HomeFeatured ArticlesThe Evolution of Ryan Giggs: Meulensteen, Man Utd Tactics & Player Analysis

The Evolution of Ryan Giggs: Meulensteen, Man Utd Tactics & Player Analysis

Evolution of Ryan Giggs

George Best once expressed his fear that he would eventually be known as ‘another Ryan Giggs’ and forgotten as a player in his own right. But to profile Ryan Giggs in such a way is to suggest that there is a particular way of playing football that is acknowledged as ‘the Ryan Giggs way’, which for those who have had the opportunity to witness the Ryan Giggs in his twenties, is a player unbound through his ability to dribble jet-heeled through the sea of bodies before him: much like the profile of player that George Best, Diego Maradona and Leo Messi are famed for. Ryan Giggs has instead, lived the lives of two completely different players and instead of fading away with age, Giggs has used the experience he gained throughout his career to further himself as a player and allow himself to deter away from the usual route of becoming a faded player with age, but to become a different player all together.

Ryan Giggs, formerly known as an out-and-out left winger and nothing more, has demonstrated his ability over the years in an array of different positions: right-wing, off the striker, in central midfield and even as an auxiliary left-sided defender (26th Decemeber, 2008 vs. Stoke). Mike Phelan, the Manchester United assistant manager, observes Ryan Giggs on a daily basis and has noted Giggs’ ability to read situations on the football field, from a young, effervescent and daring winger who was often highlighted as ‘the player who made things happen’ to an elegant and well-positioned player who has grown to understand the relationship between risk and reward when in possession of the ball (when to be more adventurous and when to play it safe).


“He can play in numerous positions now and adapt into those that require more maturity. When he was younger, he got away with a lot of things because he was young and he could make mistakes. 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.”

Mike Phelan, Manchester United Assistant Manager


When Rene Meulensteen was promoted to the Reserves Team Coach of Manchester United in December 2005, he was to work with Ryan Giggs for the first time at the Carrington training facilities (having previously worked only with the youth teams). Meulensteen is a coach with first-hand experience of working with famed coach Wiel Coerver (see Coerver Coaching) and this experience has clearly influenced Meulensteen – a coach well-known for his ‘tricks and skills’ and considered one of the world’s finest technical coaches. On his promotion, Meulensteen began to tutor (on a one-to-one basis) several first team players and had a significant impact on the careers of both Ruud Van Nistelrooy and Ryan Giggs in particular.

Ryan Giggs approached Meulensteen looking to rediscover himself as a 32-year old who was starting to realise the loss of explosive-ness and pace as the vehemence of youth ebbed, key attributes for any player who was to play ‘the Ryan Giggs way’. It was clear that Ryan Giggs was not yet ready to accept he was to sit on the bench and allow new-comers Anderson and Nani take up his place in the first team.


“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 step-overs which have served him well.”

Rene Meulensteen, Manchester United First Team Coach


These changes in Giggs have been well documented over the last decade, but less so have been Manchester United’s own evolution and the role that Ryan Giggs has offered on the path to recent success. To measure just how good Giggs has been over the last decade (as the rediscovered utility midfielder) it is vital we understand his changing role in the team tactically and the Manchester United tactical philosophy that Giggs fits within.

The 8 Basic Principles of Manchester United’s Play

(as researched by Dick Bate, an extremely well-respected youth team coach and considered to be one of England’s greatest youth team coaches)

  1. Pass the ball in triangles
  2. Play from constricted space to open space on the weak side or down the flanks
  3. The two central midfield determine horizontal passing build-up
  4. The full-backs determine vertical passing build up down the flanks
  5. The back four and two central-midfield players can hold the ball if needed until change of tempo for attacking
  6. Pairing of players: The forwards act as a pair with one another and the full-backs are to act as a pair with the same sided wingers.
  7. The midfield players act as a pivot; this is done to enable many passing options in the above format which allows for many players to play above the line of the ball on the attack.
  8. The build-up is alternated between combinations of long and short passing depending on the situation but still acting on triggers (read on)

