English clubs' average ages primed for UEFA Champions League success

18 September 2018 Consultancy.uk

This season’s English Champions League hopefuls have time on their side, if the latest data on the average age of the competition’s entrants is anything to go by, at least. With last season’s finalists having average ages around 26 years old, Liverpool and Manchester City look best positioned for the tournament, with a blend of youth and experience hopefully providing the longevity and flair needed to go all the way in 2018/19.

Just what the ideal age is for a footballer is a continued matter of debate. Received wisdom of the average pub pundit suggests that a footballer will peak between the ages of 27 and 29, and there is some statistical evidence to support this on the international stage, with a BBC study in 2014 finding that historically, the perfect age to be a player in the World Cup is 27.5. At the time, that was the average age of the winning teams in the 19 World Cup finals between 1930 and 2010, with the youngest being Argentina in 1978 (25.7) and Brazil in 1962 (30.7) being the oldest.

However, the demands of a month-long competition are entirely different to those of a season-long elite competition, and teams succeeding in the UEFA Champions League in particular have boasted some notable exceptions over the years. For example, the AC Milan team which won the 2006/07 tournament boasted then-38 year old Paolo Maldini, and a number of other decades-long stalwarts among its ranks. At the same time, it seems that the changing style of the modern game now favours the young.

Average age of teams in the UEFA Champions League (# years)

Last year’s winners, Real Madrid, took their historic run in the contest to three successive Champions League victories, with a squad whose average age was 26.5 at the time. After a summer clear-out which saw the club’s record top scorer Cristiano Ronaldo exit the club aged 33, among others, Madrid’s squad is still only an average of 0.1 older than it was half a year ago. However, as the team is still struggling to integrate its new coach, and an underwhelming goalkeeping signing, while the absence of Ronaldo is still being keenly felt, it is perceived by many as unlikely that they will add yet another European trophy to their cabinet at the end of this campaign.

At the same time, however, two of England’s four entrants are in or around the age bracket which seems to best prepare a club for success in the Champions League. Manchester United’s expensive squad has an average age of 27.1, and will be approaching 28 by the time of the final in the Wanda Metropolitano in Madrid rolls around, and while manager Jose Mourinho clearly values experience in his players, this perhaps suggests a reluctance to give youth a chance which has enabled previous winners to weather the hectic fixture schedule of European football. Similarly, while Tottenham’s squad is comparatively younger at 26.3 years, the squad will be approaching the 28 mark by May. Following years of being touted as a team for the future, this may be Spurs’ make or break season, so the team will undoubtedly be feeling the weight of expectation entering the tournament this year.

Youth and experience

On the other hand, last year’s finalists seem to be maturing at a rate that could foreshadow Champions League success this year. While, obviously, these statistics should be taken with a pinch of salt thanks to the huge number of variables at play in a football match, let alone a 32 team tournament, Liverpool’s average age of 26.0 will see them roughly where Real Madrid were last year, when they triumphed in a nervy final. Liverpool’s squad will have learned important lessons in composure from that match, while manager Jurgen Klopp has used a summer spending spree to patch gaps highlighted in that match – most notably with the  €72.5 million acquisition of Brazilian shot-stopper Alisson – suggesting a level of experience and youthful exuberance could possibly see the Reds take one step further this year.

Meanwhile, odds-on favourites Manchester City find themselves in a similar position. Currently aged at an average of 25.9, the Citizens have never ventured further than the semi-final of the tournament, despite significant investment over the past decade. However, former Barcelona icon Pep Guardiola has used his tenure at City to infuse his distinctive brand of possession football with a ruthless attacking flair, and the Sky Blues are subsequently riding high from a record-breaking Premier League title, during which they were rarely challenged. Having been ousted by Liverpool in one of the shocks of the tournament last year, the team will be hoping to have learned its lessons from a harsh quarter-final exit, and likewise have strengthened their squad with Leicester City playmaker Riyad Mahrez.

According to further Consultancy.uk analysis of data from UEFA, the oldest teams in Europe’s premier club contest are from Czech team Viktoria Plzen and Russian outfit Lokomotiv Moskow, both aged 28.7. Elsewhere, at the other end of the spectrum, the two Dutch clubs in the competition will be hoping to build for the future, and solidify a place at Europe’s top table once more. The Eredivisie has not been represented by more than one club at the tournament in eight years, and its two entrants this year boast the youngest squads on display. Ajax, who were the last Dutch team to lift the trophy in 1995, have an average age of 23.4, while Dutch champions PSV Einhoven have the youngest squad of all, at 23.3 years old, 23% younger than the oldest teams in the tournament.

Related: Premier League remains Europe's highest spending league on transfers.

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Champions League glory hard to buy for football’s economic elite

15 March 2019 Consultancy.uk

The thrills and spills of knock-out football can still be one of the sport’s great levelling forces, with the Champions League’s second round having shown that the biggest spenders aren’t always able to buy their way to glory. While a league format broadly favours the squad depth of the beautiful game’s richest teams, half of the tournament’s wealthier teams exited in the first one-on-one elimination round.

