When I launched this website in March, the first weekly blog looked at how Phil Foden and Callum Hudson-Odoi were being used by their respective managers. Without wanting to greatly overplay the significance of this first blog, it is interesting how two players who seemed to be in very similar stages of their career in March have followed rather different paths since. Within days of that blog, Hudson-Odoi had made an impressive debut for the England senior team and looked to have moved ahead of both Pedro and Willian in the pecking order at Chelsea prior to the injury which ended his season prematurely. Now fully fit after that injury, Hudson-Odoi looks be amongst a group of young English players Frank Lampard is building his Chelsea side around, and recorded his 3rd Premier League assist of the season on Saturday against Newcastle United, an impressive feat given he has played just 209 minutes in the league so far this season. Providing he remains fit, it would be a major surprise if Hudson-Odoi did not feature in Gareth Southgate’s next squad.

A call up for Phil Foden by contrast looks no more likely then than it did in March. The conclusion of that first blog was that whilst Foden’s Plus Minus per 90 minutes rating was excellent, this was largely due to the fact that he was not being exposed to pressurised situations, and this season he finds himself in exactly the same position. Saturday saw Foden given 3 minutes off the bench with City leading Crystal Palace by 2 goals, and his only previous Premier League appearance was the final 16 minutes against West Ham United when City were leading by 3 goals. There have been plenty of column inches written about Foden since my first blog, with some arguing that he needs more game time, others stating that Pep Guardiola’s use of the teenager is exactly what he needs right now, with both sides citing the examples of how various other players developed to support their argument. This very much highlights the fact that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to player development, but is there a particular age at which the top players make their breakthrough?

To investigate, this week’s blog has taken a look back through every player to win either the PFA Players’ Player of the Year award or the FWA Player of the Year award during the Premier League era. In each case, the age at which the player debuted, the age at which they first made 20+ appearances in one of Europe’s top 5 leagues and the age at which they first won one of the two awards has been recorded, and the results can be seen below.

Player
(Date of Birth)
Age* when making their league debut
(Season)
Age* when making 20+ appearances in a top 5 European league season for first time
(Season)
Age* when winning PFA or FWA award for first time
(Season) 
Paul McGrath
(04/12/59)
22
(1981-82)
25
(1984-85)
33
(1992-93)
Chris Waddle
(14/12/60)
20
(1980-81)
24
(1984-85)
32
(1992-93)
Eric Cantona
(24/05/66)
17
(1983-84)
20
(1986-87)
27
(1993-94)
Alan Shearer
(13/08/70)
17
(1987-88)
19
(1989-90)
23
(1993-94)
Jurgen Klinsmann
(30/07/64)
17
(1981-82)
20
(1984-85)
30
(1994-95)
Les Ferdinand
(08/12/66)
20
(1986-87)
25
(1991-92)
29
(1995-96)
Gianfranco Zola
(05/07/66)
18
(1984-85)
24
(1990-91)
31
(1996-97)
Dennis Bergkamp
(10/05/69)
17
(1986-87)
24
(1993-94)
28
(1997-98)
David Ginola
(25/01/67)
18
(1985-86)
19
(1986-87)
31
(1998-99)
Roy Keane
(10/08/71)
18
(1989-90)
19
(1990-91)
28
(1999-00)
Teddy Sheringham
(02/04/66)
17
(1983-84)
23
(1988-89)
34
(2000-01)
Ruud van Nistelrooy
(01/07/76)
17
(1993-94)
25
(2001-02)
25
(2001-02)
Robert Pires
(29/10/73)
20
(1993-94)
21
(1994-95)
28
(2001-02)
Thierry Henry
(17/08/77)
17
(1994-95)
19
(1996-97)
25
(2002-03)
John Terry
(07/12/80)
18
(1998-99)
20
(2000-01)
24
(2004-05)
Frank Lampard
(20/06/78)
17
(1995-96)
19
(1997-98)
26
(2004-05)
Steven Gerrard
(30/05/80)
18
(1998-99)
19
(1999-00)
25
(2005-06)
Cristiano Ronaldo
(05/02/85)
17
(2002-03)
18
(2003-04)
21
(2006-07)
Ryan Giggs
(29/11/73)
17
(1990-91)
18
(1991-92)
35
(2008-09)
Wayne Rooney
(24/10/85)
17
(2002-03)
17
(2002-03)
24
(2009-10)
Gareth Bale
(16/07/89)
16
(2005-06)
20
(2009-10)
21
(2010-11)
Scott Parker
(13/10/80)
17
(1997-98)
20
(2000-01)
30
(2010-11)
Robin van Persie
(06/08/83)
18
(2001-02)
21
(2004-05)
28
(2011-12)
Luis Suarez
(24/01/87)
18
(2005-06)
24
(2011-12)
26
(2013-14)
Eden Hazard
(07/01/91)
16
(2007-08)
17
(2008-09)
23
(2014-15)
Riyad Mahrez
(21/02/91)
18
(2009-10)
23
(2014-15)
24
(2015-16)
Jamie Vardy
(11/01/87)
23
(2010-11)
27
(2014-15)
28
(2015-16)
N’Golo Kante
(29/03/91)
20
(2011-12)
23
(2014-15)
25
(2016-17)
Mohammed Salah
(15/06/92)
17
(2009-10)
23
(2015-16)
25
(2017-18)
Virgil van Dijk
(08/07/91)
19
(2010-11)
24
(2015-16)
27
(2018-19)
Raheem Sterling
(08/12/94)
17
(2011-12)
18
(2012-13)
24
(2018-19)

*Age as of 1st January during the season listed

Firstly, there are a few limitations with this particularly study which should be addressed. Two players may have similar gaps between making their debut and their breakout season, yet spent the years in between rather differently. Some followed the path Foden is currently following, supplementing occasional league appearances with appearances for the reserve or junior teams as well as appearing for the senior team in cup or European competitions, where as others were playing senior Football regularly outside of Europe’s top 5 leagues. No distinction is drawn between an appearance and a start, and whilst the breakthrough season has been listed as making 20+ appearances on the basis that this is more than 50% of a league season in both 18 and 20 team league competitions, a case could be made for increasing or decreasing this threshold. Finally, individual awards have been used as an indicator of that player’s peak, though in many cases that peak began much earlier in their career before being belatedly recognised via an award.