Triggers of Play and Two Key Tactical Strategies

Triggers fall into certain types of tactical strategies:

(1) Attacking the opponent’s weak side

(2) Changing tempo

1. Attacking the opponents weak side

The central defenders are to determine the direction of the attack when the following occurs:

(a) when both full-backs move diagonally closer to the half way line to present an option for the pass. The first pass to the full-back from the central defender is the trigger for the full-back and winger of the opposite flank that the ball will be switched for attack down the opponent’s weaker side. The full-back and winger are to move on into more advanced space and present an option in deeper wide areas on the designated opponent’s wing.

(b) the second trigger is who the full-back chooses to pass the ball to as this determines which player on the opposition flank the ball will be switched to and the supporting movement around the player. Should the full-back look to switch the ball to the winger, this would be followed by a fast pass to the central midfield player. This inward pass to the central midfielder is the trigger for the opposite full-back to move into more advanced space further forward and for the winger to cut inside, taking his marking-man with him – creating the space for the full-back to move on into.

(c) should the wide-midfielder on the full-backs side receive the ball, this is the trigger for the opposite full-back to advance into space to support his winger and for the winger to run into space to receive a long diagonal pass.

(d) should a midfield player receive a pass back from a central-forward, this triggers a movement from the winger on the weaker side to make a run down the wing to prepare for the long switched pass and for the full-back to support/over-lap to create space and/or passing options.

All four triggers are designed to isolate the opposition’s weaker side into a 1 vs. 1 encounter. It is in these positions that Rene Meulensteen’s expertise in beating a man with trickery comes into play.

wings copy

2. Changing Tempo 

The tempo of the game and speed of build-up is determined by the central midfield players at Manchester United. An immediate pass from the defence to a central midfield player is an instant trigger for the wingers to move out and stretch the field ahead. This movement is done to prepare for faster one touch passing combinations around the opposing third. The aim of this ploy is to open up the gaps to attack by stretching the opponents through the winger’s movement. The full-backs then push up closer to the touch-line and provide outlets for potential crosses and diagonal passes to the opposite winger.

Giggs’ Role Reviewed

It is therefore apparent that measuring Giggs’ performance by analysing how many assists or dribbles he has completed for each game he plays central midfield would be unsatisfactory. Giggs’ performance is to be measured through his ability to successful play the ball out to the wings and make himself available to receive passes from players as often as possible. This criteria however, is only suitable when Manchester United look to play through their wingers.

Manchester United have the players available to adopt an appropriate tactical solution depending on which team they are facing. Against teams that sit deep in two compact lines of four, it is more likely that Manchester United will play through ‘zone 14’ and look to use the width to pull players out of position (rather than as a way of assisting goals). The introduction of centrally positioned flair players like Van Persie, Kagawa and the increasing freedom that Wayne Rooney has found over the last 5 years has led to tactical diversity for Manchester United and the ‘tool-box’ of solutions to each problem that the Premier League throws at Manchester United. It is in this tactical approach that Ryan Giggs’ role changes – he now becomes a player who should look to play the ball in smaller areas of the field and look to change the pace of the game when possible. Where as 33% of all play in ‘zone 14’ is played through players who quite literally stand still in this zone (researched by the FA and presented by Dick Bate), 16% of play comes from players who run from deep and 13% of play inside zone 14 is from players who move within the zone itself. These statistics should reflect the movement of Ryan Giggs in these games and should dramatically differ from the games where Manchester United look to play through the wingers.

 zone14 copy

Player Analysis of Ryan Giggs (2008-2013)

Over the last five years a number of statistical changes have suggested a change in the way Ryan Giggs plays (not a decline, but a change). I have analysed Ryan Giggs’ every action using EPLindex’s OPTA stat database since 2008 where possible.

