The sending off was particularly unfortunate. The defining impact it had on the match has been analysed more than enough, but it was also disappointing because Nani was playing well. It was a performance few thought him capable of; common perception is that he’s either amazing or atrocious but he was solid, mature and occasionally dangerous.
It’s not always been that way of course. He stood out in the first half against Chelsea on Sunday but if there was one match that summed up his time as a United player, it was the Capital One Cup tie against the same opponents last November. He displayed flashes of brilliance throughout the game, culminating in a sublime goal, deftly clipping the ball over the advancing Petr Cech. In the dying seconds of the game, with United virtually assured victory, he declined a simple pass for some trickery, lost the ball, prompting Chelsea to speed up the field and fire in an equaliser. The fact they went on to win the game in extra game merely compounded his error.
It was a moment of poor decision-making that all players are guilty of at one time or another, but with Nani it feels more pertinent than most. Those two contrasting moments tend to encapsulate his United career: veering from the delightful to the disappointing, occasionally within the confines of a single match.
It’s a criticism, however, that can be aimed at so many players, such is the nature of football. Excusing those who produce prodigious consistency levels – Carrick, for instance, has taken over Scholes’s mantle in that respect (and now has a song to prove it) – and most players will vary in their effectiveness from match to match. It’s a portrayal you would be hard pressed to deny any of our wingers deserve this season.
The onus in this respect falls heavier on attacking players. It is they who must unlock defences, attempt difficult passes, shoot from a tight angle or beat a man to open up space. Compared to regular defensive duties – tracking a man, or playing a striker off-side, for instance – it’s inevitable they will have a lower success rate.
Where, then, do we want our offensive players to draw the line? Should they attempt the difficult which could lead to a chance, or turn back, pass to a team-mate, and wait for another opportunity? Clearly, there’s a balance to be sought. There are times to try prising open the tightest of defences; there are times to retain possession and select a simpler option.
To return to Nani, such decision-making feels like his greatest weakness. There are times when he tries to force the play or attempt a pass that isn’t there, beat two men instead of one (or the same man twice), or shoot from an angle or distance that others would shirk. To counter that, there are the occasions it works. There are times when he jinx past a defender or two, cleverly executes a slide-rule pass, or scores from an impossible distance or angle. The two sides to Nani are obvious. For United supporters, it boils down to whether the good outweighs the bad. Does he thrill more than he frustrates?
Sir Alex has recently described him as one of the best match-winners in Europe on his day. Few would disagree with the sentiment, but many would grumble how often that day actually comes around.
Stats can be misleading, but we shouldn’t always dismiss them either. Take Valencia for example. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to remember last season’s form, such is his current malaise, but in 11-12 he was magnificent, and could lay claim to be the best right-sided midfielder in the Premiership.
It’s generally acknowledged that Nani, on the other hand, under-performed for most of last year. Valencia played 38 games, and scored or assisted 21 goals. Nani made 46 appearances, and scored or assisted 25 goals. Both excellent records that show perception sometimes outweighs the facts.
This isn’t to undermine Valencia for he was brilliant last year and his overall contribution can never be properly highlighted through statistics. Neverthesless, it does reveal that Nani affects games. Whether he is playing well, badly, or a crazy combination of both, he creates chances and he scores goals.
In fact, in the face of the inconsistency cries he often faces, going back to the 2007/08 season he has scored or assisted goals for United at a rate of one in two. Even this season, when he’s been far from his best, it’s 8 in 19. It’s been a stop-start campaign too. So was his best form simply a product of playing continually, having the chance to develop a consistent level of performance? Was it the fact he was allowed to play on the right-hand side of the majority of that time, rather than being shunted out to the left where he is generally less effective?
Whatever his influence, he remains the ultimate love-hate figure. The frustration is born not from a player who is not good enough – they only attract apathy – but the idea that he fails to produce regularly enough. Maybe it also boils down to his style – other players lose possession or make bad decisions but, like Berbatov, Nani looks lazy when he does it, flippant almost. It tends to get his crowd on his back far quicker than most.
Many fans would be happy to sell him in the summer and seek a replacement, or at least invest their faith in Wilfried Zaha. There seems to be an equally large proportion who want him to stay, who are happy to indulge his unpredictability for the brilliance he can produce. Despite his recent statement, it’s still unclear which camp Sir Alex falls in. I suspect he has a foot in both and Nani’s (and perhaps Valencia’s) form for the rest of the season will determine which way he falls.
Possibly even his most ardent fan would consider trading him if it guaranteed a world-class replacement, but, considering our recent transfer policy, the chances of that are slim. A more likely target is rumoured to be James Rodriguez (or similar), who, though talented, is largely unproven at the top level, and certainly in the Premiership. Whether that would be an improvement or not is debateable.
Personally, I like players who are effective, who can create, and change a match. It’s why I admired Valenica so much during the three seasons before this; such was his consistency and effect on games. And Nani, for all his infuriating moments, does influence games, albeit in a very different manner.
It’s understandable why he causes so much irritation. He is maddening at times. But we have no-one else like him in our squad, in terms of ability, confidence or audacity. He’s our wild-card, who has the tools to cause untold damage to teams of Barcelona or Bayern’s stature in a way that Valencia or Young are never likely to do. There’s no guarantee he will, of course, and that’s the risk he provides. Personally, I think it’s one worth taking. Surely it’s better to have a player who tries to do too much than one who tries to do too little.