them from a young age.
Cristiano Ronaldo was the second oldest outfield player in the Premier League last season after Thiago Silva, yet was its third-highest goalscorer.
For the criticism of his lack of press, this remains an extraordinary achievement, and it’s almost certainly the result of having kept himself in outstanding physical condition for decades, though it is worth pointing out that, of the six highest Premier League goalscorers last season, five – Mo Salah, Son Heung Min, Ronaldo, Sadio Mane and Kevin De Bruyne – will be 30 years old or more by the end of this year, while the youngest – Harry Kane, remarkably – will be 29.
There are always exceptions that prove these rules in either direction. The oldest average age of a team to win the World Cup, for example, remains the Brazil team that won the 1962 World Cup in Chile, with an average age of 30.7 years old. This team, of course, was more or less the same team that had also won the tournament four years earlier in Sweden, and was missing the 21-year old Pele, who played the first two games of the tournament but was injured in the second, a goalless draw with Czechoslovakia, when he tore his thigh muscle while attempting a long-range shot, an injury that ended his involvement in the entire competition.
Would different warming up, conditioning or equipment have helped Pele? It’s impossible to say. What we know for certain is that there were no substitutions in 1962, and that he limped on for a while because going off would reduce his team to 10 players.
At 60 years remove, it’s impossible to say how different all this might have played out under modern conditions, but it’s difficult to believe that it would have been worse. Four years later, the same thing happened to him in England at the hands of Portugal, but on this occasion Brazil buckled with his loss and were eliminated from the competition in the group stages.
And at the other end of that spectrum, Stanley Matthews was still playing top flight of the Football League at 50 years old, even though he was advertising cigarettes while he was in his late thirties.
Of course, not even the multi-billions of pounds available to those in charge of the richest clubs in the Premier League can postpone the march of time indefinitely. Middle-age comes to everybody in the end, and there has always been something perversely enjoyable about witnessing the sight of hundreds – or more – of pot-bellied men with bald patches or greying temples shouting variations upon, ‘COME ON GRANDAD, PRETEND THE BALL IS THE POST OFFICE AND TODAY’S PENSION DAY’ at a player who is quite clearly at least 15 or 20 years younger than them.
But on the other hand, perhaps the advances of the last half century will continue and players in their forties or fifties will become more commonplace. For some of us, already staring down the barrel of the shotgun that is our 50 birthdays, it’s something to cling onto.