2009. A 19-year old Brazilian striker named Alexandre Pato was the main man of A.C. Milan’s attack. He was compared to the great Ronaldo (the Brazilian), Romario and his Milan teammate Kaka. His striking partner faced competition to make the starting 11. And who was this striker in question? Zlatan Ibrahimovic!
However, he faced injury after injury. His pace and agility, which were considered to be his greatest strengths, dropped. In 2013, he moved to Corinthians in Brazil for £12.18 million.
2016. Chelsea signed Alexandre Pato on loan for the remainder of the season. Everybody thought their then interim manager Guus Hiddink, was going to revive him. After all, he was only 26. But, as you may know now, it didn’t work. He did score on his debut, coming on as a substitute in March (a couple of months after Chelsea signed him) and scoring from the penalty spot. He played only one other game after that. Injuries plagued his time at Chelsea.
That wasn’t the only mistake Chelsea made that year. Their now-sacked manager Jose Mourinho thought he could ressurect the career of once-brilliant Colombian Radamel Falcao. The striker was ruled out of the World Cup of 2014 with an injury, much to everyone’s disappointment. He completed a high profile loan move to Manchester United that transfer window. He flopped terribly, scoring only four goals in 26 appearances. Chelsea loaned him in, the season after, after the failure. He played just ten games and scored only one goal. Seriously, Roman Abramovich? After Fernando Torres and Andriy Shevchenko, you still make mistakes in the transfer market?
There are many others whose careers went downhill, including a certain 14-year-old called Freddy Adu. In 2004, when he was just a kid of 14 years old, he was destined to be the next Pele and the future of American soccer. Back then, Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo were obscure teenagers. Adu became the youngest athlete ever in the U.S. to sign a professional contract. He was the MLS’s identity. He scored 11 goals and provided 17 assists in his first three years, at D.C. United. After an unsuccessful year at Real Salt Lake, he moved to Portugal with the prestigious S.L. Benfica. He suffered terrible seasons, on loan and with the club itself. He soon became a nomad, and now in his mid-twenties, he won’t get anymore of ‘the next Pele’ headlines but is the subject of many articles titled ‘What the Heck Happened to Freddy Adu?’
These football players were absolutely excellent players. However, their technical and physical abilities plummeted with age, even though it was too early, or so people think.
But what is early? For Freddy Adu, yes, it was very early indeed. But for other players, can 26 be defined as early? If you ask fans, news firms and even managers (except for one manager, who you will read about later in this article), they’ll say it is. ‘He’s only 26/27’ is a sort of mantra everyone recites when it comes to signing players.
How footballers reach their peak and then decline is called the aging curve. The study of peaking and declining is one of the things in focus in football analytics. Those who go with the traditional method of going with the gut instead of the brain or machine on this fail miserably, like Chelsea buying Fernando Torres, Samuel Eto’o, Demba Ba, Yossi Benayoun and Andriy Shevechenko, and Robbie Keane being bought by Liverpool and then bought back by Tottenham Hotspur. These players were too old when they were signed and thus fell short.
From the above chart1, it is clear that strikers and attacking midfielders reach their peak around the age of 26, and decline soon after. On the other hand, and contrary to popular belief, defenders and goalkeepers peak at around 292. But, generally, defenders and goalkeeper are only signed once in a blue moon, so their aging curve is less important.
Given that players peak around the age of 26, it can be said that clubs who buy 26- to 28-year-olds want success immediately. But these clubs are shortsighted. If you buy a 27-year old, he will perform well the first or second season, but won’t do as well later. Not even that, many players find it hard to acclimatize to their new surroundings at a new club, so the first season is not likely to be great either.
However, there are more problems. If a footballer is bought at the age of 27 and is sold three years later, the club that bought and then sold him will reap a huge loss. Many managers and fans do know that buying a 30-year-old is a very bad idea. They know that a player declines at that age. The resale value of a football player decreases with age. Let Billy Beane, the man who popularized analytics in sport in America, through Michael Lewis’s bestseller Moneyball tell you.
“Nothing strangulates a sports club more than having older players on long contracts, because once they stop performing, they become immoveable.”
Let’s take the example of David Villa. He was signed by Barcelona in 2010 when he was 28 for €40 million. In 2013, he was sold to Atletico Madrid for €5 million. Barcelona suffered an 87.5% loss selling Villa. Another example is Ronaldo. The Brazilian moved to Real Madrid at the age of 26 for €46 million and then was sold five years later for €8 million. Real Madrid has made many mistakes of this kind while pursuing the Galacticos project.
One of the Galacticos here is Kaka. But let’s look at the other side: the club that sold him to Real. A.C. Milan signed Kaka for €8.5 million when he was a 21 year-old. When he was 27, he moved to Real for €65 million. And then we come to a young left back called Gareth Bale. The Welshman signed for Tottenham Hotspur for £5 million (sterling here, keep in mind, not the euro) and then sold later for the biggest fee paid by a football club ever, a whopping 85 million pounds, to Real Madrid. It certainly pays to buy a footballer early.
