Since the inception of the English Premier League in 1992, this is the first season that hasn’t featured Ryan Giggs. And it’s like a little piece of me has died.
Not necessarily a favourite or very important piece of me you understand. I’m not that sad. I have no particular affinity to Man United or the guy himself. But for anybody who has watched as much Premier league football as me, a season without Giggs seems as weird as watching football being playing on purple grass.
This new Giggs-less season is a few months old now, and I’m starting to adjust. So it seems like a fair moment to indulge a sneaking suspicion that has been lingering in my brain for, oh, a good couple of decades now.
Ryan Giggs was never actually all that good.
There you go. I’ve said it. Sacrilege! Stone the disbeliever!
I’m not going to start questioning his trophy haul – a mind-boggling 13 Prem Lge medals, 4 x FA Cup, 2 x Champions League. Or the wonder of his longevity – still playing in Man Utd’s first team in his 40’s.
Not even I’m that contrary.
For a fair chunk of the 20+ years that Giggs played top flight football it has been part of my job to assess footballers. Working for bookmakers, betting syndicates or doing my own personal professional betting, it has been necessary to evaluate the worth of a player to his team.
I have compiled first goal scorer prices by ascribing each player a % expectation of the team’s total goals expectation. I have given a ‘star’ rating to players in a squad, to say how good/important they are.
I’ve also had to made quick judgement calls at team news time an hour before a game, or during a game after an injury or a substitution. The call is the impact to a team’s price, or their expected goals for/against, based on the information that so and so was/n’t playing. Or had just been subbed on/off.
In all that time I could never find a justification for rating Giggs as highly as (seemingly) everybody else did. His status as a legend of the game has never really been questioned. Why? Maybe it’s because Alex Ferguson always said he was a great player, so who the hell is anybody, let alone me, to question it?
But I do question it. And here is my theory.
I think Ryan Giggs is possibly the greatest squad player in the modern history of the sport. And I don’t mean ‘squad player’ in a pejorative sense. I mean that here was a player who was deemed good enough by a great manager to be a regular starter in a team dominant in its country. Not just for a season or two. Or even a decade. But over more than two decades. In a variety of positions. Hardly ever getting injured. Setting an example, training hard, looking after his body, being a team player, being an inspiration to others…..
This is a truly great achievement of sporting endurance and consistency, not to mention trophy-collecting. Only Paolo Maldini (maybe Javier Zanetti?) that I can think of comes close. But then I think most would agree it is slightly easier to play for longer as a defender, than in the midfield where Giggs generally plied his trade.
On any given day, in any specific match, the average level of performance you could expect of Ryan Giggs was, to use the crude system of the tabloid match rating, about a 7. He was a 7 out of 10 player week in week out.
Being a 7 out of 10 player for 20 odd years in a top league is astounding. Amazingly consistent. While living with the pressure inherent in being at one of the world’s biggest clubs. Seeing dozens of bright young pretenders to your position come and go over the years. Amazing staying power, yes.
But still just 7 out of 10 on any given Sunday.
Never ‘world class’. If we can define a world class player as being in the top 10 best players playing at that time in the world of professional football, then I don’t believe Giggs was ever world class, or even particularly close. World class is 9 out of 10, not 7.
He was ‘just’ a solid squad guy who always gave you 7 out of 10, and helped to lay the platform for the more talented guys in the team to go and win matches.
This heretic view of Saint Ryan is one I’ve mostly kept to myself. As a pro gambler I’ve acquired the discipline of generally keeping quiet on ideas I can’t back up with evidence and data. But one night in the pub I did voice the view that Gareth Bale was now a way better player then his fellow Welshman.
My point, which I’m certain I made clearly and coherently to my fellow drinkers, was that Bale was much more likely to win a game for Wales than Giggs ever was. Bale might be less solid (including being less likely to be on the pitch in the first place because of injury) but he had more ‘brilliance’ about him. In any given game he was more likely to put in a 9 or 10 out of 10 performance.
And Ryan Giggs winning the BBC Sports Personality of the Year in 2009 was absolutely ludicrous.
