Strange season this; perhaps more so for Manchester United’s Portuguese winger Luis Nani. Little more than a year ago the former Sporting player’s time at Old Trafford was drawing to a close, with United accepting a huge bid from Zenit St. Petersburg in the winter window. The 26-year-old was out of Ferguson’s team and unwanted by the club with whom he has spent more than six years. Six months later and Nani would sign a lucrative five-year contract with United; a signal, perhaps, of new manager David Moyes’ faith in the errant wide-man. The winger turned down Zenit to be rewarded with a new opportunity at United.
Nani’s is a narrative that has rarely run on the straight and narrow. So often has the player been on the precipice at United that he has rarely, despite more than 225 appearances in Red, seemed a fixture at the club. More than once did was the player headed for an exit, only for another unlikely chance, often born of a revival that failed to last. It is the player’s lot; a supreme talent unfulfilled not for chances squandered, but conspicuous inconsistency. It is now four and half years since Rant declared Nani’s “last chance” at Old Trafford. So much for predictions.
The player’s debut was more than six years ago though – a second half substitute in United’s score draw with Chelsea in the 2007 Community Shield at Wembley. There have been some stunning highs. Not least 10 goals and 18 assists in the 2011/12 campaign that finally seemed to unveil the player as Cristiano Ronaldo’s heir. Yet, this proved to be an exception in six years that have otherwise largely flattered to deceive.
Flattery is the frustration. Here is a player that boasts so much and delivers far too little, a victim only rarely of the congenital British mistrust of talent, but too often a failure of his own making.
Indeed, Ferguson had come to mistrust the player late into the winter of his reign, hoping that time and maturity might work in the player’s favour; a slow developer where his predecessor Ronaldo had achieved a double figure goal tally in his third campaign with the club.
“Nani is definitely one of the best match-winners in Europe,” said the former United manager last winter. “He has an incredible talent for winning matches. We would like him to stay.” Less than a month earlier Ferguson had sought to push Nani out of the door and into Zenit’s arms. Only the player’s intervention prevented a late window transfer that would have netted Nani a sizeable increase on already substantial wages.
Then came the summer and United’s surprising decision to award Nani a new five-year contract, with a salary increase somewhere south of the player’s original demand, but solidly in the second tier of earners at United.
“I’m really pleased Nani has re-signed for the next five years,” said Moyes, with what now looks to be a modicum of disingenuity.
“He has great ability and experience beyond his 26 years. I’ve been impressed with his approach to training and look forward to working with him in the coming seasons.”
It is more likely that United simply moved to protect that value of it’s asset, with Nani’s contract due to run down in summer 2014. Still, new contact and a fresh start were offered under Moyes, only for injuries to limit the player’s time. Nani underwent a nose operation last June, which was followed in rapid succession by a groin injury that kept the winger out of United’s early Premier League games.
Then came a hamstring tear in the Reds’ defeat to Newcastle United on 7 December that has sidelined the player for three hugely frustrating months. It is a pattern that has blighted two years of Nani’s career; nine injuries in a little over 24 months, seven of which have been to the player’s ankle or hamstrings.
It is not nearly enough of an excuse over the long piece though. Inconsistency has largely been the player’s own domain, even if Ferguson persisted for too long in deploying the right-footed winger on the left where performances rarely seemed to match those on his more natural side.
There is still an opportunity for the player who joined full training for the first time in months at Carrington on Thursday. Nani’s ability to hug the touchline and deliver whipped crosses should sit well with Moyes’ tactical framework, although the Scot prefers his wide men to attack space in a manner that the winger has rarely enjoyed. Neither is the Portuguese known for the kind of defensive shift that the former Everton manager demands.
Yet, multi-faceted talent should offer the player a shot at impressing before United’s season draws to a close. Should Moyes evolve his tactics – despite, it should be said, more than a decade of contrarian evidence – than Nani is perfectly adept at cutting inside to create a narrow attacking triangle with Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney. It is the role that brought so many goals and assists just three years ago.
Nani talks a good game too; one of a player who understands that his career is unlikely to progress to new heights elsewhere. It is a motivation that must stick in the coming weeks if Nani is not to be a victim of Moyes’ planned evolution this summer
“Playing at United has been a fantastic experience for me,” said Nani back in August. “When I came to the club, I never imagined the success we have enjoyed. Training every day with top players who want to win trophies every year is a great motivation to me.”
There are few guarantees though, even when the player returns to competitive action in the coming fortnight. History suggests – despite that five-year contract – that Moyes prefers a more traditional wide-man. There is little else to explain Antonio Valencia’s lengthy run in the side despite two years of poor form. After all, only David de Gea and Patrice Evra have appeared more often for United this season.
It is, however, a campaign in which Nani has scored just once – the fifth of five against Bayer Leverkusen in the Champions League. His shooting accuracy has dipped below 30 per cent, while the assists have dried up too, with just 11 chances created in eight league games.
Yet, if this is finally the end, Nani will walk away, quite incredibly, with four Premier League medals, the League Cup and memories of that 2008 Champions League victory in Moscow. He has known glory that his talent deserves, but his application has too often failed to merit.
There is likely to be a sting of suitors too; clubs impressed with Nani’s numbers and caught on the hope that consistency will finally come. Internazionale and Juventus have seemingly tracked the winger all season, while there will be no shortage of Spanish interest outside the big two. It might just net United a decent fee; one that Moyes may, or possibly may not, wisely invest.