Saturday, August 7, 2010
The Golden Age
I hadn't really paid attention to the tabloid 'shenanigans' following Wayne Rooney recently until this mornings papers, where an article in The Times querying his recent form mentions them (Pissing in the street? FFS). While there are numerous theories as to his dip in form, nobody seems to be mentioning his age. While he's just 24 and so clearly this couldn't be a factor, personally I'm not so sure.
When he first 'burst' (he always bursts/explodes/powers etc) on to the scene Alan Hansen marveled on Match of the Day 'just how good will the boy be at 28?'. Even then I found this question slightly unsettling as at the back of mind I thought, well, he'll be wrecked. A couple of injuries, his bad diet (and perhaps just basic unfortunate poor genes, those love handles just wont seem to go away) and, by then, over 10 years of 'playing at the summit' will have all taken a significant toll, drastically weakening his ability and exceptionalness. While I wouldn't for a second suggest that he is finished, I'd personally put him at his peak now and fear he will never exceed his performance for the majority of last season. At 28, I doubt very much he will playing for Manchester United.
The belief that players peak at 28/29 still seems to hold sway but surely this is no longer true in the pace heavy modern game. Looking back at Michael Owen's own dramatic arrival in France 98, if you had wondered what he'll be like at 27 you probably wouldn't have thought; lying on an awful Newcastle side's treatment table with hamstrings like spaghetti. But there he was.
There's an undeniable trend towards players peaking at ever younger ages. Look at Kaka, just 28 and yet seems like yesterday's man at Real. Or Ronaldinho, who Barcelona jettisoned (and appear to have been justified in doing so) at the age of, again, 28. Aren't these supposed to be their best years? While it is most probably forward players who suffer from this shortened career span (although considering they start earlier it may remain the same length of time) this then surely permeates throughout the positions - defenders have to be faster and more agile to keep up with the ever quicker strikers/wingers etc. While players like Cannavaro refute this trend - winning the Ballon d'Or at 33 - looking at other recent winners of the prize affirms it.
Looking at 2007, 2008, 2009 the winners were, at the oldest, aged 25 and with an average of 23 (while the other players rounding out the places, only Xavi excepted, were as young or younger). Going back to 1982, 1983, 1984, however (a time when someone like Hansen would have been at his peak) only one of the 9 players was under 27, and he was 26.
I thought this reducing 'age of effectiveness' might be replicated in tennis, particularly women's tennis where they seem to be about 14 years old, and so went to find some stats but came across this article on the men's game. Here, by looking at the success of men going back to Jimmy Connors (in regards to the point by which they have amassed 50% of their career titles), he puts the age of optimum performance at around 24. This seems to be more reflective of the modern footballer as well to me. The idea that experience, the extra yard being in the head etc all make the footballer best in his late 20s is surely over, it's a young man's game.