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HomeSportsThe Unfortunate News No Footballer Wants to Hear: His Legs Have Gone

The Unfortunate News No Footballer Wants to Hear: His Legs Have Gone

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Last season, it was a Brazilian midfielder at Liverpool. This season, it’s been his international team-mate at Manchester United.“I think Casemiro’s legs have gone,” Jamie Carragher told the Covering Liverpool podcast in October. “I noticed it last season at Anfield and I didn’t like what I saw. It took me back to watching Fabinho last year for Liverpool. I want to be the first to say it (about Casemiro). I don’t want to say it when everyone else is saying his legs have gone.”Regardless of who said what and when, Carragher — who played for Liverpool until he retired at age 35 — is not a lone voice in this debate, and Fabinho and Casemiro are far from the only players singled out for seemingly having lead in their boots.Any footballer over the age of 30 who is struggling for form leaves themselves open to that type of criticism, but in particular if they are now coming off second best in the sort of duels they used to win and playing in a way that makes it look like the game is now a split-second too quick for them.Casemiro, who turns 32 on Friday, was at risk of straying into that territory against Luton Town yesterday. “A serial offender who kept fouling time and time again”, was the way former England midfielder Jamie Redknapp, a pundit on UK broadcaster Sky Sports’ coverage of the match, summarised his display.Withdrawn at half-time, and fortunate in the eyes of many to have avoided a second yellow card, Casemiro is collecting bookings at quite a rate, even by his standards. He has now been cautioned in eight of his last 11 matches for club and country, and four out of five since returning from almost three months out with a hamstring injury in January. Casemiro looked off the pace at Luton (Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)What is clear is that the spotlight can be unforgiving for older players and, at times, unfair.Gareth McAuley, who was still playing centre-back in the Premier League at the age of 37, viewed the “legs have gone” comment as an “easy shot” when it was directed at him at West Bromwich Albion, especially given how hard he was working to keep in shape and that it was not backed up by the data he was privy to at his club.“I was thinking, ‘I’m doing more than people who are 10 years younger’,” the 80-cap Northern Ireland international McAuley tells The Athletic. “You think, ‘Do you know what? Show some respect’. But it’s getting even younger now: boys at 28 and 29 are being described as ‘done’.”Not every player has reason to feel hard done by in this situation — in some cases, they are in denial.One former international midfielder, not long retired from playing, was viewed by his coach as ‘undroppable’ because of his status. But others at the club felt the player had become a liability as he could no longer track runners and move fast enough.Some are honest enough to hold their hands up and accept that time has caught up with them – a reality that can creep up on players during a season or, in the case of Gary Neville, be revealed in one brutal moment.At West Brom on New Year’s Day in 2011, a 35-year-old Neville made his first start for Manchester United in two months. He describes in his autobiography how he made West Brom winger Jerome Thomas look like Cristiano Ronaldo during a deeply uncomfortable 71-minute performance in which he was lucky to avoid a red card.Neville recalled how Mike Phelan, United’s assistant manager at the time, wandered across for a word when the ball rolled out of play close to the dugouts.“You’re f***ed, aren’t you?” Phelan said.Neville nodded.Thomas, who made more than 150 appearances in the Premier League with four different clubs, remembers that game well, and also the comments Neville made later.“I guess that was how Gary rationalised it because he was on his way out and he didn’t feel he was at his best,” Thomas says. “I don’t want this to come across the wrong way, because Gary Neville is a legend, but what he doesn’t realise is he wasn’t the only person I was doing that to. As a left-winger, I would go into every game with the goal to either get the right-back sent off or subbed.” Jerome Thomas made Gary Neville realise his career was over (Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)Neville would have been dismissed on another day. Instead, he was subbed. The following morning, he told United manager Sir Alex Ferguson that he was retiring. He never played for them again.Sol Campbell, Neville’s former England team-mate, had a different experience before bringing the curtain down on his career.“My legs never went. It was just you needed the right rest period,” Campbell, whose last match was as a 36-year-old for Newcastle United in the 2010-11 Premier League, tells The Athletic. “Once I went back to Arsenal (for a second spell midway through 2009-10), I was 35 and my numbers weren’t there, but getting back to good training helped me compete with the guys. It’s difficult, though, as you get older with the recovery. It’s hard on the body.“If you play one game a week it’s great, but sometimes it’s four games in 10 days and that’s when you start to feel it. If you have a sympathetic manager who understands that you’re not 21 anymore, then it’s OK. So, for me, it’s not about ‘Legs gone’, it’s about recovery.”His legs have gone.“Sport, never mind football, is full of throwaway phrases like that,” says Chris Barnes, an experienced sports scientist who has worked for several professional clubs, starting with Middlesbrough in 1998.“Wearing the sports scientist’s hat, one of the big challenges we have in football is getting away from focusing on averages and norms and looking at players as individuals. The reality is that phrase is appropriate (for some players) and in others, maybe not so.“If you track a player’s journey from a physical perspective, it’s pretty widely accepted that they peak around about 26 to 28. What that means can be interpreted in a number of ways – peak is different for different players in terms of how fast they can run, their ability to do repeated high-intensity activities and so on.”GO DEEPERWhat age do players in different positions peak?Although the data never lies, it is important to not get carried away with who runs the furthest, which is to take nothing away from the evergreen James Milner, who topped the charts at the age of 37 last season. 11.2km – Which players covered the most distance (in kilometres) per 90 minutes in the Premier League in 2022-23 (min. 900 minutes)? 11.2km – James Milner11.2km – Brenden Aaronson11.0km – Ryan Christie11.0km – Christian Eriksen11.0km – Roberto Firmino Ageless. pic.twitter.com/FQDvKn9GPT — OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) May 30, 2023“Total distance is full of noise,” Barnes adds. “The Blackburn winger (Morten Gamst) Pedersen always had the highest total distance of any game, but you must look at what is effective work and what isn’t.“(Centre-back) Robert Huth, who was at Middlesbrough, would always come and look at how little work he’d done, because he felt his best games were performed when he made good decisions and was positionally correct and therefore the amount of work he needed to do was less. So it’s not really a ‘More is better’ situation. Football isn’t a maximal sport. It’s what typifies, if you like, the DNA, the characteristics, of a player’s game.”How players engage with their physical data is interesting. Some bury their head in the sand or — and this was witnessed first-hand with a Premier League centre-back during a fly-on-the-wall pre-season piece a few years back — even challenge the figures. Others go actively looking for their data, to use it as a yardstick to not just inform how hard they need to work in training, but also to ensure that the manager doesn’t have an excuse to leave them out.“The high-speed running and things like that, you get your data and they (the sports scientists) know exactly what you need to be hitting,” McAuley explains. “But in certain sessions as a defender, you won’t get what you need. So I could say, ‘OK, I need another 200 metres of high-speed running’, so I would go and run box-to-box to…

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