Is the age structure of football changing?

Dortmund’s triumph last season in the Bundesliga. Man Utd’s dominance at the beginning of this Premier League season. These two occurrences have one thing in common – an emphasis on youth. More so than ever before, younger players are being thrown in at the deep end at the higher echelons of the game and rather surprisingly, much to the chagrin of their elders, the majority have yet to be found wanting. With UEFA cracking down on the way clubs operate with concerns to their finances, football clubs are having to change the way they approach the make-up of their sides’, and this could have a lasting effect on the age structure of football.

Dortmund are a fine case in point. They cruised to their first Bundesliga title in 9 years last season, finishing 7 points ahead of nearest rivals, second-placed Bayer Leverkusen.

Under the guidance of Jurgen Klopp, Dortmund won the Bundesliga last year with a squad that had an average age of 24.3 years old – the youngest Championship-winning side in Bundesliga history.

At the heart of this vibrant outfit were Nuri Sahin (22 years old) and Mario Gotze (19). Add into the mix Mats Hummels (22) Sven Bender (22) and Shinji Kagawa (22) and the spine of their side was largely made up of what would traditionally be considered youngsters.

But what exactly is a ‘youngster’ these days?

In seasons gone by a youngster could constitute a player up to the age of 23 years of age (sometimes still young enough to represent their country in an under-21 international tournament). However, nowadays, the old adage of ‘if you’re young enough, then you’re good enough’ seems to most definitely apply.

Players have begun to break through at a younger and younger age. Arsenal last season were built around the influence of Jack Wilshere, a player whose maturity on the pitch belied his relative inexperience at a mere 19 years of age. Cesc Fabregas broke into the very same side at just 16 years of age and was an ever-present until his departure to Barcelona this summer.

The much-vaunted Man Utd side this campaign, or ‘Fergie’s Babes’ as some have rather bafflingly termed them (note to the Sun; they’re not his babes, just how much did they collectively cost?) had a starting eleven with an average age of 23.9 years old, despite the presence of wiser heads such as Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic.

Sir Alex Ferguson’s biggest legacy is his determination to constantly reinvent his Man Utd side and this season could arguably hail the dawning of his fourth great side. The likes of Wayne Rooney, David de Gea, Phil Jones and Tom Cleverley occupy key positions in a title-chasing side, despite none of them being older than 25.

So why are the top sides beginning to get younger and younger?

As far as I can make out, it simply comes down to the rigours and pace of the modern game. Seasons are much longer than they used to be, the pace of the game has quickened and there are simply more games than ever before to occupy a coaches mind.

Dortmund’s youth coordinator and scorer of that now infamous goal against Juventus in the 1997 Champions League final, Lars Ricken, had this to say on the matter: “Athletic demands have increased enormously, so it could be that the age structure is changing because young athletes can cope better with that.”

Not since 2006 when Fabio Cannavaro won the FIFA World Player of the Year award has a player won an internationally recognised individual award older than the age of 25 years old. Of course this statistic is somewhat distorted by the two freaks of nature that are Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, but the point remains (disclaimer: you can use stats to prove anything).

Traditionally, outfiled players approach their peak, dependent on their position of course, between the ages of 27-29 years of age, but is that accepted truth now starting to change?

The pace of modern football is quicker than ever before. The demands that it has on your body must have increased exponentially over the last decade. The space between defence and attack has also shortened when compared to a decade ago; this in turn means that there is now a lot more congestion in the middle of the pitch. Expansive play, which grants the player more time on the ball, is  a lot rarer than what it once was.

Of course, there will always be exceptions to this rule. Xavi Hernandez, the metronome around which the most successful club and national side in world football conduct their style of play, is hardly a spring chicken at 31 years of age. Andrea Pirlo has revitalised his career at Juventus so far this campaign at the grand old age of 32 and I very much doubt whether any club given half the chance would turn down the services of Samuel Eto’o at 30 years of age.

Germany’s strong showing at the last World Cup was, in the main, built around the fluid attacking play of a younger generation. Brazil are currently going through a rebuilding process of their own which has thus far been built around the mercurial talents of both Henrique Ganso and Neymar at just 21 and 19 years of age respectively.

While the age of the golden oldie is far from over, as Ryan Giggs demonstrated on Wednesday, there has certainly been a noticeable shift. Certain positions will always suit players with more experience, such as centre half or goalkeeper, but on the whole, the sides that have proved the most successful over the past 3-4 years or so on both the domestic and national stage have revolved around the individual talents of players around or under the age of 25 years young.

Football is a game that deals in cycles, and this article may be entirely redundant by this time next year, but the financial fair play rules that FIFA are looking to enforce, helping to bring the larger clubs into check, could not only promote competitiveness in the long-run, they could also have a lasting effect on the ages of the talent within those squads. The age structure looks to be shifting with an emphasis now placed on youth; it would be surprising if this concerted move was reversed any time soon.

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