Nani: the return of the league’s best winger

Author: Doron

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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.

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23 Comments on Nani: the return of the league’s best winger

  1. The only potential problem with procuring a ball winner is a permanent move to/ maintaining our general 4-4-2 approach. I wrote* about a desire (I think a ‘need’ actually) to move back towards a 4-2-3-1 — actually a more extravagant and appropriate 4-2-1-3 may be more relevant — and I think we are seeing signs of this in the current season, and especially in the last few games.


    Since the Newcastle game, there has been an onus on two ‘sitting midfielders’ with the emphasis in attack being the interchanging of positions between the front 4. Nani and Welbeck in particular seem to be working horizontally across the pitch; at one point vs. Fulham we saw Welbeck, Nani and Rooney on the left, 10 mins later to find Welbeck, Nani and Valencia on the right -> pulling fullbacks out of position and flooding the penalty area/ final third with numbers.

    Add to this the apparent increased emphasis on pressing the ball further up the pitch, and forcing opposing defences into error, Im becoming less inclined to think United’s missing link is a central midfield enforcer. My feeling is that Fergie knows the loss of Scholes (Giggs too) and Anderson’s erratic form means he is essentially a creative fulcrum short in the squad (hence his known bid/ agreement for Nasri this past summer). It is my hope at least that the recent, albeit minor, tactical alterations (ball-playing CH’s, 2 deepish, multi-functional CM’s, inverted wingers and the wandering Rooney) are a clear sign that Fergie is preparing (in his final side) for a move back towards a system reminiscent of 2008’s fledglings.

    Carrick is still one of the leading ‘defensive’ centre mids, and in place of Anderson and the maligned Fletcher, we have Jones for now (Cleverley soon for sure), leaving a vacant position for a creative influence. Rooney could potentially fill this void, but I just have a feeling that Fergie is still scouring the market for that specialist player (again, see pursuit of WS/SN) – – one who could compliment the DCM (Carrick) and the ‘all-rounder’ (Cleverley). The knock-on effect on the roles of Nani, Valencia, Young, Rooney, Welbeck and Hernandez is untold, but their recent versatility and output suggests that there are considerable options [that SAF has forged] to be tried in the next 24 months. United have the best squad in the PL bar none, but with Berbatov, Gibson, Giggs and Anderson (potentially Fletcher too) all due to leave imminently, Fergie will surely need 2 midfield signings (January, but more likely in the summer); one of which should be a creative ‘imposer’ from the centre, and he may well recruit an enforcer too.

    Great call on Nani by the way! Weren’t we laughed at a year ago when we suggested the ‘new Ronaldo’ was already on our books? Best player in the league right now, along with Silva and RVP.

  2. Good stuff Nik.

    Our academy are I think playing the way our first team want to play. Two ball winning/sitting midfielders and a totally interchangeable front four which can be read as a 4-4-2 or a 4-2-3-1.

    Fletcher’s absence and the desperation in turning to Jones to play CM do hint that maybe we do need that kind of a player; maybe we need both actually but I think I’d get the ball winner first.

    It’s amazing how many don’t seem to rate Nani – I don’t really know why!!!!

  3. The reason is simple: the majority (not all) of fans cannot see an evolution (or indeed de-evolution) of a player/ player’s capability. They make quick-fire judgments on a player (world class or shite, usually), and stick by that subjective assessment, often for years rather than months. There is some kine of ‘stubbornness’ at play here too I feel; especially with Nani, a player who at one time was indeed frustrating, poor decision maker on the ball, unable to cross with precision etc.

    Re above, I hate to use the word, but this clearly is a transition if ever I saw one. A team who is unsure of its tactical application (and hence CL exit), a tinkering in every position, an injection of youth (GK’s, Jones, Evans, Smalling, the twins, Javier, Young, Cleverley, Fryers and on …), and the injury now to Vidic. But it is a transition navigated by the greatest of all time, and a manager who has bought so well in recent years that we are equipped (unimaginably) to challenge for the key domestic honours. If (and when, ha) we win the league this year, it will go down as one of his greatest achievements.

  4. Nani is simply world class it has to be said and he has come on leaps and bounds ever since last season. what a player he is and he really is extremely important for us! the best thing ive noticed about him this season is the way he has matured in the way he conducts himself on the pitch. u hardly see him falling over so easily after a challenge or lying on the ground complaining. very pleased for the lad and he is starting to see and learn what it means to be a United player and to wear that famous red shirt! Keep up the good work nani lad!

