x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Ageing Giggs still a big-game player

Concealed by the controversy and ignored by the photographers who captured the iconic picture of Arsene Wenger as the misunderstood messiah being barracked by the Old Trafford crowd, Ryan Giggs made a rather quieter exit.

Concealed by the controversy, obscured by the rancour and ignored by the photographers who captured the iconic picture of Arsene Wenger as the misunderstood messiah being barracked by the Old Trafford crowd, Ryan Giggs made a rather quieter exit. That has become his style. The Premier League's original pin-up has long since abdicated his position as the division's heart-throb. Now the hair is flecked with grey, though the legs still possess sufficient acceleration to enable him to glide away from defenders in time-honoured fashion.

But the elder statesman retains his significance. Giggs has been a permanent presence and an enduring influence in the league's 18 seasons. In the first heavyweight encounter of the current campaign, Saturday's 2-1 win over Arsenal, he was the common denominator in both Manchester United goals. For their equaliser, Giggs supplied the perfectly-weighted pass that sent Wayne Rooney scurrying away to induce a penalty from Manuel Almunia. For the winner, it was his free-kick that Abou Diaby headed into his own net.

Giggs may not have been the game's dominant figure, but his display nonetheless had echoes of his majestic performance against Chelsea in January. It was the match that, more than any other, belatedly earned him the PFA Player of the Year award. As Saturday showed, while his appearances are now rationed, Giggs is palpably still a big-game player. In the autumn of a career, there can seem an inevitability about the progress and achievements of such a distinguished player. Yet it is worth remembering that Sir Alex Ferguson started his search for a successor more than six years ago. Then Chelsea had the greater wealth to tempt both Arjen Robben and Damien Duff to Stamford Bridge. While Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney have taken their turns on the left flank and now it falls to Nani and Ji-sung Park, it still feels like Giggs' territory. Upon his emergence the best part of two decades ago, his most obvious attribute was the pace to frighten full-backs.

It is testament to him that his latter years in midfield have revealed other qualities: a fine positional sense, an often overlooked ability to pass the ball and a quiet understanding of the game. That, an unselfish attitude and the versatility to operate in several positions, helps account for his continued excellence. Years after David Beckham, Nicky Butt and Phil Neville made their exits from Old Trafford, and while Gary Neville and Paul Scholes tend to be confined to the bench for the major matches, the first of the group christened 'Fergie's Fledglings' is the last to play such a prominent part. While he did not share Beckham's appetite for world domination, he arguably ranks as the greatest of his generation.

There is only one team in England that is yet to concede a goal. Manchester City's start to the season does reflect on the initial success of Mark Hughes' attempts to remodel his defence with Kolo Toure and Joleon Lescott. It is also, in part, the consequence of a comparatively friendly fixture list. But more than anything, it highlights the excellence of Shay Given, who has produced vital saves in every game, including a late block from David Nugent at Portsmouth on Sunday. While the focus has shifted to the summer signings, Given may prove Hughes' finest recruit. Selling him may be the worst piece of business Newcastle, relegated by one point last season, have done.

Richard Jolly is an authority on the English game, having written for The Guardian and The Sunday Telegraph @Email:rjolly@thenational.ae