Science and Data Change Soccer’s Definition of Old

LONDON — The exact location of the threshold has always been contested. At Manchester United, for a time, it lurked close enough to 30 for that to serve as a natural watershed. Once players hit their 30s, Alex Ferguson, the club’s manager at the time, tended to grant them an extra day’s rest after a game, in the hope that the break might soothe their creaking bodies.

Arsenal’s Arsène Wenger was a little more nuanced. He had a formula. Once midfielders and forwards reached the grand old age of 32, he was prepared to offer them only one-year contract extensions. “That is 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 carried them to age 34.

But while the precise cutoff has always been subjective, the broad and longstanding consensus within soccer is that it lies in there somewhere. At some point early in players’ third decades, they cross the boundary that distinguishes summer from fall, present from past. And as soon as they do, they can officially be regarded as old.

That delineation has long informed both the player-recruitment and the player-retention strategies of teams across Europe. A vast majority of clubs have, as a rule, adhered for years to a simple principle: buy young and sell old.

Tottenham’s acquisition last month of the 33-year-old Croatia midfielder Ivan Perisic, for example, was the first time that the club has signed an outfield player in his 30s since 2017. Liverpool has not done so since 2016. Manchester City has not paid a fee for an outfield player over age 30 for almost a decade. Goalkeepers, widely held to boast greater longevity, are the only players granted an exception.

Instead, players approaching the twilight of their careers are generally seen as burdens to be shifted. This summer has been a case in point: Bayern Munich has managed to alienate the almost-34-year-old Robert Lewandowski by (unsuccessfully) trying to anoint Erling Haaland, a decade his junior, as his heir.

Liverpool, meanwhile, has begun the work of breaking up its vaunted attacking trident by replacing the 30-year-old Sadio Mané with Luis Díaz, 25, and adding the 23-year-old Darwin Nuñez to succeed Roberto Firmino, who turns 31 in October. As it seeks to overhaul its squad, Manchester United released a suite of players — Nemanja Matic, Juan Mata and Edínson Cavani among them — into a market already saturated with veterans, including Gareth Bale and Ángel Di María.

The reasoning behind this, of course, is 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 network of teams. “There is much more emphasis on high-intensity sprinting, acceleration, deceleration.” Younger players are deemed better equipped to handle that load than their elders.

Just as important, though, recruiting younger players promises “more return on investment when you’re looking to move them on,” according to Tony Strudwick, a former colleague of Thorpe’s at United who also worked at Arsenal. Clubs can earn back their outlay — perhaps even make a profit — on a player acquired in his early 20s. Those a decade or so older are, in a strictly economic sense, seen as a rapidly depreciating asset.

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

According to data from the consultancy firm Twenty First Group, players over the age of 32 are consistently playing more minutes in the Champions League every year. Last season, players over age 34 — practically ancient, by soccer’s traditional thinking — accounted for more minutes in Europe’s big five leagues than in any previous season for which data was available.

More significantly, that has not been at any notable cost to their performance.

“Age has its pros and cons,” the former Barcelona right back Dani Alves, now 39 and determined to continue his career, told The Guardian this month. “I have an experience today that I didn’t have 20 years ago. When there’s a big game, 20-year-olds get nervous and worried. I don’t.”

Twenty First Group’s data bears Alves out. Although players in their 20s do press more than those in their 30s do — 14.5 pressing actions per 90 minutes, as opposed to 12.8 — that reduction is offset in other ways.

In both the Champions League and Europe’s major domestic competitions, older players win more aerial duels, complete more dribbles, pass with greater accuracy — if they are central midfielders — and score more goals. More than twice as many players over age 30 now rank in Twenty First Group’s modeling of the best 150 players in the world than appeared in the same list a decade ago.

The data suggests, very clearly, that 30 is not as old as it used to be.

From a sports-science perspective, that is hardly surprising. The idea of ​​30 as an immutable aging threshold predates soccer’s interest in conditioning: The current generation of players in their 30s, Strudwick pointed out, may be the first to “have been exposed to hard-core sports science from the start of their careers.” “

There is no reason to assume that they would age at the same rate, or the same time, as their forebears. “Look at the condition that players are in when they retire,” Strudwick said. They haven’t let their bodies go. They might need to be pushed a little less in preseason, and their recovery might take longer, but from a physical and a performance point of view, there is no reason they can’t add value into their late 30s.”

That longevity can only be increased, Thorpe said, by improvements in nutrition and recovery techniques.

When he was at Manchester United, he said, “The rule of thumb was always that players over the age of 30 got a second day’s rest after games.” It felt intuitively like the right thing to do.” The truth, though, was that it wasn’t always the older players who needed the break.

“When we researched it, when we looked at the data,” Thorpe said, “we found that it was way more individual.” Some of the older players could train, and some of the younger players needed more rest.”

As those sorts of insights have become more embedded in the sport, he argued, it follows that “more players should be able to do more later on in their careers.” Luka Modric might have been joking when he told an interviewer, before the Champions League final in May, that he intended to play on “until 50, like that Japanese guy, [Kazuyoshi] Miura,” but it is no longer quite as absurd as it might have once sounded.

That the clubs do not appear to have noticed — that players over age 30, with rare exceptions, still seem to be regarded as a burden rather than a blessing — is, as far as Strudwick can see, now almost exclusively an economic issue.

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

A more scientific approach might have flattened the downward curve of a player’s performance graph, or even delayed its onset, but it cannot eliminate it completely. At some point a player will enter what Strudwick called the “roll-down phase.” The one thing that no club wants — that no club can afford — is to be paying a player a premium salary when that moment arrives. That is what motivates clubs, still, to believe that a threshold arrives at 30: not what players can contribute, but what they cost.

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