By Jack Gaughan
Rio Ferdinand took to Twitter on Thursday to tell the world what Ryan Giggs is to his fellow professionals, manager and supporters, as the Manchester United stalwart turned the ripe old age of 39: "The word #Legend is banded about far too often...fits this fella like a glove though for his service to football!"
It is a fair assessment. With 606 Premier League matches, 107 goals and 12 titles to his credit, Giggs is in many ways the epitome of United's rise over the last two decades. There was never, even at the peak of his powers, any suggestion that he would leave Old Trafford; a model professional on the pitch – a fact that has remained undisputed. Easy to remain loyal to consistent champions, but the midfielder’s dedication to the cause has earned him an extended stay at the top. However, it is one that could come to an end in May.
United, as Goal.com reported in November, are yet to open contract negotiations with the player, who is on a one-year deal in line with Sir Alex Ferguson’s stance on players nearing the end of their careers. Giggs himself said he has evaluated whether to continue playing after Christmas in each of the last few campaigns, and will do the same this time.
The ultimate decision may not be up to him any longer, though.
The loyalty, the joy and the trophies have afforded Giggs a lengthier stay than any other dwindling talent before him. Sir Alex’s policy of stack them, rack them and sell them when over the hill doesn’t apply to Giggs, as it didn’t to Paul Scholes, and both of whom are expected to start at Reading on Saturday. The iconic status of the pair means they stayed on. Admirable of the manager, but it is a struggle to see how sentimentality can continue.
United have won just 40 per cent of domestic games in which Giggs has started this season. Without him, they win 87% of the time. They are similar statistics to those of last season and the one before that. In fact, United's win percentage with Giggs in the team hasn't outweighed that without him since 2007.
He will, as always, want to play on if he still feels a valuable contributor. But without an assist or a goal in the league since February 26 – the winner away at Norwich City – it is becoming harder to put forward an argument for his services to be retained for 2013-14.
Incidentally, Scholes also scored that day in a 2-1 win at Carrow Road. They were heralded then, while both played in the defeat on the same ground a fortnight ago and looked spent. Is the perseverance in picking Giggs merely sentimental or is there an air of necessity about it? A bit of both.
The money Sir Alex has parted with in recent years has conjured mixed results in the transfer market. The arrival of Nani in 2007 meant Giggs was no longer a wide man and moved inside for longevity – shrewd from the boss, who noted Giggs' slight decline on the wing. The move hasn’t worked out for the Portuguese winger, with United ready to sell.
The attempts to bring younger players through to replace the greats has proved a semi-success, but not so much of one that United can think they can progress without the likes of Giggs and Scholes – that was plain to see last January when the latter was hauled back from retirement to ignite a stagnant campaign.
Going forward, they can press on with the quality youngsters – Javier Hernandez, Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, Rafael, David De Gea – who are continuing their development and may emulate those before them. But those before them are not Giggs, and they are not Scholes. Neither is Shinji Kagawa. United are lacking in the department behind the Japan international in midfield; strengthening there has seemed something of an afterthought.
Wesley Sneijder, readily available from Inter, is the obvious plug to fill the gap, but his capture would indicate Sir Alex’s willingness to search for an immediate option – not quite the long-term legacy in mind up until very recently with the arrival of Robin van Persie. Granted it hasn't worked out too badly for the Dutch striker, but can the same be said for his international counterpart who lacks match practice and could not agree a deal with United last year?
Whatever the outcome in January and the summer, there is a clear change in transfer policy – a net spend over three years of almost £100 million - likely to be a direct consequence of the financial clout at Manchester City and an urgency to continue fighting at the very top on all fronts.
If they go toe-to-toe with the Sheikhs, they’ll lose. Continuing to do it the United way is the only option, but first they must find two gems to replace Giggs and Scholes. Easier said than done.