Nani will never be Mr Reliable but he is a damn good footballer
A strange sort of consensus seemed to have spread through the media amid the fallout from last week’s red card against Real Madrid. Judging by the scores marked down in a number of post-match player-rating articles, Nani appeared to have failed to justify his selection.
That was hardly the case however, with the winger offering Manchester United a tricky outlet and an unpredictable threat that seemed to spook Real’s defensive line. With van Persie hovering at the team’s apex, and Welbeck making use of his prodigious industry to both mark out Alonso and constantly break forward, the Portugese winger was a key third in the triple-threat set-up that had kept Madrid on their toes at the back and unable to fully enact their own game plan. Although the winger’s contribution to United’s defensive tactics was minimal, his ability to retain the ball high up the pitch and beat his man – the opposition’s weak point Alvaro Arbeloa – prevented the likes of Ramos and Varane from properly pushing up to support their nullified midfield.
Regardless, the papers told a very different story with his interrupted appearance scoring fours and fives out of ten. Justifications for such numbers ranged from a cited lack of contribution – conveniently forgetting moments such as the delicious cross Nani provided around thirty minutes into the game and the danger ball that resulted in Ramos’ own goal – to cowardly passing up responsibility to the referee’s controversial booking. Perhaps it was the shock absence of Wayne Rooney from the starting eleven that prompted the press to pick at the Portugese, with the premise of their pre-planned match feature lying in tatters?
Besides his breath taking dribbles and on-the-ball skill, Nani can be a difficult player to love, certainly. He’s almost created his own caricature of the capricious winger with no football brain, whose decision-making is forever suspect: his ideas always out-of-line with the expectations of his colleagues. With his love of taking on markers and going it alone, he is still perceived as United’s mini-Ronaldo who never quite turned his talent into consistency.
He remains a flighty individualist who can at times appear greedy, but when those around him struggle to play on his wavelength and anticipate his creative impulses, it’s not entirely unreasonable for such a confident and adroit player to snatch opportunities for himself. Those passes, feints and balls he attempts that never come off – or seem to ping away in the opposite direction to their intended runner or target – aren’t always bad decisions. Far from it: Nani’s ideas can often be brilliant, and yet, tragically, they are often doomed to ridicule and pitchside pantomime thanks in part to the oblivious reactions of his peers. Dimitar Berbatov, for all his undoubted elegance and finesse, just couldn’t wrap his highly cultured mind around the streetwise chaos theory of Luis.
Could the problem be partly tactical? With players such as Nani, less can be more in terms of their job within a system. Many of the wingers best performances have come when the rest of the team have been forced into more disciplined, rigid roles against big-name opposition. In scenarios such as last week against Real Madrid, while the freedoms of his colleagues are limited, Nani is instead given free reign to improvise on the hard and structured foundations around him. The likes of Carrick, Giggs and Cleverley do the dirty work while he provides the magic. He is the unknown quality that terrorises defenders both in their minds and in their legs.
Many of Nani’s best goals and performances have come against title rivals and big name competitors. From his strikes against Chelsea in 2009/10 and last year, to his gorgeous backheel against Bayern Munich in 2010, and his equaliser and winning goals against Manchester City in the community shield.
Conversely, it is when Nani is thrown onto the wings in one of Sir Alex Ferguson’s more open-ended and loose interpretations of the four-four-two that he appears to struggle the most. To this end, the persistent rumours of interest from the likes of Inter are entirely understandable. In the more regimented, compartmentalised footballing culture of Serie A, Nani could well flourish into a free roaming forward, ad-libbing ahead of a solid, organised unit ready and willing to grind out his mistakes. Too often in the Premier League, it is as though the Portuguese flair man is taking on too much for himself and stepping on the toes of others when the creative burden is shared throughout the team.
That is not to say that Nani isn’t a keen collaborator. Watching him trade places and passes with the likes of Rooney, Young, Welbeck and co in a fluid front-three or four is electric. For all his contextual faults, he is a fantastic footballer; one who can instantly upgrade the ball playing and fluency in United’s attack when on-song. That form is an issue however, and when things aren’t going his way – and that solid foundation isn’t in place – pressure grows and his performances soon become over-stressed and over-thought. Without an ability to think clearly and stay composed, Nani’s decision making can look as if it has gone haywire.
United’s current roster looks at its best when allowed to function as a fluid network of inter-locking duets. From the obvious pairings of Carrick and Cleverley and Rafael and Valencia, to the offbeat combinations of Welbeck and Cleverley, and Evans and whoever is running the flanks, Nani is an ideal participant in the blossoming array of one-two rallys and single touch passing that have become a pretty and powerful weapon over the past two seasons.
Too many seem to think that solving a problem such as Nani consists of ripping the joy and verve from his game, but to do so would be to clip his wings and extinguish his magical flame. Instead, he should be held back for the right occasions, when both he and his teammates can best benefit from his unique abilities. Luis Nani: big game player. While there is still hope that the remaining kinks and incompatibilities between Nani and those around him can be overcome, his future may yet be that of a highly-skilled squad specialist – a champion of the endangered art of dribbling who awaits a fixture befitting of his game.
You can’t create an efficient machine of pure productivity without forcing Nani to become predictable, and to strip him of his precarious flamboyance would be a crime and a waste.