Though drink had undoubtedly been taken, I was surprised by the vociferousness of the opposition to my thesis. “Yer talkin’ absolute pish, mate”, was the consensus rebuttal as I recall. This was from Scottish non-ManU-supporting guys. The legend of Giggs is firmly established. “You are deluded by a narrative fallacy, my friends” I believe my final words on the matter may possibly have been.
Do you think I’m crazy too?
Well, I took advantage of a temporary window of sobriety in the otherwise solid wall of my drunkenness to set out to gather some numbers.
So here is the evidence;
I wanted to compare Giggs to some of his contemporaries, so I chose some players with a little science but mostly off the top of my head. As much as possible I tried to find guys who played roughly similar positions and roles to Giggs.
So there aren’t any out-and-out centre forwards here like Zlatan, Alan Shearer or Ian Rush. They are generally guys who would typically be described as ‘wingers’ or ‘midfielders’ before they were called ‘forwards’, at least for chunks of their careers.
So what we’ve got are some stats presented in graphs. The important thing to say straight off is that these stats mostly measure ‘goal output’ (i.e. goals and assists). I don’t have the means currently to measure a player’s overall contribution to his team’s efforts, with things like the number of tackles and interceptions they also made. But also all the intangible stuff like times they helped out a full-back by tracking back to defend.
But all of these guys are principally ‘attacking’ players, so it’s reasonable to expect that looking at the number of goals and assists they contribute will give us a fair picture of their ‘ability’ and ‘worth’.
I’ve split them up into two arbitrary groups; World Class & Premier League Stalwarts.
- Gareth Bale
- Andres Iniesta
- Lionel Messi
- Thomas Muller
- Mezut Ozil
- Franck Ribery
- Arjen Robben
- Cristiano Ronaldo.
- David Beckham
- Damien Duff
- Eden Hazard
- Steven Gerrard
- Frank Lampard
- Robert Pires
- Paul Scholes
- Antonio Valencia
These classifications are entirely subjective. In other words I just made them up. The players in the World Class group are all guys who I would have rated more highly than Giggs in a one-off match, using my own mainly un-scientific ‘evidence of the eyes’ criteria.
SCORING CONTRIBUTION per90
- Goals + Assists – Penalties.
- Divided into 90 minute chunks, using actual playing time.
- Gives roughly ‘number of goals the player is involved in, per match’.
- Using actual playing time (mins on pitch) is better than using ‘appearances’ or ‘starts’.
- Subtract Pens to strip out the advantage to players with goals tallies boosted by taking spot-kicks.
- Data starts from season 1999/2000 for the Premier League, and 2007/8 for other leagues, which is when Assist data started to be collected.
- League and Champions League matches (CL Assist data from 99/00) .
NON PENALTY GOALS per90
- Goals – Penalties
- Divided into 90 minute chunks, using actual playing time.
- Going back to 1992/3 season. League and Champions League.
- Assists divided into 90 minute chunks
- From 1999/00 onwards. League and Champions League.
% of TEAM PRODUCTION
- Goals + Assists per90 (Contribution).
- League games only.
- Contribution / Total Team Goals in seasons (%).
- Normalised for actual playing time as a % of total team mins played.
- To strip out advantage of playing in an ultra attacking team.
- E.G. Player Contributed to 50 goals out of 100 scored by team in season.
- And played 65% of the total minutes the team played;
- (50 / 100 = 50%) / 65% = 76.9%
- % of Team Production = 76.9%.
Peak Season Scoring Contribution (inc Pens)
- Best Scoring Contribution achieved in a single league season.
- Includes penalties.
Selfless Factor %
- Assists / (Goals – Penalties)
- A way to indicate an attacking player’s style.
- Do they favour scoring, or setting up goals? Higher the % the more ‘selfless’ they are.
- So over 100% means they generate more assists than goals.
Starting 11 %
- % of occasions in the Starting 11 when in match squad
- A rough measure of ‘1st choice’. And/or of a managers’ propensity to rotate player as a starter.
I put the data together to look at three theories;
- Ryan Giggs was just a squad player. 7 out of 10.
- Gareth Bale is a better player than Giggs ever was.
- Giggs winning the BBC SPOTY in 2009 was a travesty.
