Monday, 2 May 2011

Darwinism in Action: The need for footballers to evolve

*The piece originally featured on*

The average length of the modern footballer's playing career is between 15 and 20 years. Most breakthrough around the age of 18 and then continue to play until the age of 33, or in some cases later. Players will naturally have a period in which they are said to be in their 'prime' – at time when they are at their physical and technical peak.

Sustaining success, as an individual, across the span of 15 years is a very difficult challenge and is something that many fail to achieve. Age will, inevitably, catch up with everyone and they will become less effective in their position. Injuries will take their toll and eventually players will no longer be able to do what they had once done with such ease.

The most successful players, though, are able to evolve their style of play or even their position throughout the course of their career so as to enable them to be as valuable in their mid-30s as they were in their early 20s. When their speed, strength and stamina fades, their game must adapt lest they suffer the fate of many players the wrong side of 30 who slump down into the lower leagues. The acceptance that one can no longer perform in the same way as they did back in their hay-day requires a transformation of their approach to the game. It is Darwinism in action – if you want to survive at the top then you must evolve.

This does not mean that every player who plays well into their 30s have undergone this transformation. Players like Teddy Sheringham continued playing in a largely similar style, albeit to a lower standard, until the age of 40. Claude Makélelé's role as the archetypal holding midfielder relied far more on his ability to read the game than cover a lot of ground and as such it is no surprise that this is a role he has been able to continue to do successfully right through his career.

The real challenge comes to the once all-action, buccaneering players who, whether it be because of age or injury, have had to change their game. Likewise, other players spent long periods of their career in one position before moving to a new role with equal or greater success. Certain managers and clubs, like Sir Alex Ferguson and AC Milan, have proven themselves particularly adept at helping remould players with great success.

10. Danny Murphy

For much of his prime, while at Crewe Alexandra and Liverpool, Danny Murphy played in an advanced, attacking-midfielder role or as a deep-lying forward. His creativity and ability to contribute both goals and assists saw him rise to international level. Since entering his thirties and having left Liverpool to go to Charlton and Tottenham before settling in Fulham, where he is club captain, Murphy's game has been vastly altered. He now dictates his side's passing and attacking play from a deeper role. His new, more disciplined style of play has got the best out of his ability in his advancing years.

9. Luis Enrique

The Spaniard plied his trade on both sides of El Clásico's divide, first for Real Madrid and then for Barcelona. He played in most positions on the pitch and over time, as his pace dried up, he moved into a more central role with great effect. His temperament and technique allowed him to be used as a creative yet controlled player rather than the direct, attacking player he was when he started his career.

8. Ryan Giggs

He begun his career at Manchester United 21 years ago as a pacey and tricky left winger. He spent well over a decade terrorizing defenders but his game now relies far less on his speed-of-foot or jinking runs. Rather, he remains an invaluable member of the United squad because of his ability to read the game, pick the right pass and his never-faltering technique. He has even featured at left-back and in central midfield for his club in recent times. The pace and skills may have largely left the Welshman's game but, now in a far more controlled and disciplined role, he is still receiving plaudits for his performances.

7. Phil Neville

He spent a large part of his prime playing second fiddle to his brother Gary and Denis Irwin as Manchester United's back-up fullback. His success has largely come since he migrated into the centre of midfield. He reinvented himself as a tenacious, ball-winner at the end of his time at United. He has since cemented himself as a key part of the Everton team. The change optimised his aggressive style of play and has enabled him to play some of his best football at his current age of 34.

6. Marcel Desailly

The former French captain spent large parts of his career sat as an immovable force in the centre of midfield while playing for Marseilles and Milan. His strength and athleticism made him one the stand-out performers of the 90s. After his move to Chelsea in 1998, however, he was used largely as a centre-back. As a winner of the Champions League and the World Cup, Desailly showed the adaptability to emerge as a true great in two different positions.

5. Paul Scholes

When the ginger maestro broke into Ferguson's team he played most of his football up front or just behind the striker. He was known for his finishing ability. Over time he was then a formidable attacking midfielder who would grab goals by breaking into the box with perfect timing or by chipping in with vicious strikes from distance. Now, at the age of 36, his game has undergone dramatic changes. As a deep-lying playmaker he influences matches in a completely different way to how he did 10 years ago. His sublime touch, vision and passing range allows him to dictate games while the goals and distance he once covered have slowly faded away.

4. Ronald Koeman

One of the most gifted defenders with the ball at his feet, Koeman scored 193 league goals in 533 matches. The Dutchman was used as a midfielder in the first five years of his career before then, in 1985, dropping back to become a great centreback. His ability from set pieces as well as his excellent passing range distinguished him as one of the best players in world football through the 80s and the 90s.

3. Franz Beckenbauer

'Der Kaiser', one of the finest players to ever play the game and one who was utilised in different positions and in different ways throughout his illustrious career. He featured in midfield, centreback and as a sweeper for club and country and proved to be equally adept in every role that was required of him. A superb defender and great on the ball, he was able to use his talents to subtly change his game across the 700 appearances he made with fantastic success.

2. Ruud Gullit

Gullit, in many ways, epitomises total football and versatility. A gifted technical player with superb physical attributes, he was one of the best players of his generation. In much the same way as his distinctive dreadlocks have now gone, the Dutchman changed his game throughout his career. He began as the right-winger in an attacking trio at Milan. Over time he slowly moved backwards from his role as a winger and, when he joined Chelsea, Glenn Hoddle played him as a sweeper before slotting him into central midfield. He tweaked his game according to the team and league in which he played in, as well as compensating for his own changing attributes, all with great success.

1. Frank Rijkaard

During his seven years at Ajax, Rijkaard performed outstandingly as a centreback, right-midfielder and central-midfielder. It was while at Milan that he became fully transformed from a central defender into quite possibly the best holding midfielder to ever play the game. His awareness, passing and obvious defensive qualities singled him out as the man who pioneered and revolutionised the position.

Thoughts, comments and opinions please...

1 comment:

  1. but football has been changing over the years and players should do it side by side to make better teams and make a huge difference.


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