Ryan Giggs has illustrated through his stats that he has evolved to become a better player in the central midfield role in Manchester United’s ‘wing-play tactics’ (compared to 2008, where he would often play central midfield then too). There has been a 42% decrease in forward passes since 2010, but a 130% increase in passes to the left flank and a 80% increase in passes made to the right side of the field. These passing statistics suggest that Ryan Giggs has taken up an important role as the player responsible for the switching of play to the opposition’s weaker side.


(note that 0% change is positive as shows little sign of decline with age)

6% increase in ground duels per minute since 2008

3% increase in total final third passes per minute since 2010

2% decline in own half pass accuracy (minor)

13% increase in pass accuracy in opposition’s half

60% increase in total tackles per minute since 2008

8% increase in final third passes success rate since 2010

170% increase in tackles won in defensive third since 2010

173% increase in aerial duel wins since 2008

24% increase in long ball accuracy since 2008

14% increase in passes in defensive half accuracy since 2008


50% decrease in total through balls per minute since 2008

30% decrease in number of long balls per minute since 2008

60% decrease in number of interceptions per minute since 2008

32% decrease in number of touches of ball per minute since 2008

60% decline in total chances created per minute since 2008

19% decrease in passes per minute in opposition half since 2008

8% decrease in passes per minute in own half (slower at passing…slow tempo but accuracy increase)

40% decrease in minutes played since 2008


It has become apparent that although Ryan Giggs may no longer be the danger man himself, referring to the number of assists or goals scored, he is now a key tactical piece of Sir Alex Ferguson’s way of playing. He is now appropriately suited to playing in that central midfield role by playing the ball out to the wings and he has even improved over the last four years as a combative midfielder in terms of winning the ball both in the air and on the floor (for when Manchester United are out of possession). Ryan Giggs has even seen improvements or no sign of decline as a passing midfielder in terms of passing accuracy.

However, it should be noted that Ryan Giggs has seen a sharp decline in his aerobic capabilities and this is reflected in the statistics (loss of ability to intercept play, touches per minute and passes per minute) – there is a suggestion therefore, that perhaps Ryan Giggs is best used when the Manchester United tactics look to take advantage of the wings and exploit the opposition’s weaker full-back (or the oppositions ultra-attacking full-back). A secondary role could be seen as Giggs’ coming on during the dying moments of tight games to keep possession and slow down the game (through winning the ball back and slowing the tempo of the game down – fewer passes per minute than 2008). We shouldn’t underestimate the role that Ryan Giggs can still play and I am sure many would love to see Ryan Giggs surpass all expectations and continue to play into his 40’s.

I certainly cannot think of many who deserve such acclaim as a football player on a worldwide scene. Giggs has reinvented himself as a player who can fulfil polar opposite tactical roles (compared to 1990’s Giggs) within a world-class team and appears to take the position of a level-headed role model and advocate of long-term adaption. Perhaps what is needed for football fans to appreciate the Ryan Giggs of today is to forget the 1990’s Giggs and start to appreciate just how well 2012/13’s Ryan Giggs has adapted to age, the evolution of football and Manchester United’s tactics.


There was a time, a few months back, when quite a few Manchester United fans were questioning Ryan Giggs. In our frenetic desire to mould the next big team, we sometimes forget to celebrate greatness in our midst.

www.thebusbybabe.com, February 2013



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All of the stats from this article have been taken from the Opta Stats Centre at EPLIndex.com – Subscribe Now (Includes author privileges!) Check out our new Top Stats feature on the Stats Centre which allows you to compare all players in the league & read about new additions to the stats centre.[/box_light]

Assistant Manager of Oxford University Centaurs and Head of Analysis. The Tiki-Taka Handbook can be ordered from: http://shop.soccertutor.com/Coaching-the-Tiki-Taka-Style-of-Play-p/st-b019.htm Director of inspire football events | Football writer & youth academy coach - jeddavies.com | Writer on several websites as well as Liverpoolfc.tv and many more | Please follow me on Twitter - @TPiMBW or www.Facebook.com/JedDaviesFootballCoaching | Always open for a reasoned debate so please leave a comment
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