  5. its also a pleasure having 3 quality wingers at the club and it can only be a good thing. valencia has been immense the last couple weeks and i really hope he continues that way. honestly i was doubting him a few weeks ago and im sure i wasnt alone on that one but his recent performances have def given me big hope and it looks like his confidence is back! cant wait to watch him and nai ripping shit up vs wigan on Monday! Haway the ladsssssss

  6. Your discussion of the 90s team seems to leave out Scholes. When people talk about the need for a creator, I think this is what they mean. And yes, Keane did the hard work, but Scholes made it all happen.

  7. I was thinking the other day about how Nani would be even better with a top class central midfielder. With regards to the sort of midfielder we need, I agree, lots of people talking about getting a creative/playmaker type player, I think we need someone who can do a job at both ends of the pitch. I think it was clear we needed a midfielder in the summer as there was a lack of depth and quality in my opinion.

    Not sure why fans haven’t come round to Nani yet, and I have no idea, i’m sure they’ll come around in time. Very underrated outside United fans too, not saying he’s as good as Silva but his stats are better but he gets nowhere near the same credit. I can only assume that it’s because he’s been perceived as a diver. Which is a shame as he’s cut down on the theatrics and there were always players doing worse than what he was doing anyway.

    Very good point on the decision making, didn’t realise he didn’t even take a shot on against QPR. I had noticed he’d cut down on the goal attempts though recently. I said last season that it was brilliant how good he was with so much still to improve on. It’s quite something that he’s already very good but is still improving.

  8. @Mark Field – in the 90s Scholes often wasn’t the CM preference though, he started as a striker and over time he dropped back. Keane and Butt as common a pairing as Keane and Scholes back then

  9. Nani is d best player in united rytnow n is varsatility on d field of play is d main reason.he has al it teks 2b d world best he craves 4 n he’s becomin more of a team player.He is top class no doubts….

  10. I think Nani is bearing the burden of the £80M transfer of CR7. A great many fans wanted this money spent on an immediate replacement for Ronaldo and all they got was Valencia, Nani and a promise. Valencia showed potential right away but Nani was not as fast as Ronaldo, didn’t have the same flair, can’t shoot as well and is a petulant little kid rolls around on the floor whenever he gets tackled. It is like the article said, once a point of view has been established some will do just about anything and ignore any other input to maintain the view point.

    My point of view is that since Ronaldo left we have been a much better TEAM, both Valencia and Nani can and will play defense, a part of Nani’s game that is always overlooked, they both work hard at getting their teammates involved in the game and know their roles within the team. Since CR7 left all aspects of Nani’s game has improved, physically he is not the kid that defenders knocked over at will, technically he has work at his skills, his footwork tremendous, he knows what he want to do and goes at it with a purpose, he has a wingers instinct and skills to deliver the cross or cut inside for the shot and he can do this from either wing. When he has the ball on the fast break he is almost unstoppable because defenses must cover all the options he presents and if they fall off he is very capable of taking it to the goal. Yes; sometimes his shot will end up n row Z, but those errant shot only setup defenders the next time around.

    There has been a fair amount of ink about Juve (or “place your team here”) wanting to sign Nani, but I do not believe there is a better winger playing football today in any league. I would sign in up to the same contract duration as Rooney.

  11. I would like to know how Silva is a better player when Nani has the best stats? Especially considering that Silva has so many of the TOP CLASS STRIKERS and goalscoring MF’s around him to help his cause! Silva is never multiple marked either – Nani is 2-3 player marked, just watching the Basel and Fulham game etc – when he was rampaging and beating two markers and causing all sort of scary moments for the opposition, who coming out for the 2nd half had been told by their coaches – triple Mark Nani – stop him playing. Well they triple marking him did subdue him a bit – but it allowed freedom for more of our players to get in the box with less opposition markers on them! Says a lot when coaches send out their players to triple mark Nani – show RESPECT for ability of a player who can hurt them when he is playing at his best!

  12. @nameonthetrophy: I’m going off memory, of course, which is dangerous, but I remember plenty of Scholes/Keane in the midfield.

    Assuming you’re right, though, it’s still the case that Keane was unique in being both a destroyer and having the ability to get forward and score. If the argument is that United need another Keane, then nobody could argue with that. But if the claim is that we need another player like Butt, then I’d see Scholes as an essential complement.