Also a young player will have lower wage demands. Stefan Szymanski and Simon Kuper wrote that most players earn their highest wage at the age of 32. Billy Beane also has something to say: “It’s less costly to bring a young player in. If it doesn’t work, you can go and find the next guy, and the next guy. The downside risk is lower, and the upside much higher.’
Would you like to pay a terrible player a lot, or would you like to pay a really good player close to nothing? As football is stepping out of the Stone Age in terms of analytics, even Chelsea is getting smarter. They bought the 23 year-old Michy Batshuayi for £33 million. Though the fee may arguably be too high for him, when or if he is sold he will reap a profit for the London club.
Meanwhile, their old coach Jose Mourinho has brought Zlatan Ibrahimovic to Manchester United for free. You might be laughing at Jose for paying the 35 year-old £200,000 a week, but Mourinho is a sly person who knows how to do his job because:
ZLATAN IS AT HIS BEST RIGHT NOW.
The Golden One meets the Special One
‘Zlatan’ literally means ‘the Golden One’ in Slovenian. The age of 35 seems to be really, really, really old for a footballer, but I think otherwise.
Not all players start their decline when their age hits the magic numbers of 26 and 27. There are many like Freddy Adu and Alexandre Pato who start early and burn out soon, but there are also many who are late bloomers. One example is the recently retired Italian striker Antonio Di Natale.
Di Natale was born in 1977. At the age of 27, he moved to Udinese. At 33, in the 2009-10 Serie A season, Di Natale scored 29 goals in the league and became the highest scorer in the Serie A. The following season, he secured highest scorer in the Serie A again with 28 goals. That is huge for a 34 year-old. The year after that, he was the third highest scorer in the Serie A, scoring 23. In the 2012-13 season, he scored another 23 goals, although he lost first place to Edinson Cavani. 2013-14, he scored 17 goals, and became the fourth-highest scorer in the league that season. He featured in the top ten goalscorers in 2015 too.
On the 3rd of May, 2015, Di Natale broke the legendary Roberto Baggio’s record of 205 goals in the Serie A, making history. Di Natale had made Udinese the best mid-table side ever. However, he retired the season after, when he was 38. No one really believed he would retire, not because of how well he played, but because every year he announced he would retire at the end of the season and take the proclamation back afterwards.
The chart above shows the performance of Di Natale. You can see that he peaked in his mid-thirties and started to decline in his late-thirties, even if it wasn’t that steep.
Antonio Di Natale is one in the category of late bloomers. Miroslav Klose, Francesco Totti and Fillipo Inzaghi are other examples in this sparsely populated list.
Right now what it looks like is that if you peak early, you decline early. If you peak late, you decline late. But now we go back to Ibra.
Ibrahimovic was very, very good when he was young. So shouldn’t he start declining at 26? A French book named Sciences Sociales Football Club reports that Zlatan kept improving in his late twenties.
“I’m like wine – I get better with age. I don’t feel like I’m getting old, quite the opposite.”
One of Zlatan’s many famous press declarations. Once, he also compared managers with himself – both get better with age.
According to his stats, yes, he does get better with age. His goal tally keeps rising. His physical abilities have remained the same, while his technical abilities have gotten better. Old is gold for the Golden One!
Not only are the goals increasing. His assist count is escalating, too. His numbers tell you that the gold isn’t fading. One can say that he is this good just because of the easy league (the Ligue 1 in France) he is playing in, but his stats are so telling that he can do all this in the Premier League with ease. In fact, there is a possibility that he will do even better in England as the team he’s playing for is Manchester United.
Another reason he will fit at United is because of his manager Jose Mourinho. The two have already spent time together at Inter Milan, where Ibrahimovic was great. He bagged the top scorer awards in the Serie A before Di Natale there.
There’s just one problem. In terms of positional play, Zlatan is declining. From the fine football analytics blog StatsBomb, here are his heatmaps from the 2013-14 season to the 2015-16 season.
These heatmaps show that Ibrahimovic has consistently been moving back and away from the goal and towards the halfway line. Also, he is covering less space. These are signs of physical decline, not choice. His stamina is dropping. He is no longer the number 9 he was and has turned into a number 10. However, this wasn’t too much a problem at PSG, where they had another good conventional striker in Edinson Cavani.
But Manchester United could face a problem here. Chris Anderson and David Sally report in their book The Numbers Game that teams have to be structured. They theorize that a football teams are only as strong as its weakest link. A team is like a spacecraft. Even though the focus of the chapter is the O-ring theory, but it can be said that a team is like a jigsaw puzzle. The pieces have to fit. It’s no use getting many of the same pieces. That’s what Manchester United is going to get, an identical piece, in Zlatan.
