Nani fills Manchester United’s scapegoat position

Every club has its unsung heroes – players who are either unfairly criticised or simply under-appreciated. At bigger clubs where standards are permanently high, it’s very easy for a player to fall out of favour with impatient fans. Things are no different at Manchester United, particularly now that fans have an ever more vociferous online voice.

As Michael Carrick and Jonny Evans have slowly won over doubters, their previously held roles as ‘boo-boys’ need replacing. So far this season, the early signs are that Nani will take up that berth. On the surface, that seems every bit as harsh as doubting both Carrick and Evans’ value to the team. Strangely, when you think about it, Nani is a tricky footballer to analyse – the eye sees things that make him appear selfish, unintelligent and ultimately, for some people, dispensable.

Before going into any kind of details about Nani, it’s important to understand the role of a winger and the kind of freedom a wide player is allowed, particularly at United. The club play with natural width and have done regularly throughout their history. Traditionally, the central midfielders have been about function – winning the ball and shifting it accurately around the pitch – playing a percentages game to some extent. Wingers are often the players receiving the ball and can be expected to beat men and deliver crosses, helping to create goalscoring opportunities.

To really understand wingers, you have to think of their position allowing them to be ‘high risk’. To beat men, get crosses in and get in goalscoring positions requires skill and the ability to outwit opponents. When this works it looks brilliant, but when things go wrong – a failed flick, a misplaced pass, holding onto the ball too long – it’s one of the most frustrating things for fans and players. It’s almost verging on naive to think that ‘keeping it simple’ applies to wingers. Sure, some of the time they need to but even Antonio Valencia, the most predictable of wingers, often picks the harder route when faced with options.

Nani’s case is curious. Fast closing in on his 26th birthday and the list of Portugal’s top 10 most capped players ever – he should be reaching a point where he’s not only mature but consistent. For club and country he averages a goal every five games and has a similar looking ratio for assists. On the face of it, he’s a valuable player. Yet, fans are completely split over him and many are happy for him to leave.

In fact, it seems United themselves were willing to part with Nani too. All summer long there were rumours that they were entertaining bids for him – a theory that is only strengthened by the pursuit of Lucas Moura. Nani himself has been quite vocal about wanting to stay and was unable to agree a contract with Zenit St Petersburg because he made his wage demands purposely high to ensure they would pull out of the deal.

His start to this season has been uninspiring at best. With Valencia firmly first choice on the right hand side he’s more often than not been used on the left – it allows him to cut inside onto his right foot but also somewhat imbalances the shape of the team. What’s gone unnoticed is his improved defensive work with his tracking back markedly better than in past years. That’s hardly enough to appease fans who rightly are angry with his errors, really simple errors too. Inability to complete passes or play the obviously correct ball are basic skills that, at present, are not good enough. So much so that against Liverpool at the weekend, he was taken off at half time and is likely to have been a recipient of a Fergie-blast that he said he told Sky he handed out to the team.

Would I get rid of Nani though? At present, no, as it would be hard to justify unless the money was extortionate. One reason that Nani may have gotten lax is because of the lack of competition. Only Ashley Young is challenging him for the left wing berth and at present he’s injured. Fergie’s not against playing other players out of position there though – Welbeck and Giggs have been used wide left whilst Kagawa, Buttner and even van Persie could do a job if need be. The fact is though that the wide areas represent the one part of the pitch where United don’t have sufficient back-up or competition. Even in the U21s and U18s there is a serious lack of natural wingers – maybe part of the wider trend that’s seeing managers prefer narrow wingers.

Maybe most importantly with Nani is that he’s one of the few genuinely creative and unpredictable players in the side. For every frustrating moment he has, there’ll be an assist or spark that’ll lead to a chance. Players can’t just be judged on numbers and stats but Nani often comes out on top as the most productive winger in the league. Love him or hate him, losing a player who has played a key part in so many goals over the past few years would be hard to replace.

Despite what he thinks and hopes, he’ll never be one of the very top players in the world but that’s ok. He might disagree but he doesn’t have to be like Ronaldo, in fact he’s already shown himself to be much more of a team player than Ronaldo ever was. Nani’s been as valuable as any other player since January 2010 – he just needs to turn his current form around for people to see his worth again.

Nani’s value is best found when attempting to try and fathom out who could feasibly replace him and have a similar level of impact. Fans don’t have to like him but the nature of being a tricky winger means that many things he’ll try won’t come off. Every club has a scapegoat but Nani, despite an erratic start to 2012/13 is an odd choice for ours.