Monday 25 March 2013

Man for all seasons: The secrets behind Ryan Giggs' longevity

How has the evergreen Man Utd midfielder been able to play at the top level for so long?

Ryan Giggs is still at the top of his game after over two decades at Man Utd

ManUtd.com writer Steve Bartram looks at how the 39-year-old has defied the ageing process at Old Trafford

We've heard often enough that the dictionary has nothing more to offer those attempting to describe Ryan Giggs. The man transcends definition, not least because he is a study in sporting evolution.

Examine the setting for Giggs' 1,000th career game, in his 40th year. Reaching such a marker would be a noteworthy feat even for the most battle-hardened lower-league clogger, but United’s record appearance-maker met the milestone as a right winger against Real Madrid in the Champions League and won the man-of-the-match award.

His senior career pre-dates the National Lottery, the commercialisation of the Internet and the birth of Phil Jones, yet still Giggs is as functional as he has ever been – arguably a better player than he was five years ago and quite possibly 10 years ago. Moreover, he is a different player. The jet-heeled whippet who scourged right-backs with his turf tapestry is long gone, but all of his experiences have been retained. He’s capable of operating on either wing, off a striker, in central midfield or, at a push, as an auxiliary left-back.

"He's an incredibly open-minded athlete"
Mike Clegg

"His flexibility has improved with age," says United assistant manager Mike Phelan. "He can play in numerous positions now and adapt into those that require more maturity. He was seen as a wide player with great dribbling skills and pace and quality on the ball, whereas now he’s brought all those to the fore in different positions. Maturity gives you that."

There are complexities to being a 39-year-old footballer at the highest level, so being immersed in consistency has helped. Giggs has represented one club under one manager for almost a quarter of a century - an obvious boon. So too are the Welshman's physical attributes: a light, slender, aerodynamic frame built to last and resist the ravages of time.

According to those who have worked with Giggs, the secret to his perpetual evolution has been cerebral. "He's an incredibly open-minded athlete," says Mike Clegg, who worked with Giggs for over 11 years as United’s former strength and conditioning coach. "He regenerates his youth all the time by being open-minded. When I worked with him, he always allowed me to show him different things that I thought might help him. He would consider anything."

m-topps-Ryan-Giggs-21-seasons

While still honing the staples of his wingplay, Giggs also diversified himself positionally. When Rene Meulensteen – now first-team coach, but originally United’s first skills coach – arrived in Sir Alex Ferguson’s set-up, Giggs was one of the first senior players to tap into the Dutchman’s toolbox of trickery.

“Ryan wanted to rediscover himself,” said Meulensteen. “His main strength is that he’s got magnificent skill from himself, with a lovely element of disguise, and another asset was always running with the ball and manipulating it. Because of one or two previous injuries and the onset of age, he might not have been as explosive as he was, so what then helps is having turns and moves in your locker to compensate, and he’s really added that to his game. You see a lot more Cruyff turns or stepovers which have served him well.”

Such chicanery is an invaluable asset in a congested midfield minefield, where Giggs has increasingly been deployed in recent seasons - in 2008/09 he was named PFA Player of the Year, an accolade which eluded him in all his years as a winger.

"He turns in a performance every time he plays, wherever he plays"
Mike Phelan

Giggs found himself troubled earlier this season, after being substituted at half-time in the Reds’ home defeat to Tottenham Hotspur. "I was awful," he admitted. "I was down, but my thinking was: 'What you going to do about it?' "

Inevitably, he quickly came up with an answer. “It’s just stupid things, like saying: 'Right, I'm not going to have butter on my toast. I’m going to make sure I go to bed an hour earlier.' "

After the Tottenham debacle, Ryan’s next start came in United’s Capital One Cup defeat to Chelsea. In a staggering 120-minute outing as the lighthouse in a sea of youthful tumult, Giggs started on the left wing, moved into midfield in a tactical rejig and scored twice as the Reds were edged out by a near full-strength Blues side.

As the months have passed by, Giggs has continued to improve. His outing against Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid was borne not of sentiment, but necessity. A fit, experienced, intelligent player in form starts such games. That Ryan is 39 matters not a jot, as shown by his starring role despite United’s numerical disadvantage against the La Liga giants.

"He's definitely improving, and he’s doing that because he can rest in-between games," says Phelan. "He turns in a performance every time he plays, wherever he plays, simply because his preparation and his longevity have been fantastic. His attention to detail is first class. He knows now exactly how the body of a 39-year-old works and he knows when to rest, when to train and what quality of training he needs."

And so to the great, unanswered question: when will it all end? There were doubts over whether Giggs could surpass Sir Bobby Charlton’s longstanding appearances record. That was five years ago.

"There's no point looking to an end game," said Phelan laughing. "He's used what sport is all about in recreating, redeveloping, re-emerging, and his talent has come through. As long as he's fit and healthy, with a love for the club and football and happiness in his life then you just keep getting him out there on the training ground and see where we go with it."

Ryan Giggs' end point, like the man himself, is as yet undefined.

(Written by Steve Bartram. The full article originally appeared in the club's matchday programme, the United Review, and on manutd.com)

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Key Points

  • Manchester United's Ryan Giggs has recently celebrated his 1,000th senior match
  • Giggs is still part of the first-team squad, 22 years after making his debut
  • Find out how the 39-year-old has been at the top of his game for so long