Generation gap proving tricky to solve for big teams

The Rio Report

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Three of Europe’s football giants flopped in Brazil as they were faced with the challenge of transition from ageing squads to new blood – but two other nations could be in even more trouble.

Reigning champions Spain continued with their superstars, Italy tried to feed in new talent and England opted for a focus on youth but all went out in the group stages.

Spain were the most experienced side of all in Brazil, with 1,375 caps - 243 more than next placed Uruguay. Goalkeeper Iker Casillas had most of all with 153.

Their average age was 28 years and 87 days, the eighth oldest, and their downfall was blamed on an ageing midfield of Andres Iniesta (30), Xabi Alonso (32) and Xavi Hernandez (34). Casillas and striker David Villa are also into their 30s.

The domestic league run-in, which involved 14 squad players, did not help with freshness and they lacked pace in Brazil - but Alonso also revealed the problems were not only physical.

“The hardest thing was what we have already done, which is win three competitions in four years,” he admitted. “Mentally we weren't ready. We've not been able to keep the same levels of ambition and hunger.”

Italy’s squad was 11th oldest, with goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon and playmaker Andrea Pirlo having a combined age of over 70 and Andrea Barzagli, Giorgio Chiellini, Riccardo Montolivo and De Rossi all approaching or over 30.

Before the last World Cup in South Africa, they were accused of relying too heavily on their 2006 champions, and after being dumped out in the group stages they tried to turn to a new generation.

They fielded 40 players in the qualifiers, but an unproductive youth system has made it hard to find the talent.

England, meanwhile, combined Frank Lampard (35) and Steven Gerrard (34) with Under-21 talents Luke Shaw, Ross Barkley, Raheem Sterling and Alex-Oxlade Chamberlain.

Their squad was the ninth youngest of 32, but was perhaps too extreme as they were punished by small mistakes typical of players either limited in experience or entering their twilight.

When faced with an ageing generation, particularly one that has had success, it is tempting to live off former glories but as players get older, physiological challenges cause them to lose the edge.

The heart rate and volume reduces so there is less blood to transport oxygen and nutrients to the muscles; V02 max, the ultimate measure of performance, declines; mental reactions slow; and fast twitch muscles used in sprinting deteriorate earlier and quicker than slow twitch endurance muscles.

The physical peak in most sports is between 25 and 35 and it requires careful training to push to those upper limits.

But when an entire team starts to age, the physical losses are only part of the issue. The understanding and the balance of complimentary skills begins to falter, and can often lead to catastrophic collapse. It happens all across the world of sport.

The dominant West Indies cricket side of the 1980s was blessed with strong batters and pace bowlers who consistently clocked 150km/h but when all the star players, including Clive Lloyd, Malcom Marshall, Michael Holding and Sir Viv Richards, retired at once there was nobody to carry the mantle and the nation has never recovered.

In contrast, Australia’s dominant late 1990s side maintained its success for decades as Ricky Ponting, the Waugh Brothers, Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath led the way and helped feed in youth as it came along. When all the key players retired in 2008, it could have been a disaster but Ponting stayed on to play in the next generation.

In rugby, one of the biggest generation change disasters came after England won the World Cup in 2003. Captain Martin Johnson and coach Clive Woodward departed, leaving the side devoid of leadership and a poor feeder system left them with no next generation.

The secret is in developing a strong youth system to continuously feed in new talent.

Germany did just that after finishing bottom of their group at Euro 2000, and they are now reaping the rewards with the third wave of rising stars well settled in Joachim Low’s side.

It’s an approach that Sir Alex Ferguson also successfully used at Manchester United. “When I arrived, only one player on the first team was under 24,” he told a research team at Harvard Business School. “I wanted to build from the bottom to create fluency and a continuity of supply to the first team.”

And that is why perhaps the strongest future potential of the three European flops is with Spain. The Under-21s won the European Championship this year having already taken two consecutive Under-19 titles.

Xavi, Villa, Alonso and Casillas are all likely to go but players like Jese, Alvaro Morata, Gerard Deulofeu, Isco and Daniel Carvajal are ready to become the stars of the next generation, with current manager Vincente del Bosque backed to build it.

England also have promising youngsters and thanks to Brazil they now have major tournament experience. Keeping Roy Hodgson on will be vital continuity, but there is now a genuine opportunity.

Italy, meanwhile, face an implosion through lack of leadership equivalent to post-2003 England rugby. Manager Cesare Prandelli has resigned, captain Buffon and playmaker Pirlo are likely to follow and there are only limited glimmers of hope in the youth structure.

But the most interesting future generation challenges involves the two South American sides that reached the semi-finals.

Brazil have young stars like Bernard (21), Neymar (22) and Oscar (22) but eight who are 30 or older. Argentina have the oldest squad in the tournament, with Marcos Rojo (24) the youngest squad player.

Both clearly had a focus on victory on South American soil - but what happens after this tournament could be a worrying question.

- Will Gray

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