Monday, 11 March 2013

Ryan Giggs. Very Nearly 40 Not Out.

Sir Stanley Matthews managed to play one game at English football's highest grade when he was five days into his fiftieth decade, but the increasing physical demands of playing top flight Premiership football means that, aside from goal keepers, we are very unlikely to see many players performing at such a level past even their fortieth birthday. Ryan Giggs is fast approaching that particular landmark and while he is unlikely to receive a similar elevation as Sir Stan, Giggs' footballing longevity stands shoulder to shoulder with that of Hanley's most famous son.

The average age of today's nominated Premiership squads gives a crude idea of the scale of Giggs' achievement, but we can really begin to appreciate just how unusual it is for a player to play into his fortieth decade if we produced a team average weighted by playing time. For example if a 30 year old keeper shares  playing time with a 20 year old, the average age of the two keepers is obviously 25. But if the older keeper performs for the bulk of the minutes, then the weighted average will be much closer to his age of 30 and will give a more informative picture.

Above I've plotted the weighted average age for all Premiership teams from this year's renewal. The average has been calculated on actual minutes played, rather than appearances and I've used a player's actual age in years and days on gameday. The scale has been chosen to try to show the differences between teams, but without unduly exaggerating that difference inherent in using a none zero vertical axis.

It shouldn't surprise that Fulham consistently send out teams with weighted averages in the thirties. Hughes, Hangeland, Riise, Berbatov, Schwarter and Duff are each regular contributors who have each passed that birthday. The current team is old by Premiership standards and also compared to Roy Hodgson's first full season in charge in 2008-09, when only a couple of regulars were in their thirties and the weighted average age of the team was around 28.5 years. Martin Jol still has players from Hodgson's successful team of almost five years ago.

Villa are a young and inexperienced team and this is reflected in the figures and possibly should be a cause for concern in their current perilous state and the same worry applies to Southampton. More successful teams, which also appear to have youth on their side as well, include the trio of title wannabees in Arsenal, Liverpool and Tottenham.

Manchester United sit just above midtable, but to fully appreciate where Ryan Giggs stands in relation to other current players we need to break the figures down into positions. Keepers are a special case, not only are they less reliant on keeping up high levels of endurance fitness to maintain high levels of performance, they are also under represented in a side. A team only has one keeper on the pitch at one time. Therefore, I've split the players into defenders, forwards and midfielders and looked at the proportion of playing time seen by each age group compared to the group as a whole, with age measured at the start of this calendar year.

Playing Time and Age For Premiership Defenders. 2012-13.

Playing Time and Age For Premiership Attackers. 2012-13.

Playing Time and Age For Premiership Midfielders. 2012-13.

The timescale isn't a whole season, but already a typical distribution is appearing. Premiership team selection, weighted by minutes played shows that the majority of playing time goes to players in their mid to late twenties. Defenders would appear to be able to carry on for slightly longer before age begins to whittle them down in number and opportunity. Once a striker reaches thirty, they begin to rapidly disappear from the first choice eleven, with 32 appearing to be a significant birthday if this season is typical.

You would expect that midfielders play in the most physically demanding role, where there is little opportunity to rest and while the peak appears earlier than the other two positions, there is also a significant secondary peak centered around 30 years of age. Players represented in this older group include Lampard, Gerrard, Britton, Carrick and Nolan, possibly indicating that midfielders have a more mixed and diverse role compared to other positions on the pitch.

Steven Gerrard has played over 2500 Premiership minutes despite having celebrated his 32nd birthday and Frank Lampard has maintained his form, if not his playing time. Ryan Giggs is at the extreme right of the distribution at three years older than the oldest playing defender in the current season and four years older than the comparable striker. A marvelous achievement and one that he very nearly shares with his 38 year old team mate, Paul Scholes.

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