Ready For The Knacker's Yard?
As our season spluttered to a fourth place conclusion amid admiration for young players and demand for ready made players some questioned the wisdom of one-year contracts for certain players over 32. Is it just Wenger stubbornness or are there tangible reasons for such a hard-nosed approach? Top players earn big money but the sums involved mean loyalties play a lesser part in contract extensions, as sports science and money are primary drivers.
Wenger is credited for a scientific approach to training, fitness and dietary regimes beyond just 'no booze and eat more broccoli`. Sports science is serious business. Players physical conditions are measured in precise detail monitoring changes over their careers. Physiological changes, barely noticeable in other than high performance athletes, occur as athleticism builds up to the age of 25 and then declines, accelerating after 32. Natural changes in cardiac rate, running style, muscle fibre and creatine levels all affect performance. To offset the ageing process training intensity needs to increase but natural factors, such as increased stride frequency, with its higher risk of impact damage, along with a reduced ability for the body to train, make it harder to put the work in. By 32 a top-level player will have made more money than he need spend in his lifetime. Faced with increasing physical effort to achieve performance consistent with the demands of the modern game and taking prior injuries into account, it isn`t hard to see why managers wonder if a player has the motivation to commit to train intensively beyond a year ahead.
It isn`t all bad news as skill is gained in anticipating movement faster and more accurately. The manager has to balance this increased ability to read the game with reduced physical ability taking into account their role in the team. A goalkeeper clearly has different physical demands, as do central defenders. A defensive midfielder avoids some of the mobility demands of an attacking midfielder. The attacking role with relatively lower physical demands is the forward 'playing in the hole` which doesn`t carry all the demands to cover midfield or lead the line. It is easier for players in these positions to extend their contracts on a yearly basis as they can be more confident they will maintain the physical demands. For a striker, attacking midfielder or full back the commitments are different.
Bergkamp was an 'in the hole` player but firmly dedicated to maintaining physical condition and had avoided serious extended injuries. He knew he could maintain the level of fitness to win a new one-year contract. By contrast Pires had suffered major injury, wasn`t confident he could maintain his performance for a midfield role, often covering distances upwards of 10 km a game, to win a second year and opted for a two year deal playing 'in the hole` at Villareal.
As I said money makes it hard to be romantic about player loyalty. With a wages budget in the order of £85mn Wenger has to decide if awarding a two-year contract to a player over 32, knowing maintaining the physical and motivational demands will be difficult in the face of physiological science, is a fair use of resources. A two year contract worth say £4mn a year when motivation may not be the same in year one with physical capability inevitably reduced in year two may be at the cost of important investments in 2 or 3 younger long term players for that 2 year period. Transfer rule changes, mega-wages, contract law, clubs increasingly run by businessmen all mean tough decisions holding on to older players. More than ever before we can expect those choices to be made along cold business lines. Arsenal are looked upon as a young club but before the season after next gets underway, and if still with us, Henry, Gallas, Gilberto and Ljungberg will have passed their 31st birthday. How many of them will be with us beyond their 32nd?
Article submitted by Amos.