There was a time, a few months back, when quite a few Manchester United fans were questioning Ryan Giggs. For some, it was a case of a relic, past his prime, piggybacking on the gaffer's relationship with him. For others, it was a case of sadness, to see what once was so good and grand reduced to a pittance. Either way, many wanted him to go. When Ryan Giggs came on for Shinji Kagawa in the 64th minute at the Santiago Bernabeu a fortnight back, the respectful applause that rang through the stadium must have put a lot of us in place, and lent a bit of perspective. In our frenetic desire to mould the next big team, we sometimes forget to celebrate greatness in our midst.
Not all United fans have seen Giggsy in his pomp - I for one know him only from grainy old videos. But as he nears his 1000th competitive appearance, it is important to look back not to say what he's entitled to, but to realize that his greatness lies in how he has tweaked and turned his game around.
When George Best expresses his fear that he'll be known as 'another Ryan Giggs', you know you're on to something. Giggs burst onto the scene in 91/92, only his second professional year, with 38 appearances in the league. His was an electrifying talent - skill on the ball, explosive pace and otherworldly balance. His confidence was no less astounding, and the goals became more and more outrageous. Imagine doing this to a defender, and this to a defense. To put it in short, Giggs dribbled like Messi before anyone knew what to call it. Yet, with two doubles and a treble, and having been part of two of the three greatest teams in the premier league era, the wheels seemed to be coming off for Ryan in the 02/03 season. With talks of a transfer looming, he went on, typically, to have one of his most prolific seasons, scoring 14 goals including a brace against the Old Lady at Old Trafford.
However Giggs' role was changing. The verve of youth had ebbed and in its stead had come an ice-cool temperament (which, to be fair, he always had) and an aura, in only his late twenties, of a granddad of the team. He became more functional, running tirelessly up and down the wing as always, but providing width more often than not, and complementing the rising talent of Cristiano Ronaldo - yeah, that guy. He still used his footballing intelligence to beat players, but around this time was when he saved his pace for a pinch, and thus was born "Turbo Mode", or Giggs turning on the afterburners. With Nani and Anderson coming into the first team setup in 07/08, Sir Alex moved Giggsy into a rotation for the first time since he took over from Lee Sharpe in late '91. The era, it seemed, was coming to a close. With the European triumph of '08 Giggsy broke Sir Bobby's European appearance record - he had broken the all-time appearance record only a fortnight earlier.
Our Gaffer, who knew a thing or two about longevity, had other plans. With a view of squeezing the best out of Giggs, he was moved into central midfield. Always having an eye for the spectacular pass, this allowed him, when paired with energetic runners like Darren Fletcher and Park Ji-Sung, to play incisive balls forward for the terrific attack of Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo, Carlos Tevez and Dimitar Berbatov. This pairing was a great success - United reached the finals of the Champions League, but a combination of poor finishing and erratic possession led to a 2-0 defeat at the hands of an ascendant Barcelona. Nevertheless, this was a role Giggs was used in increasingly in big games over the years, even in a two man midfield when Park, typically, would man the right wing to provide extra legs (or in his case, lungs). Famously, the run in of 2011 and the romantic title #19 saw Giggs become an increasingly effective presence from midfield.
With a number of stalwarts retiring and some moving on, Giggs started the 2011/12 season as someone very much on the way out. After the team’s shaky defensive start, owing to a lack of discipline in midfield, that culminated in *that* derby, and a run of injuries in midfield, Giggs was most frequently deployed in the same role as the previous season. However, the results were far from passable – he looked off form with passes going astray, and he was selling his partner (usually Carrick) down the river quite often. With Paul Scholes’ surprise return, Giggs was finally freed of what was a fan’s hell. The rest of the season saw him deployed as a winger against lesser opponents, but it is fair to say that the only highlight of his season was this winner in his 900th appearance for United. This season, the trend continued – most of us groaned every time Giggsy’s name showed up on the team sheet. His performances were laboured, lacked quality and generally looked like an old man’s. However, as the season has progressed, we’ve seen resurgence in form and impact. Not even his harshest critic can deny that.
This is not a fluke – one of Ryan’s greatest attributes has been his consistency in a tricky position (just ask Nani). His lack of ‘form’, one can safely assume, was also due to being deployed in a role he couldn’t play anymore. The turnaround has been accompanied by a subtle shift in our team tactics. One, he has started fewer games and has definitely seen better impact as a substitute – this points to, sadly, age creeping up quicker than in years gone by, but also to an acceptance by the Gaffer that he can still be an impact sub. Second, and more importantly, there is an understanding that Giggs can’t defend. While that may sound harsh, it is the truth in an increasingly physical game. He can still pull off the patented slide-tackle-collection-dribble routine, but he’s just not in the right places any more. So when he comes on, our attackers take it among themselves to track back more. This leads us to the third point – Ryan is actually playing higher up the pitch than in previous CM outings. When he comes on as either a winger or a midfielder, he is tasked with making play happen, being a creative outlet and providing vertical thrust. The Everton game was a case in point – Giggs was the most advanced United player in the final 20 minutes or so, and he sure wasn’t trying to beat the offside trap.
Understanding his role in the team now is crucial to understanding his performance. We shall still see him give away possession a few times, but in less dangerous areas than last season. We will also see him in the box and whereabouts, with a freedom that was not afforded in that position before. What is most joyous though is that we shall see him provide those small touches of brilliance that Best alluded to so many years ago. The responsibility having been lifted from his shoulders, this roaming role suits the Welshman. Once again, the Gaffer and Giggsy have conspired to cheat Father Time of his prize, if only for another 3 months or 15. The man caressed by genius is showing us one last trick - enjoy it while it lasts.