Returning to the question regarding what is best for Foden’s career, the table above illustrates how rare it is for a player to instantly establish themselves at the highest level. Wayne Rooney is the only player on this list to make more than 20 appearances in one of Europe’s top 5 league during his debut campaign, and whilst other top players not on this list such as Michael Owen had also amassed plenty of top-flight experience before he turned 20, these players are very much the exception rather than the rule. Just 11 out of the 31 players on the list (35%) enjoyed their breakthrough campaign as a teenager (something Foden, still 19, could yet achieve this season), and the mean average age for the breakthrough campaign is 21.

Time then is clear on Foden’s side, especially when you consider that 8 of the players on the list picked up their first individual award in their 30’s, with both Teddy Sheringham and Ryan Giggs still playing in the Premier League in their 40’s. This is not to say that Foden wouldn’t benefit from starting more games, whether that be at City or via either a permanent or loan move elsewhere. Equally, the idea that Foden will suddenly find himself starting every week next season given that David Silva has announced this will be his final season with the club may not turn out to be the case, as City already have alternative options to fill that role and could easily make major acquisitions in midfield before the start of next season. However, arguably what can be discounted is the idea that Foden has to be a regular now in order to reach his potential as a player, because so many of the legendary names above prove that there are other paths to the top.

Player(Date of Birth)Age* when making their league debut(Season)Age* when making 20+ appearances in a top 5 European league season for first time(Season)Age* when winning PFA or FWA award for first time(Season) 
Paul McGrath(04/12/59)22(1981-82)25(1984-85)33(1992-93)
Chris Waddle(14/12/60)20(1980-81)24(1984-85)32(1992-93)
Eric Cantona(24/05/66)17(1983-84)20(1986-87)27(1993-94)
Alan Shearer(13/08/70)17(1987-88)19(1989-90)23(1993-94)
Jurgen Klinsmann(30/07/64)17(1981-82)20(1984-85)30(1994-95)
Les Ferdinand(08/12/66)20(1986-87)25(1991-92)29(1995-96)
Gianfranco Zola(05/07/66)18(1984-85)24(1990-91)31(1996-97)
Dennis Bergkamp(10/05/69)17(1986-87)24(1993-94)28(1997-98)
David Ginola(25/01/67)18(1985-86)19(1986-87)31(1998-99)
Roy Keane(10/08/71)18(1989-90)19(1990-91)28(1999-00)
Teddy Sheringham(02/04/66)17(1983-84)23(1988-89)34(2000-01)
Ruud van Nistelrooy(01/07/76)17(1993-94)25(2001-02)25(2001-02)
Robert Pires(29/10/73)20(1993-94)21(1994-95)28(2001-02)
Thierry Henry(17/08/77)17(1994-95)19(1996-97)25(2002-03)
John Terry(07/12/80)18(1998-99)20(2000-01)24(2004-05)
Frank Lampard(20/06/78)17(1995-96)19(1997-98)26(2004-05)
Steven Gerrard(30/05/80)18(1998-99)19(1999-00)25(2005-06)
Cristiano Ronaldo(05/02/85)17(2002-03)18(2003-04)21(2006-07)
Ryan Giggs(29/11/73)17(1990-91)18(1991-92)35(2008-09)
Wayne Rooney(24/10/85)17(2002-03)17(2002-03)24(2009-10)
Gareth Bale(16/07/89)16(2005-06)20(2009-10)21(2010-11)
Scott Parker(13/10/80)17(1997-98)20(2000-01)30(2010-11)
Robin van Persie(06/08/83)18(2001-02)21(2004-05)28(2011-12)
Luis Suarez(24/01/87)18(2005-06)24(2011-12)26(2013-14)
Eden Hazard(07/01/91)16(2007-08)17(2008-09)23(2014-15)
Riyad Mahrez(21/02/91)18(2009-10)23(2014-15)24(2015-16)
Jamie Vardy(11/01/87)23(2010-11)27(2014-15)28(2015-16)
N’Golo Kante(29/03/91)20(2011-12)23(2014-15)25(2016-17)
Mohammed Salah(15/06/92)17(2009-10)23(2015-16)25(2017-18)
Virgil van Dijk(08/07/91)19(2010-11)24(2015-16)27(2018-19)
Raheem Sterling(08/12/94)17(2011-12)18(2012-13)24(2018-19)

Fantasy Premier League Tip – Matt Targett

The top 10 Plus Minus per 90 minutes rankings do have a habit of throwing up some unlikely names from time to time, and currently it is Aston Villa’s Matt Targett is breaking up the Manchester City monopoly of those rankings. His performances will be of interst to Fantasy Football managers too, with a goal and an assist to his name across 3 appearances where he has amassed 24 points. Picking an Aston Villa defender would be a gamble, though at £4.4 million, perhaps a gamble worth taking.