As the Champions League burst back into life in February, following an agonising winter break, only two of the 16 teams re-launching their Champions League last-16 bid were from outside the so-called Big Five football leagues. With the exceptions of Portuguese champions FC Porto and Dutch footballing powerhouse AFC Ajax, teams from the world’s biggest spending leagues monopolised the second round. As outlined by analysis from KPMG’s Football Benchmark, the Premier League was represented by four teams, with three clubs come from La Liga and the Bundesliga respectively, while Serie A and Ligue 1 both retained two clubs.

This followed a grimly predictable group phase, which had seen the two most expensive squads progress in all but one of the eight collections of four teams. The one team to buck that trend, Ajax, had last won Europe’s premier club competition in 1995, but those halcyon days have long since faded into memory, and Ajax had failed to progress beyond the group stage in 13 years. With the second youngest squad in the tournament, what now seems to be an awakening football giant had some shocks in store for the second round too.

Group Stage values

Despite an impressive Europa League run which saw the team reach the final two years ago, Ajax had not progressed in a Champions League knockout stage tie since the 1996-97 campaign. That all changed this time, as Erik ten Hag’s men overturned a first leg deficit to trounce Real Madrid 5-3 on aggregate. Having felt hard done by in a 2-1 defeat at the Johan Cruijff ArenA, the Amsterdam club cruised to a 4-1 victory at the Santiago Bernabéu, a result which saw the tournament’s fourth most expensive squad crash out to the third cheapest remaining team.

The supremely expensive team, which had won three Champions Leagues on the trot, had crashed out in spectacular style. For many footballing purists, the end of the seemingly invincible Galacticos would have been enough to restore some of their faith in the sport – but there would soon be more schadenfreude to revel in, as a succession of Europe’s most bank-breakingly costly teams would soon join Los Blancos in their exit.

The pick of the bunch was unquestionably Paris Saint-Germain, who forfeited a 2-0 first leg advantage to somehow crash out of the Champions League. The team, who are fast becoming known as the foremost bottlers in Europe, faced a grim dissection in the French press following a 3-1 defeat by Manchester United at Le Parc de Princes. While it would be over-egging it to paint United as ‘giant killers’, the Red Devils squad is worth markedly less than the club bankrolled by Qatari oil money. PSG hold two of the most expensive players of all time in French World Cup winner Kylian Mbappe and Brazilian playboy Neymar.

Second Round values

Elsewhere, the round’s cheapest squad proved further that money is not everything, as Porto overcame Roma (the Italian club has since parted ways with manager Eusebio Di Francesco in the wake of this humbling) – while Juventus battled back to beat Atlético Madrid. The most ‘balanced’ tie of the round, there was a squad value difference of only €22 million between the two squads, in favour of the Spanish giant. With that being said, €113 million of Juve’s price-tag came from the summer acquisition of Cristiano Ronaldo. Ronaldo’s tie-settling hat-trick went to show that money spent in the right place ultimately makes the difference.

Spending wisely

At the same time, there were also four teams which lived up to their large price-tags. Manchester City pummelled Schalke over the course of two legs, hammering the German team 7-0 in the second game. With the largest squad market value in the tournament, the Citizens showed that their spending had not merely been a frenzy provoked by having large amounts of money to throw about – a la PSG – and that every penny had in fact been used to craft one of the continent’s most well-balanced and dangerous teams, to ultimately contend for the title.

Tottenham Hotspur similarly brushed off Borussia Dortmund, while Liverpool eventually overcame Bayern Munich, to leave no German teams in the tournament. Meanwhile, Barcelona similarly did for the French contingent of the Champions League, bundling out Olympique Lyonnais 5-1.

Operating Revenues

Going forward, the humbled economic superpowers of European football will take solace from the fact that their huge operating revenues will allow them to buy up talent which has emerged in this year’s Champions League. With Real Madrid having re-installed Zinidine Zidane as Head Coach, the club has already committed itself to spending big in the summer, cashing in some €50 million of its €743 billion revenue stream from last year to sign Éder Militão from Porto – who has impressed in this year's Champions League – in the summer.

Whether the PSG project is financially sustainable in the long-term remains to be seen, meanwhile, but with a huge portion of commercial revenues including shirt-sales from the club’s array of superstars, it will likely also seek to bring in more big names in the summer. The club was reportedly in the running to sign Ajax star Frenkie de Jong, before Barcelona finally secured his services from the end of the season.

The likes of Ajax will meanwhile face an uncomfortable wait, as a range of its new crop of outstanding players inevitably attract the attentions of Europe’s top spenders. With the lowest operating revenues of any team left in Europe, the club will face an uphill struggle to hang on to the likes of teenage captain Matthijs de Ligt. However, it would not be the first time that the club has been plundered for its top talent, and what Ajax and clubs of its size can take forward is that with the right eye for lower-key recruitment, they can rebuild, and still challenge Europe’s elite.