Age And Performance In The Premier League
At what age do football players start to feel the pinch? When does age become a factor in terms of performance for the modern footballer? Today on the blog Mark Taylor breaks down the current Premier League season, taking a look at how age impacts a player's contribution.
It isn’t immediately obvious what connects WBA’s loan star, Romelu Lukaku and Manchester United’s midfielder, Ryan Giggs in terms of their Premiership achievements during the 2012/13 season. Lakaku’s double figure scoring record highlights Chelsea’s ability to spot a young , up and coming striker, although as in case of Daniel Sturridge, it is often a mid to lower ranking Premiership side which benefits most from their talent spotting. Giggs’ scoring record has been much less prolific, even for a player employed primarily as a creative midfielder.
It is the ability of each player to perform at the highest level at their respective ages which binds together these two Premiership players. Giggs is fast approaching his fortieth decade, yet has still managed to play the equivalent playing time of nearly ten full matches. Lukaku during this term is the fifth most senior teenager in terms of playing time and by far the most successful.
Less than 20 teenagers have managed to amass playing minutes in the Premiership this season and fewer than a dozen veterans are still active aged 35 or beyond. So in terms of outliers Giggs and Lukaku are members of a small, yet select band of professionals.
Managers are neither sentimental nor particularly restricted in their choice of players in a league as well resourced as the Premiership. Therefore, precocious youth and mature talents are likely to gain playing time because their performances merit inclusion. So if we look at the weighted playing time for all age groups across the Premiership we can begin to appreciate where talent increases, peaks and finally falls by looking at which age groups amass proportionally more playing time than others.
Goalkeepers And Age
Goalkeepers are unique amongst professional players. Their skill sets and responsibilities are markedly different from the other 10 outfielders. It therefore, shouldn’t come as a great surprise to see that at the highest level their age profile is also markedly different. Intuitively, stamina and peak fitness levels would appear to be less important for the game’s last line of defence and consequently keepers manage to play for longer at the highest grade.
On the evidence of this season, the most likely age for a Premiership keeper peaks at around 28. However, there is also a remarkably fat right hand tail to the distribution cause by late 30’s and early 40’s keepers commanding substantial playing time. Tim Howard in his mid 30’s is still an automatic selection at Everton and is still a relative youngster compared to similarly consistent selections of Jaaskelainen and Schwarzer.
Younger keepers are also currently making an impact in the Premiership and the overall profile of the ageing curve hints at a skill set which is well established early in a player’s career and one that persists well after outfield players have fallen away.
Outfielders And Age
Oufielders are much more numerous that keepers, so one season is likely to produce a distribution that is representative over a longer time span. The peak age for all outfielders comes about a year earlier compared to keepers, an indication of the physical demands of top class football. The proportion of playing time allotted to players as they progress towards their third decade begins to decline gradually. This possibly indicates that, in general they are still valuable squad members who are able to contribute to a similar, if not greater level than before, but the physical demands see them being substituted either in or out with increasing regularity.
By their early 30’s a large proportion of Premiership players are being removed from the sample or their playing contribution is greatly reduced. Most are either dropping down into the Championship or no longer in the game in a playing capacity, as injury and competition from maturing younger rivals takes a toll. Few players remain past their mid thirties and those that do are almost exclusively defenders or midfield players. So Giggs’ achievement in single-handedly pushing the tail of the age distribution towards 40 is both magnificent and unusual.
The left hand tail, representing the younger generation also graphically indicates how unusual it is for precocious talent to exist to the levels required to see any amount of Premiership game time. Teenagers are almost as rare as 36 year olds in the current Premiership. Lukaku, along with Raheem Stirling at Liverpool and Ben Davis at Swansea must be considered as massive prospects to have played consistently, despite belonging to an age group that accounts for little more than a couple of a percentage of the Premiership’s total playing time.
Age And Goal Scoring Ability
Goalkeepers aside, the Premiership is very much the preserve of players in their twenties and very early thirties and we can assume that they are being selected because their performance in a wide variety of disciplines merits inclusion. So for our final graph we will look at the age distribution relating to the specific talent of scoring goals.
Goal scoring ability is the raw, unforgiving statistic that defines the worth of a forward and while some forwards such as Luis Suarez at Liverpool also bring creativity and chance creation as part of the deal, few survive long in the top flight once the goals dry up.
Once again we see the typically shaped distribution with peak ability appearing around the mid twenties. One season is of course a mere snap shot and in small sample sizes individual achievements will slightly distort the long term trends. Lukaku alone is responsible for the green peak for 19 year old players and again the general trend of the distribution’s shape confirms that he is a bright prospect. Few young players score and therefore gain playing time at the rate he has achieved during his loan spell.
Similarly, van Persie’s exploits this season elevates the peak for 29 year olds and the steady decline of subsequent older groups makes his future contribution to Manchester United uncertain at best. Either he is going to be a statistical outlier, like his former team mate at Arsenal, Thierry Henry or he will have “merely” proved to be an excellent, short term purchase that helped secure United another title.
A similar caveat applies to Dimitar Berbatov who elevates the goal contribution of the 30 plus year age group. Stylistically, his laid back approach appears less dependent upon maintaining high levels of fitness, possibly indicating that he may be an exception in an age bracket that has largely disappeared from the Premiership. Certainly, in Fulham he plays for the oldest side in the Premiership when age is weighted by playing time.
The most impressive group this term is the 26 year old group, outscoring their year older compatriots despite both groups seeing almost identical weighted playing time.
Plotting such ageing curves for data sets larger than a single season are likely to smooth out the atypical peaks and troughs that appear in a single season, but the conclusions are likely to be similar. Player evaluation is becoming much more involved as more granular data becomes available and tracking player actions that contribute towards team success becomes more accessible.
But neglecting one simple statistic, such as a player’s current age, remains a powerful indicator for his future progression or regression.
Read more of Mark's work on his The Power Of Goals blog
And follow Mark of Twitter: @MarkTaylor0