Whilst Manchester United continue to press forward domestically and in Europe, there is one issue that will no doubt have concerned Sir Alex Ferguson in recent weeks – the decline in Luis Nani’s form.
In a disruptive Autumn for the Red Devils that at one stage threatened to derail their title challenge before it had begun, Nani’s emergence as an attacking focal point for the team can be directly credited as kick-starting it.
As the team lost Antonio Valencia to a horrific leg-break, and Wayne Rooney’s form to distracting actions, Nani’s development into a more consistent creative force saw the side able generate and maintain momentum through the course of the season.
From Autumn to Spring through both Rooney and Valencia’s respective rehabilitation, the Portuguese winger’s pace, capacity to beat his man, and ability to cross, were picked up as outlets to build upon. Combined with the extended run in the player’s preferred position on the right of midfield, he was able to oblige.
Before Valencia’s return from injury, Nani had produced his most consistent run of form with the team, predominantly from the right side of midfield, with goals and assists accounting for 27 of the team’s goals in a 36-game run. This season alone his goals and assists have also directly earned the team 14 points.
Nani was not only aware of his worth, but relished it, quoted in late February saying: “It is good for your confidence to know people are looking at you to win matches for the team. When you are on the pitch, it means you want the ball all the time because everything is going so well.”
The biggest compliment to his contribution made this season is the disappointment voiced by United fans and teammates at his omission from the PFA Player of the Year nominations. However, what is now of greater concern for both the player and his club in the final weeks of the season is a surprising dip in form, and what has seemingly triggered it.
In light of Valencia’s return to the team in mid-March and Rooney’s gradual restoration of form, focus has shifted away from Nani. Specifically, Tuesday’s game at Schalke stretched Nani’s current run – albeit via brief cameo – to 10 appearances alongside the Ecuadorian since his return, with just one assist provided for the team.
A wider analysis also puts Nani’s involvement with the team into question when on the pitch with Valencia. In 37 games the duo have both been on the pitch at the same time, Nani’s work – via goals and assists – has returned 11 goals for the team. Whilst it is a marked decrease in a final product in comparison to what the No 17 had produced for a majority of this season, it is also a ratio that has only worsened in recent weeks.
Tactically, the decision to destabilise Nani points to a lack of trust that remains in his overall capabilities, with Sir Alex Ferguson preferring Valencia’s immediate involvement – despite his lengthy absence – for key away games such as Chelsea and Schalke, and where both Valencia and Nani have been picked, with Valencia always in Nani’s preferred position of right-midfield.
Valencia offers a stronger presence in assisting in the defensive phases of play, and if selected alongside a like-minded left-winger such as Ji-Sung Park, offers a more balanced midfield. Right-back is a trouble spot that the team are likely to address in the summer in light of Wes Brown’s impending exit and the da Silva twins’ occasional lapses in concentration borne of minimal experience. Until it is remedied, the role the right-midfielder plays in a developing 4-4-1-1 is as defensive as it is attacking, so Ferguson’s reliance on Valencia is with this in mind.
For Nani, there are concerns to come out of this. Firstly, that his career-best form has not been enough to convince Ferguson of using him in a position where he has been able to showcase it thus far. Secondly, that for a player that shows a propensity to cut inside and use his left foot with regularity, that based on the left of midfield has resulted in such a sharp decline in his contribution to matters.
Ferguson has often spoken of using one or the other for a majority of games, and is one of the more successful managers in the Premier League in handling the often delicate matter of player rotation. However, with Nani, the issue is currently not about game-time, which he has continued to get despite Valencia’s return, but more about current positional rotation hindering his ability to supply the goals and crosses all parties at the club had until recently completely relied upon.
For player and manager, the issue is finding a role both are happy with in the team, to ensure the player’s ability to make a difference in attack is realised, without it making a difference for the team defensively. With the side comfortably picking up results in the league and Europe, there is an opportunity to work out a solution before it is cited as a negative factor should results take a turn for the worse.