Wenger And Age Concern Revisited
Some years back now, in the midst of claims of inconsistency in Wenger's policy towards players over the age of 30 I set out to explain here the thinking and practice behind the policy of awarding one year contracts to players once they'd reached the age of 32. In part that policy was based on the sports science at the time which showed the rate of athletic deterioration increased from around that age.
With that in mind a piece in the current Arsenal magazine caught my attention as it suggests Wenger's thinking may have evolved following improvements in preparation, health awareness and the medical environment in prolonging a player's effectiveness beyond this boundary.
'Football has changed,' Wenger argues, 'I believe that the players are better prepared now, and they last longer because they take care of their health much better. The medical environment is much better than it was 10 or 15 years ago and the individualised injury-prevention training is much better than it was before. So I think everybody lasts longer today because he is better prepared.'
As a result he suggested that we could see the average age in premier league teams move upwards as their bodies can take more and for longer. 'For a defensive player it has always been easier to extend their career,' Arsene claimed '..but today we see players like Rosicky who was born in 1980 and is still very sharp and has a good change of pace. Why? Because he takes complete care of his body and because he`s looked after much better than before.'
I can't help but wonder whether 'individualised injury-prevention training' and this greater awareness among players themselves of signs that their bodies may not be 100% may explain why players who might have played with a 'niggle' a while back are no longer taking chances, or are not allowed to take the chance, that a more significant injury could result. Similarly bringing players back if they are not 100% fit seems to be a practice which belongs to the past too.
'Today I know more about any player than I did 10 years ago.' Wenger told the Arsenal magazine. 'You know how much they run, what their heart rate is, what they eat - all objective information.' The key he felt is to focus on what experience and observation tells him are the most important pieces of this plethora of objective information to make the right decisions for the player and the team.
Does this mean Wenger, assuming he confounds the demands of some and stays beyond the summer, is less likely to use younger players? Not necessarily it seems though he thinks it's easier to do so in attacking roles than roles where there's a greater demand for more reading of the game, such as those areas calling for greater defensive awareness.
'With attacking play, you focus more on your own game so usually it is exceptional offensive [young] talent that you can give a chance to.' Arsene explained while further explaining that the game has changed to the extent that more experience is definitely needed nowadays.
In any football enterprise with finite resources it makes sense to invest in the future and develop talent without having to rely only on buying at the top of the market for a fully developed player. In a competitive environment which has made it possible for some to do exactly that and recruit a whole squad of disproportionately rewarded experienced players the risks in that development process becomes harder to cover - but it's still the only sustainable path.
We'll still see players like Ox, Gnabry and Zelalem finding their way into the side but it seems we may see some more mature talent like Rosicky sticking around a little longer too.