Theory 1: RYAN GIGGS WAS JUST A SQUAD PLAYER. 7 out of 10.
On this theory I’m happy to say I was wrong. The numbers above paint a picture of a player who was better than 7 out of 10. Much more than a squad player, even if that term wasn’t meant as a negative.
Ryan Giggs was undoubtedly a ‘star’ player. Let’s say 8 out of 10. 8 out of 10 for two decades. That really is amazing. With the benefit of these numbers clarifying my hindsight, he undoubtedly was a better and more influential player than I generally gave him credit for over the years.
The reason I under-valued him can probably be seen in the contrast between his Goals and Assist numbers. If I was regularly pricing up ‘First Assist Provider’ rather than ‘First Goal Scorer’ then I would probably have formed a more favourable opinion. His assist creation is genuinely world class, no question. But his output of goal scoring is only so-so even compared to the Stalwarts, and way behind the more prolific superstars of the modern game.
If we say 7 out of 10 = a Squad Player (in a very good team), then we can call 8 out of 10 a Star Player. 9 out of 10 is a Superstar. Over 9.5 is a Megastar.
Antonio Valencia is a Squad player.
Ryan Giggs was a Star Player.
Franck Ribery is a Superstar Player.
Messi and Ronaldo are Megastars.
I don’t have data on ‘2nd assists’ here. These are, for example, a through-ball which results in a cross that is converted into a goal. Assisting an assist. It is easy to imagine that central players like Iniesta and Scholes would have a glossier shine put on their output if such contributions were measured. Scholes to Giggs to Van Nistelrooy. Iniesta to Alves to Messi.
There is a bigger picture too though, that these stats can’t reflect. Even for a player whose primary role is to create and score goals, there is more to football, and to being an effective member of a football team, than the number of times you cause the ball to go in the opposition net. Football ultimately is not about how many goals you score, but about if you scored more goals than your opposition, in any given match. Preventing goals is, in a strict statistical sense, equally as important as scoring them.
But defending gets much less attention. Defenders get paid less, and cost less than forwards. They get fewer individual awards. The ‘value’ of defending tends to be rated much less than attacking, and not just because attacking is easier to measure with stats like assists and goals.
In general defending is something that is done well as a unit, whereas attacking relies much more on moments of individual creativity. So placing a value upon less tangible qualities such as positioning, communication, organization and leadership is difficult/impossible even if you have access to all the defensive stats (interceptions, clearances, tackles etc) under the sun.
All of which is to say that Giggs’ true worth to the teams he played for is almost certainly greater than even his impressive offensive stats suggest.
He was (for the majority of his career) a great example of a ‘modern winger’. He beat defenders, got in crosses, made and scored goals. But he also tracked back to help out his full-back. He remains probably the best exponent I have ever seen of the ‘retreating slide block tackle’, where he would catch up with an opponent who was dribbling away from him, slide in, hooking his left leg round blocking the ball.
The opponent would often fall over the ‘block’ of ball and leg, leaving Giggs to spring to his feet and race away with the ball. On all ways of measuring attacking merit Ronaldo and Messi are superior players to Giggs. But I don’t remember them winning back possession like that too often. Nor do I suspect they have ever got close to matching Giggs’ appetite to race back to help Dennis Irwin double up on a right winger at Oldham on a cold Tuesday night in January.
It’s easy to imagine Giggs being a valuable ’group enhancing’ member of a squad. A significant voice (although often moaning, apparently) in the dressing room. A great inspiration and example to the young players coming through the ranks and into the first team over the years.
There is also the intangible ‘value’ of aesthetics. Giggs was blessed with a terrifically lithe, athletic physique, great balance and grace of movement. Giggs was always a good player to watch. He had style.
A TRULY Great Squad Player.
Theory 2: GARETH BALE IS A BETTER PLAYER THAN GIGGS EVER WAS.
I believe the numbers suggest I am right on this one. Looking at the data, and to use my arbitrary rating system above, Bale looks like a Superstar Player. Along with Luis Suarez and perhaps Neymar, he maybe has a shot at developing into a Megastar like Messi and Ronaldo.
