There is no doubt that Luis Nani had everything it took to be a Man Utd great. On his day, he could kill a full back with the artistic grace of an Underworld assassin. Deadly on the trigger. Focused on his target. Devastating in his execution. We all remember that breath-taking piece of skill at the Emirates – when he killed two defenders in the corner, and then chipped the keeper. That was his coming of age. Well, so we thought.
In a post Ronaldo era, we put all our eggs in the Nani basket, and so did Sir Alex. For a while it looked like we could all be smug together – all our defence of the boy to his detractors was finally justified. For a good two season, he looked like he could kick on into that elite bracket of world footballers. But then Jamie Carragher happened. That tackle, and subsequent injury, derailed the lad – and he never fully recovered that blistering form.
The key word in that last sentence is football’s classic catchphrase: ‘Form’
Nani always had the ability to produce great form, but he also regularly produced shockingly bad form. I do not think you could ever label him as ‘lazy’ or ‘inept’…but certainly there was a part of his brain that just did not function as you would hope it would. It is easy to criticise flair players like Nani. Those fans that crave flair over industry will defend a maverick player at every turn. No doubt, watching a Nani in the middle of a run of great form was a beautiful thing. But I have lost count of the amount of times he has had me reaching for the hair on my head to pull, that hasn’t been there since the 90s.
One thing Nani can never say is that United didn’t show faith in him. He has been with the club six long years. The curve of his development was painfully slow – only Anderson can beat him on that. However, after seventy-two months at the club it is fairly crystal clear what direction a player’s career is going. At 26 years old, we may well be left with egg on our collective face. He still has time to peak and mature. But how long do you keep faith? How long do you tolerate the sub standard performances? Nani is different to Young and Valencia. Those two are functional squad players. Neither will ever light up the biggest stage, but they will give you strength in-depth (shut up Alan Hansen) and give you options. It is this squad ethos that has won us so much over the years. Nani is your classic ‘match winner’ – BUT if he is not winning you matches then what is he doing? This is the issue. The lack of functionality is a problem. It was felt that he could play as a second striker, as Ashley Young used to at Villa, but this experiment never happened.
Four years ago I wrote this about Nani
In that article the same concerns I had back then still exist today. That on its own explains this situation very well. Football is not the most patient of industries, but I do think that Nani lad has had his fair crack of the whip. We can either give him more time and lose him on a free, or cash in today…and move on. I think Nani’s fate has been sealed for a while, certainly pre David Moyes. When you assess the wing contribution to goal assists from last season, you can see a new style of play slowly imposing itself on the Manchester United traditions of two in the middle, two up top, and of course – two out wide. United will replace Nani, but maybe not with a like for like. If the Fabregas deal is more than just Spanish mythology, it is likely we will see a more narrow midfield in the post Ferguson years, leaving the full backs to do the wide graft. 4-4-2 is fine against your Stoke Citys…but Mourinho will kill you if you play that formation. Nani represents an ideal of six years ago. That ideal is now obsolete.
I wish Nani all the best in France. In that league he will look amazing. But he had his chance at MUFC. Maybe when he hits 27 years old he will have an epiphany, and kick on a gear…but we simply can’t hang around and wait for that to happen. For a second we truly believed he could fill the Ronaldo void. But that reality was never close to happening.