Ageing is one of the more tragic aspects of sport. There is no other high-profile industry in which we get to watch the slow creep of age set in quite like professional sport.
Actors change roles. Models fade into the black. But footballers? Footballers struggle on. Consigned to the same positions they occupied at 20, we grimace and cringe as tackles become increasingly late and the once sure-of-foot begin to stumble.
But this not a fact that we try and ignore. Quite the opposite; we are obsessed with it. Nothing excites the modern football fan quite like a talented 17-year-old. As if out of some futile effort to defeat age itself, these players are urged onto the pitch earlier and earlier.
This eagerness to promote youth is only matched by how quick we are to dismiss the old. Players are increasingly written off before they’ve reached 30. The once commonly held peak of the outfield player of 28 to 32-years-old seems to be moving closer and closer to the teens. And yet the constant examples of footballers who still perform well into their mid-thirties does nothing to disrupt this trend.
Frank Lampard is just the latest player to provide an argument against this youth centred approach. And his argument has not been an easy one to make. The Chelsea midfielder scored 15 goals in 29 Premier League appearances last campaign and still struggled to get a contract extension.
This strife is due to Chelsea’s strict employment policy when it comes to players over 30. While age is certainly an important aspect that needs to be taken into account when deciding whether to extend a players contract, Chelsea’s reluctance to sign Lampard on for another season just defied logic.
The midfielder was their top scorer in the league. Surely this number has to be more important than any other, age included.
The reason Lampard has been able to continue to perform so consistently until the age of 35 is because what makes him good is not age dependent. His success is down to his ability to read the game quicker than those around him, and the mind is always much slower to deteriorate than the body.
Lampard has made a career out of impeccable timing. There are better strikers of the ball out there, and more natural finishers than the Englishman. But few midfielders have been able to put themselves in goalscoring positions so often.
And while this ability is something that’s hard to teach, it would be wrong to conclude that this just comes easy for the player. You do not get yourself in as good as positions as Lampard does consistently without incredible concentration. While it may be hard to learn, it’s very easy to switch off.
This is not to say that the Chelsea midfielder has the same capabilities as he did 10 years ago. Age still stops him from covering the same ground as it would any player of 35. He must now be more selective in his forays forward. But then selecting his runs has always one of his strengths as footballer.
Frank Lampard’s continued form highlights the dangers of thinking about a player’s decline in linear terms. One of the key tenets of Bill James’s Sabermetric system that was so successful in baseball was that players develop and decline at different rates.
Therefore, it’s not surprising that a player who’s strengths were never about the more physical aspects of the game would not see his performances dip too much in response to his declining capabilities. If we think about age in absolute terms then we fail to see these nuances.