Editor's Note: This piece was originally published on Jan. 21 as Liverpool faced a tough decision over their two star forwards, Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane. The story makes the case as to why Salah was so valuable to Liverpool's prospects, and we've republished it Friday in light of Salah signing a new long-term deal with the club.
More and more elite soccer players are performing well beyond age 30, which is the typical point when skills begin to wane and fitness declines. But one player, Liverpool's Mohamed Salah, is subverting that idea all by himself.
Over the past decade, the average Premier League winger usually has a career that looks something like this:
You burst onto the scene sometime in your late teens or early 20s. Maybe you get a couple of spot starts here and there -- some Carabao Cup time -- but most of your minutes come off the bench. When you're on the field, it's all dribbling; you get the ball, put your head down and make the crowd go wild each time you glide by a defender. Fans wonder why you're not playing more; coaches know that you're not really helping the team win by slowing the ball down every time you get it.
Eventually, you figure out how to pick your spots, turning all that individual skill into value. You stop dribbling quite as much and start moving the ball faster, making runs in behind the defense and scoring goals. By your mid-20s, you become an indispensable starter, the kind of player just about every modern team needs: a skillful creator or goal scorer or creator-goal scorer from out wide. You've got the physical range to influence the match away from the crowded middle, and your ability to influence the game from the wing also draws the opposition out and opens up space for your teammates in front of the goal.
At this point, you've achieved a fine balance: Your decision-making and technical skill have improved from a half-decade-plus of playing professional soccer, but you're just as fast as you were when you were 20, and if your club has a strength program worth a damn or you've improved your diet or even if you've followed the right Instagram workouts, you're also a lot stronger, too. But then, all of a sudden, the physical skills begin to decline, and you no longer have the range to influence the game from out wide. You're 30 and you're not starting, or you've left for MLS or China, or you've made the transition to a central role; maybe you've turned into a wingback, a position where your attacking and defending no longer matter as much.
That's just how it goes. Over the past decade in the Premier League, per analysis from The Athletic, wingers averaged right around 4.5 dribbles per 90 minutes from ages 18 through 21, and then that number declined with each year the calendar flipped over. However, as the dribbling drops off, the playing time increases. The most "winger minutes" were played by 26-year-olds, with a good chunk also coming in the three years before and after that peak -- before a sudden drop-off to age 30, and another drop-off to age 31.
In other words, the prime of a winger runs from 23 to 29, and then those players tend to fall off a cliff.
Liverpool, of course, have a superstar winger who, at this moment, might just be the best player in the world. They also have a superstar winger who turns 30 in June. His contract expires about a year after that. With negotiations reportedly underway for a potential new deal, this is the argument the winger and his agent should be making: Mohamed Salah has never been an average player, so why the hell should you expect him to age like one?