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Squad Analysis: Age balance critical for new squad building approach under Ratcliffe

The new guard have a lot to do, and it starts with a coherent approach to squad building…

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Manchester United v Tottenham Hotspur - Premier League Photo by Matthew Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images

Sir Jim Ratcliffe has wasted no time getting down to business. The Premier League hasn’t yet formally approved INEOS acquisition of a 25 percent stake in Manchester United but that hasn’t stopped him from already appointing Omar Berrada as the club’s new Chief Executive Officer.

The hiring is a statement by Ratcliffe that INEOS is ready to get to work. That’s welcome news to United supporters as they’ve got a big job on their hands.

How big exactly is this job?

It truly is hard to quantify. Manchester United are a complete mess both on and off the pitch. Cleaning up the mess off the pitch will help with the mess on the pitch but make no mistake, both are massive endeavors. For the sake of this piece, we’re keeping our focus on the mess on the pitch, particularly with how this squad has been constructed and how you can go about fixing it.

We’re going to start with making the squad younger.

Manchester United’s squad composition is so bad that it’s almost impressive how they managed to be so incompetent here. Even if you were trying to be this bad, statistically speaking, at some point you’d actually get a decision right. Yet United seemed to have defied the odds by getting so much wrong.

They accomplished this feat by never having a “long-term plan,” that was longer than three years, abandoning said plan after two years, giving the wrong people the power to make decisions, and the biggest reason, front-loading the spending on each of those plans into year one due to a fear of missing out on the Champions League. Every coach has talked about a long-term plan or a rebuild, but when you front-load your spending in their first year - and buy win-now players - there’s nothing long-term about that. It’s always bound to come crashing down quite quickly, only for the club to try and solve this by just throwing more short-term money at it, which only served to dig a deeper hole.

That’s the mess that INEOS now has to fix.

United fans are tired of hearing the term “long-term rebuild” as the club has seemingly been stuck in a long-term rebuild for almost a decade now. When is it actually time to win?

Unfortunately not so soon. The reality is while the club and various managers often spoke about long-term rebuilds, they never actually undertook one. That’s left United now needing a very long-term plan. We’re not talking about a three-year plan vs a five-year plan. We’re talking about needing a two to three-year plan of getting yourself out of the hole you dug only to then start on a three-year plan. To say United’s squad needs to be completely blown up might be a little harsh but what’s one step below that? That’s what they need.

It all starts with age.

United’s squad is old. Sure United has some younger pieces but overall the squad is too old. The average age of United’s squad this season weighted by minutes played is 27. But what does that mean?

Let’s take a look at the average age of each of Europe’s top five leagues since the 2017-18 season, and since we’ll inevitably talk about Erik Ten Hag, I added the Eredivisie in too.

Nothing too surprising on this list. The Bundesliga and Ligue 1 have less money than the rest so they rely on developing younger players then selling them to the bigger clubs and starting the process again. The Eredivisie is even smaller so they’re even younger. Spain lends itself well to older players while Italy used to be a haven for older players but the tax break Italian clubs were allowed over the last four years made it easier to bring in younger players in their primes. Interestingly, the average age of every single league has gone up this season. My theory is these numbers will all come down by the season's end because the second half of the season is when more academy/younger players break into the teams as they’ve (physically) developed more over the last five months and older players are more worn down. That is based on anecdotal information so it’s something we’ll certainly look back on at the end of the season.

What we care about is the Premier League numbers since Manchester United play in the Premier League. The average age of the league over the last seven seasons has hovered between about 26.3 and 26.8. The average age of the title-winning side weighted by minutes played over that time has been 26.47, just a tad younger than the average age of the rest of the league.

It’s safe to say somewhere around that 26.5 mark is the peak age of your squad. That’s when your squad is most primed to win. Once you start getting above that mark, that’s when it’s time to start moving players on and replacing them with younger players.

Sir Alex Ferguson used to say the window for any team was four years, after that the squad needed to be refreshed and these numbers back that up. You need to get young players in who can grow and improve together to lay the foundation. As they improve you can then add some more expensive players who are also entering their primes to take them to the next level. It takes time, that’s why winning three titles in a row is so difficult and rare. Once you establish yourself at the top you can stay there if you know how to rebuild on the fly. Often times teams have their success and then look to “run it back one more time” before moving some key players on, which often is one year too many.

Now let’s look at how Manchester United compares to the rest of the league over the same period.

From 2017 to 2021 United was below the league average. In Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s first full season in charge, they got a lot younger. This was very similar to Jurgen Klopp’s first full season at Liverpool (24.9), Mikel Arteta’s first two (full) seasons at Arsenal (25.7, 24.4), and Mauricio Pochettino’s first season at Spurs (24.2) - a team which peaked four years later with a run to the Champions League final when their average age was, 26.6.

United just completely jumped over the peak age in 2021 and came crashing back down. When Erik Ten Hag arrived last year he lowered the age of the squad but only slightly to 26.6 - the peak age for a squad. That’s what makes comparisons between Klopp, Arteta, and Ten Hag’s first seasons off the mark. The former two had young squads that were building towards something better. Ten Hag had a squad that was built to win right now.

