Follow Doron on Twitter
Despite what the title says, the motives behind this post are three-fold: 1. to wax lyrical about Nani and our wide play; 2. to provoke some thoughts about our central midfield; 3. to make a bold claim about Nani being the league’s best winger.
Whether it was the Basel result and performance or form in general or injuries or just squad rotation; the recall of Antonio Valencia and the decision to play Nani on the left wing has been been a blinder. Before addressing Nani, a mention has to go to Valencia who seems to be back in the form of 2009/10. He’s five assists in the last three Premier League games and after a slow start to the season is finally coming good.
Yes, the cynics will point out that it’s only three games against teams that United should beat comfortably every time; but Nani has been outstanding in all of them.
More often than not I describe Nani as being greedy; an opinion that the stats back as only Rooney has had more efforts on goal this season than him. However, Wolves, QPR and Fulham paint a very different, mature picture:
Chalkboard 1: Nani shots against Wolves and Fulham
It’s incredible really that for a player who shoots so often, he didn’t register a single effort on goal against QPR in what was his most unselfish performance yet for United. So, coinciding with his reversion to the left hand side, in the last three games Nani has had only five shots and has scored three of them. That said, with the injuries suffered mid-game at Fulham he did have to move back to the right when Valencia went to right back.
The word maturity was attached to Nani last year; not so much because of how he played, but because he scored goals and assisted even more. Arguably he’s just starting to show the true signs of maturity. They lie in his decision making and the effort he puts in for the team.
For a direct winger like Nani, the hardest thing is knowing when to shoot, when to cross and when to try and dribble. Nani’s as close to perfecting that balance as he has been in any of his time at United so far. If it wasn’t for bad finishing, good saves and good blocks, he’d have more than just two assist from the last three games. How he ended the QPR game without either a goal or assist is baffling.
All round, he’s a danger. He can pick the ball up deep like he did against Fulham when he set up Welbeck’s goal, or he can play a quick one-two in the penalty area like he did against QPR. It’s this variety to his play that shows just how intelligent he’s becoming as a footballer. The days of Nani just picking up the ball and shooting or trying to beat every man in his way are long gone. He knows he can beat opposition players with skills but he’s picking his moments wisely – he’s happy now to play the ball back in field rather than try and run down the line with it and ultimately isolate himself.
His form, and Valencia’s, stems from two important things that have happened to United since the Basel defeat. The first was highlighted quite thoroughly after the Wolves game – the movement of the strikers and the forward players in general has been much better. Welbeck’s return has freed up Rooney who can now play higher up the pitch and start to link play in more dangerous areas. Welbeck himself is a willing worker who can drop deep and hold a high line. The second thing is the central midfield area and in particular, Michael Carrick.
You see, United’s history has always been build on strong wingplay; that’s where our creativity has often come from and it’s where some of our most influential attacking players have played. It’s been the focal point for much of our play and inspiration. Poor wingplay tends to mean poor United. The cries for investment in a playmaker – an attacking influencer – in the middle were for me a bit wide of the mark. Why focus on playing through the middle when our best assets are out wide? Old fashioned wingers are such an advantage today because they’re a rarity – they’re unpredictable, often unplayable, and are direct. United, along with Spurs are the only top sides in the country with these kind of players, providing challenges from opponents that are different from the norm.
The reliability of United’s central midfield in recent games has been a stark improvement from the form pre-Basel, unsurprisingly coinciding with Carrick’s return. He and his partner (Jones or Giggs) have not only protected our back four but have also been tidy and accurate with their passing; importantly getting it out wide early to give our wingers the best chance of creating goal scoring opportunities. It’s a bonus that they’ve shown ability on top of that in the final third with goals and shots too.
A year ago I wrote about why I’d rather we signed a ballsy, hard-man type central midfielder than a playmaker. The centre of the pitch is one of the most crowded areas so more often than not, playing through the middle isn’t the best option. It’s out wide that our players can make a real difference. I still stand by that (although the exception may be Modric) – United were at their best with Keane and Ince in the middle for me. Two players, hard as nails and both capable of making a difference in the final third. That side though had Giggs on one wing and Kanchelskis on the other – two players who tore up opposition defences because the hard work was done in the middle, creating space for them and getting the ball out early and accurately.
It’s been this combination of a solid midfield and great movement up front (which makes such a difference) that has allowed Valencia and Nani in particular to flourish. I think Nani’s the best winger in the league (Bale’s not far behind, he’s been outstanding this year) and the stats back it up – he’s United second top scorer (8 goals) and leading assister (9 assists).
United have stumbled upon the perfect circumstances for him to excel in, regardless of what wing he plays on. Add to that a new found real maturity, highlighted specifically at QPR when he was choosing to find a pass rather than shoot; and you have the league’s best and most dangerous winger. For this reason we must play to our strengths, our wingers. A central midfielder is needed but I’d rather a destroyer than a ball-player; keep the focus of our attacks and our play out wide and utilise one of our best assets, the league’s best winger, Nani.