Relative Age Effect: Patience pays off for Tottenham’s “young-but-not-that-young” outliers

androsryan2

Insert a “slow cookin'” pun here… From tottenhamhotspur.com via Google Images.

Please follow me on Twitter. My handle is @spurs_report. It will be fun, I promise.

One of the more tedious parts of following football in the age of social media is clubs wishing their players “Happy Birthday”, an activity that has ticked up significantly post Yaya Toure and the birthday cake incident.

But over the summer, I was surprised by how many Spurs players were celebrating their birthdays, in particular our homegrown players.

I have an August birthday, so I’ve long taken an interest in what is called the “relative age effect”, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers. Relative age effect is a bias against people born at certain times in the year when set against certain selection points, the most common of which in the UK is the standard school year running from September 1.*

Born in August, you could be almost a whole year younger than the people you are competing against for spots in football or rugby teams, which is obviously a huge disadvantage in terms physical and mental development. As Gladwell asserts in his book, people born earlier in the selection period (he studied NHL players) had a head start in terms of them making it as a pro. The numbers of pros born earlier in the selection period outweighed those born later. He concluded that those born earlier in the selection period were likely to be seen as relatively better than those born at the end, even if they were just developing at the exact same rate. This played out in giving them access to better coaching, more competitive teams, increased training time, and so forth, which then accelerates their talent.

Relative Age Effect is now something considered in football youth development circles, as this 2011 article in The Guardian illustrates. Interestingly, this piece quoted John McDermott, head of youth development at Spurs:

“At Tottenham we’ve introduced strategies to try and combat the bias [which include] putting the seven-, eight-, nine- and 10-year-olds together, therefore a player moves up to the older group on his birthday. In that way he experiences being the youngest and eldest as the year progresses.”

“Tom Carroll, an outstanding prospect, trains regularly with our first team and is on loan at Leyton Orient [but] he couldn’t cope physically in matches with his own age group as he was a late developer and [had a] summer birthday. But he had outstanding perception, technique and aerobic capacity.”

“Of the [many] boys out on loan recently, Ryan Mason [Doncaster Rovers], Harry Kane and Carroll [Orient], Nathan Byrne [Brentford], Danny Rose [Bristol City], Jake Nicholson [MyPa], Kyle Walker [Aston Villa], and Andros Townsend [Millwall] are all summer babies.”

Four years on, it is clear that this strategy has paid dividends just from the names mentioned by McDermott.**

From the current Spurs senior squad, here is a list of players of various homegrown classifications — those you’d say either came through the academy or were developed at the club before going into the first-team. I’ve also listed their birth dates.

Kyle Walker: 28 May 1990
Danny Rose: 02 July 1990
Andros Townsend: 16 July 1991
Ryan Mason: 13 June 1991
Nabil Bentaleb: 24 November 1994
Tommy Carroll: 28 May 1992
Alex Pritchard: 03 May 1993
Harry Kane: 28 July 1993

It is quite a striking list. The outlier is Nabil Bentaleb, born in November, solidly in the first half of the selection period — France is on the same cycle as Britain. Of the others, four — Kane, Mason, Townsend and Rose — are in the final quarter of the selection period. Walker, Carroll and Pritchard are solidly in the second half.

Why is this so striking? Well, typically one would expect it to be the other way round — with one outlier born towards the end of the selection period, with most of the others born relatively earlier.

Looking through the dates of birth of Spurs current academy prospects, a more typical profile emerges.***

Of the development squad, nine out of 21 were born in second-half of the selection period. Three of those (Will Miller, Shayon Harrison and Dominic Ball) were born in the final quarter.

Out of the academy squads, five out of 26 were born in the second-half of the selection period. Just one — Joy Mukena — was in the final quarter of the selection period.

(The next closest is Samuel Shashoua, born 13 May, 1999, and I was tickled to read that he is from Chelsea and attended Harrow School — spiffy! I hope his career continues to develop and he brings a touch of the debonair to the Spurs midfield for years to come)

This got me wondering about how the other academies or crops of quality young players stack up. So I’ve spent a while Googling.

I will look at five teams, using information from club websites: Chelsea (the strongest youth teams for years), Man United (their website is really easy to analyze), Arsenal (for it is them), West Ham (once the power in youth development in London) and Southampton (everyone’s favourite feeder club).

