Ryan’s Riddle

As featured on Pundit Arena

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Ryan Giggs put on a brave face before the television cameras during Euro 2016, yet despite his own off-field experiences one can only imagine what he has been going through.

While several players put themselves in the shop window in France, Giggs was doing likewise on ITV. Having joined Manchester United almost 30 years ago, the club legend can no longer be found at Carrington.

Having had his managerial appetite whetted in the aftermath of David Moyes’ tenure before becoming assistant manager under Louis van Gaal, Giggs was overlooked for the main job in favour of Jose Mourinho. The subsequent installation of Rui Faria at Mourinho’s side further proved that Giggs’ aspirations clearly conflicted with the plans of the new manager.

While a position further down the pecking order was in the offing, Giggs’ pride intervened. He now finds himself on holiday in the middle of August for the first time in his professional career.

The reason is simple: Manchester United are no longer a football club; they are a corporation. Corporations demand success, often spending vast sums to ensure it. This sentiment has only been enhanced by the world record acquisition of Paul Pogba. Despite an overhaul that leaves only five first-team players from Pogba’s initial stint in Manchester, Van Gaal’s failure at the helm dictated that further change was needed.

It was no secret that Giggs yearned for the top job and he will have pointed to the success enjoyed by several ex-professionals at Europe’s biggest clubs. But while the Welshman may have pitched his desire to create a new dynasty at the club just as he had been bred in the culture of success in the No. 11 shirt, ultimately his credentials were much less certain in a shirt and tie.

In any event, those to whom Giggs most likely referenced were in different positions before they acceded to the main role in their respective clubs. Pep Guardiola, for instance, profited from the work of his predecessor. It was Frank Rijkaard who largely assembled the squad that would go on to dominate European football.

In his first season in charge Guardiola’s biggest alteration was to remove Deco and an injury-plagued Ronaldinho from his ranks to give more authority to those already at the club, namely the likes of Xavi, Andres Iniesta and a certain Lionel Messi. The Argentine duly contributed 38 goals as his side claimed a domestic double and the Champions League. Giggs would not have enjoyed the same privilege – whether he could have attracted the type of players that Manchester United required was an obvious worry.

Guardiola’s greatest achievement has been in maintaining a level of success at both Barcelona and Bayern Munich. However, neither required much repair work. At Barcelona, the famed La Masia academy ensured that his squad continuously evolved, while all were well-versed in his favoured tiki-taka style first advanced by Johann Cruyff during Guardiola’s playing career at the club. Furthermore, when Guardiola assumed control at Bayern in 2013, they were the reigning Bundesliga and European champions.

Now at Manchester City, the Spaniard’s managerial capacity will be given its sternest test yet. Having already scaled the heights of the Premier League under Roberto Mancini, Sheikh Mansour demands Champions League success. While Xavi would maintain that Guardiola has all the characteristics and experience to finally transform them into a European heavyweight, others would argue that he already has European semi-finalists in his control, in addition to a £300 million war chest.

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Having led Barcelona B to promotion from Segunda Division B, Guardiola and his assistant Tito Vilanova were ideally placed to assume the reins from Rijkaard in 2008. Similarly, at Real Madrid, Zinedine Zidane ascended to the coaching zenith from within. Giggs undoubtedly considered this modern trend of promotion when pitching his cause. However, it is largely ignored that Guardiola had already been expanding his ambition by playing out the latter part of his career in Italy further developing the tactical education that is provided on the continent.

Zidane, meanwhile, waited patiently for eight years in a variety of guises learning from the likes of Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti and even Rafa Benitez before being entrusted with the wheel. Moreover, like Guardiola, Zidane should be grateful for a team replete with the two most expensive players in the world and a support cast comprising a host of international stars.

While pride was undoubtedly at play, Giggs’ decision to depart his beloved home is a brave one. Now, while on holiday with his estranged wife, he must consider his options. Several clubs have been mooted – not least Hull City where a partnership with Mike Phelan (Sir Alex Ferguson’s former assistant) is conceivable. However, there is arguably too much at stake for the Tigers for them to consider employing someone of his inexperience.

