By Keiran Fleming
Which is more important, an experienced player or a young player with raw talent? Well it seems as if the modern manager seems to be looking for the next hot prospect rather than a veteran of the game. Could this new shift in football show that having a number of old heads in your squad is not as important as a lot of people believe.
Last year’s World cup winners France were the second youngest team in the competition with an average age of 26. The runners up Croatia had an average age of 27.9. France started 6 players aged 26 or under while Croatia started with only 2 players aged 26 or under. England also had a squad average age of 26 and the reached the first semi-final making the tournament their most successful since Italia ‘90. Messi’s Argentina were the third oldest squad in the competition with an average age of 29.3. They were knocked out in the last 16 by France. The World Cup in Russia felt like it was the end of one era and beginning of the next. The time of the experienced player was over the time for raw talent was just beginning.
Jose Mourinho is a manager who has favoured an older squad throughout his career. In the 2009-10 Champions League final his winning Inter Milan starting XI had an average age of 30.3 with only one player younger than 26. In his final game as Manchester United boss, Mourinho started 5 players over the age of 26. In the second half Mourinho chose to sub on Fellaini and Mata both of whom are in their thirties. The side went on to lose 3-1 to Liverpool and this led to Mourinho being sacked 2 days later. Ole Gunnar Solskjær then took over and he has put his faith in the talent of the younger players. His starting XI against Wolves included 8 players that were aged 26 or under. The 18 man squad only included 4 players in their 30’s. Manchester United’s shock 3-1 victory over PSG further backed Solskjaer’s young players as being a force to be reckoned with. 5 of the 18 man squad that faced PSG were teenagers with 7 of the starters under the age of 26. The turn around in form for the Red Devils since Mourinho was sacked could be down to the fact that the old guard are no longer being relied upon. Solskjaer has put his trust into the younger players and so far the players have not disappointed.
The question of raw talent Vs experience ranges from the very top level to the Amateur ranks – St Laurence head coach David Easton believes you need to find a fine balance, but raw talent won’t get you anywhere without the application.
“In terms of squads, I feel you need to have a mixture of both experience and youth. With the talent you need to have the right attitude if you want to do well, regardless of what level you are playing at.”
“I’ve been lucky enough to coach u9s, u14-16s, and now into adult football with some of those younger players playing for me now. They’ve all provided different challenges but again, with the right attitude and a willingness to listen/learn, these types of players are great to coach. Its important to keep these types of players grounded but also not to try and over coach them and let them flourish with their own natural talent.”
Ultimately as a manager, its great to coach these types of players and hopefully watch them progress onto a higher level of football or succeed in the level of football they find themselves at. If they enjoy their football, they will play well.”
Real Madrid, who have won the past 3 Champions League, were recently knocked out by a young Ajax side full of talent in this year’s competition. 5 of the Real Madrid players that started against Ajax also started in the last three champions league finals. When Bale came off the bench in the 29th minute that meant there were 6 players on the pitch that had won the last 3 tournaments. Out of the 14 Real madrid players that faced Ajax only 4 did not have a Champions League medal. Ajax had a total of 0 Champions League medals and 0 Champions league final between the 14 players that demolished Real Madrid. 6 of Ajax’s starting XI were under the age of 24 this is 4 more than Real Madrid started with. The way Ajax defeated Real Madrid at the Bernabeu signalled to the world that Los Blanco’s dominance in Europe was over. They had defeated a side that were the most experienced side in the competition with young players that had very little Champions League experience.
When it come to individual awards the experienced players tend to dominate. Out of the top 15 goal scorers in Europe’s top 5 domestic leagues only 4 are under the age of 26. When it comes to most assists there are only 5 players under the age of 26 in the top 15. According to whoscored there are only 5 players under the age of 26 in the top 15 highest rated players in Europe’s top 5 divisions. Kylian Mbappe is the only player under 26 that leads one of Europe’s best division’s goal scoring chart. When it comes to creativity Jadon Sancho is the only player under 26 that leads his league in assists. In UEFA’s 2018 team of the year there were only 2 players under the age of 26 included. In fact 5 of the players voted in were over the age of 30. Players with experience obviously still play a significant role this is clearly shown by their dominance when it comes to individual accolades and performances.
In modern football teams are becoming younger. Managers are trusting raw players more than they have ever before. Teams are now looking for the next big thing and are now taking risks with their signings looking for the next best player. This has resulted in hits such as Dortmund’s signing of Sancho, Barca’s Arthur and Arsenal’s Guendouzi. It has also resulted in some misses Barca’s Malcolm, Los Blanco’s Brahim Diaz and Liverpool’s Naby Keita. However, experienced players are still relied on by top teams to perform. In the English Premier Leagues top six, 4 of the teams top performers are over the age of 26 with the only players under 26 being Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane out performing their team mates.
Experienced players may be less important now but they still act as the glue that holds a side full of raw talent together. Without goalscorers Dusan Tadic and Lasse Schone, both at least 30 years old, Ajax may never have gotten through to the Champions League Quarter Finals. Without veterans Lloris, Kante, Griezmann and Giroud France may never have won the World cup. Without the experience of Smalling, De Gea and Young the Red Devils may never have been able to shock PSG. It is almost impossible to determine which is more important, experience or raw talent.
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