As a self-confessed Rocky Balboa advocate, Jurgen Klopp will surely be aware of – and in agreement with – the gut-punching message.
“Time takes everybody out,” says Sylvester Stallone’s fabled character when explaining, years later, how he managed to beat the seemingly invincible Apollo Creed. “It’s undefeated.”
The sentiment is universal, whether applied to a fictional boxing saga or somewhat more real events on a football pitch. And in terms of an ambitious, leading European team such as Liverpool, keeping an eye on the average age of a squad is an ongoing task, both to maximise playing potential and possible resale values.
It’s not an exact science. Some players, often due to burnout from having made the grade early in their careers, peak before others. Think Michael Owen, for example. Others can reinvent themselves into one or more different roles to prolong their playing days, James Milner a case in point.
Overall, though, ensuring a team doesn’t grow old together – an occasional pitfall of even the most successful manager – is essential. And Klopp is acutely aware the core of the squad that has helped Liverpool sweep all before them over the last three years is edging nearer the end than the beginning.
The average age of the Liverpool team that started the Champions League final against Real Madrid was 28.41. Out of interest, the average age of the Real team was 29.2.
In the 2-0 home win over Crystal Palace on the final game of the 2020/21 season that ensured Champions League qualification, the average of the Liverpool XI was 27.17. For the 5-3 thumping of Chelsea in 2019/20 on the night the Reds lifted the Premier League trophy to a near-deserted Anfield, it was 26.84.
The Champions League final win over Tottenham Hotspur in 2019 saw a Liverpool team with an average age of 26.65 take to the field, while the previous year against Real Madrid it was 26.47 (the figure for the Spaniards that evening was 29.3).
The pattern is clear, the average age creeping ever higher. That, though, is almost certain to change with more younger talent being given opportunities in the new campaign, aided by the decision to allow five substitutions in Premier League matches.
And Liverpool have been keen to bolster their squad with such signings. Darwin Nunez will be 23 when, as is expected, he begins his Anfield career on July 1, with fellow summer signing Fabio Carvalho aged 19. Ibrahima Konate was 22 when signed last year, Kaide Gordon just 16 and, earlier in the campaign, Diogo Jota 23.
Under Klopp, Liverpool have only signed three players over the age of 26 who have gone on to feature in a significant number of games. Ragnar Klavan, who was 30, was bought specifically to provide experienced back-up at centre-back, with Adrian, aged 32, likewise in goal. The other is Thiago Alcantara, 29 years old when snapped up from Bayern Munich in September 2020.
If this year has seen the ageing forward line being addressed – required given Mohamed Salah will this week join Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane in turning 30 – next summer, if not earlier, will be the turn of the midfield.
And the incoming Nunez is proof Liverpool know there’s one adversary they need not bother taking on. The clock, as ever, is ticking.