Old heads on young legs
Older players can feel a little put upon recently after Fergie ungraciously took a swipe at Stamford Bridge`s own Chelsea pensioners. Add to that Jaunde Ramos, the present occupant of the managerial chair at White Hart Lane revealing he is happy to see his older players go in favour of youth and maybe the early age at which Adebayor is starting to think about his pension fund is understandable.
"The idea is signing young players, promising and talented ones, and if important offers for older players are made, studying it to see what is the best for the club." Said Ramos last week. Yet the older players he was referring to were the not altogether ancient 27 year olds Keane and Berbatov.
It`s a thought whose currency appears to be growing. Benitez at one time back in January 2007 was openly critical of the money that Arsenal had spent on young players. By May of this year he seemed less dismissive saying "Arsenal spent money on young players over a long period" and while bemoaning the money needed to build teams went on say "…you need to prepare the foundations for the future. At this moment, Arsenal is the best model for us"
There was a time illustrated by the infamous Hansen quote 'You don`t win anything with kids` when young players were seen as more of a weakness than maybe they are now. The 95-96 ManU team that Hansen was referring to wasn`t that young by current standards. Beckham, Butt, Scholes, Gary Neville were all 20 when that season kicked off while Giggs was 21 and only Phil Neville 18 but crucially, at the time, all had made just 106 first team appearances between them. By the time last season had kicked off the then 20 year old Fabregas had already made 153 appearances on his own.
Some may see it as a purely financially prudent exercise. After all young players cost less in fees and wages. Yet while there is a strong element of this in that the current Arsenal reliance on youth is partly borne out of the necessity in continuing to compete while funding the stadium development it is a Wenger policy that predates this period. While at Monaco he also favoured a youth policy giving debuts to the 17 year olds Thierry Henry and David Trezeguet amongst others. Wengers reasons for favouring youth are as much scientific as financial.
In answering some questions at a shareholders meeting in May of this year Wenger referred to the physical demands now placed on professional players explaining that they were much greater than when he first came into the premiership and that year on year players physical levels were still increasing. "You don`t imagine it is possible" he said while assuring the audience that it was true and that he had the data to support it. Players are expected to run further and faster while the number and frequency of games has increased significantly since 1995. In a recent examination of wide midfield play Ray Parlour was adamant about the requirements to carry out the role successfully. "You have got to have young legs you have got to be young to mid twenties at the most so that you have that little bit of experience and still have your legs" he said this month. Hleb`s agent revealing that the 27 year old couldn`t be sure he would be able to make the same contribution next season if he remained at Arsenal may have been self justifying but it also reveals that possibly the physical doubt was in his mind.
It is these increasing physical demands when playing the type of high energy attacking game Wenger favours that is to some extent behind his belief in young players as athletic prowess peaks around the age of 25 or so. Not all football teams play this style. Perhaps that is why the more energy efficient defensive play of Italian football sees some players survive at ages that the PL could less easily sustain. Arguably the style employed by Chelsea over recent seasons has also been more suited to experienced players of a quality that can retain possession with a style of play that is less energy sapping. The greater risk of young players making mistakes has less room in such a cautious strategy. If Scolari is to change Chelsea`s playing style significantly then he may also find himself having to make greater changes to his playing resources.
The credit with which a young Arsenal team emerged from a tough Carling Cup final against a full strength and mature Chelsea team the season before last shows that young players are capable of competing if they are good enough. What they may lack is the experience to turn skill and energy into trophies. But maybe a policy that has entrusted young players early and allowed them to gain that needed experience could just yield the ideal combination of youthful energy and players in their early twenties matching the experience of older players whose physical powers are on the wane. That would seem the best of both worlds - physically mature but fast, energetic young players with experience.
Maybe we will yet hear a TV pundit tell us 'You won`t win anything without kids`
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