They’re a classy bunch, the Tigers.
This is Part 2 in a five-part series that looks at graphical representation and assessment of AFL club list age profiles and features a novel graph coined an ‘Earlgram’ explained in Part 1.
Carlton and St Kilda are two teams that are young and developing or rebuilding by any metric. Speculation about the future of these two teams is often focussed on their perceived elite talent – Carlton is commonly commended for having multiple young players at or tracking to an elite standard, while St Kilda is commonly criticised for their best players not being elite in a league-wide context.
This is probably true. However, an argument can be made that St Kilda have the better-structured list age profile for future success and possibly the best in the league.
Forget for a moment that some clubs are superior in their coaching, drafting, trading, development and retention of players and consider the premiership cycle in its purest form, as draft equalisation intends.
The start of a conventional rebuild sees a bottom team take their selection at the elite end of the draft, most likely over several consecutive years and possibly accompanied by the trading out of older players for additional picks. The intention is for these similar-aged more-likely-to-succeed players to form the core of a future competitive team.
Based on the AGP-Earlgram of all AFL-listed players presented in Part 1, most senior players fall within the 22-28 age group. By extension, a core of high draftees is most likely to play senior football together between these ages.
This core is not a team unto itself, though potentially this could happen for teams afforded huge currency to begin with (GWS and Gold Coast), teams with prolonged stays at the very bottom of the ladder (Melbourne, Carlton and Gold Coast) or phenomenal drafting, including at the weak end of the draft. Melbourne has the list that is most heavily weighted to a single narrow age range – they have a remarkable 14 players who will be aged 24 at Round 1 – and given their issues in 2019, it is not unreasonable to suggest that this is not conducive to a productive team culture.
Generally the senior core needs to be supplemented by players at older and/or younger ages. Ideally the older ‘head’ and younger ‘tail’ will be focussed in age toward to the core so that all players are closest to their peak contemporaneously. The tail is significant as it drives continued improvement during the premiership window, but the head is also important in providing leadership and experience.
All of this is not to say that a team can’t be successful with an even spread of senior player ages. However, such a team might find it difficult to pinpoint their premiership window and focus their future plans accordingly. It is also conceivable that a team like this could fall into the cycle of finishing midtable, never accumulating the currency to improve significantly. Essendon is an example of a team with a very even age distribution of senior players.
North Melbourne is perhaps an example of a team that has managed to form a core group. However, this core is now in the 26-28 age bracket, which is towards the end of their time to capitalise, and the tail is both lacking and too far detached from the core, suggesting they were slow to add quality youth to supplement the core. Distribution of senior players on North Melbourne’s AGP-Earlgram suggests they might rise soon, but even if they do, this rise will inevitably be short-lived.
After the last player movement period St Kilda finds themselves with a significant core of senior players between the ages of 24 and 26 as well as a fairly well fleshed-out tail given the core is still young. In addition, only two players older than this played regular senior football in 2019, meaning in the short term there is little scope for decline due to players aging. However, their weak older head could be an issue due to lack of leadership and experience. St Kilda has a very well-defined and potentially long premiership window and can plan accordingly. They will almost certainly look to attract low-trade-cost older players with strong leadership and success credentials, a la Luke Hodge at Brisbane.
Favourably, Carlton have a good percentage of senior players under the age of 25. However, overall their age distribution for senior players is more erratic than at St Kilda and their premiership window is less well defined. They will look to make the 20-22 age group their core, though it is not yet fully formed, meaning they stand to lose quite a few senior players by the time they are ready to challenge.
St Kilda have managed their list to an age profile that should maximise success if their players do in fact eventually improve to the required level. To be clear, this does not mean Carlton will be less successful than St Kilda. Carlton’s youth, including burgeoning stars like Sam Walsh and Charlie Curnow, may well develop into superior players such that St Kilda’s advantage from a well-structured list age profile is meaningless.
This article will frustrate many who will point out any number of factors that make one team better than another, but that is not the intention here. A senior player age profile will not make the players themselves any better or worse, but in the event a bottom team’s players and coaching staff make themselves competitive again, a well-structured age profile will focus and extend their premiership windows and maximise potential for success.