An ever-increasing age gap

With a footballer's lifespan starting earlier and ending later, it will be interesting to see what player qualities clubs will value more

Rob Palmer
ROB PALMER

The oddest thing is happening in top-flight football: the players are getting younger; but also getting older at the same time.

As I prepare my weekly commentary notes, it is becoming increasingly clear that there is a growing disparity between the young 'uns and the oldies.

At one end of the scale, we have Gavi, who played for Barcelona just 24 days after his 17th birthday; at the other, there's Joaquín Sánchez, who will celebrate his 41st birthday in the summer.

It's proving to be that if you are old enough, you are good enough. But then again, experience is difficult to beat.

FC Barcelona was forced to fast-track a number of players from the academy this season just to make up matchday numbers. They've fielded seven players aged 18 or under this season as a necessity. The upside is the emergence of Gavi who became a regular well before his 18th birthday. This followed last season's emergence and development of Pedri and Ansu Fati, who are already Spain internationals as teens.

Twenty-one players aged 18 or younger have played in La Liga this season.

Real Madrid's success has been reliant on players at the other end of their careers. Carlo Ancelotti has leant heavily on his thirty-somethings. Thibaut Courtois, Nacho, Dani Carvajal, Lucas Vázquez, Casemiro, Luka Modrić, and Toni Kroos have been the backbone of the side - while Karim Benzema is arguably the best player in the world this season at the ripe age of 34.

In recent weeks, several oldies have been grabbing the headlines. The granddaddy of them all is Joaquín who was instrumental in Real Betis's Copa del Rey success. Backing him up was 39-year-old goalkeeper Claudio Bravo who won the battle to become the club's number one this season.

Two of the relegation-threatened sides are leaning on their veteran strikers. Forty-something Jorge Molina weighed in with an important double for Granada in their crucial win against Mallorca. While Levante are desperate to get former Spain international Roberto Soldado on the field as he's scored two goals in his last three starts. He's hoping to celebrate his 37th birthday at the end of the month in conjunction with a staying-up party.

Let's not forget Dani Alves, who was the forgotten man until Xavi invited his former teammate to show the Barcelona babes the ropes at the Camp Nou. The Brazilian is now 39.

It's a dilemma for clubs when offering veteran players new deals. They would look at a player approaching his 30th birthday and wonder what they would be getting in three years' time if they offered a lucrative contract.

In Spain, Benzema is proving age is just a number as he follows Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo by continuing to deliver well beyond the previously recognised sell-by date.

Never before has there been such a spread of ages.