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Science and data change the definition of football old

LONDON — The exact location of the threshold has always been in dispute. At Manchester United, for a while, he was close enough to 30 that it served as a natural turning point. Once the players reached 30, Alex Ferguson, the club’s manager at the time, tended to give them an extra day off after a match, hoping the break might soothe their crusty bodies.

Arsenal’s Arsène Wenger was a bit more nuanced. He had a formula. Once the midfielders and forwards reached the grand age of 32, he was prepared to offer them contract extensions of just one year. “That’s 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 took them up to 34 years.

But while the precise boundary has always been subjective, the long-standing and broad consensus within football is that it lies somewhere. Sometime in their early 30s, players cross the line that separates summer from fall, present from past. And as soon as they do, they can officially be considered old.

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

Tottenham’s acquisition last month of 33-year-old Croatian midfielder Ivan Perisic, for example, was the first time the club had signed an outfield player in his 30s since 2017. Liverpool hadn’t since 2016. Manchester City have not paid a fee for an outfield player over 30 for nearly a decade. Goalkeepers, widely regarded as boasting greater longevity, are the only players granted an exception.

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

Liverpool, for its part, has begun the work of breaking its vaunted offensive trident by replacing Sadio Mané, 30, with Luis Díaz, 25, and adding Darwin Núñez, 23, to succeed Roberto Firmino, who is serving 31 in October. As they look to revamp their squad, Manchester United have released a host of players, including Nemanja Matic, Juan Mata and Edínson Cavani, into a market already saturated with veterans including Gareth Bale and Ángel Di María.

The reasoning behind this, of course, is simple. “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’s a lot more emphasis on high-intensity sprinting, acceleration and deceleration.” Younger players are considered to be better equipped to handle that load than their elders.

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

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

According to data from the consulting company Twenty First Group, players over 32 years of age play more minutes in the Champions League every year. Last season, players over the age of 34 (virtually elderly, according to traditional football thinking) accounted for more minutes in Europe’s top five leagues than in any previous season for which data is available.

More significantly, that hasn’t come at a noticeable cost to its performance.

“Age has its pros and cons,” former Barcelona right-back Dani Alves, now 39 and determined to continue his career, he 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 do not.”

Twenty First Group data confirms Alves. Although 20-year-olds press more than 30-year-olds (14.5 pressing actions per 90 minutes, instead of 12.8), that reduction is offset in other ways.

In both the Champions League and Europe’s top domestic competitions, older players win more aerial duels, complete more dribbles, pass more accurately – if they’re central midfielders – and score more goals. More than twice as many players over the age of 30 now feature in the Twenty First Group model of the top 150 players in the world than appeared on 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’s not surprising. The idea of ​​30 as an immutable aging threshold predates football’s interest in conditioning: the current generation of 30-year-old players, Strudwick noted, may be the first to “have been exposed to sports science from the very beginning.” of their careers. ”

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

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

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

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

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

That clubs don’t seem to have caught on, that players over 30, with rare exceptions, still seem to be seen as a burden rather than a blessing, is, as far as Strudwick can see, now almost exclusively an economic question.

“The life cycle of a player is shaped like an inverted U,” 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 appearance, but it cannot completely eliminate it. At some point, a player will enter what Strudwick called the “relegation phase.” The only thing that no club wants, that no club can afford, is to pay a player a higher salary when that time comes. That is what motivates the clubs, still, to believe that at 30 a threshold arrives: not what the players can contribute, but what they cost.

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