Bale’s numbers here include the time he spent struggling as a left back at Spurs. It seems therefore highly likely that (fitness permitting) his numbers will continue to rise, and reach the level of the likes of the Bayern trio of Muller Ribery and Robben at least.
Bale is undoubtedly more likely to turn a single game (‘win a game on his own’, to use the daft footballing cliché) than Giggs ever was. He scores way more goals, from chances he can create himself. Giggs was so effective for Man Utd because he always had goalscorers like Van Nistelrooy, Cole, Solskjaer and Rooney who were at or above his level, getting into positions in the box to get on the end of his assists. Bale is more valuable to Wales currently than Giggs ever was.
When Roy Keane named a ‘greatest’ team of the players he played alongside at Utd, Ryan Giggs wasn’t in it. ‘A great career doesn’t mean you’re a great player’.
Jamie Carragher named him as the ‘best player in Premier League history’. But also observed that he was never the standout player in the league, like Henry or Ronaldo were. And that he was never the ‘one we were most worried about facing’, like Ronaldo, Scholes or Rooney.
Those observations sum Giggs up well I think. He was a ‘star’ player. But never a ‘superstar’. Bale is already a superstar, and might just become a megastar.
One of the stand-out things for me from the stats is the way they tell a story of how Sir Alex managed Giggs’ career. I remember him as an automatic first choice until late in his career, but that’s really not the case. Sir Alex used him sparingly, which you have to think is a big contributor to his longevity.
Even if you remove the last 3 seasons of his Utd career when his starting % inevitably dwindled, on the occasions Giggs was named in a Utd match squad, about 22% of the time it was on the bench.
Since the Premier League went to 38 games in 1994/5 he only averaged 22 league starts a season. That’s only 2 more than someone generally regarded as injury prone like Robin Van Persie who averages 20. Giggs definitely wasn’t injury prone.
And look at his international record. ‘Only’ 64 caps. For a guy who would certainly always have been an automatic first choice player for Wales, and who played so many club games with very few injuries. The fingerprints of Sir Alex holding Giggs back from too many exertions with a national team that had little or no realistic chance of making World Cups and Euros are all over those stats.
One of the main pictures which emerges from Giggs’ career numbers is how he had his long career so well managed by Sir Alex, for the benefit of Man Utd and Giggs himself.
It is no coincidence or luck that Sir Alex recognised, nurtured, improved and preserved two such enduring stars as Giggs and Scholes.
WELSH INTERNATIONAL GOALS per GAME
WELSH INTERNATIONAL CAPS
INTERNATIONAL TURNOUT %
- International Caps / Total Senior Games
- A rough way to measure the commitment of a player to playing international matches. Assumes the player would be selected when he makes himself available, which would apply to all of these players for the vast majority of their careers.
Theory 3: GIGGS WINNING THE BBC SPOTY IN 2009 WAS A TRAVESTY.
This is a no-brainer. Although the fault lies with the BBC and its structuring of the prize, not with Giggs obviously.
The BBC is woven into the fabric of this country, and has a great heritage – if not such a great present – of sports coverage. For mostly historical reasons the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award REALLY matters in the UK. To the sportsmen themselves, and to the huge audience the show always attracts. It should be a terrific event, a great way to end and celebrate the sporting year, honouring the ‘best’ sportsmen and women.
But the main prize is a muddled nonsense. Is it a popularity contest based on ‘personality’? Could a sportsman be rank average, but have a great personality (whatever that means) and be a contender? Is it designed to reward performances in that ‘year’ as the title suggests. Or a larger body of work, over a full career?
The annual BBC sports award show should offer 3 main awards;
- Sportsman of the Year. The man who has achieved the highest level of performance in his sport over the 12 months of that calendar year.
- Sportswoman of the Year. A similar criteria applied to women only.
- Career Achievement Award. Recognising a level of excellence over a number of years.
Some sports lend themselves more to the excellence of it’s athletes being appreciated over a period of time. Tony McCoy is the perfect example. His sustained excellence over nearly 2 decades as the perennial champion jumps jockey is a stupendous triumph of will, skill, toughness and dedication in a brutally attritional sport. If ever there is someone who should be honoured with a Career Achievement award it is him.