The other identical piece here is Wayne Rooney. Just about everyone knows that he is a footballer on the decline. His slump in stamina made United’s previous manager Louis van Gaal play Rooney in centre midfield. Zlatan is a false nine, dropping deep, too. Even if Mourinho plays the two as forwards, they won’t play up; United will have a huge hole in that centre forward position. The Manchester City defence and the rest may not have a hard time shutting down two aging strikers.
Manchester United should probably sell Wayne Rooney and replace him with the teenage sensation Marcus Rashford or move Anthony Martial to the centre. However, with Jose Mourinho’s history of not approving of youngsters, that may not happen.
Ibrahimovic certainly would do well at the age of 35, but not at Manchester. Maybe with Bayern Munich, with Thomas Muller and Robert Lewandowski? Or a return to Barcelona?
But these questions may have to remain unanswered forever. Ibrahimovic will be signing only a one-year contract and then will be retiring, unless the club offers him another year based on his performance. But the chance of him going elsewhere is very, very small.
How clubs should sign players (and sell them)
Anyone who has read this article must know that signing players who are in their late twenties is a bad idea. The Goldilocks zone for signing players is 19-243, not younger to avoid an Adu. Financially and for success, the early twenties are the best, even though the players’ best may not come during that period.
All players don’t peak in their mid-twenties. Some, like Di Natale and Ibrahimovic, peak later. Hence, a club looking to sign a player must look at the player’s statistics for any sign of decline. If managers don’t adopt the Moneyball idea, they aren’t going to succeed.
There is one manager who I should hate, but I admire. His name is Arsene Wenger. In 1996, if anyone told his name, the person would hear an ‘Arsene who?’ come back at him. But twenty years on, he is synonymous with Arsenal (Arsene-al?) and is one of the most popular managers in the world.
Something special about him is that he was a failed player and then became an economist. He knows that using statistics in sport works. He used data to come to the conclusion that Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry and Nicolas Anelka were great players, and signed them for dirt, as no one else saw it. He challenged traditional football ‘knowledge’ to achieve success in his early years, till the rise of Chelsea. Wenger bought players young, around the Goldilocks zone I mentioned. He then sold them in their late twenties, when they were just past their prime. These are some examples of his clever pieces of business.
- He bought Marc Overmars (when he was 24) and Emmanuel Petit (when he was 27) both in 1997 when they cost £12.5 million combined, and then sold them to Barcelona for a combined fee of £32 million in 2000, a mammoth amount of money then.
- He bought Patrick Vieira for £3.5 million when Vieira was 20 in 1996 and sold him 9 years later for £14 million.
- He bought Thierry Henry for £11 million when he was 22 and sold him to Barcelona when he was declining at the age of 29 for £16 million.
- More recently, he bought Robin van Persie for £3 million in 2004 when he was 20 and sold him to Manchester United for £22.5 million in 2012.
- He bought Cesc Fabregas for free from Barcelona when he was 16 in 2003, and sold him back to Barcelona for £35 million in 2011. Then, when Barcelona sold him to Chelsea in 2014, Arsenal received £6 million because of an appearances clause.
- Alex Song signed for Arsenal for £1 million when he was 19, and sold him to Barcelona – Wenger seems to have been particularly clever dealing with Barca – for £15 million when Song was a 26 year-old.
The Wenger policy works very well. Stan Kroenke, Arsenal’s controlling share holder, is kept happy because of the profits Wenger makes through the transfer market. Wenger is also keeping Arsenal high up the table, appeasing fans (or at least some of them). However, many people have been accusing Wenger of running the club like a business. I for one can’t see the problem. If you are very successful, do you have to suffer a loss financially?
Billy Beane is an admirer of Wenger. He thinks Wenger is stabilizing Arsenal for the future. “When I think of Arsene Wenger, I think of Warren Buffet. Wenger runs his football club like he is going to own the club for 100 years.”
When Wenger sells someone, he sells them when they hit their peak. It’s not because he doesn’t want success. As I said earlier, clubs sign players in that 25-28 age zone. Their value jumps when they are around that age. The Moneyball idea will certainly work in football. The reason it will work is because not too many people know about it. Especially Spanish and English clubs4. So when one smart guy comes in and does what he knows is better, he is bound to be successful, like, in this case, Arsene Wenger.
The Fountain of Youth
You have read about how clubs should work in the transfer market according to the age of the players. However, this whole rule can be shattered, though no one knows how. Except for one club in Italy until a point of time. That club slowed down physical decline in players. The club’s name is A.C. Milan. They were able to achieve great success with players in their mid-thirties. You can read about them in the next article in the Innovators section.
Notes and References
1From an excellent blog called The Power of Goals.
3As opposed to Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski’s rule in their book Soccernomics, the estimation for the best age can’t be narrowed down that much.
4English clubs actually possess cutting-edge analytics and data collecting, but they hardly come into practice. When they do, their data-driven transfers are generally bad, like the purchase of Andy Carroll, Stewart Downing and Jordan Henderson in 2011.
Arsene Wenger: By http://www.postproduktie.nl, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2881409
Zlatan Ibrahimovic: By Franciaio – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25578027