When time catches up with our players
In order to build or sustain success, it is imperative that we understand the age at which our players perform at their peak. Unfortunately, it is also a neglected area of research, partly owing to the difficulties in measuring player development and maturation.
While there are numerous performance indicators that we can monitor, playing time may still be the best alternative. A player who is not selected – either because other squad members are regarded as a better option or through injury – can perhaps be considered as a less valuable asset. Blind spots exist (managers/head coaches tend to have favourites!), although invariably players are not in contention owing to relative lack of talent or age-related decline.
By looking at teams which played at least four seasons in the Premier League (this simple exercise can easily be applied to any league) between 1998 and 2014, we can see if a team’s age profile – that is, how minutes were spread across the ages in a team – is correlated to their overall achievement.
For example, Arsenal’s best performance in these years was unsurprisingly their 2003/04 undefeated season, while their worst performance followed in 2005/06, when they finished fourth. We can compare the age profiles between their best and worst seasons, and repeat this process for all other teams.
Different playing positions have different peak ages, but the trend is clear for strikers.
When averaged across all teams, 25 and 26 year olds accounted for almost a quarter of the playing time for strikers from teams enjoying their best Premier League season.
Defenders and midfielders in football see similar differences between teams enjoying their best and worst seasons. In unsuccessful seasons, defenders aged over 30 were far more prominent, whilst in successful seasons midfields were dominated by 25 to 26 year olds.
Too often we select, renew and buy players on past success rather than future productive potential; perhaps through sentiment or a mistaken belief that the past accurately predicts the future. 28 and 29 year old players accounted for over 26% of the playing time given to strikers by sides that were suffering their least successful season, which suggests that this may be the case.
Circumstances of course vary by club. Limited squad sizes, short term goals and financial constraints mean it is sometimes necessary to select players who retain some ability, despite being past their peak. Experience also brings other qualities. Clubs must endeavour to look within the club; to the emergent crop of talent who can grow to peak ability and who represent a more cost effective option in succession planning.
Clubs often ask us: what is the age profile of a winning team? By assessing the lifecycle of teams during their best and worst seasons, we can identify peak talent for each position. We can therefore be better informed about exactly how loading a team with age-declining talent – either through necessity or design – can impact on our ability to win.
This article was adapted from Mark Taylor’s Power of Goals blog, which provides in more detail the age profiles by position.