This week TheTelegraph reported that the England squad had not lived up to Roy Keane's expectations in the World Cup this Summer and that Keane believed England's young players were overrated. The article is one in a long line that has considered the young English footballers that travelled to Brazil. Similiar references to England's fledging talent have been reported recently by Sky Sports here and here and by FIFA here.
While the ability of England's footballers is a matter of opinion, their ages are not up for question. The current England squad may have notable young individuals that stole the media attention but, taken as a whole, the squad is not disproportionately young.
England had a younger squad on average in the 2006 World Cup (Mean 25, SD 4.22) than the 2014 squad (Mean 26, SD 4.79). They were marginally older on average in 2002 (Mean 26.5, SD 5.44) and had the same average age for the 1986 World Cup (Mean 26, SD 3.14). The average age of the 181 players that have travelled to World Cups for England since 1982 has been 27.
While the current crop of English talent, at an average age of 26, do come in on the lower end of the age spectrum when compared to other nations in Brazil, the age composition of Roy Hodgson's squad this Summer followed similar models to the 1998, 2002 and 2006 cohorts. In short, this involved blending youth (<24) and experience (>30). The age structure of Hodgson's squad for Brazil was not particularly rare. For instance, in 2002 nine players were under 24 (see table below) but David Seaman, Martin Keown, Nigel Martyn, Gareth Southgate, Teddy Sheringham and David James were all over 30.
Perhaps I am wrong and my memory is a little hazy but I can't recall the 2002 squad receiving attention for its youth...
Is it the case that the 'youth argument' is being used as a crutch to rationalise England's worst performance in a World Cup since 1950? Perhaps it is not a question of youth but of the quality or experience of the youth relative to other countries or previous World Cups that is the bigger issue? Both sets of youth in 2002 and 2014 did however have the same levels of experience, with an average of 11 caps each for the footballers under 24. Michael Owen even brings up this average for the 2002 team as he had 35 caps travelling to Korea and Japan!
Maybe one could disagree with Roy Keane and make the case that the youth in the current squad is just as good as it ever was and that the declining quality of England's senior players is the root cause of their poor performance in Brazil? As a corollary, maybe declining senior players pushed too much pressure on the under 24 cohort or lack the experience themselves as some came to the international stage late?
While lots of the questions posed above are debatable, two points are clear - 1. The current England squad is not disproportionately young relative to their previous World Cup squads and 2. This is not the first time England had a squad with a youth focussed age composition at a World Cup.