As part of the evolution of football, sports science gets better, which suits older players, and helps them to prolong their careers at the top. But football therefore also gets faster, which presumably does not suit older players or help them to prolong their careers at the top.
The usual rule of thumb was that goalkeepers and then centre-backs went on the longest, as they did the least running. Holding midfielders can also fit into that category: anyone who can read the game with expert anticipation can counteract a lack of youthful vigour, to some degree. Playmakers can also fit that template, but the modern game doesn’t indulge many luxuries anymore.
Explosive wingers seem like the earliest to “melt”, although players like John Barnes (enforced by injury) and Ryan Giggs went on to become ball-hugging central midfielders.
Another thing I’ve been pondering a lot recently is the “miles in the legs” theory, and if über-fit players who play constantly from the age of 17 (such as the PSG-bound Gini Wijnaldum) are more or less likely to go on until they are 35 or 36; if they are somehow ultra-durable, or if the constant football takes a toll.
Another variable is specific body type: the endomorphic Wayne Rooney looked increasingly washed up as he approached 30 (which people foresaw many years earlier), whereas the initially injury-prone Giggs’ ectomorphic leanness possibly helped him to go on in the Premier League until he was 40, as did the similarly strong-but-wiry Teddy Sheringham, who was 40 when West Ham lost to Liverpool in the 2006 FA Cup Final.
As in-form as he seems right now, does it seem like Romelu Lukaku, 28, could go on as long? Does the extra muscle/bulk take its toll on the joints and other parts of the body? (If any subscribers can think of any examples of well-built athletes who went on until 40 in other high-intensity endurance-based sports, let me know in the comments.)
Yet, as I go on to ponder the longevity of Mo Salah, Sadio Mané and Roberto Firmino (before looking at some of the younger contenders at the club) there are currently a staggering number of examples of elite goalscoring ratios – up to and including 2020/21 – for strikers in major leagues aged 33-39.