At the start of the season Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson challenged Nani to fill the void left by Cristiano Ronaldo following his departure to Real Madrid. Here, it appeared, was the perfect opportunity for the winger to finally come out of his shell and justify his £17m price-tag. True to his word, Ferguson has already played Nani in seven games this season. But whilst the Scot remains confident that Nani is capable of success at Old Trafford, his performance in Saturday’s match against Stoke highlighted the fact that at 22, he remains a frustratingly immature footballer. Following a string of disappointing displays this season there are increasing signs that Ferguson’s patience, like that of many United fans, may be nearing its end.
On arriving at United, optimistic fans and large sections of the media drew comparisons between Nani and Ronaldo with many believing that the young winger could one day emulate the feats of the one of the world’s best players. Today however, Nani is more frequently likened to Michael Jackson (owing to his striking resemblance to the late King of Pop) than he is to the Galactico forward. Yet in a sense the early comparisons with Ronaldo were not entirely unjustified. It is easy to forget that the reigning World Player of Year was not always held in such high esteem either. Indeed at the end of Ronaldo’s second season at United, fans and pundits alike remained undecided as to whether or not he would develop into a player worthy of the famous No 7 shirt. Like Nani, Ronaldo was often frustrating on the ball. He would seldom pass and would instead try and impress with flashy, but on the whole pointless, trickery. Six years on and that is nothing but a distant memory. Ronaldo has long since developed into one of the world’s finest players but whilst the Real Madrid man was recently quoted as saying Nani has the ability to replace him in the United side, in light of the No 17’s most recent performances, few are convinced.
Like in the previous two seasons, Nani’s recent form has once again been inconsistent. There have as always been flashes of brilliance, but more often than not these arrive after dozens of other wasted opportunities. Against Stoke there was no wonderstrike to mask his poor showing and after a succession of weak crosses and lacklustre finishing he was substituted for Ryan Giggs in the 56th minute. It was a decision met with applause by United fans as the Welsh wizard soon showed why he should still be chosen over Nani. Giggs proceeded to set up both goals and inspire the Reds to a victory that might not have been achieved in his absence. This straight substitution highlighted the stark contrast between Giggs’ efficacy and wisdom and Nani’s inconsistency and poor delivery. It is clear that if the Portuguese player is to fulfil his potential he has much to learn from the PFA Player of the Year.
Following United’s latest victory, Ferguson was full of praise for Man-of-the-Match Giggs. The manager fully recognised that the Welshman’s intelligence had won United the game but he cannot have ignored Nani’s contrasting performance. In fairness, and worryingly for United, Nani is not alone. Teammate and fellow winger Antonio Valencia has had an equally unconvincing start to the season and United’s problems on the flanks will concern Ferguson. This is an area he has invested in heavily and the Scot will be wary that a seemingly evergreen Giggs will one day inevitably succumb to the pitfalls of age. At best Giggs has two seasons left at United so the Reds’ boss is counting on his expensive signings to deliver before it is too late. Yet the task facing Nani and Valencia is seemingly impossible – to serve as long term replacements for Giggs and Ronaldo, two of the greatest wingers of all time. On current form neither player stands a chance.
Signs that Ferguson’s patience with Nani might be dwindling were first evidenced by the signing of Serbian winger Zoran Tosic in November 2008. Since his arrival, Tosic has been given limited first team opportunities and the manager has continued to have faith in Nani. But the Serb has put in many energetic and skilful performances for the reserves which cannot have gone unnoticed and he continues to breathe down the neck of the Portuguese international. Unless his performances improve soon, Nani will surely feel threatened by the presence of Tosic. The departure of Assistant Coach Carlos Queiroz in 2008 may have also hindered Nani’s cause. It is widely believed that the Portuguese assistant was more involved in Nani’s signing than Ferguson with Queiroz acting as somewhat of a mentor for the young Portuguese winger. Consequently Nani’s development may have been stifled in Queiroz’s absence.
Excuses aside, now in his third season at Old Trafford, Nani has shown few signs of development. That he is talented is not in question but whilst his ability to take players on and run with the ball is at times entertaining to watch, these qualities are largely overshadowed by an apparent lack of match intelligence and maturity. Spurred on by his experiences of nurturing Ronaldo into a world class player, there is a danger that Ferguson might be tempted to be overly patient with Nani. But the clock is ticking for the winger and with many fans already calling for him to be sold he faces the difficult challenge of turning around his reputation as a luxury player.