But making him the sports personality of any given year is an artificial sentimental fudge. His greatness isn’t expressed by what he does in any 12 months. It took a win in the Grand National and a million pound PR campaign funded by the racing industry to get him the award in 2010.
But the Grand National is only one race, and ‘just’ a long distance handicap at that. And do we really want the BBC SPOTY prize to go each year to the person with the biggest PR campaign budget, like the Oscars?
If you polled genuine and informed racing fans, and asked them who was the better jockey in any give race in 2010; a) Tony McCoy, or b) Ruby Walsh, then I think the majority would probably favour Walsh. So McCoy arguably wasn’t even the ‘best’ jumps jockey in 2010, never mind the best sportsman in the whole country.
Ryan Giggs, like Tony McCoy would be the worthiest of recipients of a BBC Career Achievement Award. But giving him the prize for 2009 was a nonsense. Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard or Wayne Rooney would have been far more worthy winners from football alone.
[The calendar year 2009 included halves of the 2008/9 and 2009/10 football seasons. The data below is for those 2 seasons, rather than for the calendar year as it ‘should’ be. But I think it’s a reasonable way to present the evidence, at least until someone with a better database can supply the 2009 data in isolation].
In the 2 seasons including 2009, Giggs only started a little over half of Man United’s games (57%).
He only scored 9 goals in the league and Champions League across the 2 seasons. For illustration, Darren Bent got 36 in the league alone.
His Scoring Contribution when he was on the pitch was good, at 0.66. But as you can see from the graph below the likes of Gerrard, Lampard and Rooney were more productive per minute as well as playing way more.
Man United won the League Cup final in March 2009 on penalties. Giggs was a sub and only came on in extra time in that match.
The biggest game by far he played in 2009 was the Champions League final vs Barcelona in Rome, where he captained the side. United lost 2 nil. Giggs was subbed off after 75 minutes having had rings run around him in the midfield by Busquets, Xavi and Iniesta.
It was the worst performance I think I ever saw from him in his United career. Years later, reading Sir Alex Ferguson’s autobiography, it transpired that Giggs was suffering from a bug that night, which explains why he was ‘below his normal energy level’ as Sir Alex put it.
This was unfortunate for Utd and Giggs. But in the context of the SPOTY award it means that the BBC honoured as its outstanding sportsman of 2009 a guy who had a shocker in the only really big game he played in the year.
The news that he was a bit under the weather in the ’09 final should perhaps cause me to re-assess one of my other suspicions about Giggs; that he wasn’t a particularly good ‘big game’ player.
The concept of a big game player might be an illusion anyway, a pleasing narrative dreamt up by journalists who want to add colour to their writing, and picked up and then used by people who read their articles – including other journalists and pundits.
So while it is true to say that Giggs never scored a goal in any of the 11 major finals he played in (7 x FA Cup, 4 x Champs Lge) that doesn’t go close to proving the theory right.
Apart from that great goal against Arsenal in the FA Cup semi in 1999 I don’t recall him playing that well, or doing anything special in the biggest games. But maybe that was just me looking to confirm my prejudice.
What we can say, with a great deal of certainty, is that Giggs was a particularly unworthy winner of SPOTY 2009. Even though he would definitely get my vote for any Career Achievement prize.
Ryan Giggs had a truly great career. But he was never a truly great player at any moment during his career.
In the pub, I was wrong to a call him ‘just a squad player’.
But I was right about Gareth Bale and SPOTY.
Is there a practical value to this analysis? Beyond an interest in looking for the ‘real’ worth of a player who is no longer playing? Well yes, I would hope there is. Most of the other players analysed are still playing. And I hope that some of the analysis represents a new and innovative way to look at the attacking output of players that could be improved upon by others. Although mainly it was just about looking for an excuse to say ‘I was right!’.
(Stats were mainly taken from the excellent statsbunker.com)
(Excerpt from Alex Ferguson – My Autobiography, Hodder & Stoughton 2013)
Please feel free to point out any mistakes of data or dubious conclusions. I promise not to argue, as you will almost certainly be right. Unless I’m drunk, in which case you are definitely wrong.