Arguably, the biggest challenge that faces a footballer is knowing when to stop. In some cases, the decision is made for them but it's more common for the player to make that call. At Man United, there are recent examples of both going too soon and too late - judging the perfect time is hard and maybe one of the few things Ryan Giggs isn't good at.
A year ago and United were embarking on a league campaign without both their club captain and arguably the finest English footballer for many, many years. Gary Neville retired in February 2011 having started just three games in nearly six months - he could no longer keep up with the pace of football. His final few appearances had been both sad and embarrassing and his retirement could have easily come earlier.
By contrast, Paul Scholes went too soon. Oddly, his retirement felt right at the time - he was going out whilst still capable of playing at the top level but had concerns about how much he'd still be picked at United and had no desire to drop down the football league. His now infamous return proved that actually, his ability to control and influence games hadn't waned and he'd retired before any signs of a dip in his technical ability.
As a footballer gets older, there is often a need for reinvention in order to prolong the playing career. Scholes has moved deeper and whilst he still gets forward, those runs are rare. His 'quarterback' role has also seen a further appreciation of what he can do. His ability to not just find space but create it and then make use of the ball remains extraordinary. The need to change to accommodate an ageing body is something that's relevant to midfielders more than any other position. That said, Marcus Gayle and Dion Dublin are two examples of players in other positions can also adapt.
Maybe the most famed example of a change has been the Giggs-shift. Once a hamstring-testing pacey winger, Giggs started to move infield behind a striker and has now settled in a deeper central midfield role. For many reasons, the change has been impressive. As a winger he had to be an outlet - uninvolved in the busy goings on of a game but ever ready to contribute when the ball was sprayed out to him where he'd attempt to make goals. Centrally, he not only gets more of the ball but often has more time on it and has to use it more efficiently. There are other important differences too - including positioning and the type of running he has to do.
That's all good and commendable but Giggs' ability to influence games positively in that area is worth questioning. To get the niceties out of the way - the man is one of the few legends of the game still playing. He was never the very best United player but his ability to perform at such a high level so consistently for so many years gives him that legendary status. What he's achieved is unparalleled in the modern game at the top level, particularly in England. He'll rightly go down as one of United's finest players.
His status shouldn't mean that we judge him any differently when he plays though. By the same logic that if a player is good enough he's old enough, old age shouldn't matter if he can still positively influence results and performances. Some statistics will tell you that Giggs' contribution remains vital - he still directly influences goals more frequently than other players. Other stats though paint a different picture. In what is the age of the pass completion percentage, Giggs comes in way below what's expected of a central midfielder.
Numbers may not explain games but often they do reflect what the eye has seen. Sub-average pass completion stats for Giggs correlate to the fact that when it comes to ball retention, he's not ever fully adjusted to this part of being a central midfielder. His instinct is to try a flick or an ambitious pass - fine if he's playing high up and able to take those risks but that's rarely the case. This has clearly been recognised as he's fallen down the pecking order.
With Cleverley's return to the first team, he, Scholes, Carrick, Anderson and Kagawa are all ahead of Ryan. For a man who's praised for keeping himself so fit it's not even a case of resting him and using him sparingly. It's simply getting harder to justify selecting him over other players and trust him not to give the ball away in key areas. Even during the Olympics, Stuart Pearce made the decision to drop him (there are only so many games you can claim to rest someone for).
Clearly experience is hard to buy - players like van Persie seldom become available - and the importance of having Giggs around at the club is vital. His position as a role-model to younger players in how to train and live a non-celeb lifestyle will forever be held up as the benchmark by United.
Every season, sometime after the Christmas/New Year spell, a short press release tends to announce that Ryan Giggs will play for another season. Arguably, the news of a new deal back in February shouldn't have come. Despite what the romanticism in our hearts might suggest, Ryan's now seldom good enough to justify selection, at least not from the start of games.
This November, in his 23rd season in the United first team, he turns 39. With over 900 first team appearances at the highest level, his place in history is assured. The fact that it's not clear cut whether the team still need him serves to show that closure isn't far away. Probably, it should have already happened but I suspect this year will be his last. Giggs' decline is, unlike Scholes', a technical one - one that should make the decision to stop playing easier. Sentiment cannot cloud the fact that despite rare magic moments, if it weren't for Ryan's experience and status, he'd have been binned a little while back. Continuing to play will not tarnish his career but for the sake of United on the pitch, I hope this is his last year.
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