Fom this data, you can see relative age effect playing out at the academy/development squad levels. If there was no bias, you’d expect the percentage of academy prospects born in second half of the year to hover about 50%. No club is close to that — Southampton are the only club to hit 30%. Likewise, without bias you’d expect about 25% of the prospects to be born from June to August. But no, Man Utd are highest at 15.4%, no-one else is above 10%.

While a small sample — just current squads at five clubs — my guess is you’ll see similar patterns emerge through other clubs and in previous years. Relative Age Effect is nothing new. My point is that, for Spurs to have 7 out of 8 of their current homegrown first-teamers be born in the second half of the year appears to be really rather unusual.****

Relative Age Effect doesn’t mean that, if you are born in August you are screwed. It just means you either have to have marginally more talent or develop relatively earlier in order to receive the same benefits of someone from earlier in the selection period. Someone like Gareth Bale no doubt transcended the bias due to his freakish natural athleticism. But this problem goes a long way back — Roy Keane was rejected by Brighton for being “too small”, while Alan Shearer famously was rejected by Newcastle as a youngster. They are both August birthdays.

What most of the Spurs young guns also have in common is the “young-but-not-that-young” tag — they are late bloomers by the standards of the English game. The likes of Mason, Pritchard, Townsend and Kane have all “done their time” in lower leagues before getting their chances at Spurs in their early 20s. They weren’t bursting onto the scene like West Ham’s Reece Oxford at the age of 16. Their talent has taken longer to develop.

I suspect that the age bias in the system may have had something to do with it. Spurs’ outliers were talented enough to survive the ruthless culls on their way up through the academy ranks, but they’ve had also to weather years as fringe prospects far from guaranteed contract extensions and chances of a first-team place.

Patience is such a rare commodity in football, but Spurs have a very tangible demonstration of its value. If the club is wondering whether or not a player is going to “make the grade” or whether he has reached the limit of his potential, the examples of our “young-but-not-that-young” outliers is instructive.

Ryan Mason by any measure should have been discarded by Spurs aged 23, but more by luck than judgement they stuck with him and he has turned out to be a useful player who I suspect will be a good first-team squad man for years to come. Likewise, the club was seemingly unsure whether to cash in on Andros Townsend this summer, or give him another year to progress into a genuinely useful Premier League winger, rather than the occasional talent he is now. He may have had enough chances by now, but maybe not.

It seems, based merely on the current youth intakes, that Spurs may have slipped back into the pack in terms of ratio of youngsters born outside peak points in the selection period. Not many summer babies, at least at the moment. However, I am sure John McDermott is continuing to keep an eye out for those like Tommy Carroll who’s struggle was primarily physicality, not footballing ability.

By far the biggest difference maker in elite sport is not when you are born, but how talented you are. But there will always be marginal talents, the Townsends and the Masons, who both struggle to convince but continue to intrigue. Spurs have some pretty clear examples of how giving them a little extra time may be beneficial.

Either way, it all makes me think that Spurs’ current crop of homegrown youngsters — a hugely likeable group of footballers it must be said — are more likely outliers than a new dawn in talent identification and development.

Big conclusion? We should enjoy them all the more for it.

Please follow me on Twitter. My handle is @crg_yeah. It will be fun, I promise.

Notes

* Sept. 1 is the selection point for the purposes of this article, I believe the school system is the most relevant thing here, even though I believe different selection points are in place for some youth football. Also, some late August kids get to move into the year below, to great potential advantage.

** Nathan Byrne moved from Swindon to Wolves this summer for a seven-figure fee — so he is heading back up the ladder.

*** I started this article in mid-August, so one or two names may have left the academy lists since then. I’ve removed Aaron Lennon but first team stats for other teams may have changed.

**** Interestingly, the Southampton “diaspora” of talent that has long since left the South Coast is rather similar to Spurs. Here are their birth dates:

Gareth Bale: July 16
Theo Walcott: March 16
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain: August 15
Adam Lallana: May 10
Luke Shaw: July 12
Callum Chambers: January 20

Callum Chambers is the exception — everyone else is from the second half of the selection period, with Bale, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Shaw all in the final quarter.

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