Manchester United: Send Nani To Arsenal, We Just Don't Need Him Anymore
So, it’s looking increasingly likely that Nani will be leaving Manchester United in January. The evidence is certainly accumulating: his contract negotiations have stalled more times than an Austin Metro, he has made only eleven appearances in all competitions this season, he was publicly blamed by Fergie for a mistake against Chelsea and then there’s the real clincher… he was left out of next season’s official calendar! Ok, so the calendar thing is meaningless; simply media fodder used to stoke the fire. By the same token we could conclude that Ferguson is preparing an unprecedented fire sale given that Ferdinand, De Gea, Evra, Rafael, Smalling, Jones, Evra and Fletcher also didn’t make the cut. There are, as far as I’m aware, only twelve months in a year and while Nani’s non-inclusion proves- as if it needed proving- that he is no longer central to United’s plans, no further conclusions should reasonably be drawn from that non-story. Still, it’s not looking good for him.
So, what’s gone wrong?
Two years ago Nani was on the top of the world, contributing in no small part to United’s 19th league title, winning Players’ Player of the season for his efforts (possibly because his name was the easiest for the players to spell, but nonetheless…) He was central to United’s high-octane counter-attacking style, scoring 9 and producing the league’s most assists (18) in 2010-2011. Last season he mustered up the team’s second highest number of assists (12) behind Valencia, weighing in with another healthy tally of 8 goals. His performances at the Euros were strong, with the joint-second highest number of assists (Ok, so it was only 2) and scoring his penalty under extreme pressure in the semi-final against Spain. So, ‘Bring on 2012-13!’ he must have thought, ‘… in fact, I’m sure I can even get a cheeky wage raise out of this, my agent certainly seems to think so’.
What Nani may not have anticipated was the impending sea change in strategy that was to unfold this season. Admittedly, this shift in attacking emphasis did most probably arise as a reactive measure to signing up Van Persie and the resulting desire to cram in all the central-based attacking talent- Kagawa, RVP, Rooney, Hernandez, Welbeck- into one side; so it’s perhaps unsurprising that the Portuguese was caught out. The resulting ‘narrow-minded’ approach has seen the adoption of 4-2-3-1 or a diamond-studded 4-4-2 deployed in the vast majority of games, and even when the more traditional 4-4-2 was employed in a big league game in order to take Chelsea by surprise , it was Young and Valencia who filled the wide positions over the hapless Nani.
He certainly was the perfect man for the fluid counter-attacking football that was a hallmark of United’s game until recently, providing an unrivalled ability to take defenders out of the game with his trickery on mazy runs. Even if he remained somewhat inconsistent in his delivery in the final third, he gained enough possession to make it count over 90 minutes. Since Manchester United have adopted a narrower, more tactically complex strategy, it really doesn’t surprise me that Nani has been left out in the cold (with thermal gloves, snood and hat). His game is all about risk-taking; taking on players is never a massively high percentage style of play, no matter how good you are at it (excluding Messi, obviously).
In the condensed midfield created through Manchester United’s current style, the traffic becomes heavier and the percentages of success for a player like Nani diminish. It’s pretty clear, too, that Nani has never really developed the greatest ‘footballing brain’; given the task of running his line, dribbling at full-backs and crossing/shooting, Nani’s your man, but ask him to adopt a role any more complex (e.g. left side of diamond or one of three behind the striker) and his effectiveness will plummet. Ultimately, I think Fergie considers him an unnecessary liability during a delicately balanced transition in formation and overall style of play. We can argue over Fergie’s wisdom in abandoning the free-flowing style of football heavily reliant on wide players that has served United so well over the years, but once the decision has been made- and it clearly has- Nani’s exclusion makes perfect sense.
Is he definitely going?
Well, let’s look at the evidence- calendar nonsense aside. Since returning to Old Trafford this summer Nani has been locked in contract renewal negotiations, with his renowned agent, Jorges Mendes, no doubt at the heart of proceedings. Reports suggest that in fact Nani only remains a Manchester United player because he/Jorges made unrealistic wage demands to Zenit St Petersburg in the summer. Many have interpreted this as suggesting Nani never intended to move, knowing that the demands would be unmet. Either way, this action from the Portuguese will hardly have endeared Ferguson, who is not exactly known for his forgiving nature. Since then, some have reported that Nani has backtracked from his wage demands at United, happy to remain on his current £90,000 per week, asking instead for increased bonuses (e.g. £30,000 for each appearance). Others claim this to be nonsense, reporting that he’s still holding out for a mighty £130,000. If the former is true, we know nothing has been agreed, so the signs are that a January sale is on the cards. If the latter is true, he’s obviously not going to get it, so… January it is.
Against Chelsea in the Capital One Cup at the end of October Nani was given a rare opportunity to prove himself. He scored, but was also guilty of needlessly conceding possession in the last minute, resulting in Chelsea scoring an equaliser, before going on to clinch the game in extra time. Ferguson didn’t mention the former when publicly castigating Nani for his error of judgement, basically placing the defeat squarely on the shoulders of the winger. This is very rare indeed for Fergie, who is known to staunchly defend his players in the public eye. To me, this is perhaps the clearest indication that Nani is not in the Scot’s good books. Strachan, Kanchelskis, Ince, Staam, Van Nistelrooy, Keane and Beckham will all be able to tell us what happens next.