During the recent Rooney-Gate scandal, in which every paper around the country blindly followed the story that Wayne Rooney was to be sent packing in the summer, based on the fact he had been caught smoking earlier in the season and was benched for the second leg of Manchester United’s Champions League clash with Real Madrid, Steve McClaren described Sir Alex Ferguson as having a ‘helicopter view’ of the club, in which he could see the direction that every player, youth product and staff member were inadvertently moving in, and whether their paths clashed with his vision of the near future at Old Trafford.
And despite running away with the Premier League in some style, all be it due to the inadequateness of the likes of Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal to mount any serious challenge to United’s dominance of the Premier League table, Fergie is still not happy.
While he has been fairly outspoken over the future of Wayne Rooney, insisting he will be donning a United jersey next season and is not for sale, banning several tabloid papers from club press conferences until they formally apologise for implying the England man and the Red Devils gaffer had a damaged relationship, he is yet to state his position on the transfer status of his ostracised winger, Nani.
The Portugual international became the scapegoat for a 5-4 defeat to Chelsea in the fourth round of the Capital One Cup, with Ferguson revealing after the game: “We gave the ball away for the third goal having been in complete control of the match at that point. All we needed to do was see the game out with good possession. Nani is experienced but he’s a player who wants to beat men and I often discourage him from that.
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“In that situation, if we’d kept the ball at the corner flag, the game’s over. We had a lot of attacks and nothing came of them, and their counter-attack was very good, but if you’re winning 3-2 in the final seconds of the game then you should see it out. We’ve only got ourselves to blame really.”
If you substitute the words “we” and “ourselves” with “Nani”, you begin to understand why the United winger has played just seven games since the October 31st, and only turning out for the full 90 minutes in a single fixture, against QPR. But is the Portugal international being treated unfairly by Fergie? Should one season really dictate a player’s future? Or is it for the best if he’s scrapped in the summer transfer window?
In a year of incredibly slim pickings for Nani, he’s picked up one goal and two assists in 14 appearances. However, as Fernando Torres has found out during his Chelsea career, form can be incredibly self-fulfilling. Usually, when it’s pointed out an individual isn’t playing well, it does little to halt his bad run. Similarly, once a manager gets it into his head that one of his players is underperforming, the tendency to use him sparingly only serves to amplify the situation.
This season has been a disaster for the 26-year-old. Even when given the opportunity to redeem himself against Real Madrid, his evening ended in drama with the now infamous red card for dangerous play. Although at the time Fergie sternly protested against the refereeing decision, behind closed doors it could well be the final nail in the coffin.
It’s Nani’s addiction to drama and controversy which is one of the main arguments supporting his future departure. Almond Holmes recently described him as “an accident waiting to happen” and it’s certainly true that his lack of composure and concentration can be a burden on the rest of the team, as it appears his head is sometimes quite simply not in the game. Furthermore, as pointed out by Ferguson, the selfish nature of Nani’s play, the constant desire to beat the opposing full-back in a glorious fashion rather than using his brain to successfully analyse the situation can be incredibly frustrating for those around him.
Yet there is little doubt over the United man’s ability, which is exactly why Ferguson picked Nani for one of the most important games in the club’s recent history in their Champions League clash. During his tenure at Old Trafford, he stands with an impressive record of 49 assists and 26 goals in 133 Premier League appearances. Although perhaps he isn’t quite the next Cristiano Ronaldo, as many assumed upon his arrival to England, he is up there with the best wide men in world football, and if transfer fees and wages were no issue, only a handful of clubs would actively turn down signing the winger in the summer.
Perhaps if the Red Devils had not had such a successful season, this debate would not be happening. Fergie knows that despite having a bit-part role, Nani is arguably the club’s best and most natural winger. He has more quality than Ashley Young, he’s twice as fast as Ryan Giggs and provides a more adventurous attacking threat than the hard-working styles of Antonio Valencia.
But having two hands on the title already has given the United boss the freedom to pick and choose for his next campaign, without getting tied up in what would have been incredibly important fixtures against Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City at the business end of the season, during which Nani’s presence on the pitch as one of the best wingers in the Premier League would have been more vital.
Alas, with the Premier League already over, opportunities for Nani to prove himself are now rather muted by the lack of pressure for results. Similarly, the lack of game time has created the assumption that he is no longer an integral element in the United starting line-up.
With Wilfried Zaha’s summer transfer to United already agreed, it is clear that someone has to go, and it will unlikely be the ageing veteran Ryan Giggs. Personally, I believe that Nani has a lot more to offer the Red Devils than Ashley Young, who is not only older but much less consistent, and unable to make as considerable an impact in the big games.
The England man’s six goals in 41 league appearances since moving to Old Trafford leaves a lot to be desired, and quite frankly, apart from winning penalties with mazy runs into the box against Premier League minnows, I fail to see what the 27-year-old actually gives to the team that they don’t already have.
But one thing is certain at Old Trafford; no matter who you are, what your reputation is or how regularly you play in the starting XI, if Fergie doesn’t like you, you won’t last long. He’s gotten rid of some of United’s best players, in their prime, often based upon personal preference, or his interpretation of new trends developing within the Premier League. Jaap Stam, Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Carlos Tevez and Dimitar Berbatov were all moved on for the sake of the team, despite never failing to deliver good performances on a regular basis.
I do not believe it would necessarily be the right decision to axe the Portugal international, but it is always difficult to criticise a man who has been so consistently successful, and expelled players in the past that have been far more integral than Luis Nani.
Yet I believe next season, the title race will be a lot closer, as Chelsea and Manchester City especially come to realise that they were quite simply not up to the task this year. And in those big games, that will effectively decide the title, having that real quality, the difference between the Nanis and the Ashley Youngs of this word is perhaps where the Red Devils will be found lacking.
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