    IOW, I don’t think anyone should predicate an argument on Keane; it’s just too hard to find an all-time great like that.

  13. Sometime back I said United would come round and loads of praises would be poured, this club is incredible, the attitude to shun criticisms and the determination to always raise the bar even when a great challenge like the one offered by Man City comes around. united always nurtures talents and Nani is probably hitting the top form and……… the space.

  14. Great article; great discussion.

    This is a situation in which necessity has been the mother of invention – DarrenFletcherinho’s illness and the injuries to YoungTom and Anderson quite literally forced SAF into inventing a new central midfield combination – first he tried TheWayneBoy and then MrJones.

    Bingo ! Michael Carrick and MrJones freed up TheWayneBoy to play as “the rover” while providing size and strength to the central midfield, not to mention renewed energy and MrJones’ surging runs from deep.

    Next, DannyTheLad was inserted in place of Chicharito – something I didn’t like to see as the Mexicutioner is so much fun to watch and plays with so much enthusiasm – but, again, Bingo ! Welbeck’s overall forward play (outside the box) is much, much better than Chicharito’s and his contributions gave TheWayneBoy another licence to play as “the rover”. Double Bingo !!

    Oddly, Nani’s play “on the left” seems to contradict the conventional wisdom that he favours playing on the right. On the left, Nani can interact with Patrice Evra to create a nightmare for defenders AND playing down the left side Nani can drift into the middle and shoot with his more-powerful right foot (as an “inverted winger”).

    AND, of course, deploying Nani on the left means that the other attacking forward can be Antonio Valencia rather than Ashley Young; Valencia is a more powerful, more direct player than Young and his trademark low/hard crosses are another nightmare for defenders – especially when one of the other forwards drives to the near post. In a perfect world, Valencia would use his left foot but perhaps that’s asking too much.

    Needless to say, I’m looking forward to seeing how this new “six pack” does over the coming fortnight, in preparation for the encounter with ManShitty on January 8th. Revenge anyone ?

  15. How do you think this backdated system with two holders and pace merchants out wide will work against Barcelona….ppl still don’t learn that there is more too football than going out wide and crossing the ball (playing percentage football – as every ball is a gamble,good as hoofing from ther back)…how many more lessons do we need from Barcelona before this sausage pie roll pub talk stops and ppl wake up football is to be played the right way by having ball playing midfilders in the middle of the park…game is evolving and the article suggests to go backwards to the 90s….wake up boys!!!

  16. @Doron and @nik: (a lot of numbers being thrown out below)

    Regarding the 4-2-1-3, this setup definitely seems ideal for European competitions whereas the solidity of a traditional 4-4-2 (or more accurately our 4-4-1-1) presently suits the Premier League. If the 3-4-3 that Barca are shifting to these days persists, then the 4-2-1-3 will be one way to counter it. Essentially though, aren’t these two formations (4213 and 4411) very similar? United’s 4-4-1-1 (Rooney deeper) is pretty much the same thing as a 4-2-1-3 with the wingers’ positioning just changing depending on whether we’re in or out of position. Michael Cox reasoned that our success at the beginning of the season (granted our midfield pairing of Ando and Cleverley was more attack-minded and therefore our defense was potentially exposed) came from having what he called a “fluid front four” who could interchange regularly, stifling the opposition. I’d say we’re back to that style up front, but since the loss to City the difference now has been the change to a more defensive-minded midfield two who have taken pressure off the defense but still allowed the front four to excell. I’d love to see how Carrick and Cleverly play together when Tom is fit again,to get some balance between attack and defense inm the middle of the park, and I’d have loved to have seen how Scotty Parker would have fared at United (Doron I remember you were keen on him) What do you guys reckon?

  17. @MD – the “how will we play against Barca” question comes up a lot and ultimately is pointless. The chances of us playing them each year are minimal and they’re the best team on the planet regardless. We need to not be so obsessed with them and just focus on ourselves. At the moment with a solid but not overly exceptional midfield we’ve been doing enough to come first in the league or second now and get to a European final!! The last way one wants to try and beat Barca anyway is by attempting to outplay them through the middle!!!!

  18. nani is one of the best player in the world in man utd all people says that rooney is the best player for me he is one of the bad player in premier league nani play for the team and not for himself look when he play for portugal team he is better than ronaldo nani must leave utd if he want to be the best in the world trust me

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