Nani finds himself in limbo at Old Trafford
Nani is in limbo. The Manchester United and Portugal winger reportedly tried to move to Zenit St Petersburg this summer, only to miss the transfer window. The rumours were that his wage demands proved too grand: whatever the truth, the extravagantly gifted attacker remains at Old Trafford.
The indications are that he is none too happy to be there: and, in truth, he could not have had a less enjoyable start to the season. Picked as a starter for Man Utd’s first match – a particularly difficult game away to Everton – he struggled through, seemingly unable to make good decisions with or without the ball. Operating wide in a three-man attack, he frequently cut back infield, congesting the pitch when he should have given it breadth or conceding possession in infuriatingly casual fashion. His performance was even poor enough to draw some attention away from the indifferent contribution of Wayne Rooney and Nani’s substitution seemed as much an act of mercy as anything else.
Yet Sir Alex Ferguson is not merciful. The Scotsman has long had good cause to persist with Nani, who came to Manchester six years ago as one of the most exciting young players in Europe. Since his arrival from Sporting Lisbon – also Cristiano Ronaldo’s former club – he has won a League Cup, three Premier League titles and a Champions League trophy, the latter after converting a penalty in the final’s shootout against Chelsea. At the end of the 2010-11 season, Nani was voted Man Utd’s players’ player of the year. Now, with his career headed in an uncertain direction, it is as good a time as any to assess his achievements.
First, it should be noted that he assumed a considerable mantle with some vigour. To become a winger at Manchester United is to slip into a shirt that bears a rare pressure. Before Nani, his countryman Ronaldo had been United’s main threat from the flanks – and so good was Ronaldo that he dispelled all comparisons with David Beckham and George Best. Nani, though, was and is a different player. Ronaldo began as a winger and ended up as a forward, capable of operating in any one of four positions – wide left, wide right, No9 or No10 – across the front line. Nani is less of a quarterback than a wide receiver; more of a marauder than a Machiavelli.
This is evidenced by a brief look at their goalscoring records. In his six Premier League seasons, Ronaldo scored 84 goals in 196 games, at the rate of 0.43 goals per match: this reflected the fact that, in his last few years, the strikeforce was reconfigured around him, with Rooney and Carlos Tevez in support. Nani, meanwhile, has struck 26 times in 125 games, a rate of 0.21 goals per match.
While Nani’s goal return compares favourably with that of his fellow winger at Old Trafford, Ecuador’s Antonio Valencia (10 in 74, at 0.14 goals per match), it is in the area of playmaking that he has shown his true value. According to statistics provided by Opta, since the beginning of the 2010-11 season there have only been four players in the Premier League – Everton’s Leighton Baines, Chelsea’s Florent Malouda, Luka Modric (formerly of Tottenham, now of Real Madrid) and David Silva of Man City – who have created more chances than Nani.
However, a look at the assists table over the same period gives an indication of why Nani is not seen as irreplaceable. Though he leads the Premier League over the past two years in goals created – with 25 – he is joined in the top six by Ashley Young (18), Valencia and Robin van Persie (both with 16). In other words, if Nani leaves soon, Manchester United – especially since they have just signed Shinji Kagawa from Dortmund – will still have plenty of playmakers.
It is difficult not to feel sympathy for a player who has been vital to so many of his club’s recent successes. At the age of 25, with a year to run on his contract, he still has plenty to contribute to its cause. But the talk is that Nani has fallen foul of Ferguson’s temper – and history tells us all too well how that turns out.
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