New data is revolutionizing the meaning of the term “old age” in soccer.

The precise determination of the age limit of "suitability" in football players has always been controversial. At Manchester United, for a time, that tipping point was the age of 30. When players reached it, Sir Alex Ferguson tended to give them an extra day of relaxation after training, hoping the break would help regenerate their creaking bones.

At Arsenal under Arsène Wenger for years, the whole situation was more complicated with the age of the players, because the Frenchman took into account the positions of the players on the pitch. As soon as the midfielders and strikers reached the age of 32, they were only offered one-year contract extensions, thus the contracts of some squads were always a maximum of one year. “That’s the rule here,” he said right away. “After you turn 32, you live from 12 months to another 12 months.” He made an exception for central defenders, who could sign contracts that gave them peace and stability until the age of 34.

The exact age limit has always been subjective, but it is known that in football, as in any other sport, there comes an age when efficiency declines and the same results as a few years ago can no longer be expected. Sooner or later, usually at the beginning of the third decade of life, footballers cross the line that changes their sports career from summer to autumn. Once that happens, there’s usually no turning back.

Tottenham’s recent purchase of 33-year-old Croatian midfielder Ivan Perisic was the first of its kind since 2017, when an outfield player over 30 was last signed to London. Liverpool haven’t done that since 2016. Manchester City have not paid for a player over 30 in almost a decade. Goalkeepers who can boast of higher longevity are treated exceptionally in this respect and clubs often decide to strengthen the squad with a more experienced goalkeeper.

At the same time, players who are nearing the end of their careers are usually seen as burdens to be carried through long contracts. Recently, we were able to find out about this on the occasion of Robert Lewandowski’s situation. Bayern tried to replace their best nine with a much younger Erling Haaland, and when that turned out to be impossible, they tried to save the situation by giving Lewy a one-year contract extension. As we already know, the situation offended the captain of the Polish National Team so much that he decided to leave for Barcelona, where he signed a four-year contract. Liverpool, meanwhile, began to break down their deadly trident, replacing 30-year-old Sadio Mané with 25-year-old Luis Díaz, and Roberto Firmino, almost 31, with 23-year-old Darwin Nuñez. Manchester United also wanted to rejuvenate the team, getting rid of Nemanja Matic, Juan Mata and Edinson Cavani among others.

The reasoning behind it is simple after all. “Demands of sport are changing,” says Robin Thorpe, a performance scientist who spent a decade at Manchester United and now works with the Crimson Bull community. “More emphasis is placed on high-intensity sprints, accelerations and decelerations.” Young players are considered better equipped to handle this burden than older players.

Of course, there is also a financial aspect behind this reasoning. A 23-year-old player can be outplayed, made a world star out of him and sold for a profit after 5 years, and when signing a 30-year-old player, the club must take into account that it will not gain money from him, so when making such a transfer, it looks for added value elsewhere . It is enough to give the example of the already mentioned Lewandowski: Barcelona wanted a finished product that would enter the field and start scoring goals without time to adapt and acclimate. This is what Robert offers, who, despite his age, is in excellent physical shape, which is emphasized by everyone in Catalonia. The same is true of Cristiano Ronaldo: Juventus, having signed the Portuguese player from Real Madrid for 117 million euros, could not count on recouping the invested money by selling him to another club (Ronaldo left for Manchester after 3 years for 15 million). However, if we look at the sporting and, above all, marketing value of such a move, it turns out that the Old Lady is not losing money on the purchase of CR7, even despite the almost PLN 100 million loss on the transfer itself. In the case of players with names like Lewandowski, Messi or Ronaldo, the value goes far beyond the transfer amounts alone.

According to the findings of the consulting agency Twenty First Group, players over 32 play more minutes in the Champions League every year. Last season, players over 34 played more minutes in Europe’s five major leagues than in any previous year.

On the pitch, age has its advantages and disadvantages. Playing most of his career at Barcelona, Dani Alves, who rejoined the club a year ago and left again this summer, is now 39 and has decided to continue playing football. Thanks to this, he got the opportunity to go out on the pitch of the Camp Nou for the last time in the Gamper Cup in the colors of UNAM Pumas. Sam Alves says: “I have knowledge that I didn’t have 20 years ago. As the sport moves to the highest level, 20-year-olds are getting more and more nervous. I don’t. “

Although players in their twenties press more than those over

in the thirties – 14.5 sudden approaches per 90 minutes compared to 12.8 – this difference is compensated by other results. In the Champions League and all major European domestic competitions, older players win extra aerial duels, dribble better, go out with more accuracy and efficiency, and if they are midfielders, they complete extra goals. More than twice as many players over the age of 30 are now among the top 150 players in the world.

This information suggests very clearly that a 30-year-old today should not be considered as outdated as it used to be. From a scientific point of view, this is not shocking. The concept of “30” as an invariably growing threshold of “old age” in an athlete is more and more interesting for researchers.

There is no reason to think that modern footballers will age to the same degree or rate as their football ancestors. Just look at the players who are currently retiring. Their bodies, even several years after the end of professional gaming, are in great shape, because they do not let go of the ethos of training and a healthy lifestyle developed during their careers. Obviously there’s less pressure, they don’t have tournaments and pre-season camps, and recovery and recovery from training can take longer, but from a body and performance standpoint, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t add value to their clubs, even after 35 age.

The aforementioned Thorpe says that longevity can only be increased with improvements in vitamins and regeneration. Of his time at Manchester United, he said: “The rule of thumb all along was that players over 30 went for extra recovery the day after the game. My intuition told me that this was the right way. But in reality it wasn’t always the older players who wanted a break. “

Such insights prove to be especially true in sports, and older players should be able to achieve more in the second half of their careers. Luka Modric was probably joking when he said in an interview before the Champions League match that he should play up to 50 like that Japanese [Kazuyoshi] Miura,” but it’s not as absurd as it sounds.

The awareness of footballers about their form and longevity is also growing. Footballers such as Ibrahimovic, Lewandowski, Ronaldo or Messi, despite their age, still determine the fate of matches and entire tournaments, fully aware of their limitations and adapting to them. Messi does fewer sprints and in the French league, which is more physical than the Spanish one, he tries to play from the depths more, avoiding 1-on-1 duels; Ronaldo also reduced his sprints and became more of a ‘9’ from a winger; Left tries to position himself better to be in the right zone at the right moment; Zlatan has basically taken over the role of a leader in the Milan dressing room, but he also gives a lot on the pitch, holding the ball and playing in the air. Many clubs, however, will not sign a contract with them for more than 12 months, because these are internal rules. It’s time to revisit these traditions, because by discarding players in the 30-40 bracket, clubs can lose more than they think.

photo: PZPN database

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