Ryan Giggs has and always will be one of the Premier League‘s greatest ever players.
But at 40 years of age, with Manchester United fans and pundits alike compelled to applaud whenever he successfully completes a five-yard pass, his regular attendance in the Red Devils first team has begun to say more about the club than it does the Welshman’s many achievements in the game.
Don’t get me wrong, how can one justifiably criticise the only survivor from the Premier League’s inaugural season still plying his trade in the top flight today? Regardless of the immense ability Giggs has always shown, that astonishing, 22-campaign feat alone makes him by default the most experienced player the Premier League has ever seen.
When you combine that with 13 Premier League titles, two Champions League medals, six PFA Team of the Year awards and even a BBC Sports Personality of the Year accolade on the mantelpiece, who wouldn’t want that level of expertise in the dugout, the dressing room, and even the squad? Especially amid such turbulent times at Carrington.
But what other Premier League club can claim to have an individual of such twilight in their squad, still yet to make less than 30 appearances in a single campaign?
Some would argue that only further highlights the unrivalled drive, ambition, athleticism and sheer ability of the man, just 41 games shy of reaching a thousand appearances for Manchester United.
Yet there is a more troubling flipside to that coin – the argument that Giggs’ near quarter-century tenure for the Red Devils represents a club lost in the past, through their own inability to rebuild, re-grow and modernise over the last three years. Sir Alex Ferguson was able to pave over the cracks, but his successor has not been so lucky.
That may seem a rather blunt critique considering Manchester United won the Premier League title only last season, a campaign in which Giggs played a vital cameo role to find two goals in 22 league appearances.
But he’s not the only relic that’s managed to outstay his peak at Carrington. The once-impeccable backline of Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra has been found wanting on more than one occasion this season, looking decisively slow, cumbersome on the ball and almost brutishly basic in their defending.
In a nutshell, they come across as defenders belonging to the last decade rather than the twenty-teens. No pace in their heels, no vision in possession, no delicacy to their clearances, no discipline or patience in anticipating a turn-over.
It speaks volumes that David Moyes hasn’t utilised the veteran trio in the same starting line-up domestically since their 4-1 drubbing to Manchester City back in September, and they’re now all in line for a bosman departure at the end of the season.
And fellow Class of ’92 graduate Paul Scholes only hung up his boots at the end of last term at 38 years of age. The effects of his retirement have been enormous this season, as Manchester United struggle to recruit a central midfielder who can come close to matching the ginger maestro’s world-class ability to orchestrate play and create goals.
Should Giggs decide to end his playing days at the end of the current term, the void he leaves behind won’t be nearly as devastating as Scholes’. But in terms of superior experience and footballing intellect, the Welshman is irreplaceable.
Nobody is doubting that, yet the continued prominence of his role at Old Trafford symbolises the dysfunction of Manchester United’s attempts to rebuild during the final years of Sir Alex Ferguson’s equally as monolithic tenure.
Lost in a chaotic world where losing to Stoke City and drawing to a bottom-place Fulham has become the norm, David Moyes has felt compelled to turn to the veteran 18 times already this season, perhaps viewing the unparalleled experience Giggs brings to the first team as one of a rare few reliable entities at Carrington. You can certainly understand that, in comparison to the stale performances from Nani and Ashley Young on the left-hand side over the last 18 months.
But this is not the Ryan Giggs of old, or even the Ryan Giggs who was one of a rare few to impress for Team GB at the London Olympics in summer 2012.
This is a Ryan Giggs, playing most commonly in central midfield to compensate for the quality Tom Cleverley and Marouane Fellaini continually fail to provide, who has averaged just 0.6 tackles, 0.3 shots, 0.8 key passes and 0.4 dribbles per match from his ten Premier League outings since the summer. This is a Ryan Giggs who offers more in the way of nostalgia and the illusion of stability, than he does actual footballing ability.
Unfortunately for the Welshman, although through no fault of his own, his regular inclusion has become symbolic of a club that have somehow missed their last, yet most vital period of transition. Perhaps that is the price Manchester United paid to win their ultimate Premier League title of the Ferguson era.
Regardless of experience and wisdom, Giggs, as a first team player, should have been replaced several years ago. Sir Alex Ferguson was famous for his cut-throat approach to not let one player grow bigger than Manchester United, but he has created an almost immovable institution in the Welshman – a different kind of, yet equally as threatening, danger to the club’s stability and longevity.
The same can be said for Rio Ferdinand, and more recently, Patrice Evra and Nemanja Vidic.
The issue of the age-old relics is not one of David Moyes’ making, but it has left him between a rock and hard place. The new blood bursting through, the likes of Phil Jones and Chris Smalling, aren’t yet developed enough to be safely passed the mantle, yet Giggs’ veteran clan, despite their many achievements for Manchester United over the years, are too slow, battle-worn and out of touch with the modern game to be successfully relied upon.
The coming summer will bring great change to Manchester United, and most likely instigate Giggs’ permanency in the dug-out rather than on the pitch. When his boots are hung up, it will not be the 40 year-old’s unrivalled experience that leaves a hole in the first team, but rather the Red Devils’ continual inability to replace him.