Giggs’ own former colleagues knows only too well that jumping the gun to manage a top-level club is risky business. Gary Neville’s tenure at Valencia was an unmitigated disaster, Clarence Seedorf’s stint at AC Milan wasn’t much better, whilst Alan Shearer (Newcastle Utd), Gary McAllister (Coventry City), Attilo Lombardo (Crystal Palace) and Gianfranco Zola (West Ham) have all experienced less than successful stints in the top flight.

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Kenny Dalglish is an obvious exception, but when installed as player-manager at Anfield in 1985 Liverpool were already the best team in England and had contested the European Cup Final. In any event, the landscape of football in England has changed considerably. Were Giggs to lead Manchester United through another mediocre season, the knives would have been sharpened and the status of a great legend would have been diminished. Given the success that the corporation demands, Mourinho was ultimately too much of a guarantee to ignore.

Of those who have managed a measure of longevity in the English top-flight, the vast majority has plied their trade in the lower leagues. Sam Allardyce famously managed Limerick City before returning to England. His ascension to the English job comprised tenures at Preston North End, Blackpool and Notts County before Bolton Wanderers finally thrust him into the spotlight. Harry Redknapp guided Bournemouth from the brink of relegation to the Division 3 title in 1987. Tony Pulis also spent time at Bournemouth before moving to Gillingham and Bristol City. Alan Pardew began at Reading in Division 2. Famously, Claudio Ranieri was at little-known Vigor Lamezia and Puteolana before guiding Cagliari from Serie C to Serie A.

Every manager will aspire to the top jobs, but if a sustained career in the managerial fold is the goal then one must learn their trade. With less straining economic anxieties to contend with, managers tend to be given more time at a lower level.

Time is invaluable in the game and an increasingly rare commodity. Time affords managers the opportunity try different things, acquire a grounded knowledge base, the experience to deal with the inevitable pressures and learn to adjust alongside an ever-evolving game. Such adaptability will be essential to surviving in the Premier League where success must be instant and extraneous concerns are prevalent – fans, the media, transfers and egos.

The likes of Guardiola and Zidane happened to be in the right place at the right time. Old Trafford was no such place for Ryan Giggs. Whether or not he will ever return is anyone’s guess. Many others have departed for pastures new with similar aspirations and simply failed to show the abilities that the job demands – therein will lie Giggs’ primary concern.

But while he will have been undoubtedly devastated, much like a separation, in time he will learn that as difficult as it may have been, it is for the best. Perhaps now he will have a career in management, only it probably won’t ever be in Manchester.

 

 

Opinion: A Failing Warrior Under Pressure to Maintain his Cutting Edge

As published on Pundit Arena

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In making it to the semi-finals of Euro 2016, Wales have enjoyed a better success rate in the knockout stages of a major tournament than England have been able to manage in 20 years. Throughout that time, various figures have been unreasonably scapegoated by the British press and vilified throughout the stadiums of England – the likes of David Beckham (1998), David Seaman (2002), Darius Vassell (2004), Wayne Rooney (2006) and Rob Greene (2010) have all returned home needing to redeem their tarnished reputations.

While some of those named descended into ignominy for the remainder of their careers, Beckham and Rooney used the heavy-handed criticism as motivating tools. Indeed, just one year after his sending off against Argentina in St. Etienne, Beckham was celebrating a historic treble with Manchester United – his performances pitting him a close second to Rivaldo in the Fifa World Player of the Year Awards. Eight years later, Rooney experienced similar hatred before spearheading United’s assault on the Premier League. With Rooney in tandem with Cristiano Ronaldo, the club regained the title for the first time in three seasons despite the loss of Ruud van Nistelrooy.

Given that he is England’s all-time record goalscorer, Rooney will inevitably go down as one of England’s greatest players, but many will point to the reality that he has done little more than lead an English side home prematurely from a major tournament.

