In football players there will always be a natural progression with age.
Initially improving both physical maturity and growing experience – which then changes to a period of peak performance, before age related decline sets in and key performances start to fall.
Leaving out things such as injury, playing time and position, the peak age for footballers tends to run from 24 to 28.
However a player’s actual level of talent can allow top performers to continue to be productive at the highest level even into their thirties.
A Stewart Downing in his thirties still has more raw ability than a run of the mill Championship player at his peak level.
Judging the range of peak performance can be done in a variety of ways, although they have their pitfalls.
Measuring the amount of playing time by each age group during a season to see which players are deemed good enough to merit a regular start and which are not is one.
Most of the players making regular appearances are between the ages of 24 and 28, although goalkeepers, due to less physical demands, extend their peak playing time into their early 30’s.
Another way to measure is the rate at how performance in key stats change during the ageing process – eg. we may look at how a striker’s goals per 90 minutes changes as his career progresses.
And again the peak performance generally occurs between the mid to late 20’s.
The age profile of a club is one of the many things that contribute to the teams success or failures.
For league clubs there is a relationship between the amount of peak age players available and selected, and seasonal performance.
Using a higher amount of younger and older players, at the expense of peak performers seems to correlate with poorer performance.
Clubs like to have players between the optimum age group with a smaller group of experienced older players and a similar amount of youth, which would allow for seamless progression as older players leave.
However, Clubs can fall foul of these best practices.
Middlesbrough during Steve McClarens reign became top heavy with older players and while results were initially steady after his departure, within months of Gareth Southgate being appointed full time manager progression from within the squad had started to stall.
The following 11 players all played a part in Steve McClaren’s final season at Middlesbough, 6 of them played over 40 matches each that season and the other 5 players had 88 appearances between them.
The player’s age at the end of that 2005/06 season is in brackets:
Gareth Southgate (35)
Mark Schwarzer (35)
Michael Reizinger (33)
Abel Xavier (33)
Ugo Ehiogu (33)
George Boateng (30)
Gaizka Mendieta (32)
Ray Parlour (33)
Mark Viduka (30)
Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink (34)
Southgate has now developed an appreciation of the age profile in squads.
66% of the total years of Southgate’s 23 man World Cup squad comprises players aged between 24 and 28 and they have won nearly 60% of the squad’s total caps.
These represent the largest proportion of peak age talent taken by England to a World Cup Finals since the modern era of finals began in 1974.
As a comparison, just under a third of the 2010 squad represented this age group. It was a squad loaded with ageing talent.
The richest clubs can often cherry pick the best talents to reflect their current and future requirements.
At the other end of the scale, Stoke’s relegation this season coincided with just a third of their playing time being given to 24-28 year olds, the same amount that was granted to over 30’s, suggesting a failure of planning at the club.
More peak age players has generally always correlated to a better seasons performance.
MIDDLESBROUGH’S CURRENT SQUAD PROFILE
All data used supplied by Infogol