It was accepted wisdom in football – you don’t pay big money or give long contracts to players over the age of 30.
There has always been a strange exception, of course. Juventus signed 33-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo on a four-year deal in the summer of 2018, and 12 months ago Paris Saint-Germain agreed to pay free agent Lionel Messi a yearly 25 million pounds ($29.5 million) on his transfer. From Barcelona at the age of 34. However, it was these generational talents with brands that gave their new clubs super marketing.
Young and hungry players, or those in their prime years from their mid to late twenties – when footballers are believed to be at their best and least likely to get injured – are usually the ones in greatest demand.
But this summer, there seem to be more exceptions to the rule than ever.
Chelsea have signed 31-year-old Kalidou Koulibaly for around £33m in a four-year deal. Tottenham brought in Ivan Perisic, 33, on a two-year contract, and Manchester United signed 30-year-old Brazil international Casemiro in a £70m switch. He pledged himself to the cause for the next four seasons, with a fifth option.
In Spain, Barcelona have signed 33-year-old Robert Lewandowski from Bayern Munich in a deal that could be worth up to €50m (£42.5m), giving the Polish striker a four-year contract.
In January, the first signing of a stunning new era for Newcastle was Kieran Trippier, who turns 32 next month, while Aston Villa followed up on Philippe Coutinho’s initial loan deal in the same month with a permanent transfer of £17m on a soon-to-be announced four-year contract. Before he enters his thirties in June.
So why are some clubs abandoning the cult of youth, and the consequent hope of contracting players with future resale value, to sign players well beyond their early years?
The answer may be a mixture of panic and pragmatism. Some may be reacting to imperfect starts by taking advantage of an unusual summer, with the transfer window remaining so open that most of the top 20 teams in the Premier League have played five games.
Take Chelsea, for example, which has won just one of its first three games under the new ownership of Todd Poelly and Clearlake Capital.
They have the financial strength to sign teenage prospects like Carne Chukwuemeka, Cesar Casadey, and possibly 21-year-old Everton striker Anthony Gordon. But in Koulibaly, and possibly former Arsenal striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, 33, there is focus on the current side, with coach Thomas Tuchel demanding proven performance.
“It’s interesting,” says Tim Kitsch, co-founder of MRKT Insights, a company that provides football analytics, recruitment and strategy consulting for clubs around the world. “Most reasonable clubs tend not to spend a lot of money on players over the age of 27. It is the golden rule and ignoring it may sound like you are burning money from a business point of view, because you can never make a profit.
“Chelsea looked at it a little differently this summer. They spent (nearly) £50m on Raheem Sterling, who is 27 (December 28) and has a five-year contract, and then of course there is Koulibaly.
“Our stats strongly suggest that it is rare for a big spender for a player over 27 years old to do well. The success rate is around 30-40 per cent.
I’m not saying that PL clubs shouldn’t spend big on players 27 or older, but their hit rate is very low. pic.twitter.com/yxyjaO3tXJ
– Tim Kitsch (SBunching) August 14, 2022
“But maybe it has to do with Todd Bohley wanting to make a splash and less worrying about whether it makes sense. They might think, ‘Let’s get in some guys so we can win something now,’ and if they ask the manager how to do that, they probably will He says by giving it world class and proven performance.
“If you’re a billionaire, you probably wouldn’t buy a club to be slow and steady.”
It is noteworthy that more Premier League clubs, such as Manchester City and Liverpool, have not followed suit. An outside player over the age of 30 has not moved to Anfield since 2016, while City have not paid a single transfer fee in nearly a decade.
Chelsea may have been under pressure in central defender Koulibaly after losing top performers to his position as free-scorers Antonio Rudiger and Andreas Christensen, while also missing out on a smaller Juventus goal Matthias de Ligt, 23, to Bayern Munich, but they didn’t. It was the only big club in the Premier League to spend so much on top players. United have a habit of picking big names with a lot of football under their belt hoping they can be confident about things.
“There was a lot of pressure at United,” says Kitsch. “The fix seems to be to have a world-class player tick every square on paper – but can one player solve all your problems?”
The lack of job security and longevity afforded to managers in the modern game may be another reason to return to the ordinary, regardless of the age of the player.
“Some coaches may ask why should they worry after five years, certainly in terms of buying players with resale, when you may not be at the club at the time?” Keech says.
Antonio Conte’s meeting with former Inter Milan player Perisic at Tottenham can also be seen from the perspective of a coach who tends not to spend much time at clubs.
However, the Croatian international is also part of a breed of players who are challenging traditional notions of age in football.
In the previous two seasons of this season, Perisic played 67 league matches and scored 12 goals, while also changing roles from striker to full-back. He turned 33 in February, and since March has provided nine assists in 13 games. He played nearly 3,000 minutes at the start of 35 of the 38 Serie A games last season and showed few signs of slowing down.
Former Liverpool, Everton and CSKA Moscow chief of fitness and conditioning Ryland Morgans expects more players to follow Perisic’s lead.
“In terms of being able to physically monitor players, it’s clearly more advanced than it was 10 years ago,” Morgans says. “You can better meet the needs of individuals and look at the older players with a little bit of insight. There is a more nuanced focus on diet and nutrition.
“It all means, from an injury prevention perspective, that turning 30 now may not be as much of a hindrance as it was.
“Most of the days, players spend two to three hours on the training ground and have to take care of themselves for another 21 or 22. Many are buying the concept of doing this in order to extend their career, whether it is Thiago Silva at Chelsea (38 next month) or Phil Jagielka at 40 in the tournament with Stoke.
“There is a measure of wealth as well, in terms of avoiding bad injuries – and maybe just having good genes. But I definitely think more players are savvy at doing the right thing now to stay high in their 30s.”
At the same time, clubs often pay a premium to players with this intangible quality of “leadership”.
Conte hopes Perisic’s age will be a short-term success and help Tottenham’s younger players improve.
“I think it is very important that we sign a player like Ivan Perisic because (his fellow 22-year-old Croatian winger Rian Sessegnon) can see the way to learn something,” the Tottenham boss said after the season opener. 4-1 win over Southampton.
“Sometimes it’s good to have players on your team even if they are a little over their age. If he is a good player with experience, he can bring that experience to improve the young players in your team. I think Sasson is doing this. I was really happy because he played a good game today.”
Not every veteran player can adapt to the Premier League.
Everton will struggle to claim their £21.7m move for nearly 30 years from Alan two years ago, despite the Brazilian midfielder’s fortunes in Italy with Udinese and Napoli.
“Alan went from a possession team in a slower league to a more transitional one where he was asked to take on a different role at a much faster pace,” says Kitsch. “Even for experienced players, this change can be a lot.”
Someone familiar with employment at a major European club would agree that hiring players aged 30 or over can make sense when there is no smaller option to fit your price category, or if the players involved can deliver good performance levels with Giant not asking for salaries.
But more often than not, they think that should be a last resort.
There can be no guarantee that some of these clubs that are now venturing into violating the “golden rule” will not get burned.
But in this long Premier League summer there’s a transfer fair to see what you’ll get – and players enjoying their own Indian summer is a popular solution.
(Main illustration: Eamonn Dalton)