This season, despite shedding 37-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo and giving a lot more minutes to teenagers Alejandro Garnacho, Kobbie Mainoo, and 20-year-old Rasmus Hojlund, United’s squad has still managed to get older. Not only that, they’re paying even more money in wages for this older squad than last year.

C: @SwissRamble

This is the mess INEOS inherits. They have an old squad with sky-high wages that likely will make it difficult to move them on. Even if they succeed in moving some of these players on, they can’t replace them at the same level. United also has record high transfer debts. Their player amortization costs are the highest in the league. Even if they found the next Enzo Fernandes, they can’t afford to add that transfer fee. They need those numbers to go down.

There are FFP considerations here as well (United are big proponents of FFP and want the Premier League to be strict). The big one is UEFA’s new squad cost rule. Going by the SwissRamble’s numbers, United’s Q1 accounts show their spending on wages and transfers is 86.89 percent of their revenue. This season the limit is 90 percent but will go down to 80 percent next year, and finally 70 percent the year after that. If United qualify for a UEFA competition next season, they need to get that number below 80 percent.

The above number does not include the income made from player sales. If we include that figure (£29.5m) the number drops to 73.15 percent. That will be compliant next season but that relies on United continuing to sell players at the same rate they did last summer. That’s not the best position to be in. It also must be factored in that United will earn less matchday and broadcast income over the rest of the campaign due to their elimination from Europe.

All these things have to be factored in when going about planning your squad for next season. United need to pay less in transfer fees, they need to pay less in wages, and they need younger players. That’s going to require not overpaying for players. Walking away from the deal if the price isn’t right and acknowledging you may be letting a good player get away.

Under a previous regime United had identified players between the ages of 23 and 27 were the ones they should be targeting for new signings. Frankly, even that is too high.

The backbone of this squad was built to hit their prime and start competing for titles around 2022. That year has come and gone, and when Ten Hag arrived he added even older players to its core. The window for this team is shut. You now need to move many of these guys on and phase a few others into squad player roles.

The window for this team is shut.

For argument’s sake, Kobbie Mainoo, Alejandro Garnacho, and Rasmus Hojlund are at best two years away from being good enough to contribute to a title-contending team not carry one. By that point Rashford and Lisandro Martinez will be 28, Bruno and Luke Shaw 30, Maguire and Varane 32. The only player in the current squad that will be entering his prime is Antony - so I guess in his prime you can maybe get two goals out of him. That’s far too old.

Therefore, what’s the point in spending big money to sign a 24-year-old when attacking players tend to peak around the age of 26? By the time you’re ready to compete for a title again that 24-year-old is now going to be just past his peak, in need of being moved on again.

For every player the club manages to clear out, their goal should be signing players between the ages of 19-22. Get young players in the door who can grow together, develop over time, and after a few years push the likes of Bruno and Rashford out the door.

Now, this begs the question as to whether Erik Ten Hag would be the right coach to see out this type of long-term strategy. There’s a narrative that Ten Hag fancies youth players but that’s pretty much a myth.

Let’s take a look at the squad age of his Ajax teams and how they compared to the Eredivisie.

Before Ten Hag arrived at Ajax the squad was significantly younger than the rest of the league. Ten Hag inherited the second-youngest team in the league. A team that was loaded with talent and ready to go. He added some experience to the side and they made their run to the Champions League semifinal. When many players left that summer, Ten Hag replaced them with older players. They did get a bit younger the following year only to shoot back up in his final season in Amsterdam. Since he’s left and the squad has had to rebuild again, they’ve once again gotten younger.

Ten Hag doesn’t seem to be the guy to handle a rebuild. Despite having the most talented academy of any United manager in the past decade, he’s given fewer first-team debuts than any manager since David Moyes. It’s hard to see him aligning on a vision that includes gutting the squad and biding your time.

The job INEOS is undertaking is a big big job. While fans are going to want the team to turn around and be better next season, INEOS aren’t looking at that. They’re looking further down the road. I’m sure there will be plenty of articles this time next year judging the job INEOS are doing but the reality is it’s going to take years before we even start to see some growth let alone success.

When FSG took over Liverpool their analysts and recruitment teams weren’t able to just plug in their systems and get to work. First, they had to build the models and build the databases. Only when those things were completed - 2-3 years later - were they able to get started on using them to begin their long-term plan.

A decade after FSG took over, they’d had plenty of success at Liverpool, but all of that success came in the back half of that decade.

We’re likely looking at a similar timeline with INEOS. United’s first-team squad is a mess right now, trying to spend money to fix it will only dig the hole deeper. Go to work on the back end of things. Get your wage bill in order, and get your transfer debts down. Focus on developing the generation that will take over when Rashford’s contract expires in 2028, and have cleaned your books so when that generation is ready, you can spend money to bolster them.