Do strikers get better with age? The science behind everlasting athleticism

How Zlatan, Ronaldo and Europe’s veteran hitmen are staying top of the scoring charts

The ability to pump oxygen around the body is the first thing to go. The heart can’t beat fast enough to feed the grinding pistons. Fast-twitch muscle fibres start to deteriorate. Speed, power and agility lose their snap. Energy reserves deplete. Muscle mass retreats. Then there’s the aches and pains, the stiff limbs and creaking joints.

This is the harsh reality for each and every one of us as we enter our 30s, but for elite footballers, this is nature sapping them of their superpowers. The disarmament of their weapons of mass destruction. Fighting against it is futile. And yet, in the era of cryo chambers and placenta therapists, ageing gunslingers are dominating Europe’s goalscoring charts.

Jamie Vardy (33) is joint topscorer in the Premier League — keeping apace with the youthful talents of Son Heung-min and Dominic Calvert-Lewin. Robert Lewandowski (32) leads the way in the Bundesliga with 11 goals in six games. Statue-worthy football gods Zlatan Ibrahimovic (39) and Cristiano Ronaldo (35) are still showing the boys how it’s done in Serie A. La Liga’s underappreciated no.9s, Luis Suarez (33) and Karim Benzema (32), continue to do the business in Spain.

This breed of age-defying glory-hunters use all manner of methods to adapt, regenerate and fine-tune until they evolve into highly efficient killing machines. Speaking to performance specialists, injury experts and the only player to score in England’s top nine divisions, I find out how veteran forwards continue to thrive in the twilight of their careers.

Athletes should reach the peak of their powers in their mid-20s and then fall into an irreversible decline. This certainly correlates with data extracted from the Premier League record book. During the mid-90s a vintage crop of English strikers decorated a golden era with net-rippling headers, volleys, chips and tap-ins. They shared a passion for scoring, simple celebrations and setting records in their 20s.

Andy Cole, third on the all-time Premier League scoring list, registered his highest single-season return of 41 goals during the 1993/94 season, aged 23. Once he edged over 30, his best tally amounted to just 13. Wonderkid Michael Owen never bettered the 28 goals he scored for Liverpool as a 24-year-old. He’s predecessor Robbie Fowler scored 36 goals in the 1995/96 campaign when he was 21 — a haul he would never surpass. ‘God’, as Liverpool fans affectionately call him, didn’t manage to hit double figures in a season after turning 30. And then there’s the greatest goalscorer in Premier League history — Alan Shearer — who had his most fruitful season in 1994/95, scoring 34 goals at the age of 25.

“Young players have the raw materials — pace, power, strength, endurance — which is why you often see them burst onto the scene and then they experience a bit of a dip when the intensity of competition catches up with them,” explains Nick Grantham, a performance enhancement specialist who works with Premier League players.

“The best players are playing twice a week, so every three-four days they’re going out there and having to perform.

“Strikers are hitting maximum speeds, covering big distances and getting tackled and wrestled to the ground. And the best players get targeted. To keep recovering from this and go again is challenging.”

All the collisions, sprints, shots and headers take their toll on the body over time. Strikers struggle to recuperate with the same speed and efficiency and those little knocks turn into long-term niggles. A traumatic injury marks the end of their invincibility of even worse, the death knell for their career.

“You can have a very minor injury as a young player, but as you get into your 30s that minor cartilage problem in your knee becomes more pronounced,” explains Mo Gimpel, former director of performance science at Southampton.

“If you’ve rolled your ankles 10–12 times in your career the joint will eventually become unstable and start to rub. Your ability to regenerate and heal decreases and in the end pain becomes too much.”

Advances in athletic development and recovery protocols have given players the tools and knowledge they need to slow down the effects of ageing and extend their careers.

And a new generation of young, science-savvy managers have embraced these methods and encouraged their squad to listen to their bodies instead of trying to “run it off”.

“Ice baths used to be a wheelie bin full of water and ice,” laughs Gimpel who worked at Southampton for 23 years, starting out as first-team physio, before making his way up to head of sports medicine and director of performance science.

“Now we have cryo chambers that expose the whole body to temperatures as low as -150°C, rather than standing in these bins that just go to your waste. This aids recovery by reducing muscle soreness and inflammation.

“There’s been a shift in mindset from the coaches at the top level. You don’t hear them say things like, ‘He’s weak, just run through it’ anymore.”

The modern play is graduating from the academy with an education in fitness and nutrition. Drinking clubs have been replaced by WhatsApp groups pinging with training tips and diet plans. In short, footballers have become more professional.

“You have a different breed of athlete now and athlete is the key term,” explains Grantham. “Historically, footballers were players first, but if you look at the modern footballer, particularly strikers, they’re athletes now.

“Part of the reason players can do what they’re doing in their 30s because sports science, nutrition and physical preparation has been a part of their lives since day one.”

This ripple effect of this learning is reflected in the rising age of players competing in the Champions League. Researchers from the University of Vigo found the average age of players in Europe’s elite competition between the 1992–1993 and 2017–2018 seasons increased by 1.6 years. Going from 24.9 in the first season to 26.5 in the last.

Last season’s top scorer in the Champions League — Lewandowksi — scored 15 times for eventual winners Bayern Munich. In fact, seven of the top 10 were in their 30s.

The Polish goal machine also topped the Bundesliga scoring charts with an astonishing 34 goals in 31 games, outscoring 20-year-old Erling Haaland and 24-year-old Timo Werner.

