Is the stereotype that the SPFL Premiership is a retirement home warranted?

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Written by: Jamie Kilday (@FitbaInScotland)

I’ve never been comfortable with ‘Average Squad Age’ as a thing, so at the start of the season I looked at alternative ways to profile the age of a squad. That article can be found here but for those not wanting to read two articles today here’s a brief summary.

There is a phenomenon that exists in football that players performance can be tracked on an age curve. Players improve until they hit a peak age and then as they get older, they fade away.

Michael Caley did some research into this and found that peak ages vary by position. I’ve extrapolated from this that there is a window either side of their peak age (shown as 7.5+% on the chart below) that can be used to determine when players are theoretically at their best, for the purpose of this article I’ll refer to this as a player’s peak window.

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Of course, it isn’t an exact science and its possible that players can peak in their early years or even find their form later in life but for the most part I’d say these can be classed as outliers.

To best determine how clubs get the most out of their peak age players, I’m looking at total minutes played by players based on that player’s main position and their age at the mid-point of the season.

Firstly, let’s look at minutes played by players at their peak age. Across the league, 8.33% of minutes go to these players. This figure is hardly surprising considering the criteria that needs to be met. Compared to last season in the English Premier League, where 10.27% of minutes went to players of peak age, it is pretty similar.

If we open this out to include all the players who are in their peak window, that figure jumps to 38.64% of minutes in the SPFL Premiership and 59.41% of minutes in the EPL. It is fair to say that Scottish football is behind when it comes to giving minutes to players who are at their peak. But where do the remaining 61.36% of minutes end up?

Living in England I can tell you that coverage of Scottish football is virtually non-existent. The arrival of Steve Davis and Jermain Defoe at Rangers has turned a few heads but these players, albeit talented in their day…are not the same players they were. They are also joining up with another former EPL stalwart, 39-year-old Gareth McCauley.

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With Charlie Adam also putting his name forward for a return to Scotland it isn’t hard to see where a stereotype of being a retirement home comes from, but is it warranted?

In short…maybe…

25.81% of minutes are given to players who are over the peak window for their position which seems high but last season in the EPL 20.04% of minutes went to players who were past best. So overall Scotland perhaps isn’t any more rewarding of opportunities to older players than any other top league.

Although older players make up a significant number of minutes played in the SPFL premiership, opportunities are still limited for players in their twilight years. 4.42% of minutes went to players 5+ years over their peak window which is where Defoe and Davis are. This is almost double the minutes that similar aged players got in the EPL last season but is still minor in the grand scheme of things. For reference it’s the equivalent of one player in every game being 5+ years past their peak.

So which clubs give more minutes to older players?

It may come as a surprise considering their standing in the league but Kilmarnock are the club that have relied on older players the most. A whopping 41.68% of their minutes in fact. As it stands at the moment two peak age players (of only 5 at the club), Greg Stewart and Jordan Jones have either left or are leaving imminently. It will be interesting to see the age profile of their replacements. There isn’t much between the next 3 sides who are; St Mirren (33.86%), Hearts (33.84%) and Aberdeen (33.15%).

Hearts I find particularly interesting, last season they undoubtably gave minutes to younger players and Ann Budge has spoken publicly about how great their youth players are but those minutes were given out of desperation rather than design and the players were arguably too young to be relied on, on a regular basis.

At the opposite end we have Livingston (8.15%) and Motherwell who gave 2.60% of their minutes to players over their peak window…sorry not players…player…Conor Sammon…

Both Motherwell (67.08%) and Livingston (63.67%) actually also gave the most minutes to players in their peak window.

So that leaves us with the ‘Unders’ category. For those that haven’t been keeping track of the percentages (and why would you), these players make up 35.56% of minutes played, which is encouraging. The EPL gave 20.56% minutes to players of a similar age.

Most clubs have to stick to a shoe string budget so reliance on promising youth players is hardly surprising, but the fact that so many clubs rely on young players is something that perhaps isn’t talked about enough.

The club most reliant on youth is also home to one of the league’s oldest players. Dundee have given almost half their minutes to players under their peak age window (47.30%). I wrote at the end of last season that Dundee had one of the youngest squad profiles and they have not changed that.

The issue they now have is that their peak age signings in the summer have all failed to make an impact and two of the younger players who make up a lion’s share of the minutes were Calvin Miller and Glen Kamara. One’s returned to their parent club and other has signed a pre-contract that could become a winter transfer. Jim McIntyre’s first transfer window will be a telling sign as to whether promotion of youth is a club philosophy or a McCann philosophy.

The next two sides are funnily enough, St Mirren (42.03%) and Aberdeen (41.11%) …yes, they were the 2nd and 4th highest sides for minutes given to older players.

Both sides and the aforementioned Kilmarnock have so far given the fewest minutes to players in their peak window. A full breakdown of each club is show in the chart below.

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There is a long list of players who have come to Scotland when they are decidedly past their best before date and for the most part those signings have failed to leave a lasting positive impression. The issue is that such high-profile signing does tend to arrive with a fanfare in line with their pedigree and yet their inevitable failure is never looked back on in a positive light for the league.

If anything, the league has a profile more akin to a development league than a retirement home which can only be a good thing in the long run.

If you are enjoying this piece and the rest of the tactical and statistical analysis we provide for Scottish Football, consider donating to our GoFundMe to purchase comprehensive data so we can continue to break down the stats and tactics behind football in Scotland.