26. That’s the average age of all the players in the Premier League. The top flight for English football features starlets like Callum Hudson-Odoi, Phil Foden, and Ryan Sessegnon whom are only 18 years old, while goalkeepers Julian Speroni and Arthur Boruc are both 39.
There is a laundry list of outfield players well past their early 30s. Proving that with proper conditioning, the physical demands of the league still can be met, and as much as it is widely considered the most physically demanding major league, several players are able to outlast their peers.
Nevertheless, some are not so lucky.
Robin Van Persie left the Premier League at the age of 32 after experiencing a precarious dip in form while former Liverpool captain Daniel Agger left the club at only 29-years-old, reason being that he was unable to cope with the physical demands of the Premier League.
Two names however, managed to defy the odds and reinvigorate their careers in spectacular fashion – Ashley Young and James Milner. The two 33 year-old veterans have endured the last decade in the league and aside from sustaining their form, they’ve reinvented their role in the club. The fact that both Englishmen managed to evade the detrimental effects of aging and still play pivotal roles for their teams classifies them as the Benjamin Buttons of football.
Both Young and Milner now operate frequently at full-back or wing-back – one of the most demanding positions on the pitch. Full-backs and wing-backs are known to play at a high pace, overlapping the wingers to provide an additional outlet in offense but also track back as soon as they lose possession of the ball. In a sense, this position is as taxing as box-to-box midfielders except they operate fundamentally only on the flanks.
Most wing defenders in the Premier League are not as old as these two. Arsenal and Chelsea’s fullbacks boast the oldest average ages at 27 while Manchester United, Tottenham and Manchester City’s average age of full-backs are 26. Liverpool on the other hand, boasts the youngest at just 23 years old. Despite the much younger average age of the other full-backs for the Premier League top six clubs, the 33-year-olds are seven years above the average but have managed to keep their spot on the starting roster and are considered indispensable first-team players.
Milner was preferred over the 19-year-old Trent Alexander-Arnold by Jurgen Klopp in a crucial game against Manchester United in the Premier League this season, a tie in which Milner managed to keep a clean sheet for the team. Ashley Young at one point during the 17/18 season managed to keep the 23-year-old Luke Shaw out of the team for a number of weeks as his hot form made it hard for then-manager Jose Mourinho to drop him.
Young worked from the offensive end, all the way to the defensive zone. Starting his career as a striker at Watford, he was moved to the false nine position at Aston Villa before cementing his spot as a winger. After his move to United, Young faced a harsh dip in form, losing his spot to players like Nani, Danny Welbeck, Shinji Kagawa and Juan Mata. By the time Sir Alex Ferguson retired, he hadn’t made much of an impact, even under the forgotten tenure of David Moyes.
Louis Van Gaal, contrarily, had a hand in reviving Young’s career.
The Dutch ‘manager-philosopher’ was responsible for initiating the reinvention of Young. In his first season, Young found himself playing as a wing-back in a 3-5-2 system, forcing him to adapt his game to be able to defend as well as support the attack. Because of his years of experience, his intelligence to better position himself to to defend properly was priceless. Together with his natural crossing ability, he became a regular full-back for United and found himself with more minutes, even being used by Mourinho in the same role once Van Gaal left.
With Solskjær in charge, he has managed to retain his staring full-back position despite the presence of a younger and faster 19-year-old Diogo Dalot. He was also named captain by keeping out fellow winger-turned-full-back Antonio Valencia, out of the team.
Young may not be a player with flashy flamboyance, but he is considered, what some would call, a blue-collar player – no nonsense and gets the job done. His lack of goals and assists production does not reflect his performance, but justifies why every manager who has coached United still retains his services on the flanks.
James Milner differs from Young as he is more versatile but had a similar career progression, moving from smaller clubs to the top teams of the Premier League. He started his career in 2002 at Leeds United as a winger, later moving to Newcastle and Aston Villa where he was exposed to variety of midfield roles and on a few occasions, used as an emergency right-back. He eventually moved to Manchester City on a £26 million transfer where he played mainly as a central midfielder and finally moved to Liverpool where he was named vice-captain after just one month at the club.
In the 2016-17 season, Milner was asked to play out of position at left-back for Liverpool for the entire season due to injuries on the roster . He was not ecstatic about the change, but said in an interview, “It’s about whatever’s best for the team and ultimately I just want to be out there playing games, contributing and helping this football club.”
During his tenure with Liverpool, his accolades include becoming the first player to record nine Champions League assists in a single season. The innate ability to create opportunities for his teammates comes essentially through experience, and his time in the Premier League has provided the intelligence and positional awareness to operate both as a full-back or a midfielder.
Despite his age, Milner plays with the intensity of a 20-year-old and presses his opponents with vigor, utilizing Klopp’s famous ‘gegenpressing’, justifying Klopp’s preference of his vice-captain. During the pre-season training, James Milner reportedly outperformed his teammates in the lactate threshold test, specifically Naby Keita and Fabinho whom both have reputations of having high endurance and stamina.
Just like Young and Milner, a host of many other Premier League legends like Ryan Giggs and Steven Gerrard who continued playing in the Premier League late into the twilight of their careers, knew how and when to adjust their style of play to preserve the longevity of their careers.
Gerrard adopted a deeper and less offensive role compared to his younger days where he was known to make forays into the box while Giggs, who was notoriously fast and agile in his youth as a winger, remodeled his game to play in central midfield to accommodate for his lack of pace in his final few seasons at Old Trafford.
These players also learn to look after their bodies and prevent injuries. Things like their diets and training routines are all carefully considered when looking at how they can prolong their careers. Giggs began doing Yoga which kept up his fitness levels and reduced the number of injuries he experienced. Gerrard in 2014, heeded Brendan Rodgers’ advice and took on a deep-lying playmaker role, much like Andrea Pirlo and Javier Zanetti, who operated primarily in front of the defence and flourished.
The everlasting dynamism of both Milner and Young is a true testament to their commitment for the sport. In an age where young players command colossal transfer fees, these veterans remind us that age, isn’t everything.
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