In 2003, Manchester United signed Cristiano Ronaldo. Four years later, Nani followed his compatriot to Old Trafford. Having both spent time with the Sporting Clube de Portugal youth team before being promoted to the senior side, many felt that, in 2007, United had the best set of wingers in the Premier League.
When Ronaldo departed for Real Madrid for a then world record fee of £80m, Nani was supposed to step up his game and emulate the Portugal captain, but the 26-year-old has failed to live up to the astronomic standards of the United fan favourite. While the winger has shown glimpses of his potential, his consistency has often let him down and while Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia have underperformed over recent months, the Portuguese winger has continuously found himself on the peripherals of the first-team.
Making only 11 appearances last season, 7 of which were starts, his input was severely hampered, despite some fans calling for him to be ahead of Young and Valencia in the pecking order. Yet, despite his lack of action, Nani has still accumulated the most assists (32) in the Premier League between the summer of Ronaldo’s United departure and the present day.
His creative capabilities have rarely been called into question and his assist return is a testament to this, perhaps more so when taking into consideration that, between 2009 and 2012, the winger grabbed 30 of his 32 Premier League assists. Evidently, when handed a chance to showcase his talents, Nani is capable of providing an attacking threat to a team that has created just 2 clear-cut chances this term, reinforcing why he recently signed a new 5-year deal at Old Trafford.
This new contract came despite suggestions that his time with United was set to come to an end over the summer and having played just 27 minutes of football this season, speculation hinted that a potential move away in January could become reality. The exit talk proved to be dumbfounded as Nani extended his stay with the club, regardless of the acquisition of Wilfried Zaha to add further competition in the position.
The poor form of Young and Valencia will have attributed to United's decision to keep hold of the Portuguese as United aim to retain their Premier League title under David Moyes. During the three years - 2009 to 2012 - where he was regularly utilised by then manager Sir Alex Ferguson, Nani created a total of 18 clear-cut goalscoring opportunities, with only Wayne Rooney (26) and Ryan Giggs (20) creating more in a period that saw an increase in competition for the Premier League title.
With 9 goals and 14 assists - the latter of which was the most of every player that year - his 7.58 rating in the 2010/11 season was the highest in the Premier League that campaign. While he never reached the same level of quality as Ronaldo, his consistent performances on the wing at the time offered a more direct threat to the club and one that could certainly be utilised following two uninspiring team performances against Chelsea and Liverpool.
Having now failed to score in successive Premier League fixtures for the first time since August 2007, someone of Nani’s unpredictability out wide would act as another threat pushing forward and one that is more potent than Young and Valencia. Moreover, his experience in the upper echelons of English football would weigh in his favour, especially when compared to Zaha.
Moyes wouldn’t have offered the player another contract if he didn’t believe this to be the case, with Nani admitting that Ferguson’s successor convinced him to put pen to paper last week. His creative capabilities over the last 4 years are evident, so fans calling for Nani to be a first-team regular once again come as little shock.
These calls for him to start grow louder still when considering Marouane Fellaini is now a United player. An aerial target of the Belgian’s ilk - only Michu (6) scored more headed goals than Fellaini (5) in the Premier League last season - would ensure that both the 25-year-old’s heading ability and Nani’s creativity are capitalised upon.
If he can rediscover the form that made him such a threat over the 2010/11 campaign, there is no reason why he can’t match a rating of 7.58 once again. In that season, only Joey Barton (2.8) and Leighton Baines (2.6) averaged more crosses per game than Nani (2.3). Morever, having completed 2.5 successful dribbles per encounter - only Charles N’Zogbia (3.2) averaged more - his attacking prowess is denoted in his ability with the ball.
While these figures dropped over the 2011/12 season, Nani still exhibited how dangerous a player he can be when given ample playing time. Since Ronaldo left, his highest average rating came in the year he played 2668 minutes - the most he has played in a single season over the last 4 campaigns.
With Young turning out an underwhelming performance against Liverpool, Valencia failing to match the heights that won him a number of admirers during the 2011/12 season and Zaha short of Premier League experience, Nani is arguably Moyes’ best choice out wide. If he can coax out the impressive displays that saw him shine in years gone by, than many would be right to assume that the winger has earned his new 5-year deal as Moyes aims to make his debut year with United a memorable one.
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