With Antonio Valencia requesting this week to revert back to the number 25 shirt, after a tumultuous season sporting the number 7, David Moyes needs to find a new starlet to hand the famous jersey to.
Even if Manchester United fail in their pursuit to bring in a marquee signing this Summer, there are enough potential candidates already within their ranks that would bite at the chance to become United’s latest number 7.
Japanese playmaker Shinji Kagawa has already passed at the chance though, preferring the number 26, whilst star striker Robin Van Persie seems content with his choice of #20 after specifically requesting it as Manchester United searched for their twentieth Premier League Title.
The chance to follow in the footsteps of United Legends such as Beckham, Cantona and Ronaldo would surely whet the appetite of Ashley Young, Danny Welbeck and new singing Wilfried Zaha. However, whether any one of these three possess the track record to justify receiving such an accolade is another matter entirely.
Does that mean United are out of options? Will the famous number 7 suffer the same fate as United’s number 9 shirt? Unused and unloved? Not quite...
Step forward United’s forgotten winger – Luis Nani.
Although Nani is lacking the ‘fan’s favourite’ status that most other number 7’s are lavished with by the Old Trafford faithful, the Portuguese star does have a whole host of credentials that, on paper, would justify replacing Antonia Valencia and becoming the latest star studded seven.
Valencia was at his scintillating best during United’s 2011/2012 campaign. Armed with a new four year deal, the Ecuadorian powerhouse took home the Manchester United fans’ and players’ player of the year award and the award for goal of the season.
You name it, the Ecuadorian winger won it.
However, the most noticeable accolade bestowed upon him was an upgrade in his squad number. Valencia was eager ditch his beloved #25 shirt and become a sensation in the #7 jersey.
However, underneath the jersey and the pressure Valencia stagnated and he ditched the jersey and returned to his well known and loved number 25.
The fact that Antonia couldn’t cut it as United’s number 7 doesn’t make him a failure though. It definitely doesn’t mean he isn’t considered as crucial to United’s title challenge as in previous years. He just didn’t have the qualities required for a number 7.
So, what does make a United number 7 then?
Georgie Best, Bryan Robson, Eric Cantona, David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo all played in the adorned jersey and each one of them made it his own.
A number 7 at United is not just a great player. He doesn’t even necessarily have to be the best player. The one quality that the 7’s share is that ‘je ne sais quoi’. That piece of magic. That charm. That confidence that seeps out and reassures the crowd that you were born to be a 7.
Georgie Best could dance round defenders, Bryan Robson was majestic in midfield, Eric Cantona introduced suave to English football, David Beckham’s set pieces were a work of art and Cristiano Ronaldo’s skill was breathtaking.
No matter whose wearing that shirt, when a piece of magic is required at Old Trafford, all eyes fall on the number 7. Quite the daunting job description...
Out of United’s current crop, Nani is the one superstar that even comes close to meeting these guidelines.
Since his arrival in Manchester back in 2007, Nani has never shirked away from the sublime. His first goal for United against Tottenham Hotspur gave the world a glimpse of his skill, ability and confidence.
With United languishing in front of goal for 70 minutes, Nani steals the ball from Paul Scholes in midfield, lets fly from 30 yards and sends the ball careering into the top corner of Heurelho Gomes’s net. An impressive goal met with an equally impressive celebration, acrobatically back flipping through the sky amidst the joy and ecstasy emanating from Old Trafford.
Nani has always had the ability to pull off moments of magic. Never content with a tap-in, the majority of his goals include the winger tearing past a defender or two, looking up then thundering a shot into the top corner.
Whoever the opposition. Whatever the score. Whenever the time. Nani has the belief that he can win the game for Manchester United.
Manchester United’s number 7s are sculpted to excite Old Trafford. It is not in their nature to shirk away from a challenge or shy away from wanting the ball. They keep the fans on their toes and make the impossible, routine.
So, why is he not a guaranteed successor to Valencia?
Many would argue though that Nani has not kicked on to where he should be. When Ronaldo arrived in Manchester and was immediately given the number, he too could produce unrivalled skill and sensational finishes. However, he was inconsistent, greedy and, far too often, easily bullied out of a game.
However, after a few seasons at Carrington, Ronaldo matured from an exciting teenager into the finished article, a world class talent, a man against boys.
Nani still suffers from the same drawbacks his Portuguese counterpart did on arrival. His inconsistency plagues his performances and renders him susceptible to abuse from the fans when things aren’t going quite right.
Regardless of this, Moyes would do well to keep in mind that Nani flourishes under freedom. He would have been one of only a handful of people at Old Trafford to have not mourned the loss of Cristiano Ronaldo to Real Madrid. In the seasons that followed his exit, Nani has flourished, scoring ten goals in both the 2010-11 and 2011-12 season and being included in the PFA Premier League Team Of The Year in the former season.
Nani languished last season, becoming a bit part player to Shinji Kagawa and Danny Welbeck on the wings, heightening speculation that his future lay away from Manchester.
However, with Manchester United failing to attract a world class player so far this Summer, perhaps Moyes should take a leap of faith with the Portuguese international and allow him to take over the mantle, vacated by teammate.
Nani needs a new challenge at Old Trafford, a new incentive to prove himself and become a world-beater. United need a new number 7 to electrify the terraces, terrify opposition and galvanise the team.
Surely a match made in heaven.