Is it just me or are Premier League goalkeepers getting younger these days?

Date published: Sunday 10th July 2022 5:30 - Ian King

Dean Henderson is the new Nottingham Forest goalkeeper

Goalkeepers have long been feted for playing into their 40s, but outfield players are lasting longer while keepers may be getting younger.

Goalkeepers are different, they say. Goalkeeping, we’re led to believe, is a specialist field in which players mature at a later age but have a longer shelf life because they haven’t been chasing round in circles for years putting considerable strain on their knee joints. The goalkeeper, we’re reliably (and not infrequently) informed, is usually the older, slightly more experienced professional.

Anecdotally it’s been recognised for a while that playing careers are getting longer across the board. No matter what happens next, Cristiano Ronaldo finished his first season back with Manchester United as the Premier League’s third highest goalscorer at 37 years of age. Luka Modric of Real Madrid was widely praised throughout much of last season for his performances at 36, while Karim Benzema tore a hole through several defences at 34.

There seems little question that the playing career of the professional player is longer than it ever used to be. Improvements in training and conditioning have ensured that, quite likely alongside considerable improvements in our understanding of the human body and significantly better health. It seems inconceivable, for example, that a player would endorse a brand of cigarettes, as Stanley Matthews did at the peak of his playing career. As with the population in a broader sense, fewer players smoke and players’ drinking culture seems much more controlled than it was 20 or 30 years ago. Diets and training regimes have changed immeasurably.

And the modern professional football career is simply worth so much more than it used to be. Matthews was one of the most famous footballers in the world in the early 1950s, but his basic wage at Blackpool would still have been restricted to football’s maximum wage, which was calculated to be around twice that of a skilled worker. Plenty of players had second jobs, none were able to retire off what they earned while playing, and injuries that would now take just a few weeks to clear up could be career-threatening.

And the nature of the goalkeeper position has changed over the years. Distribution of the ball is now expected to be quick, efficient and thoughtful, rather than an aimless punt of the ball down the pitch. In terms of this change in longevity, perhaps all that’s happening is the outfield players are now finding their careers lengthening to the same extent as goalkeepers. It seems that the gap between the average retirement age of an outfield player and that of a goalkeeper is around two years – 35 for an outfield player and 37 for a goalkeeper. And while the average age for outfield players has been continuing to increase, the average age for goalkeepers seems to have plateaued a little.

Eleven years ago, for example, the Daily Mail was writing about the proliferation of goalkeepers who were playing until into their 40s. There was a time when this was commonplace. Dino Zoff was 40 when he lifted the World Cup with Italy in 1982. Four years later, Pat Jennings went to Mexico for the World Cup as a free agent having retired from club football a few months earlier and kept goal for Northern Ireland against Brazil on his 41st birthday.

Four years later, Peter Shilton was closing in on his 41st birthday when he performed his impersonation of a sack of potatoes repeatedly falling over sideways during England’s World Cup semi-final penalty shootout against West Germany. And as recently as 2010, when Robert Green had his oopsie moment for England in the World Cup finals against the USA, the 39-year old David James was brought in to replace him rather than the then-23-year old Joe Hart. Even now, Gianluigi Buffon continues to keep goal in Serie B for Parma at 44 years of age, and earlier this year signed a contract that will keep him with the club for a further two years.

But this isn’t quite as prevalent as it used to be, in the Premier League at least. Consider the 20 most likely – there is an element of guesswork here; your mileage may vary – starting goalkeepers in the Premier League for the new season (Ramsdale, Martinez, Travers, Raya, Sanchez, Mendy, Johnstone, Pickford, Rodak, Meslier, Schmeichel, Alisson, Ederson, De Gea, Hope, Henderson, Bazunu/McCarthy, Lloris, Fabianski and Sa) there are only three – Kasper Schmeichel, Hugo Lloris and Lukasz Fabianski – who are 35 or older (Fabianski is the oldest at 37), and only a further three – Eduoard Mendy, David de Gea and Nick Pope – who are 30 or over.

In other words, 14 of the likely starting goalkeepers in the Premier League next season will be under 30 years old, and with higher-profile players increasingly playing into their late 30s, it seems in line with the average age of teams across the Premier League ranging from to 25 to 29. If goalkeepers might err towards being a couple of years older than other players, it’s likely that this is because so much of goalkeeping is about situational awareness, positioning and confidence, and these are skills which primarily develop with experience.

Goalkeepers also tend to stay in place for longer. Few coaches like to rotate them, and it makes sense that if there are going to be changes to the way in which a defence works. you’ll likely want to keep the person who oversees them in place unless there’s an obvious upgrade readily available. There are fewer journeyman goalkeepers than any other position on the pitch. This summer has been a relatively busy window for new goalkeepers, with Crystal Palace, Newcastle, Nottingham Forest and Southampton all signing new ones with a reasonable chance of first-team football next season. Only two teams – Wolves and Arsenal – changed their goalkeepers last summer, and only a further two – Chelsea and Aston Villa – did a year earlier.

And the ages of those four new goalkeepers? 29, 30, 25 and 20. It’s a quiet revolution.

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