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Why Is It Tougher Than Ever To Get Into A Starting XI In The Premier League?

The average age of the England national team is 25; Talent (under-24 players): 41.6%, Peak Age (players aged from 25 to 29): 45.8% and Veterans (players aged 30 and above): 12.5%. Ideally, there should be a majority of Peak Age players (60%), two Talents (17%) and two (maximum) veterans (23%) in the starting XI.

Last Sunday, when English football’s two greatest clubs met at Anfield, Liverpool’s starting XI consisted of 4 English players (Lallana, Henderson, Sterling and Sturridge) and Manchester United’s starting XI consisted of 5 English players (Smalling, Jones, Carrick, Young and Rooney) – Total: 9 English players. Both Liverpool and Manchester United had 7 players who were 24-years-old or below (“Talents”); 3 English, 2 Spanish, 1 Brazilian, 1 German. There were 13 “Peak Age” players – 5 English players, 2 Spanish, 1 Dutch, 1 Ecuadorian, 2 Belgians, 1 Welsh and 1 French. Veterans: Michael Carrick (English|Age: 33) and Skrtel (Slovakian|Age: 30).

Unsurprisingly, each and every English player featured in starting line-ups were full-time Internationals for England. But, how many under-24 English players are first-team regulars at club-level? 3 (Jones, Henderson and Sterling) out of 22 players – 13% only. Clearly, this showcases it’s harder than ever for young, talented players to get a chance to shine in the Premier League and to get into starting XI of a top English club.

As England attempt to find the elements they've been lacking recently, English clubs should also find an answer to their squad's ageing problem sooner rather than later.
As England attempt to find the elements they’ve been lacking recently, English clubs should also find an answer to their squad’s ageing problem sooner rather than later.

During the 70s and 80s, between 35% and 37% of starting appearances in the old Division One were made by footballers who, being under-24, would qualify for the PFA’s young player of the year award. By 1991-92, on the eve of the Premier League era, it had slipped to 27%. During the 2011-2012 season, it decreased to 21%. The current edition of the Premier League only features 17.4% under-24 players (lowest in the modern era).

In the early 70s and 80s, there were 4 players in the starting XI (of a Division one team), but in the modern era of English football it has decreased to less than 2 players. Nowadays, clubs largely prefer readymade players; by “readymade,” here I mean players who are in their Peak Age (24-29).

Champions Manchester City, during the 2007-2008 season had seven under-24 players in their starting XI. This figure dropped to six in the following season. Currently, Manchester City possesses only 1 under-24 player (5% Talent), Frenchman Eliaquim Mangala, who gets regular appearances. 95% of Manchester City’s starters are either Peak Age players or Veterans (average: players aged 28 or 29). Their (95)% is only better than Stoke City (96%), who along with Crystal Palace are the biggest culprits when it comes to not selecting players from the Talents age group.

In the 1994-1995 season, a total of 70 under-23 players played at least 1/3rd of the league games. 72.85% (51 players) of the 70 players were English, and the rest of the players belonged to British Isles or Ireland. Fast forward to the 2004-2005 season, 62 under-24 players regularly appeared in the starting XI; amongst the 62 under-24 players only 25 players were English (40%|32.85% fall from the 1994-1995 season).

In the Eredivisie (Dutch league), there are 123 under-24 players, who play as regulars for their respective clubs. Here, 83 players are Dutch (67%) out of the total 123 under-24 players. No brainer, why most of the players from Dutch national team squad play in the Eredivisie.

Achieving the right age structure is crucial for a club’s success in the long-term. Also, determining what is the right age structure for a team with regard to the club’s policy is essential. Teams like Everton (46%), Queens Park Rangers (41%), West Bromwich Albion (39%), Crystal Palace (31%), Burnley (31%) and Leicester City (32%) have the most veterans in their squad. Whereas, Manchester City have most of their squad players playing in the Peak Age category. Manchester City also has the oldest squad in the Premier League, as City now do, is a ticking time bomb. Veteran players eventually need to be replaced. And in the age of Financial Fair Play, City cannot flash Sheikh Mansour’s credit card quite as flippantly as they once did. The issue for Manchester City is how they replace their current stars before too many of them move into the Veterans group potentially affecting performance adversely.

Meanwhile, Chelsea, have the ideal age structure with 17% Talent, 60% Peak Age and 23% Veterans. But, Chelsea’s Champions League winning squad was their oldest squad in 4 seasons. The idea is to have the majority of players at Peak Age and to always have one or two talents who can stream into that group as they get older.

This season, Stoke City has used only one Talent: Marc Muniesa (22), who isn’t English. Over the last four seasons, the club’s average Talent in their starting elevens is under 4 per cent. In 2012-13, they did not start with a single player under 24. Southampton during the 2012-2013 season had 43% Talent in their starting XI. In the current season, this figure has dropped to 25%, due to the sale of Luke Shaw, Adam Lallana and Callum Chambers (in the summer transfer window), and partly because the likes of Morgan Schneiderlin and Jay Rodriguez have grown older.

But, it is Tottenham Hotspur who possesses 41% Talent (uder-24s) in their starting line-up. Leeds United had 62% Talent during the 1999-2000 season. While the league record is held by Aston Villa with Paul Lambert’s side having 63% Talent during the 2012-2013 season; 7 players were under the category of Talents – Aston Villa finished 15th on the league table with 41 points during the 2012-2013 season. They finished just 5 points above the relegation zone, which further supports the point: clubs should find the right age structure, which also determines a club’s philosophy or policy.

The window for young stars to get games and opportunities to develop at the elite level is not a wide one. It soon slams shut. For a Premier League manager, facing the pernicious pressure that comes with being permanently three defeats from a crisis, it is easier to trust in experience than to roll the dice on youth. Earlier in February, when Liverpool hosted Tottenham Hotspur it featured 11 under-24 players (6 English players). These two teams, this season have showcased, youngsters given time and patience can succeed. Just don’t necessarily expect others to follow their lead.

Data courtesy: Sean Ingle has reported in The Guardian, Infostrada‘s report on The Ageing Game and Ben Lyttelton’s piece for Eurosport.