Although he burst onto the scene at Euro 2004, Rooney has led the line for his country at five subsequent tournaments, failing to breach the quarter-final stage whilst his most noteworthy contribution in front of goal was a tap-in in the 2-1 defeat to Uruguay in Brazil. On Wednesday evening, as Ronaldo led Portugal out in Lyon to face Wales, Rooney may have sat pondering whether he has finally run out of chances to emerge from beneath another underwhelming campaign in the England shirt.

Following his sending off against Portugal in the 2006 World Cup, Rooney undoubtedly benefitted from the experiences gleaned by Sir Alex Ferguson in the aftermath of the vitriol dished out to Beckham in 1998. As with Beckham, Ferguson thrust Rooney onto the pitch rather than protecting him from the baying mobs. The best way for Rooney to answer his detractors was on the field of play. But that was a different time in Manchester.

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In August 2006, Rooney was entering into his third season at Old Trafford and very much at the heart of Ferguson’s plans. With the sale of van Nistelrooy to Real Madrid, it was clear that Ferguson was building a new side around Rooney’s strength and energy and the dazzling ability of Ronaldo. Even when Ronaldo finally followed van Nistelrooy to the Bernabeu, Rooney revelled in filling the void with some of the best goalscoring exploits of his career.

However, Rooney is no longer the main man.

At 30, Rooney should be at the height of his peak. As captain of both club and country and with Bobby Charlton’s 249 goals firmly in sight, theoretically the hopes of Manchester United’s immediate future should be resting on his shoulders rather than those of a man in his mid-30s and two youngsters barely out of puberty.

Where Rooney fits in José Mourinho’s plans are intriguing. Speaking at his first press conference at the helm of United earlier this week, the Portuguese said:

“One thing that will never change is his natural appetite to put the ball in the net. Maybe he is not a striker, not a No. 9 anymore. But with me he will never be a No. 6, playing 50m from goal.

“Yes, his passing is amazing but mine is also amazing without pressure. Many players have a great pass, but to put the ball in the net is the most difficult. He will be a No. 9, a No. 10, a No. 9.5, but never a No. 6 or a No. 8.”

It would appear then that while the midfield experiment was fleeting, Mourinho is nevertheless reluctant to pin his colours to any particular mast. On the face of it, Rooney’s move into midfield was merited. With his pace failing and his usual composure in front of goal lacking, he sought to impose himself on fixtures from a different perspective.

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Ever since Paul Scholes opted to hang up his boots, United have missed a player with the ability to make the killer pass. With an apparent unwillingness to delegate, Rooney felt obliged to take up that same role and was therefore found to drop deeper in an effort to provide that cutting edge. This exhibited a naivety in his captaincy – yet it suited Louis van Gaal. With the emergence of Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial, the Dutchman had suddenly found the pace and potency that Rooney no longer possessed. In a similar vein, Rooney became the fourth-choice striker for England as Hodgson turned to Harry Kane, with Jamie Vardy and Daniel Sturridge his able deputies.

Having begun the last campaign with a threadbare strike force, United now possess one of the most exciting attacking players in the Premier League. Zlatan Ibrahimovic will bring a mercurial presence to Old Trafford once again, while Rashford and Martial will learn a great deal from the Swede. Henrikh Mkhitaryan will hope to carry his Bundesliga form into the Premiership, while Memphis Depay will be given an opportunity to prove a point by Mourinho.

Rooney’s career at United is far from over, but it is far from certain what role he will be given to play and when he will play it. Given his recent scoring record, it is unlikely that Mourinho will trust Rooney to drive United’s challenge, especially considering that Ibrahimovic notched 50 goals for Paris St. Germain last season. With Ibrahimovic providing a focal point, space will be created in the wider areas for the likes of Martial et al to prosper – Rooney’s over eagerness to get involved tended to clutter the same zones.

Many question whether Rooney has suffered a form of burn-out from a career that has already seen him tally almost 600 senior appearances. Since he ended Arsenal’s 30-game unbeaten run as a well developed 16-year-old for Everton in 2002, he has been the great hope for British football, leading the charge for every team in which he has played. Whether 2016 represents the beginning of the end for Wayne Rooney is anyone’s guess, but what cannot be denied is that he is no longer the player that relentlessly put fear in the eyes of his wary opposition.