Next Generation 2022: Why scouts select players based on ‘the relative age effect’


Last month the Guardian released Next Generation 2022: 20 of the best talents at Premier League clubs. As with previous years it selected “the best youngsters at each club”, this time among those born between 1 September 2005 and 31 August 2006, an age band known as “first-year scholars”.

As in earlier seasons it makes for interesting reading. But the brain works in mysterious ways, and I did something different this year: I looked at the month of birth of these players. Thirteen were born in the first semester of the selection year (1 September 2005 to 28 February 2006) and seven in the second semester (1 March 2006 to 31 August 2006). Almost twice as many were from the first half.

The Guardian has released its selection of the best youngsters at Premier League clubs since 2014, and I decided to continue counting months of birth: 2021 was also 13-7; then, counting back to 2014, it was 15-5, 14-6, 14-6, 14-6, 15-5, 16-4 and 18-2.

Fascinating. The Next Generation 2022 scholars were not an outlier. For the 180 players across nine seasons, 136 (more than 75%) were born in the first semester and 44 in the second. By quarter of birth, September to November had 74, December to February 62, March to May 28, and June to August 16. There are almost five times more players from the first quarter than the last, and similar skewed amounts by month of birth: September, 29; October, 29; November, 16; December, 21; January, 25; February, 16, March, 14; April, 10; May, four; June, five; July, five; and August, six.

What does this mean? Obviously that if you want a child who will be on this list you had better make arrangements so he is born as soon as possible after 1 September. But be careful not to miss the window of opportunity by being too impatient. It could be almost impossible for your child if he arrives prematurely and before 1 September.

The reader will recognise there is nothing wrong in the way the Guardian selected these players. This is how professional scouts select players, too. In scientific literature in sports and schooling, this is known as the “relative age effect”.

Researchers have found that cut-off dates for school eligibility can have a long-term impact on student performance because it can cause some students (those born just after the cut-off date) to be older and more mature than others (those born just before the cut-off date) when they begin school. Skills accumulated in early childhood complement later learning, which means that relative age differences at the start of formal schooling can be long-lasting if relatively older students are better positioned to accumulate more skills in the early academic years because of their cognitive and emotional maturity advantage.

The idea that arbitrary eligibility cut-off dates can have sizeable consequences is even stronger in sport where, in addition to cognitive and emotional development, physical development plays an important role. After all, scouts choose children according to what they see

Youth sports are organised by age brackets according to a cut-off birth date. In most European youth football leagues the cut-off date is 1 January. In the UK it is 1 September. Players born just after the cut-off tend to be stronger, bigger, more mature, and have more coordination, greater self‑esteem and better decision-making skills than players born at the end of the eligibility year. Since several months of development can make a huge difference in these variables, these players tend to perform better in a given game, watched by scouts, and are more likely to be identified as talented than those born in the later part of the eligibility year. Once selected, they benefit from having more high‑quality coaching, deliberate practice and experience, and are given more opportunities to further their development.

A skewed birth distribution over-representing individuals born early in the selection year has been documented extensively for many other sports, (including rugby, tennis, baseball and ice hockey), in many countries, and was found to be prevalent in youth and senior competitions. The effect remains even to the top level.

Of course, talent does not depend on exactly when you were born, so the talent detection system shows a huge relative age‑effect bias. This is easy to understand. What is harder to understand is why it persists. Why is it that when you look at Premier League, La Liga, Bundesliga, Serie A and other academies, they all exhibit a large relative age bias? Why do clubs not do anything about it?

Identification of talent is difficult for scouts. But do scouts know they have a bias? If not, shouldn’t they be aware of their bias? How about senior staff such as sporting directors and heads of recruitment? A head of scouting at a Premier League academy recently told me: “Scouts are not in touch with reality often. Bizarre.”

That was my experience as head of talent ID at Athletic Bilbao from 2011 to 2019. Perhaps it has something to do with the way scouts and coaches are assessed. Usually, youth coaches want to win the under‑10, under‑12 or under‑14 local championship and get promoted to older age groups. Or maybe impatient sporting directors do not value what their own academies produce as much as they should. After all, they can always dip into the transfer market and buy talent at a later stage.

This could explain why the relative age effect goes unaddressed. But say the club could produce five more players from their academy per decade, this could represent, easily, a saving of more than £100m. So there is an incentive to address the issue and its persistence is hard to understand.

This represents a huge opportunity for clubs. As for armchair fans, to be on the safe side they should enjoy the World Cup in Qatar, have a pleasant festive season, then go full speed ahead in the new year.

About the author

Marta Lopez

I am a content writer and I write articles on sports, news, business etc.

By Marta Lopez


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