Elsewhere in Europe, his fellow 30-something goal-getters were also proving age is just a state of mind. Vardy won the Premier League Golden Boot, beating 31-year-old Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang by a single goal. The 30-year-old Ciro Immobile scored 36 goals in 37 games in Serie A, with the age-defying Ronaldo netting 31 times. No surprise his long-time GOAT nemesis Lionel Messi (33 years old) won the Pichichi, with Benzema close behind. There was one anomaly in terms of age, certainly not in terms of ability. The spritely heir to the GOAT throne, 21-year-old World Cup winner Kylian Mbappe, outgunned the competition in Ligue 1 to claim the leading scorer title.

Players like Vardy have an epiphany as the end creeps closer. To stave off retirement they transform their lifestyle and squeeze every marginal gain out of their body. They’re smashing the egg timer and using the sands of time as a garnish for their avocado and rye bread.

Vardy has a vegetable patch and cryo-chamber. Lewandowski employs a sleep coach and drinks beetroot juice. Ronaldo wears speed-boosting rugby studs. But it applies at all levels. Jamie Cureton, veteran of more than a 1,000 senior games and 300-plus goals, likes to slip into a pair of tights.

“I was fitter the older I got because I looked after myself,” says the 45-year-old, who is still banging them in at semi-professional level.

“It comes down to knowing your body and understanding the sacrifices you have to make. As I got older I changed my diet and stopped drinking. I knew if I had a heavy drinking session it would take me two-three days to get over it, whereas when I was younger, I could go out and get up the next day and be fine.

“I knew I didn’t have to play every minute of every game and I’d give myself longer to rest if I needed it. As soon as a game finished it was rest, recovery tights, ice and plenty of fluids.”

As for Zlatan, well, he’s just a physical marvel. When he joined Manchester United in 2016, aged 34, he broke the club’s record for power output during his medical. Two years later he joined five-time MLS winners LA Galaxy, before rejoining AC Milan this year and firing them up Serie A table with 10 goals in 18 games. “Just watching the Milan highlights. What a player Zlatan still is. 38 years old,” tweeted Mbappe.

His performances are even more impressive when you consider he suffered a career-threatening injury in 2017. Knee ligament damage was meant to keep him out for nine months or even end his playing days, but the black belt in taekwondo returned to action in seven months. Surgeons at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine were so impressed by his physical condition they wanted to complete further tests.

“If there is a project which stimulates me, I could play at the same level until I’m 50 years old,” claimed Sweden’s all-time leading scorer.

Could the secret to his longevity lie in his DNA? “There’s growing evidence to support the theory,” explains Gimpel. “Around 2006 I put Southampton into a research study at the University of Nottingham, looking at DNA and saliva.

“We were studying collagen markers and whether their presence correlated to injury status.

“Collagen is a protein that underpins your tendons and ligaments, so, in theory if you’re got poor collagen, logic says you’re going to be at greater risk of injury. If you’ve got good collagen, you’re going to be more robust and able to heal faster.

“This is a little controversial, but I believe there’s something in that.”

God-given genetics, steering clear of injuries and diligent maintenance will give a player the physical capabilities to run around the pitch, but scoring goals, the most coveted and difficult skill in the game, requires a reptilian-like brain. An ability to adapt and evolve.

Veteran strikers playing across different eras, for different managers, in different systems, have to find ways to survive.

Having the strength of character to retire from international football and the demanding schedule has helped the likes of Vardy maintain a frightening intensity at club level.

There have been tactical trends in the game, pressing for instance, that forces errors high up the pitch, leading to an increased volume of goalscoring opportunities.

A brain that can process the game like a chess master reading a board will outsmart younger, physically superior defenders and save the legs from any unnecessary running.

“As I got older I felt like I could have played higher because I understood the game better than ever,” says Cureton, who won the 2014/15 Dagenham & Redbridge Player of the Year after scoring 20 goals at age 39.

“I started to realise you don’t have to run loads of channels all the time. I learned to read the build-up play, when to make a run and where the ball would drop.

“I was able to stay a step ahead because my brain was sharper. I’d hold positions and conserve my energy for the key moments.”

Data shows there’s a clear loss of physical performance in players over 30 years compared to younger footballers.

After analysing 10,739 players from La Liga during the 2017–2018 season, researchers discovered that the total distance covered, high-intensity efforts or sprints and the maximum speed reached by players over 30 decreased significantly. This evolution of performance has also been identified in the Bundesliga.

However, the technical performance appears to improve in senior players. The percentage of successful passes was 3–5% higher in players over 30 compared to players between 16 and 29 years old. But, none of this is possible, without characteristics that can’t be perfected on the training ground or put in a protein shake. Desire. Work ethic. And the unhealthy obsession of an addict chasing the sweet ecstasy of that very first high.

“My hunger to play has become greater the older I’ve got,” says Cureton. “I understand I’m coming to the end and I don’t want that to happen.

“It’s the same for the players you’ve mentioned [Zlatan and co] — they’re not in it for the money, they’ve had successful careers. They have an incredible desire to keep playing and putting themselves through the rigours of training and matches.

“It’s easier for strikers to keep going than it is for defenders because we have the enjoyment of scoring goals. You don’t want to be 40 years old and still heading balls and getting smashed.

“As a striker you never want that feeling of scoring to end. You’re always chasing it. It’s why I’m still playing non-league. Every goal at this stage of my career could be my last.”

Football writer specialising in sports science and performance. His work has appeared in FourFourTwo, Men's Health and The Independent https://www.benwelch.org/

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