Manchester United may have named their youngest-ever Premier League line-up at the weekend but they are likely to face the youngest Europa League final line-up this century when they meet Ajax on Wednesday evening. We’ve taken a look at the competition’s recent history to determine whether youth or experience is the bigger asset.
First of all, let’s quantify exactly how young the Ajax line-up is likely to be. Assuming that they make minimal changes to the team that triumphed in the semi-finals – they’ll need to replace one suspended defender – their average age is likely to be an astonishing 22 years and 281 days. This is over seven months younger than the youngest finalist since the turn of the century: the CSKA Moscow team that triumphed back in 2005.
Both of this year’s finalists have some pedigree when it comes to putting faith in youth. Ajax’s star-studded young line-up won the Champions League under future United boss Louis van Gaal back in 1995, while the Red Devils themselves delivered the perfect riposte to Alan Hansen’s withering assessment that “you can’t win anything with kids” by going on to claim the 1996 Premier League title. Both line-ups were far older than Ajax’s current crop, though, with each clocking in a shade under 25 years old on average.
When we compared whether youth or experience tended to win out in previous Europa League finals, we were surprised at just how often the younger team prevailed. They have done so in 12 of the 19 seasons – almost two thirds – since the final was reduced from two legs to one back in 1998.
Furthermore, of the six youngest Europa League final teams fielded in this time, five of them went on to win the trophy. The exception was in 2011/12 when Athletic Club were defeated by an Atletico Madrid team that also ranks as one of the six youngest. We find the exact mirror image when we look at the six oldest line-ups: five of them lost and the exception was a Galatasaray side that beat another of the six oldest, in this case Arsenal back in the 2000 final.
When we look back at those legendary Ajax and Manchester United teams, one thing we notice is that they each had a sprinkling of experienced heads in defence; Danny Blind and Frank Rijkaard bossed the Dutch side’s back line while Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister did likewise for the English champions.
However, all five of the Europa League finalists who went into battle without a player aged 30 or over won anyway, as did the five sides who had the biggest ‘age gap’ compared to their older opponents. All five of the finalists who were over two years younger than the opposition ended up taking the trophy home.
Therefore even if Jose Mourinho calls upon the more experienced players that he rested for Sunday’s dead rubber against Crystal Palace, there’s no guarantee that this will prove a winning strategy.