Wayne Rooney’s performance this season has been broadly discussed. Has the Liverpudlian past his prime peak? Is he going to be a competitive player after turning 30?
I can’t answer any of these questions, but I’ve found a few old footballers who were over 30 when they had their best performances in the 5 major European leagues (Premier League, La Liga, 1.Bundesliga, Serie A, Ligue 1) . This might give good old Rooney some hope.
Ibrahimovic arrived to Juventus from Ajax when he was 23-24 years old. Since then, the number of goals he scored for every 90 min tended to increase, with some drops in specific seasons.
He had one of the sweetest moments of his career playing for Inter Milan. When he was 27 he scored 0.78 goals per 90 minutes, his best ratio until then, and one year later he became Serie A’s Capocannoniere (top scorer) for the first time.
The following years Ibrahimovic started moving from one team to another and his performance declined but, after turning 30, he achieved the best results of his career.
When he was 31 he won Serie A’s Golden Boot for the second time, this time playing for AC Milan, and the 2 following years he also became Ligue 1’s top scorer as part of Paris Saint-Germain’s squad.
When he was 32 he reached the highest number of goals per 90 minutes of his whole career, a whooping 0.91.
This season he will turn 35 and in his first 7 games with PSG he scored 7 goals. Is he going to achieve the best performance of his career in his mid-30s? We’ll see.
Antonio di Natale
Antonio di Natale is a very interesting example because he was a below-average player for most of his 20s but had some amazing seasons when he was over 30.
He started playing in Serie A when he was 25-26, after the promotion of his FC Empoli from Serie B. This first season in Italy’s top competition was pretty good, scoring 0.6 goals per 90 minutes, a little bit over the average of top goalscorers.
When he was 27-28 he signed with Udinese Calcio, but his performance in the first few years was quite mediocre. His golden age, the best years of his career, started when he was 31-32 years old. He reached 0.87 goals for every 90 minutes played, and became Serie A’s Top scorer two years in a row, when he was 33 and 34.
In the years after his peak, his performance started to decline slowly, but he still scored more goals than most footballers his age and he was a key part of Udinese Calcio.
Luca Toni’s career is worth mentioning. Like most goalscorers, he reached his best performance in his late 20s, and started declining since then. What makes this player special is that when he was heading for retirement, he rose like a Phoenix and became Serie A’s Capocannoniere (top scorer) when he was 38 years old.
Toni’s best years took place when he was playing for AC Fiorentina and scored 0.86 goals for every 90 minutes. He was 29 years old at the time. After that, he had a couple of good seasons at Bayern Munich and declined dramatically playing for Juventus. There was a year when he didn’t even play a single minute!
He signed with Hellas Verona aged 36-37 and had his second golden age playing for them. This season he will turn 39 still playing in Serie A, one of the most competitive leagues in the world.
Ruud Van Nistelrooy
Van Nistelrooy is the typical player that had a few good years in his early thirties and then declined. He started his career playing in Eredivisie and moved to the Premier League when he was 25-26 to became of Manchester United’s most dangerous strikers. The year of his arrival he scored 0.81 goals per every 90 minutes and the year after he became Premier League’s top scorer.
His performance got worse in the two following years, until, when he was 29-30 years old, he signed with Real Madrid and had a couple of great years playing in La Liga. When he was 31 he won the Pichichi Trophy, an award given to La Liga’s top scorer.
In his last 2 years playing for Real Madrid he suffered a series of injuries that kept him away from the pitch, so he didn’t play much. Nevertheless, looking to the graph it look like he improved a lot, that’s because he scored several goals in the few minutes he had, but it’s not enough to talk about a trend.
He spent the last years of his career playing for Hamburger SV and Malaga, with poor success.
Meier’s story is still to be written. Like Antonio Di Natale, he was a below-average player during his 20, but he started to stand out when he got closer to his 30s. Last season he scored 0.77 goals for every 90 minutes played and he became Bundesliga’s top scorer. Is this going to be a trend? We don’t know yet, but it is worth to keep an eye on him.
Another Italian! One day I’ll need to investigate if Italian players get older more gracefully than other nationalities.
Totti is already 39 and he’s still playing for AS Roma, as he has been doing since season 1992/1993. Even earlier if we count AS Roma Primavera, the youth set-up of the Italian team.
His performance tended to improve through time, despite having some bad seasons from time to time. His best years took place when he was between 27 and 34, but he peaked when he was 31. That season he became Serie A’s top scorer.
Totti’s performance declined in his late 30s, but he still had many minutes in Roma’s squad.
A few notes about the methodology
- All the data comes from transfermarkt.co.uk
- I’ve analysed the top 2 goal scorers in each major European league since season 2000/2001
- I started tracking each footballer’s progression when they started playing for one of the 5 major leagues. For example, I haven’t included the years Van Nistelrooy spent in Eredivisie. The reason why I did that it’s because transfermarkt.co.uk doesn’t have data for every single league in the world.
- The number of goals only includes those scored in national leagues
- Age is approximate. I took in consideration the year of birth of the player at the end of each season.
- In the graphs, there’s a peak in 40 year old players, that’s just because of Totti, so it’s not very representative. Not many players are still playing being that old.